Researching Nineteenth-Century Prison Graffiti

Sam Bennett, Department of English and Cultural History, Liverpool John Moores University

During a field trip to Liverpool’s St George’s Hall for our Prison Voices module, I noticed a piece of graffiti on one of the cell walls. It reads, ‘Mary Lecy Hornby Street 7 years 1871’. One of the key areas of the module aims to recover ‘prison voices’, so I was thrilled to find this original graffiti. I was interested in finding out about the apparent author of it; I wanted to discover more about who she was, her background, and what she was convicted for. After a bit of online research and confusion I believe I know more, although further research is needed to prove my findings.

I searched the 1871 England Census and the England & Wales Criminal Registers, 1791-1892. The census return revealed that Mary lived in 14 Tenterden Street, situated in the notorious nineteenth-century slum district of Scotland Road. An area characterized by overcrowding and poor living conditions, the household was headed by widow Mary Lecy who lived there with her 27 year old daughter, Mary Regan, the author of the graffiti. Also living there were William Regan, a 25 year old cooper, and two Irish lodgers, 60 year old Catherine Rourke and 29 year old leather maker, Henry Teen. The criminal registers documented the trial and sentencing of Mary Regan for larceny. Having been previously convicted of felony, Mary was sentenced to eight months imprisonment with seven years suspension on 23 May 1870 in the Summer Assizes at St George’s Hall. Unfortunately, Nineteenth Century British Library Newspapers Online could not provide further details on her convictions. However, my research suggests that Hornby Street is a reference to Mary’s imprisonment at Walton prison, built in the 1850s, which is situated on Hornby Road.

On the module we have examined criminal tattoos and the projection of self-identity, and we can draw parallels with graffiti. Just as many convicts etched their sentences in their tattoos, Mary was identifying herself as an offender by noting her sentence and the place she spent her eight month sentence. There was clearly a disjuncture between the name inscribed in the graffiti and the census. I am not certain as to why she wrote Lecy on the wall. I wonder if it is a sort of tribute to her mother, the same way prisoners sometimes had their loved ones’ names tattooed on their bodies. Maybe she had fallen out with her husband and partner, and by using her maiden name was identifying herself as a single woman? Perhaps she gave her name as Regan in court knowing the lesser sentences often afforded to married women in nineteenth century courts?

Whatever the answers are, I believe students gain a new level of understanding through standing in the same place Victorian Liverpool’s prisoners did. To photograph the graffiti, I had to stand on the seating in the cell; this leaves me with the idea that Mary Regan might have had to do the same in order to make her mark. This degree of recognition might not be achieved as easily from inside a classroom.

Jane Caplan, (ed.), Written on the Body: The Tattoo in European and American History (London, Reaktion Books, 2000)

Hamish Maxwell-Stewart and James Bradley, ‘“Behold the Man”: Power, Observation and the Tattooed Convict’, Australian Studies, vol. 12, no. 1 (Summer 1997), pp. 71-97.

Helen Rogers, ‘The Way to Jerusalem: Reading, Writing and Reform in an Early Victorian Gaol’, Past and Present 205.1 (2009), pp. 71-104.

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