The babies behind bars

The babies behind bars

As Broadmoor Hospital – originally Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum – commemorates its 150th anniversary, Mark Stevens describes life for pregnant female convicts and the children they bore

Header Image: The convict nursery at Brixton prison, 1862

Mark Stevens,  senior archivist at Berkshire Record Office

Mark Stevens

senior archivist at Berkshire Record Office

Of the women who were admitted to Broadmoor, by far the greater proportion of them were the rare, but regular, Victorian mothers who attacked their own children. So many entries in the asylum’s admissions register are followed by the note ‘murder of her child’ that after a while the phrase almost ceases to have meaning.

But some of these women would also give life after arriving at Broadmoor. The asylum was no different to any other institution housing women of childbearing age. Like a workhouse, prison or charitable refuge, it admitted women according to set criteria, regardless of whether or not they were pregnant. The same was true of local asylums, but although the average local asylum would have admitted plenty of patients who had just experienced childbirth, they very rarely received women who went on to have their babies within the institution. Generally, the local asylums were seen as best avoided during pregnancy. Broadmoor could not exercise the same choice, bound as it was by judicial process, and so neither could its patients. Consequently, these events were dealt with as just another part of ward life, entirely in keeping with the ethos of this self-contained community.

This was possible because of the great divide within the asylum. The female side operated very much as an independent unit. The initial women’s block and its later companion were separated from the male side to the west by a high dividing wall. There was a dedicated body of staff of around 20 female attendants to nurse the residents of these blocks, with a female operational head, although she was expected to defer to the male medical staff. There might have been a queen on the throne, but Victorian England remained patriarchal, and so too did the medical staff at Broadmoor. They frequented their offices on the men’s side and made ward visits to the female patients when they wished. In their charge, notionally at least, were around 100 lunatic women.

For most of the time, the male and female patients were barely aware of each other’s existence. Work and entertainment were separate. The result was a parallel, segregated life on either side of Broadmoor. The women sewed and looked after the laundry, they promenaded along their terrace or the wider grounds; they read in the day room and conversed; or, if they were in the female back block, they were minded and managed in much the same way as their aggressive counterparts in the other half of the site. Even at recreational events, such as the flower show or annual ball, the women were permitted to mix only with male staff, and not male patients. The logic in creating a rather artificial situation – a world bereft of men or women – was that it provided what was considered a safe environment for initial recovery, and one where the appropriate refuge could be given to help a patient progress. It was into this single-sex regime that all the women were delivered, including those who arrived pregnant.

The first patient to give birth in the asylum was Catherine Dawson (see box), on 26 December 1866, two and half years after Broadmoor opened. At one o’clock in the morning, surrounded by attendants, in the pale glow of gaslight she was delivered of a baby boy in the female infirmary ward. Her labour lasted only half an hour.

On her arrival at Broadmoor earlier that year, she had been immediately sick in the waiting room, and after her details were taken she was confined to bed in the female infirmary, dosed with beef tea and effervescing salts. The sickness was initially ascribed to a dose of morphine administered to keep her calm during the long train journey south. But when the sickness did not subside the Broadmoor doctors concluded the true cause.

A female convicts’ dormitory at Broadmoor in 1867
A female convicts’ dormitory at Broadmoor in 1867

Unfortunately Catherine was aggressive, quarrelsome and paranoid, imagining that tricks were being played on her and determined to avenge them. When her morning sickness eventually passed she was moved to the ward for more disturbed patients and occupied herself with needlework and suspicion until she gave birth. The act of nativity itself was almost entirely unremarkable: in fact, the only statement Catherine made at the time of birth was that there was “a nasty smell in the room”. Her baby boy was immediately removed from her after the birth and handed over to one of the attendants, who reared him on cow’s milk. As Catherine was in no fit mental state to name her child, and the boy had been born on Boxing Day, the Broadmoor chaplain christened him after the Feast of St Stephen.

Catherine did not ask to see her child until a week after the birth, and not until two months had passed was she finally allowed to do so. Their first, and almost certainly only, meeting was not a success. Catherine placed little Stephen on his legs and let him go, waiting for him to walk. After the baby fell she spoke to him as if he could respond. Perhaps she was seeing an older girl in front of her, who might have been playing in a back yard in Liverpool. There was clearly little point in trying to bond and when the boy was taken away from her again, this time it was for good.

Dr John Meyer, Broadmoor’s first Medical Superintendent, had begun to plan arrangements for the baby’s life away from his mother. His plan was to ask either Catherine’s local workhouse, or her husband Henry to take Stephen into their care. He wrote to both. Henry Dawson replied clearly and convincingly that he was reluctant to accept his newborn son on the grounds of poverty. Now lodging in Birkenhead, he was out all day working by the Mersey, leaving the surviving girls with neighbours, and returning only at night with the money to feed them. But as one door closed, another remained open. The Chorley Union Workhouse had a series of questions for Meyer as to their liability for upkeep of a lunatic’s child, particularly as Catherine’s settlement there had been fleeting, but at no point did they refuse to offer their support. After further correspondence, the officers of the workhouse were persuaded to take on the boy. A date for his removal was fixed, and Stephen was collected from Broadmoor on 25 February 1867 and taken to Lancashire.

The Dawson family was now split across three locations. Stephen went to the workhouse and an uncertain future. Henry and the girls remained in Birkenhead. Catherine stayed in Broadmoor, her moods swinging between excitement and depression. When she was better, she kept in contact with her husband, reading his letters and writing replies. But as well as her mental illness, she was often in poor physical health and unable either to write or to work at her sewing. She would lay in bed, exhausted, with her hands and wrists scarred from time spent breaking windows in the female block. During one such period, in 1871, Henry worried that the long silence from his wife meant that she was dead. He wrote to the Broadmoor authorities asking whether his wife were still alive. Shortly after it was confirmed that she was, he visited her.

Intriguing article?

Subscribe to our newsletter, filled with more captivating articles, expert tips, and special offers.

female entrance at Broadmoor
An Edwardian postcard of the female entrance at Broadmoor

It was to be their last meeting. Though Catherine Dawson was slowly failing it was Henry who died first, on 18 June 1872. A friend of the family wrote to Broadmoor to pass on the news, and Catherine was informed. Up in Birkenhead, the landlady of the house where Henry and his two surviving daughters had lodged in now took on the remaining children. Other friends took Henry’s place as correspondent to the hospital, but no one wrote to Catherine.

She spent the last two and half years of her life in the women’s infirmary suffering from a degenerative disease, losing weight and becoming weaker. By early 1876 she had ceased speaking to the medical staff and was unable to get out of bed. There was one last moment of clarity on 16 April 1876, when she rallied briefly on her death bed. She spoke coherently and chatted to her fellow patients around her. Then she died from tuberculosis, aged 41.

Discover Your Ancestors Periodical is published by Discover Your Ancestors Publishing, UK. All rights in the material belong to Discover Your Ancestors Publishing and may not be reproduced, whether in whole or in part, without their prior written consent. The publisher makes every effort to ensure the magazine's contents are correct. All articles are copyright© of Discover Your Ancestors Publishing and unauthorised reproduction is forbidden. Please refer to full Terms and Conditions at The editors and publishers of this publication give no warranties,
guarantees or assurances and make no representations regarding any goods or services advertised.