Letters written by or on behalf of prisoners convicted of forging bank notes in the late 18th and 19th century, released by the Bank of England, paint a heartbreaking picture of those awaiting death or exile to Australia.
Forgery and the "uttering" circulation of counterfeit notes were crimes punishable by death, while those in possession of forged notes faced sea transportation to New South Wales. The letters of pleas for help and charity by prisoners in jails across England or on prison ships, written to their prosecutors, the "Gentlemen of the Bank", are held at the Bank of England's archive and have been published on its website.
One female prisoner in London, a 34-year-old mother of nine, Sarah Whiley, wrote to request a "small trifle" from "the Honourable Gentlemen" of the Bank, so she might buy some tea and sugar for her sea voyage. "Receive the contrition of an unfortunate woman … have compassion on a deluded and misguided female … for I was prey to delusive and false persons … I am well aware of your goodness towards the unfortunate," she wrote.
The Bank sent £5, at the time a very generous sum, "for small necessaries … most likely to contribute to her comfort" for her six-month sea voyage to New South Wales to serve a life sentence in exile.
The surge in counterfeit notes came after the Napoleonic wars when the Bank was no longer able to pay out gold in exchange for bank notes. The result was the issuing of low denomination £1 and £2 notes in 1797, with many soon being forged and circulated across the country.
After more than 300 people had been hanged for forgery, the Bank's solicitors, Freshfields, drafted a bill that became law in May 1801 and offered those convicted the option of a "plea bargain". This gave a prisoner the option of pleading guilty to being in possession of counterfeit notes – in return for punishment of 14 years' transportation.
In their responses to the hundreds of letters they received, the Bank's directors showed themselves generous and charitable to prisoners, in particular mothers and the children in jail with them, whereas men fared less well.
When 11 about to go on their transport ship asked for "that donation which we understand as generally been bestowed to the unfortunate culprits who have been prosecuted by your honourable company," they received nothing. Their letter was annotated by the Bank's solicitor: "These are male."
Deirdre Palk, who transcribed the letters in her book Prisoners' Letters to the Bank of England 1781-1827, said in an article for the Bank's inhouse magazine The Old Lady that most men who wrote (and some of the women) had more on their minds than "small trifles". They tried to win favours and reductions of their sentences by implicating others who would be arrested. But most women and a few men wrote humble letters, as Sarah Whiley did. Men were also often able to obtain work in prison whereas women struggled to do so.
A letter sent by Mary Kelly on 22 February 1820 describes her distress at having no friends to ask for help, her mother being extremely poor, and that she was also caring for a sick child. She was awarded five shillings per week on 1 March 1820. Another prisoner, Johanna McCarthy, wrote on 8 April 1818 from the Maria ship at Deptford that "I am quite destitute of money and friends and have been confined in Newgate Bristol 13 months". The Bank's committee for lawsuits records that McCarthy and two other female convicts who were "on the point of sailing to Botany Bay" be paid £5 each.
"Such an unexpected relationship between prisoners and prosecutors, with its outpouring of emotion and need on one side, and, on the other, an exercise of institutional generosity – at times almost profligate – is even more unexpected when we look at its historical context," Palk wrote.
Margaret Spiers wrote 13 letters between March 1817 and March 1818 telling her story in the horrible conditions of Newgate jail. She told of her pregnancy and being left by her husband, her debt to other prisoners, the birth of "two fine girls" (whereupon the Bank increased its weekly payment of five shillings to ten shillings and sixpence), the illness and death of one baby, the funeral expenses and her gratitude for the support over a year and the final payment on embarkation of £5 for her daily needs.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010