'All Manner of Wickedness and Debauchery: The Trial of Constantia James' by Catherine Curzon
Catherine Curzon is a royal historian who writes on all matters 18th century at www.madamegilflurt.com. Her work has been featured on HistoryExtra.com, the official website of BBC History Magazine and in publications such as Explore History, All
About History, History of Royals and Jane Austen’s Regency World. She has provided additional research for An Evening with Jane Austen at the V&A and spoken at venues
including the Royal Pavilion in Brighton, Lichfield Guildhall and Dr Johnson’s House.
Catherine holds a Master’s degree in Film and when not dodging the furies of the guillotine, writes fiction set deep in the underbelly of Georgian London. Her books, Life in the Georgian Court, and The Crown Spire, are available at the links below and at retailers worldwide.
She lives in Yorkshire atop a ludicrously steep hill.
Life in the Georgian Court
Amazon UK - Amazon US
The Crown Spire
Amazon UK - Amazon US
As a historian of the Georgian era, life isn’t all glitter and pomp, there was a fair amount of grime and punishment too. For those women who worked as sex workers in the sprawling city of London, life could be nasty, brutish an short, and the law was no friend to them. Through the years of the bloody code the proceedings of the Old Bailey are littered with unhappy tales of women whose lives were cut short on the flimsiest of evidence, punishment taking the place of understanding and the moralising of the ordinary’s account the only memorial that remains to their names.
One of those women was Constantia James, a lady who knew the meaning of a hard life. When she went to the gallows on 22nd December 1738 she had known nothing but hardship. Constantia had been in and out of Newgate on twenty occasions but this time was to be her last.
The sad facts in the case of Constantia James were recorded by the chroniclers of the Old Bailey and tell the story of an unhappy life. When she was brought before the judge for the final time, the life of the 30 year old woman was laid before the court and they heard that she had enjoyed a settled upbringing, even undertaking some education before her life changed thanks to an encounter with a gentleman.
In her teens Constantia took a job as housekeeper for a man in York and, after a short time in the household, fell pregnant to him. He put her out of the house and she was left on the streets without employment, references or reputation.
With nothing to her name Constantia found her way to London where she began working as a prostitute. Over the decade that followed she was imprisoned in Newgate on 20 occasions for solicitation and petty crimes committed during her career on the streets. She had previously stood trial for her life and walked free but this time, in the bitter winter of 1738, she was not to be so fortunate.
Constantia was accused of picking the pocket of a Mr Davis of 36 shillings and a half-guinea whilst performing a service for him with her other hand. Although all but a half guinea was returned to Davis, he persisted in making a complaint against her and she was taken into custody. The evidence against Constantia was only the word of her accuser but it was enough to see her sentenced to death.
Although Constantia pled her belly, the midwives charged with examining her told the court that she wasn’t really pregnant at all and could, therefore, face the executioner. On the morning of her execution Constantia took her final prayers before going to the gallows, weeping bitterly to the end for her life and the fate that had befallen her.
The Ordinary’s Account of the Old Bailey, 22nd December 1738
Constantia James, was indicted for stealing from Mr. Davis four 36 s. Pieces and one half Guinea in Gold, and found guilty, Death.
Constantia James, was about 30 Years of Age, born of honest Parents in Norham, who gave her such Education as they could afford. While she was young she liv’d at Home with her Friends, and afterwards was employ’d in the Country Business , and in carrying Goods to Market , on both Sides the Tweed. After some Time she grew weary of such Business, and having many of her Relations in the Town of Berwick upon Tweed, she went thither, about 3 or 4. Miles below Norham, and serv’d there for a Year or thereabouts; from thence she went to the City of York, where she serv’d an old Widow Lady about half a Year, and during that Time behav’d well; but a Gentleman of a great Estate being at York, to see the Races, happen’d to meet with Constance, and judging her a proper Person to be his House-keeper, he, with much ado, and many Intreaties, prevail’d upon her to leave her Lady, and to engage herself in his Service, promising her 6 l. per Ann. Wages, and by Way of Encouragement, to encrease her Wages. The Bargain being made, he gave her half a Guinea Earnest, the greatest Sum ever poor Constance was Mistress off before.
Accordingly she followed the ‘Squire to London, and from thence went to his CountryHouse, where she liv’d 3 Years, but he being profuse, and taking little Care of his Affairs, and the Conduct of his Housekeeper being not very extraordinary, between them both, Matters did not go on mighty well After some Time she prov’d with Child by her Master, and her being debauch’d here, she said was the Occasion of all the ensuing Wickednesses of her Life, for after this she commenc’d a most abandon’d common Prostitute , and her Master’s Circumstances having no good Aspect, she was oblig’d to leave him and come to London, where she gave herself up to all manner of Wickedness and Debauchery.
Having been some Time in Town, she marry’d a poor young Man, who Was a Drawer in a Tavern, who never could prevail on her to settle in any Business, she delighting more in walking the Streets every Night, and not caring for any other Way of Life; and if she had no Opportunity to rob Men in the Street, she would decoy them, into some House of her Acquaintance, where they knew her Designs, and then she never fail’d of getting their Watches, Money, or whatever she could lay hold of, and then run away with the Plunder. She has been twenty Times a Prisoner in Newgate, besides several other Goals about the Town, was several Times tried for her Life and acquitted, but the last, Time she was so well known having been so often there, and the Proof against her so clear, that she was convicted.
She desired her Husband’s Honesty to be vindicated, as being no Partaker in her Crimes. I asked her if she had three Husbands all living at this Time, as was commonly reported, she said it was false, and both she and her Husband, whose Surname is James, and others of her Friends affirm’d, she was never marry’d in her Life but to the said James. She wept very much when I first spoke with her, always behav’d well, and made regular Responses with the rest.
On Sunday after Sermon, the 17th Instant, when her Sister saw her in the Press-yard, they embrac’d one another very kindly, and cry’d most bitterly, as for her Repentance, she having been so obstinate and irreclaimable a Sinner, it will be a hard Matter for any Man to judge. As for the Crime she died for, she own’d the Fact for which she suffer’d, but said Mr. Davis desir’d her to go to his House or Lodgings, and when they came thither, he left her in the Dark, upon Pretence of bringing down a Light, and then missing all his Money, one Half of which was his Sister’s, they brought down a Light, and charg’d her with the Watchman, who carry’d her to the Watch-house for that Night, and next Morning she was brought before a Justice, who committed her to Newgate, where she was such a noted and well known Guest, that her Character must do her no great Service.
Davis, as she affirm’d, recover’d all his Money, but the odd half Guinea, which she own’d, she swallow’d; he swore the Robbery upon her in the the dark Passage, and upon his Oath she was committed. She believ’d in Christ, was penitent for her Sins, and forgave every Body.
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