Expert Opinion

Telling Stories: From Artful Dodgers to The Secret History of My Family

On Thursday 10 March, a new four-part documentary series, The Secret History of My Family, starts on BBC Two, examining the lives of the Victorian poor. Contributing her research to an episode of the new series is Dr Heather Shore, whose PhD and book, Artful Dodgers, focused on juvenile crime in early 19th-century London. In this blog post, Heather looks ahead to what we can expect from the new series.

Created by the same team behind The Secret History of Our Streets (broadcasted in 2012 and 2014), The Secret History of My Family looks into the lives of the Victorian poor. It draws on the work on Victorian social investigators, and follows the stories of some of those who were captured in these texts. It traces the contours of the journey that they took through to their modern descendants. As the director Joseph Bullman notes: “As we told the families about their pasts, things they’d half-known about their parents and their grandparents lives began to make more sense. Family histories fell into context and people started to see their own lives in a different way.”

The first episode tells the remarkable story of Caroline Gadberry (or Gadbury). Caroline was one of three sisters in early Victorian London, two of whom were transported to Australia. I first came across Caroline in the 1990s, when I was doing my doctoral research on juvenile crime in early 19th-century London. Caroline was interviewed in the Westminster Bridewell prison, along with another girl, Mary Mause, probably under the auspices of the 1839 Constabulary Committee.

This Committee was led by the reformer, Edwin Chadwick, with the aim to look into the state of crime and policing ten years after the passage of the Metropolitan Police Act of 1829. These interviews, along with two notebooks of interviews with boys on the Euryalus prison hulk awaiting transportation, were likely to have been undertaken by William Augustus Miles, or one of his assistants. Miles was a controversial figure, who would go on to serve as the Commissioner of Police in Sydney, ending his career ignomiously when charged with insobriety.

Aged 17 at the time of her interview, Caroline described her life of crime in some detail. The daughter of a City officer, she had started her offending ‘career’ by shop-lifting with other girls, whilst telling her parents that she was working late as at her employment at a harness-maker in Mile End New Town. As I wrote about Caroline in my book, Artful Dodgers: Youth and Crime in Early Nineteenth- Century London, “She lived a transitory life: in and out of court and penal institutions, fencing goods at Field Lane and Petticoat Lane, attending penny theatres and dances, and sometimes back with her parents.” (1999, p. 46). Caroline was eventually prosecuted for theft, along with three other young women, and she was sentenced to transportation in May 1838 (Old Bailey Online, t18380514-1336).

The Secret History of My Family has taken these bare facts of Caroline’s life, and traced not only her early life in East London, and her parent’s desperation to stop her thieving, but her progress in Van Diemen’s Lane, present day Tasmania. The programme traces Caroline’s fortunes from her arrival in Van Diemen’s Land, through her relationships with other convicts, her children, and her descendants in modern day Australia.

The story of Caroline’s descendants is remarkable, and I will leave it to the programme-makers, and the wonderful research they have undertaken, to tell that story. From the point of view of the historian who first came across these traces of Caroline’s life, it is a rewarding experience to see that not only did Caroline go on to live a full life in Tasmania, but that she produced a long line of Tasmanians who have played their part in the evolution of that state. Moreover, to see a little bit of the research that I did for my Ph.D all those years ago, reach a worldwide audience, is a very nice thing indeed.

Heather Shore is Reader in History at Leeds Beckett University. Her most recent book is, London's Criminal Underworld's, c. 1720 - c. 1930: A Social and Cultural History (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015). You can view a sample chapter here, and purchase on Amazon here.

Professor Heather Shore

Heather Shore has published widely in the field of crime and penal history. Her research encompasses the history of youth offending, the historical evolution of the idea of the criminal underworld, and British organised crime in the interwar period of the twentieth century. Heather is co-convenor of History UK (HUK), co-chair for the Criminal Justice Strand of the European Social Science History Conference (ESHHC), and a founding member of the British Crime Historians (BCH).