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My Great Great Aunt ‘Polly’, prison warder at York

The story of York Castle Prison is the story of the people whose lives it touched. Over the centuries, hundreds of people worked at York Castle, from cleaners to surgeons to gaolers. Most of the staff were men, and we know a little about some of them, but information about women staff members is a lot harder to come by. There were fewer of them, as there were fewer women prisoners than men. 

We didn’t know anything at all about the women who worked here in the second half of the nineteenth century. That is, until Dianne Evans got in touch looking for information.  

This is Dianne’s journey, in her own words.  

My Great Great Aunt ‘Polly

There was a story relayed to me by a cousin of mine about a family member who was a prison warder at York Castle prison (and later Lincoln City prison). This lady would sometimes look after my Grandmother when she was a child. My Grandmother remembers her being very strict, a little intimidating, and always had a large bunch of keys hanging from her waist. I was quite intrigued by this lady who I found out was my Great Great Aunt, and wanted to find out more information about her.

Her occupation of a prison warder was an unusual one for a woman in those days. My cousin had given me a name, Polly, and for quite a while I couldn’t find anybody of that name in my family tree. There were no ‘Polly’s’ at all. I began to think she was a family myth, perpetuated over the years and that she didn’t really exist. But after much searching I found that her name was actually ‘Mary’ (I had been given the wrong surname too, which had sent me on the totally wrong side of the family, easily done) I also discovered that in many families of the time the name Mary often deviated to ‘Molly’ then to ‘Polly’ and Polly had stuck within the family. 

Once I had a name and the correct side of the family I actually found more information about her. She appeared in the census in 1881 at York Castle prison as a warder. This was her I had found her! I began to build up a picture of her life. She never married, and because of that was probably a dedicated employee to her prison role. My cousin sent me a photograph of her, I now had a face to a name. As I continued to research I also came across a wonderful photograph, purely by accident from another family tree of Mary (‘Polly’) Green with her keys and was so thrilled to see it. This picture was often talked about within the family by older members, but I had never seen it. 

There she was in all her glory with her keys just like my Grandmother had remembered her!  

I began to uncover more information about her through census’, newspaper articles and research. I contacted Dr Prior at York Castle Museum to see if they had any information or records of prison staff. Surely there would be some records? But no, plenty on convicts, none on staff! I sent the photographs of my Great Great Aunt to Dr Prior and she was excited as I was to see her first photo of a staff member of York Castle prison! 

One final task on my list was to try to find where she was laid to rest. I discovered through the help of the lovely people at Friends of York Cemetery, where her grave was situated, but was so disappointed to find that Mary had no headstone and was buried in a public grave with six other unrelated people as was common practice back then. I felt she needed some recognition for her service and set about (with a lot of help from my lovely, patient husband!) putting a small memorial on her grave to honour her. I now feel that I have given her a voice. In the beginning she was just a name and although I didn’t know her, I’ve learnt so much about her and her life, following her through newspaper articles, visits to York and Lincoln, seeing the houses that she lived in and seeing the places that she worked and enriching my family tree. It has been a truly exciting and fulfilling mission to have finally met my Great Great Aunt Polly! who I had heard so much about! 

I had come full circle. I now tell everybody about her as I am so proud of what she did.  

Ancestors are more than just a name, they were once real people with real lives, go and discover yours you may be surprised.   

‘To me, doing genealogy is not a cold gathering of facts but, instead,
breathing life into all who have gone before’  

Extract from a poem by Della M. Cumming c1943 

Mary’s work in York Castle Prison

It was amazing to see a photograph of a woman who worked at York Castle. And not only do we now know what she looked like, but thanks to Dianne’s research we also know more about her work here.  

Mary’s job wasn’t easy. It was no wonder she came across to the children as strict. At work, she was tasked with helping keep discipline among the women prisoners. The prison was a difficult and potentially dangerous environment. Prisoners often struggled against the rigid rules, and there are plenty of records of prisoners being punished for singing and for talking at the wrong times, as well as for fighting and destroying property.  

Mary was in the newspapers several times, when she was called to be a witness to something a prisoner had been accused of doing.  

In March 1877, a prisoner called Ann Griffin attempted to set fire to her cell. Ann, who had originally been imprisoned for assaulting a police officer at the York races, was described as middle-aged and ‘and very powerful looking’. Staff claimed she used a gas light placed in her cell to set fire to oakum packed into her window frame. Picking oakum was a common task given to prisoners, and involved unravelling old rope so the materials could be re-used.  

Ann’s cell wasn’t usually lit by gas lamp. This had been installed after she broke her window glass, and the deputy governor nailed a blanket folded into four to the outside of the window.  

Mary told the magistrates that she was alerted to the fire by a prisoner called Margaret Hardyman, who had been cleaning her cell nearby. Mary went and alerted the deputy governor, who put the fire out. The magistrates extended Ann Griffin’s sentence in punishment for the property damage.  

She was called before the magistrates again in April of 1877 when there was a fight in the prison. A prisoner called Margaret Barrett had been reprimanded for talking in the passage next to her cell. The situation escalated and the Matron, Elizabeth Martin, ordered Margaret to be locked up. The newspaper reported that ‘on the matron taking her by the shoulder, [she] threw herself down on the floor and kicked her and the assistant matron violently several times. On getting up, she continued her violent conduct, and struck the matron a violent blow on the face.’ Mary didn’t report any injury, but the Matron stated that her lip was swollen for several days. The magistrates added six months imprisonment onto Margaret’s sentence for assault.  

There are details of Mary’s working life we don’t know, including exactly where her lodging was at York Castle, or how much she was paid. It’s likely that the women staff members were paid less than men, as that was standard at the time. But within the strict codes of Victorian life, Mary’s job would have given her a measure of freedom that married women would not necessarily have had.  

Mary appears to have gained a promotion at York Castle, moving from Assistant Matron in the 1870s to Warder by the 1881 census. By 1891, when she was around 32 years old, she moved jobs, becoming Matron of Lincoln Castle.  

Mary passed away on 27th March 1923, and was buried in York Cemetery. You can visit her grave, and the memorial that Dianne and her husband Clive have made there.