Inquest of Elizabeth Howe at the Spinning House, Cambridge University’s private prison. 1846.

I don’t know if Cambridge University has ever formally apologised for the horrific conduct of its officials towards the women of Cambridge over the centuries – something that only came to an end in the 1890s because townfolk raised enough money to mount a legal challenge against the Vice Chancellor.

The inquest jury is quoted at the end of the article:

“The Jury cannot separate without expressing their abhorrence at a system which sanctions the apprehension of females when not offending against the general law of the land, and confining them in gaol unfit for the worst of felons. The Jury also request the Coroner forward a report of the whole the proceedings to the Secretary State for the Home Department.”

The Home Secretary did next to nothing with it – it would be almost half a century before new laws were passed clearly setting out the responsibilities between the borough council and the University of Cambridge.

461205 Spinning House Elizabeth Howe Inquest 1846

The original digitised article is in the British Newspaper Archive here (£requires subscription).



“On Thursday last, an inquest was held at The Old English Gentleman, before Mr. C. H. Cooper, coroner, on view of the body of Elisabeth Howe, an unfortunate girl, who had been living in Barnwell [the area where The Grafton Centre is]. There were 18 persons of the jury, and good deal of interest was excited in the town, in consequence it being understood that death resulted from the deceased having caught violent old Spinning-house, by being put into a damp bed. The Rev. Mr. [William Towler] Kingsley, of Sidney College, the Junior Proctor, was present during examination.

“The Jury having been sworn, the Coroner once commenced with the examination of Mr. Newby. surgeon, who stated that he was called in to attend the deceased on Wednesday last: her complaint was rheumatic fever, and she was unable to move her pulse was beating 120 minute ; she told him that she had been put in the Spinning House where she had slept in a damp bed; she stopped there, however, only one night, and was liberated in the morning; he considered the cause of her death to be rheumatic fever.

Edward Wilson, examined: I have recently kept the Spinning House Elizabeth Howe was never committed to my custody but once, which was on the evening of the 6th of November [1846], about half past eight; she was brought there by the Rev. Mr. Kingsley, one of proctors; the he other girl named King was brought with her; they were put in the same ward; they slept together; the beds are good lock beds, as good as any poor people could wish to lie upon ; they have three blankets and and no sheets; the bed room bolds but two ; if girls choose to lie separately, I accommodate them; the windows of room are cased with iron ; they are about 2ft 3in; in size, one the iron casements has a piece glass to admit light; the whole used be glass, but the girls break them, and now the window is sheet iron except square; half the window will open; this square was not broken the night the deceased came in: the room well protected from the weather; two girls named Green and Wright slept in the same bed on the 4th November, but I cannot say if it was occupied on the 5th; I saw deceased on the morning the 7th, about eight o’clock; she did not complain illness to me, but she did to my servant girl, and sbe ought to here; I want nothing but truth why my girl not here?

The Coroner: I am sorry to have to reprimand you; bat 1 would thank you to give your evidence without making a speech. Any witness you like you will have nu opportunity of bringing forward; for the inquiry will not terminate to-day ; and any explanation you may have to offer will be listened to.

Examination continued: The deceased complained to servant, Eliza Patten, of illness; I believed the deceased had breakfast, it was provided for her; she was discharged the same morning, after being taken before the Vice-Cbancellor, but I cannot recollect the exact time

“(The witness now produced the entries of the girl having been taken to the Spinning-house, of which the following extract is an extract)

“Elizabeth Howe, 19; parish of Fulbourn; father and mother live at Fulbourn ; sister is apprentice to Miss Canham, milliner; last situation at Miss Milner’s, Parkers Piece. Dates of former apprehensions May 12, 1844; Oct. 31, March 12, 1846; May 09 1846 ; Nov. 6, 1846; present residence, 7. Union-row ; charges, streetwalking; punishment, admonished and discharged, on promising to return Fulbourn – Witness: I have nothing further to state.

“By the Coroner : If it Is wet eight, there is generally a fire. I believe there was no fire in the night of the 6th of November. She had no refreshment that evening; she was tipsy; at least, she told my servant she was “lushy;” but she did not appear to me to be intoxicated.

By a Juryman: Sometimes the girls sit hour before a fire before they go to bed. In the same ward, that is an adjoining room, there is generally a fire; there bad been day or two before the rooms are boarded, and on the same floor.

“By The Coroner: I believe the 6th of November was very fine weather; they have sevenpence a-day each, with pint of beer, and soap extra; they are allowed to buy other food if they have money.

“By a Juror: I am acting both for Mr. Wright and the University. The mother the for the deceased wished to give her evidence, and to be allowed to carry the body away. She seemed a very respectable looking country woman, and was much affected.

“The Coroner said he would hear the evidence; the body might be buried, but the funeral must take place the town. She was then sworn, and gave evidence as follows:

“I am the mother of nine children; my husband is labourer ; I had a letter from my daughter to say she was ill; but what day it was I don’t know ; she was at home with me all summer; she came Cambridge month ago Monday (2nd November). She was ill times in the summer, with pains in the back and head; when she went to Cambridge she was pretty good health; I was quite pleased to see her so.”

