In November of 1903, Louisa Davis had just finished serving a one-month sentence in Wollongong Gaol, when the Bench ordered her to leave town within one week.[i] This wasn’t Louisa’s first incarceration, nor was it her second, in fact Louisa was Wollongong Gaol’s most frequent female prisoner, being locked up about sixty times.[ii] Her first recorded imprisonment was 1879 for drunkenness and vagrancy, however this was not the first time that she had been in trouble with the law.
Louisa was born on the 24th December 1845,[iii] in Wollongong, to Henry and Mary (nee Creighton) Davis. At the age of 26, Louisa gave birth to her daughter Alice Jane[iv] but had to take the father, William Stafford to court in order to receive financial support. William acknowledged that he was the father and agreed to pay 2s 6d per week for a period of one year.[v]
In 1876 Louisa was involved in two publicised altercations with Bridget Burns who was her neighbour in Market Street. Both women were in court charged with using obscenities and disturbing the peace. Louisa had called Bridget a “dirty trollop” and Bridget responded by calling Louisa a “dirty slut with a bastard child”.[vi] A couple of months later Louisa was charged with “boxing Bridget’s son’s ears” and using language that was not becoming of a lady! Louisa paid her fines and Bridget’s charges were dropped.[vii]
In 1879 it was reported that John Kennedy raped Louisa. Whether this was the impetus that caused the escalation of her alcohol abuse is purely speculative but her life definitely worsened after this time. Louisa’s character was a major factor in determining the outcome of the subsequent court case. Kennedy’s lawyer argued ‘that the woman had an unenviable character and it was urged for the defense that in the present instance she was a consenting party’. Even the judge was of the opinion that ‘evidence of character was always considered an important element in such a case’, however he did reiterate that the law protected women from violence regardless of her ‘bad character’.[viii] She never stood a chance. John Kennedy was found “not guilty” and all charges against him were dropped.
Women who drank, or were drunk in public, were generally classified as working class, and were considered the most morally and socially degraded in society, as they did not fit the mold of how a wife and mother was expected to be. This is not to say that women from middle to upper classes did not drink, they just concealed it within the home. There was little empathy for women who drank in public and often there was the mentality that they ‘got what they deserved’.[ix] This is apparent in some of Louisa’s court proceedings, particularly in relation to her rape case. Gender differences played a major role in how men and women were viewed in relation to their alcoholism. Men were often perceived as societal nuisances, whereby women were often seen as depraved;[x] a threat to not only to herself, but also to the civility of Wollongong’s developing society. Unfortunately, for women like Louisa, they often did not have a home in which to conceal their drinking, therefore their drinking habits were played out publicly.
Drunkenness and vagrancy sent Louisa back to Gaol in September of 1879 and she served two separate sentences of 1 and 2 months concurrently, with hard labour. It was at this time that her daughter Alice was made a ward of the state as Louisa was seen as unfit to look after her. In this instance, there was no immediate placement for Alice, so she was locked up in Wollongong Gaol alongside her mother.[xi] She was nine years old.
Letters were sent to the Colonial Secretary’s Office to try and find somewhere for Alice to live. The Benevolent Society requested her admittance in the Protestant Orphan School in Parramatta, however this request was declined. Whether this is because her mother was alive, is not known. The Matron replied that it was not customary for a child ‘situated as she is’, to be accepted into her school, therefore she should be sent to the Asylum for Destitute Children at Randwick.[xii] Records show that Alice was eventually admitted to Biloela Reformatory and Industrial School on Cockatoo Island. This ‘school’ took in girls who were neglected, or had committed crimes. Interestingly this record states that Alice was admitted because her mother was a “common prostitute”,[xiii] however in all of Louisa’s many gaol admissions, she was never once charged with prostitution.
Gaol sentences of one week, one month, with or without hard labour, were commonplace in Louisa’s life. She spent more time incarcerated than free, and often reentered prison just days after being released. In 1882 she was evicted from her house but refused to move. Ironically after the landlord got her out, she was sent to gaol again for having no fixed abode.[xiv]
In 1883 she was in service to Mrs. Cheadle, whose husband ran the Cricketers Arms Hotel. She had received her 8s weekly wage, decided to do a bit of shopping and have a drink, then returned to work ‘tipsy’. She was fired because her shopping and drinking expedition had happened during work hours and Mrs. Cheadle was not amused by her behaviour. Louisa retaliated by stealing Mrs. Cheadle’s ‘reticule’, or purse, as we know it today, along with all the money in it. Louisa was caught red-handed holding the purse and Mrs. Cheadle ordered her off the premises. She may have avoided the police becoming involved if she had left the grounds as asked, but Louisa became loudmouthed and abusive, therefore she was arrested. Bail was allowed, forty pounds and two sureties of twenty pounds each, but Louisa had no money so she was taken into custody, serving fifteen months.[xv]
Much of Louisa’s life in the ensuing years was one of alcohol abuse, ranting drunken obscenities and homelessness. She often received harsh penalties for crimes that might seem somewhat insignificant in modern terms. Two, three, or six months hard labour for drunkenness, or weeks on end for having no visible means of support, it would have been a tough life for her. In 1894, Louisa cut flowers from the garden of the Commercial Bank to make up a ‘substantial bouquet’ that she could exchange for a glass of beer in the Cricketers Arms Hotel. After she was charged she told police that she had no recollection of the deed but she was gaoled for two months anyway.[xvii]
As previously stated, Louisa’s life followed a pattern of drunkenness and gaol and perhaps the final straw for the Wollongong community came in 1903, when Louisa walked into St. Michael’s during divine service, intoxicated. This would have been incredibly intrusive and unacceptable to the church going community, and they wanted her gone. Rev. G. Darcy made the suggestion that there should be a ‘prohibition issued restraining the local publicans from serving Louisa’. Senior Sergeant Banks agreed but said it wasn’t necessary as she was leaving town, but if she didn’t, he would take those suggestions onboard. It was stated that sadly, Louisa had no family or friends to take care of her, so she was going back to prison if she did not leave Wollongong.[xviii]
She did leave town, although it took six months, two more gaol terms and an assault by a man called John Skarratt (who was subsequently fined one pound for his actions)[xx] when she moved to Moss Vale and then Goulburn. You can probably guess that not much changed in Louisa’s life and she was further gaoled for the same reasons.
