Calton Prison: women outnumbered men at infamous jail

IT was one of the most brutal jails in Victorian times, a wretched place to be incarcerated at a time in Scotland when conditions at the country's prisons were as appalling as you can imagine.

By The Newsroom
Monday, 1st February 2016, 12:48 pm
Updated Monday, 1st February 2016, 12:52 pm
Calton Jail in the 1920s. Picture: TSPL
Calton Jail in the 1920s. Picture: TSPL

And now a new book by Scottish historian Malcolm Fife, tells the forgotten story of some of the females who were locked up at Edinburgh’s Calton Prison. In Scotland today less than five per cent of prisoners are women, but at one point in the mid-19th century females outnumbered the men at the infamous prison – often surviving in the dingy cells with their infant children.

Calton Jail was opened in 1817, a short distance from Princes Street.

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Above Calton Jail, Edinburgh, May 1927 Picture: RCAHMS

Due to its opulent design, the prison was often mistaken by 19th century visitors as Edinburgh Castle. But the then largest jail in Scotland – built on the site of what was to become St Andrew’s House – soon became the city’s main correction facility for prisoners of all types and the setting for inhumane executions of both female and males, which often attracted huge crowds outside.

During the 19th century in Edinburgh, anyone detained and charged with a crime had to choose between paying a small bond or staying or being locked up, and as most women couldn’t afford to pay, they often ended up behind bars.

“The proportion of females at Calton Jail at that time was exceptional compared to the rest of Scotland,” Malcolm Fife, author of The Story of Calton Jail, explained.

“Most of the women were charged for petty reasons. There was a serious drink problem in Edinburgh at that time, far worse than today in Scotland, and between 70 and 80 per cent of the crimes were committed because of drink.”

Author Malcolm Fife. Picture: supplied

Almost all the females at Calton Jail were imprisoned for minor offences – including in the late 1860s when an average of 12,500 females per year were charged with being “drunk and incapable”.

Women were also charged with running unlicensed premises known as “shebeens”, illicit pubs where alcohol was sold without a licence. Prostitution and petty crime were also rife in the city, with more unusual crimes including “concealing a pregnancy” and “impersonating a man”.

Records for Calton Prison between October 1845 to 1846 list the professions of the inmates. The most numerous for females were prostitutes, numbering 573, then labourers, caterers and miners with 529, followed by housewives at 417. In one case in 1805, a Janet Dunbar was sentenced to 60 days’ imprisonment for “keeping a disorderly house, riotous conduct and disturbing her neighbours’.

Above Calton Jail, Edinburgh, May 1927 Picture: RCAHMS

Also that year another woman was sentenced to 60 days in jail for keeping a house “at the foot of Blackfriars Wynd” which was “frequented by boys and girls and women of the most abandoned character”.

Catherine MacFarlane was brought to the Edinburgh prison in 1821 for “concealing her pregnancy”.

“There are various theories why women outnumbered the men,” Mr Fife said. “One being that many other big towns in Scotland had mills where women could seek employment, but Edinburgh did have a very large population of employed servants.

“I think the more likely theory is that a large number of the women either refused to pay, or did not have the money to pay, the small fine that would have stopped them from having to stay in prison while awaiting trial”

Author Malcolm Fife. Picture: supplied