Lock-Down Research: From Owen’s Row To Van Diemen’s Land: A Sad Story

The New River running beside Sadler’s Wells, 1792.  Owen’s Row can be seen in the background – at the right-hand side. The grating at this side of the St John’s Road bridge is visible. It was against the equivalent at the other side of the road that in 1841 the drowned baby was found. Credit: Wellcome Images

While researching my previous ‘Lock-Down’ post (see here ) I came across a story that is haunting me. Looking through mid-19th-century newspapers for mentions of Owen’s Row, Islington, I noticed a flurry of articles in 1841 – both in London and in national papers – concerning the sad story of Harriet Longley, on trial at the Old Bailey on a charge of infanticide.

The trial revealed that at about 8 o’clock in the evening of 19 March 1841 Harriet had arrived at Islington Green police station saying ‘she had murdered her child’ ‘by throwing it into the river’. A policeman had then gone with her to Owen’s Row. Once there she had pointed to the spot where she had thrown the baby into the New River, which at that time ran in front of the houses.

She said she had been sitting on the doorstep of no 19 ‘and the child had been crying the whole time she had been sitting there, and had been crying all the afternoon – she said she had no food for herself, and no milk to give to the child.’ 

A witness described seeing Harriet nearby at sometime just before 7 o’clock. In March it would by then have been dark, and, doubtless, chilly. I cannot imagine that that stretch of Owen’s Row, half-way between St John’s Street and Goswell Road, was well lit. Presumably that is why Harriet had chosen to sit there. She was noticed by a woman who was visiting number 14 and was still there when the visitor left. But, naturally, that woman didn’t think to speak to her. [Incidentally number 14 Owen’s Row reappears 40 years later in another of my posts, see here. Although totally unrelated that story, too, ended in tragedy.]

Harriet’s was the usual sad story. She was about 22 years old and was herself illegitimate. It would seem she had been brought up by her mother in Clerkenwell but was working as a house maid in Marylebone when she became pregnant. Around 6 months into the pregnancy had left, under what circumstances isn’t revealed, and, for whatever reason, had travelled to Kent. There she had been picked up for vagrancy and imprisoned in Maidstone Jail  as a ‘rogue and vagabond’. It was in the prison that, towards the end of February, she had given birth to a girl, whom she named ‘Eliza Harris’. Leaving prison with 18 pence and her baby she had returned to London. She had not seen her mother as she was worried about being ‘scolded’.

By the time she arrived at the Islington police station Harriet had neither money nor baby. All she possessed was ‘a small parcel in her hand, containing a small quantity of bread’. The policeman went on to describe how ‘I offered her some food, some meat, which she had, she appeared to swallow it all whole, without chewing it, till she could swallow no more, and she had some coffee.’

Earlier in the day Harriet had been to the Marylebone workhouse but was refused entry and ‘referred to another parish’.

During the trial the wife of one of the sergeants at the police station told how ‘I was sent for when the prisoner came there – I undressed her, and examined her – I asked her how she came to do it – she said poverty had made her – I thought she had milk – I found her breast in a painful state – she said the child would suck a little, but not much.’ 

The policeman who went with Harriet to Owen’s Row found the baby ‘between fifty and sixty yards from the place where she pointed out as having thrown it in – the child was on the surface of the water, stopped by the iron grating that goes across the bridge, near St John-street-road – it was dressed in the clothes which I now produce – it was a female child.’

As I explained in my previous post, the New River, bringing water to London from Hertfordshire, used to run right in front of Owen’s Row and wasn’t covered in until 1862. There are no extant images of that precise stretch of the river but the scene was probably similar, if less bucolic, to that depicted in the engraving at the head of this post. There certainly could have been little to separate the path in front of the Owen’s Row houses from the river. In the 1830s the death was reported of a young boy who had drowned after falling into the river while playing there. So, dreadful as it is, we can imagine that it was the work of a moment for poor Harriet, in despair at her situation and tormented by the cries of her starving child, to drop the bundle into the water. By going straight to the police station she made no attempt to avoid the punishment that she must have known would follow.