“Coroner: You can have a warrant for burial, for Cambridge.

“Witness: My husband is anxious to see her before she is buried; and have her placed in the same churchyard, beside three others of our children.

“Coroner: Very well; 1 will adjourn the inquest till tomorrow evening, at six o’clock ; it will, no doubt, be terminated ; and then you can have the body.

“The Jury then adjourned to the Town Gaol [then on Gonville Place], to hear the evidence of Elisa Green, who was committed for disorderly conduct week ago, who was too ill to be removed. was committed to the Spinning-house on the 4th of November, and was confined there a week; was taken to the night-ward; does not know that the bed was damp ; but the ward was very cold; the next morning was taken before the Vice-Chancellor, and committed for week ; did not sleep the same room again, but in a top ward; had two blankets and rug; the beds were very good; very well before she went to the Spinning-house, but since came has here dangerously ill; was taken ill two days afterwards.

“The Jury then left the gaol examine the Spinning House. after which the inquiry was until six o’clock last evening.


“The Jury assembled this evening at six o’clock, in the Council Chamber, the Town-hall; Mr Cooper again acting as Coroner. There were several members of University present, on the Alderman’s Bench, as well as the Mayor and Ald Deighton; there were also many other persons n the body of the Court.

“Rev. Mr. Kingsley was first examined:

“I am one of the Proctors; I recollect apprehending Elizabeth Howe reverting to the book, not by memory she was apprehended in Hobson’s-street; she was not behaving disorderly or indecently: I apprehended her because the constables who were with me. knew her to be prostitute; was between 8 and 9 o’clock. I did not know she was a prostitute of my own knowledge ; she went quietly; I but partially acquainted with the internal arrangements of the Spinning House ; it appears to proper place confine females; I don’t know how females are accommodated in gaols.

“Coroner:  Have you instructions to your duties other than the statutes of the University?”

“Witness – I refuse to answer”

“Coroner: You must. Sir; I have a duty to perform which, Judge of this Court. I will perform –

“Witness: I have so other instructions ; I have never read the charter of Queen Elizabeth, giving the University power to apprehend disorderly persons; the  deceased was reprimanded the next morning and discharged ; the deceased came quietly I recommended her discharge to the Vice-Chancellor ; one other girl with her, who did not go orderly ; there were no other members of the University in their  company when we apprehended them

By a Juror: I am not certain that I have seen the ietenor of the cell; I believe I was in a few days ago; I merely deliver her to the keeper; the glass was broken the last time I saw the cell; I believe the University have power to cause the apprehension of prostitute in the street, although they may not be misconducting themselves.

“Eliza Wright, who was very ill, said : I live at 33. Union-row, I was in the Spinning-house on the fifth of November; I was taken the fourth; I was locked up in a small cell, where there are only two bed-rooms; I was myself; the bed was not made; could not see to make it; so I laid down with my clothes on ; the bed clothes were very damp; they consisted of three blankets and 1 quilt; I was not ill when was taken to the Spinning, house; but when I was there I was taken ill, with a bad cold and pain in my bones;

“Eliza Green was brought in tie Spinning-house when I was there; we both asked Willson for fire, said he would not have fire for two girls; I knew Elizabeth Howe; I saw her the morning she came out of the Spinning house; she looked cold and put her hands to her chest if she were ill. I saw her afterwards at the house where she was lodging; but she was not sensible then

“The breakfast for Green and me was half a quartern loaf, and 2d. of butter; we complained of the of the butter; had no drink; we gave 4d. for the loaf, the food is supplied by Willson: the two penny of butter was just the size we get for penny out the house; there was pane in the window when we slept there. there was no utensil in the bed-room ; there were no chairs or a table. I am very unwell now, and have been ever since left the house.

“Alice Walsh: I was committed to the Spinning House in November; I was there the on the 6th and 7th; I saw Elizabeth Howe when she came in and when she went out.

“When she went out she complained of a dreadful cold; she did not complain the previous night; my bed was very damp when I went there; when I was taken to the house I had not a dry thread about me; they gave me no dry clothes; nor was there a fire in the ward since the beginning of term; we have 2d starved of 6d a day, the girls sometimes break the window of the bedroom.

“By a juror; I revisited when I was taken and I was eventually taken in a state of insensibility; when I was being conveyed in the street they poured water on to me to recover me, thus I became wet; the proctor ordered the keeper to have a dire for me and to give me something warm, but it was not done; the girls afterwards told me this order was given but I being insensible did not hear it.

“I am liable to fire when much excited; two prisoners were with me that night; I complained yesterday that the bed clothes were damp, but the keeper said it was impossible. I am sure they were damp.

