Mary Jane Oland - from Shepherd’s Daughter to Career Criminal

on Saturday, 18 June 2016. Posted in Archives, Crime

I don’t think that I’m alone with my interest in historical crime and punishment. I was interested in seeing if I could piece together a criminal history of someone picked completely at random. With this in mind, I looked through one our archives from the Wiltshire Constabulary, a ‘Divisional Criminal Photographic Album, with particulars of crime and personal details. 1900-1916’. the date range I chose ensured that I didn’t breach the 100 year closed file rule; this allows anonymity which in this case is quite a sensitive subject.

I decided to choose a female prisoner, Mary Jane Oland, born on the 1st May 1870 in Kempsford, Gloucestershire- just over the county border. Mary was the daughter of a shepherd and his wife, Thomas and Harriet Oland. It appears that she was of average education; as well as can be expected for a labourers’ child, she would have definitely attended the local village school.    

Wiltshire Constabulary F5/610/2

It is unclear why, Mary, turned to the life of crime, but it appears to have stemmed from a mental health issue. A taboo subject, especially during this period. Marys’ first conviction was on the 28th June 1883 at the age of 14, shockingly, she was bound over by Swindon Magistrates for an attempted suicide. To investigate this devastating start to Mary’s downward spiral, I looked at the Swindon Advertiser- newspaper reports often give a lot more detail than a criminal register or calendar of prisoners. On Saturday 30th June 1883, it was reported that Mary had cut her own throat in an attempt to avoid returning to service near Bath. She had stated that she had been cruelly treated by her employer Mr C Williams, a farmer. Prior to the incident, Mary had appeared to have gone AWOL with another young employee, a boy, whom she had taken to Bristol and Box over a period of about four days. Was this just an attempt to run away? There was no criminal intent by poor Mary; it was so obvious that she was unhappy.

The following year, Mary was accused of stealing items of clothing in both Swindon and Marlborough, these offences were swiftly followed by two offences of burglary.    

Calendar of Prisoners A1/125/92 (1885)

By the age of 16, Mary was breaking into dwelling houses and stealing jewellery. Her previous convictions of theft had seen her do hard labour, in those days this would have meant supervised physical work outside the prison walls. This new conviction gave her a custodial sentence with which hard labour was included. Mary was incarcerated in Devizes Bridewell Prison, where there was a large, multi-person treadmill installed. This treadmill was driven by the prisoners for long sessions and the wardens could tighten the screws to make the treadmill harder to turn. Hence prison wardens being dubbed ‘screws’.                           

According to online family history website, Ancestry, Mary Oland was shown on the census records over the next three decades as being resident at her/ his majesties’ pleasure.

In 1891, Mary was in Knaphill, Guildford Female Prison. In 1901, the census shows that Mary is back in Wiltshire, in Devizes prison. In the 1911 census, she was in H.M Female convict prison and state reformatory at Bierton Hill in Aylesbury.

In February 1909, Mary was convicted for two offences at Salisbury Assizes. One count of larceny (theft of) a bicycle, value £6 6s from Messrs Pullen & co. of Fleet Street in Swindon.  The second offence was for obtaining property by false pretences from Messrs Chandler, Bros, drapers of Wood Street, Swindon.  According to the Swindon Advertiser, Mary had pretended to have been sent to the shop by her employer Mrs Allen, to whom she was a domestic servant. Mrs Allen was a regular customer so Miss Oland was recognised as having association with her. Mary had requested some material, a blouse, gloves and stockings; all to be put onto Mrs Allen’s account. This was done without question and the goods were taken away by Mary with a promise that Mrs Allen would settle the account on Monday. Mary had no intention of paying for the goods.

Early 20th Century Wood Street, Swindon P6273

During the court hearing the judge asked Mary “Is there anything else you have done which is likely to be found out? If so, you had better make a clean breast of it, you can start with a clean sheet when you come out.”  A Superintendent Robinson interjected that Mary had ‘obtained’ a lot of goods, to the value of £50, from South Wales. She was also in the process of fraudulently receiving a loan from the Midland Discount company, Leicester for £100, using the alias of Mrs Rowe. The judge sentenced Mary Oland to five years penal servitude.

Amazingly, Mary had only recently served a year in prison for robbing a lady in Folkestone. She was still wanted for stealing a bicycle in Southampton and she owed her landlady seven guineas in arrears!

It seems ironic that the final record that I could find of Mary Oland on Ancestry was of her being a patient/inmate of Broadmoor in April 1914. She had been transferred from a female prison in Aylesbury in 1912. I have been unable to access any of her personal records but it is presumed that she was deemed as having some form of mental illness. Mary, throughout her long criminal career had often used many different aliases; maybe she had forgotten her true identity.

Mary Jane Oland died in December 1957 aged 86. She never married nor had children. She was laid to rest in Fairford in her home county of Gloucestershire. I do hope that she found peace in the end.

Anna Ervine, Community History Advisor


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