In the Victorian-era life was bleak and times were hard. Men, women and children were dying in the streets and many took to petty crimes, not only because they needed to steal to survive, but several nights in jail meant a roof over their head and a meal in their bellies.

Though jails were typically overcrowded and overrun with disease, with prisoners forced to perform labor intensive and menial tasks throughout the day, having a place to stay, food to eat and the prospect of dying in a bed, rather than on the streets, seemed like a better option for some of the most rundown prisoners.

Thanks to the Tyne & Wear Museum and Archive’s flicker account, these mugshots from the Newcastle Gaol and House of Correction offer us a glimpse into the life of the working class. All of these portraits dated between 1871 and 1873 are like something out of a Charles Dickens novel and all of them have a story.



Children were no exception to the laws back then, and many of the portraits are of young teens serving adult sentences for their crimes. Take 14-year-old Mary Catherine Docherty for instance. According to the caption “[She] was sentenced to 7 days hard labour after being convicted of stealing iron along with her accomplices: Mary Hinnigan, Ellen Woodman and Rosanna Watson.”



Then there’s Ann Burns. Her sad eyes and weary demeanor show us a girl who had lived much longer than the 18 years stated on her photo caption by the time of her arrest. Ann was sentenced to serve one month in jail after stealing a waistcoat.



It was not only the very young who had to turn to stealing in order to survive the harsh conditions of the era. This is Isabelle Smith. At 60-years-old she had been accused of stealing poultry.

Meat was a scarcity for poor and working class families, and for anyone who was unable to enter into the workforce or didn’t come from a family with a bit of money, it was even rarer still. Many families survived on tea, bread, broth and vegetables, which weren’t necessarily fresh. Children especially failed to thrive on this meager diet and often succumbed to starvation and disease before reaching the age of 5.



“This is William Harrison. He was born in Durham and worked as a porter. He was convicted of obtaining oats by false pretence.”

Harrison received a year in prison for pulling some sort of con in order to obtain food, in his case oats. Similar to butlers, porters were servants responsible for determining who was and wasn’t allowed into a home or who the family he served under would receive letters from. If his master was generous, then Harrison could eat well in such a position, but most likely he was paid very little. In spite of their meager wages, porters often took pride in their work. It was considered a more prestigious job for the working class in Victorian-era society and a position often reserved for older, married gentlemen who had prior experience working in the service industry.



Hawkers were another important staple of working class Victorian society. Hawkers were typically young female street vendors who walked around with baskets of various goods. These goods could include cat meat, handmade clothing, or other small items.

While the job did allow the women and their families to eat that day, there was often very little money left over and some would resort to stealing in order to account for their income gap.

This was the case with 18-year-old hawker Alice Mullholland, who was sentenced to serve three months at Newcastle City Gaol for stealing a pair of boots. It should also be noted that aside from money, food and clothing were the most commonly stolen items.

Mugshots, such as the ones generously provided online by Tyne & Wear, offer us a glimpse into a society that we’ve only ever read about in books. Often those stories focus on only the wealthiest of families, while providing little to no information on families struggling to survive, aside from a few fictional classics like Oliver Twist. It presents to us a time in which hard work allowed very few to get ahead, and if you were lucky, you may have lived to see 60 years of age.