Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Notorious Strumpet, Dangerous Girl


I came across the story of  Sarah Wardle purely by chance where her exploits were  reported in the “Staffordshire Advertiser” in early 1818. I read of her escape from prison and wondered whether she had managed to evade the authorities. The answer to my question was revealed in an Australian book published in the 1970s “Notorious Strumpets and Dangerous Girls” on female convicts in Tasmania where her case is fully described.

She was born in Ipstones in the 1780s and fell foul of the law for attempting to pass fake money in Leek in the summer of 1817. Passing counterfeit money could have lethal consequences as a fellow Moorlander discovered when George Fearns of Bottomhouses went to the gallows in 1801 for dealing in forged notes. A forged bank note had been found on Sarah and at the Summer Assize at Stafford she was found guilty and sentenced to death although her sentence was later commuted to 14 years transportation to Van Dieman’s Land( modern day Tasmania). She was incarcerated in Stafford Jail while passage to Australia was arranged and she was due to sail in a prison ship in the spring of 1818. Sarah was described as being of medium height, brown hair and married with 3 children. She was 34.

One January morning a ladder was found propped up against a wall at the jail and Sarah had made her escape. The prison authority was dubious that a woman of middling years could have escaped and suspicion fell on a prisoner George Walker and a turnkey named Bould in assisting her. Reading the account one is struck by how much felons were involved in the running of the jail. Sarah had worked in the Infirmary with Walker where, it seems, a relationship was struck up. Prisoner’s families could come and go as they pleased and Sarah’s 13 year old daughter was a frequent visitor bringing with her food and money which was used to bribe jailers or alternatively Sarah may have used sexual favours to get out of the prison.


 Sarah’s escape was widely reported and the Bank of England in an unprecedented step increased the reward money to £60 from £10. Walker went to trial and freely admitted his responsibility in her escape- she had simply walked out of the front gate at the right time. Walker received Sarah’s punishment and he was transported for 14 years.

 But what of Sarah?

In March 1822 a Staffordshire woman was visiting Gloucester when she saw Sarah Wardle standing in the doorway of a pub. She denied it, but the visitor was right. Sarah had passed herself off as a servant whose mistress was visiting Ireland leaving her behind in England. She became friendly with an elderly couple who ran a pub in Gloucester. The old woman died and Sarah was intending to marry the widower when she was discovered. In the meantime Sarah slipped away and evaded capture.

She was finally arrested in East London living under the name of Ann Layshaw. This time there was no escape and she set sail on a convict ship for Tasmania arriving in the colony in June 1823. She married Charles Jefton in Tasmania and died in 1853.