In 1908 and 1909 Louisa was sent to Biloela, to serve with hard labour, as she had no visible means of support. She was sixty-three years old. Nonetheless this was still not the end of her institutionalisation.[xxi]
By the late nineteenth, early twentieth century, a few homes to ‘cure’ female alcoholics were opening within New South Wales. The Home for Female Inebriates at Paddington, Sydney, was seen as a ‘courageous and meritorious undertaking’ in curing drunk women. Yet the description of this ‘mansion’, in a ‘respectable neighbourhood’, where women participated in domestic duties such as sewing and baking, certainly had a standard of woman in mind that they were willing to help. The advertising of activities and leisure reinforces the impression that a woman of Louisa’s ‘calibre’ would not only find the cost unaffordable, but her ‘class’ of woman would not be acceptable or welcome.[xxii] Therefore her ‘cure’ was Long Bay Gaol.[xxiii]
It is unknown how long Louisa stayed in Long Bay before being transferred the State Hospital and Asylum, Newington but it is here that Louisa Davis’ story ends with her death, from Pernicious Anaemia, (Vitamin B12 deficiency) on the 4th October 1915.[xxiv] There are no family members, apart from her parents names, listed on her death certificate, so it is unknown if Louisa and Alice ever reconnected after their separation. It states she never married, was sixty-nine years old and was interred at Rookwood Cemetery.
[i] Illawarra Mercury, 25 Nov. 1903, p.2.
[ii] SRNSW: Entrance books Wollongong Gaol (1866-1898), NRS2590, (5/1628-29), SR Reel 2378.
[iii] NSWBDM, Birth, V1845/ 2986 31A.
[iv] NSWBDM, Birth, 9474/1871. Louisa may have also had a son Charles Henry, born on 1875 (21855/1875) who died in 1877. (9629/1877).
[v] Illawarra Mercury, 29 Aug. 1871.
[vi] Illawarra Mercury, 19 May 1876, p.2.
[vii] Illawarra Mercury, 31 Oct. 1876, p.2.
[viii] SMH, 15 May 1879, p.7.
[ix] Julia Skelly, p.2
[x] Julia Skelly, p.5
[xi] SRNSW: Entrance books Wollongong Gaol (1866-1898), NRS2590, (5/1628-29), SR Reel 2378.
[xii] Letter relating to Alice Jane Davis’ Institutionalisation: SRNSW: Colonial Secretary Correspondence, Index to Letters sent. Letter 79/7538 Shelf 1/2455.
[xiii] Alice Jane Davis, Biloela Admittance. SRNSW: Registers of Warrants Received (1867-1942); NRS14722, (5/4857) SR Reel 3850, No. 447.
[xiv] Illawarra Mercury, 19 May 1882, p.2.
[xv] Illawarra Mercury, 3 Apr. 1883, p.2.
[xvi] Cricketers Arms Hotel. Year Unknown, Wollongong City Library.
[xvii] Illawarra Mercury, 31 Mar. 1894, p.3.
[xviii] Illawarra Mercury, 7 Mar. 1903, p.2.
[xix] Market Street, 1880, Wollongong City Library, Illawarra Images, Image Number P13/13971.
[xx] Illawarra Mercury, 25 Nov. 1903, p.2.
[xxi] SRNSW: Entrance and Description Book Biloela Gaol, (1896-1909), NRS2025, (5/1411-17).
[xxii] Illustrated Sydney News, 6 May 1893, p.14
[xxiii] SRNSW: State Reformatory for Women, Long Bay: Photographic Description Books, (1910-1930); NRS2496, (3/6004-05), Reel 5140, pp.29-30.
[xxiv] NSWBDM Death, 19049/1915
23 SRNSW: State Reformatory for Women, Long Bay: Photographic Description Books, (1910-1930); NRS2496, (3/6004-05), Reel 5140, p.2