And so it was that, at the Central Criminal Court, on 5 April 1841 Harriet Longley was sentenced to death. The jury, however, ‘recommended [her] to mercy in consequence of her distressed state’. The plea was accepted by the judge, who was indeed sympathetic to her plight and ‘in an affecting addresss to the prisoner, told her that he and his learned brother (Mr Justice Patteson) would attend to the humane recommendation of the jury, and represent her unhappy case to her Majesty, for the purpose of saving her life’. ‘Oh’ [he said] ‘that young women would take warning by your unhappy fate when listening to the voice of seduction, and remember to what dreadful and fatal consequences the first false step but too often leads!’ [Bell’s Messenger, 11 April, 1841.]

That ‘first false step’ was to take Harriet Longley half way round the world – to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania). Her sentence was commuted to transportation for 10 years, a comparatively light sentence. One of 180 women convicts, she set sail from London on 14 June 1841 on the Garland Grove, bound for Australia’s prime penal colony. Coincidentally, just 10 days earlier a group of my own ancestors had embarked on the journey to Australia – to Melbourne – from Glasgow. You can read about their perilous adventure here.

Cascades Female Factory, Hobart, 1844

Harriet Longley arrived at Hobart on 10 October 1841. Tasmania’s online records (utterly fascinating) now conjure her up for us. She was 5 feet and 1 inch tall, with a fair complexion, brown hair, a high forehead, grey eyes, a straight nose, a small mouth….and 2 moles on her stomach.  She was, I think, based at the main women’s prison, the Cascades Female Factory, but was probably allowed (‘assigned’) to work outside. Her conduct record tells us that in general she appears to have behaved well and that in 1846 she was recommended for a pardon, which was approved on 23 November 1847. For details of life at the Cascades Female Factory see here.

The convict records also show that in May 1843 Harriet Longley was given permission to marry another convict, Thomas Jarvis. He had arrived in Van Diemen’s Land in 1833, transported for stealing a handkerchief from a clerk as he walked across London Bridge. For that Jarvis, who was then 19, had been given a sentence of transportation for life. When one sets this sentence against that meted out to Harriet Longley, we can, perhaps, recognise that mid-19th-century justice, while harsh in so many ways, had taken into account the dire straits in which that young woman had found herself. And had had some pity.

The granting of her pardon is the last glimpse I have of Harriet Longley. Now free, she fades once more into the past.I wish I could see for her a happy future.

The Female Convicts Research Centre, Inc is packed with interesting information about transported prisoners and Libraries Tasmania is a model provider of freely-accessible online records.


All the articles on Woman and Her Sphere and are my copyright. An article may not be reproduced in any medium without my permission and full acknowledgement. You are welcome to cite or quote from an article provided you give full acknowledgement.

, , , , , , , , , ,

  1. #1 by Sally Alexander on April 15, 2020 - 12:35 pm

    Thankyou for this vivid and moving post, if this is you Elizabeth. Gripping, as is the previous one on Cuff’s watercolour of the room in 7 Owens Row. Makes me see the room where I now sit, built in the 1850s by William Cubitt, a job lot, more clearly.

    Hope all is well,




    • #2 by womanandhersphere on April 15, 2020 - 2:29 pm

      Lovely to hear from you, Sally…and thank you for your kind words.
      Best wishes, Elizabeth

  2. #3 by jrkelly2013 on April 15, 2020 - 8:04 pm

    Elizabeth, I am marvelling at your online research skills and empathetic story telling. This is a most moving piece of research, beautifully written. I don’t think I’ll forget Harriet Longley’s story for a long time. James

    • #4 by womanandhersphere on April 16, 2020 - 11:00 am

      James – many thanks for your kind note. It is much appreciated.
      Best wishes, Elizabeth

  3. #5 by corrinestreetly on April 16, 2020 - 11:07 am

    Poor young Harriet, such a sad, predictable story.. As James, above, says, this is ‘a moving piece of research, and beautifully written.’
    Ever since I read Robert Hughes’s book The Fatal Shore I’ve had a real interest in early Australia; The Floating Brothel’ was good, too, by Sian Rees.

    • #6 by womanandhersphere on April 17, 2020 - 8:25 am

      Corinne – have you read Kate Grenville, The Secret River (fiction) and her The Search for the Secret River? Both are excellent. I read them both long before i discovered my tenuous Australian connection..and, like for you, an interest in early Australia was sparked. And many thanks for your message about Harriet.
      Best wishes, Elizabeth

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: