Mary Jones, aged mother and rebel leader

Some time before the fall of 1776, a married couple sat down to have the difficult conversation of whether or not they would enter the workhouse system. Although it is unclear if William Jones played the role as the breadwinner of the family--as there is little information on him outside of his disappearance two decades later-- it seems that he and his wife, Mary Jones, had found themselves in a precarious financial situation that prompted the question in the first place[1]. Perhaps the ‘conversation’ was more of a one-sided statement on William’s part that they would enter the workhouse; perhaps it looked more like a silent mutual agreement that had been a long time coming, as Mary’s meager ricebread continued to leave a gnawing for more in their bellies and then disappear from the table completely[2]. The Jones unit would soon enter the Saint Andrew Undershaft Workhouse of London, one of many workhouses for paupers, sometime before the year of 1777.

Appearing at frequent intervals on monthly committee meeting minutes from October 1776 to November 1799 for mundane clothing requests, Mary Jones was quite the forgettable face at the workhouse, at least at first glance. Not once was there a mention of discharge, leave to visit other family members, or escape on the workhouse record in Mary’s name during her stay of at least twenty-three years (although it is likely that she was in and out of the institution) [3]. Yet, a closer look reveals that Mary might have been more of an active character at Saint Andrews with a robust public and family life, resembling little of the dead-fly-on-the-wall archetype of Goffman and Ignatieff scholarship [4]. The following incidents are key examples of Mary’s close associations with drama and “going against the grain.”

During the summer of 1779, three years after her first mention on the record, Mary Jones might have had enough of the suffocating environment maintained by a totalizing regime at Saint Andrews Undershaft. It is possible that she felt the need to cause a great deal of disruption by drunkenly beating Mrs. Hanks, who was likely someone of authority [5]. Furthermore, it is likely that her actions were a public showing, as the interactions between a pauper and an authority figure most often occurred in more communal areas, like a courtyard. Some tools found in courtyards that Mary Jones might have used to assault Mrs. Hanks included, but are not limited to, forks, shovels, and brass crock [6]. It was most likely the case however, that Mary Jones used her bare hands to harm Mrs. Hanks, as the use of an object as a weapon would surely have pegged her as a lunatic and linked her with the future of asylum [7]. It was noted that due to her drunkenness, Mary Jones was unable to attend the monthly committee meeting, so she was to be punished at the following committee meeting. It is unknown as to what the punishment was because the next committee meeting minutes made  no note of the punishment.

Mary Jones later led an initiative for the demand of soap in the workhouse. Over the span of eight months, two requests for soap were noted in the committee minutes, in which Jones is found advocating in both requests as the first individual listed. Given the fact that paupers had to ‘complain of’ soap twice at the committee meetings during a period of eight months, and that these complaints were actually noted, it is likely that conditions at the workhouse were unsanitary. During those eight months stretching from June of 1785 to October of 1785, there was also an account of Mary Jones becoming ill to the point that she received an additional shilling. Mary Jones might have recognized her illness was a result of perceived unsanitary conditions and after her first request for soap was denied, she requested soap yet again. This can be viewed as yet another testament to Mary’s vocal character at the Saint Andrews workhouse.

Altogether, Mary’s public displays of pushback represent a larger nod to oppressed-oppressor politics described by the likes of James Scott, and it is possible that others looked to her as a symbol of rebellion against the institution [8]. 

Outside of these larger-scale disruptions, Mary’s family and personal life was dramatic in its move toward deterioration near the end of her stay at Saint Andrews. It is likely that Mary Jones had children with William Jones anywhere between the mid 1780s and mid 1790s in the workhouse, as it is recorded in the committee minutes in 1796 that Mary Jones requested nursing assistance for a sick child of hers. Unfortunately for Mary Jones and her children, it is noted that the Church relieved the children and provided Mary Jones with additional Shillings due to her husband abandoning the family. It was most likely very difficult for Mary Jones to provide for herself and her children due to the fact that she lost the support of her husband and had a documented past of potential alcoholism [9]. Or, perhaps, the workhouse administration perceived her situation this way, rendering her incapable of caring for children in institutional eyes and leading to coerced relief of her children.

Regardless of whether one views the workhouse system characteristically as a sink-or-swim environment or as a more flexible space for paupers to exercise an element of agency, Mary’s experiences reflect that of Pentonville inmates of similar early penitentiary history. Ultimately, alike Pentonville counterparts, Mary’ public actions in the workhouse highlight internal negotiations: those involving the risk of bending rules in efforts to preserve one’s own humanity. Moreover, her experiences subvert the traditional narrative of ‘total’ institutions as mundane, regimented, and stuck in the everyday, as her situation in dramatic heat of losing a husband, losing children, beating an authority figure, leading a small ‘rebellion,’ etc. make her a quite interesting historical actor.


Kha Huynh and Addison Partida-Vasquez