“Harriet King: I live in No.11 Union Row; I recollect Mr Kingsley taking me, and also Elizabeth Howe being taken to the Spinning House on the 6th November, we were taken in Hobson’s Street; were locked up together in the same cell; we had a candle; there was no fire; there was a night commode; there were three blankets and a rug; the bed was very cold and after we had been in bed a little while we felt it more; the window was open too, and the candle having been taken away we could not fasten it; it fastens outside; I caught a dreadful cold and was ill a week in the Spinning House. I am quite positive the deceased had no breakfast before she was discharged; she went about ten in the morning; I was committed for a week; I saw her when I came out; I did not complain to the keeper of the bed clothes being damp; it would have been no use; he would not have cared; that’s why I did not.

“By a juror: “We were not intoxicated when we were taken; the deceased never drank to excess.

“Mary Ann Rose: I live in Union-row Elizabeth Howe lodged with me she came to my house about the 2nd of November she appeared very well; I saw her on the 6th; she was quite well ;I saw her the 7th, when she came out of Spinning-house; she was very pleased to get out, but complained of being ill all over; she had been very cold all night, and believed the bed was damp; she complained the most when she was near the fire; as she continued ill, I fetched the doctor for her, Tuesday, the 17th, as she was getting worse; she never left my house after she came away from the Spinning-house.

“By a Juror : When she lay ill she bitterly complained of the cold she caught at the Spinning-house; she had lived with me before this time for two years, except the Summer-time ; I never knew her to be ill a day; she was a sober well-behaved girl, and of a delicate constitution.

“By the Coroner: I am quite certain she was good health when she left my house the 6th. [An error in attribution of the quotation?]

“Emma Boreham : I live at No. 7 Union-row I was in the Spinning-house the night Elizabeth Howe was there; I went into her bed after she left; Harriett King slept with me; I slept there 10 nights and broke out. I suffered from cold caught from the dampness of the bed; I did not complain to the keeper, for I thought it of no use ; the night I was taken I complained of thirst; I was very thirsty called for drink two hours, and the master told the next morning that if had been dying for a drink I should not have it; I caught a severe cold there, and have not got rid of it yet.

“By a Juror: The beds are very short; I short, and they are not long enough for me.

“By a Juror: Did you ever ask the keeper a favour ?


“Then how do you know it would have been of use to tell of the dampness

“Because if he would not give me a little water, it is not very likely would attend to other complaints.

“Eliza Patten: I am servant to Mr. Willson, at the Spinning-house; I saw Elizabeth Howe brought to the Spinning House; I said,

“Betsy, how do you do?”

She said, “Quite well, thank you, only I have a bad cold;

“I knew she had been ill at home all summer; told my master that night of this conversation.

“Coroner: Well, Mr. Willson, this witness does not improve your case.

“Mr. Willson : I not recollect that she did it was the next morning.

Witness : Yes ; it was the next morning.

Coroner : Take care, young woman, or I shall not believe you. say she was ill all summer; we have different testimony from her mother. Well, I will take you say you did not tell your master that night. Now, why didn’t you? you knew she had been ill all the summer, and yet you did not tell your master. Was she drunk?

“Witness : She told that she was lushy ; I believe site was drunk.

“Coroner: The Proctor says she was  sober, your master says she was sober. Now, what you believe?

“Girl: believe she was sober; You are, I afraid, a very bad girl

“Willson: I never caught her in a lie life ; I have lived this town 55 years, and nothing can brought against me! Now ask the girl as to the beds!

“Witness: I am convinced the beds are not damp. Howe was very hoarse when she came; she came from the same place that I do; I make the beds sometimes; I never observed that the beds were damp; I often take a pan of coals and warm them ; I have had no conversation with my master upon this subject.

“Mr Willson: Yesterday Mr: Campion told he did not believe me on my oath. If had been ten younger,

“Coroner: Well, well, never mind about that. If you have any statement to make you can so.”

“Willson then described how girls were brought by the Proctors, and reiterated that he did not know that Elizabeth Howe was ill when she came. then said the Doctor, of Fulbourn, would prove

“Coroner: You bring the Doctor from Fulbourn here we will hear him.

“Willson: I believe the girl was sober.

“Coroner: It is quite immaterial whether she was or not. If she were, the more care ought to have been taken of her.

“Emma Osborne: I was the Spinning-house three week, in November; I was there when Elizabeth Howe was brought in, but not in the same cell. I suffered great deal from cold, when I came out thought I should have lost the use of limbs; the first night there was convenience in the room; when Elizabeth Howe was brought in, I said to Mr Willson who it it? He said Elizabeth Howe; my servant knows her, but she (Howe) turns head away and won’t speak her; \

“The night before she died, I was sent to Mr. Lyon’s for some medicine for her; I was going from then to Mr. Newby to tell him that Elizabeth was worse, when was stopped by a Proctor; I told him what my errand was, but did not believe me, and bade me go home; I offered to satisfy him if liked go with me; I wish complain of the treatment we experience at the Spinning-house; potatoes are not fit to eat.

“Coroner: Potatoes are generally bad.

“Witnness: never have tea; can’t afford it for half the time we live on dry bread. We are allowed a pint of small beer, but it stinks sometimes; can buy thing* if we have money, but few girls have the good fortune to go in the Spinning-house with money

“Eliza Cook; I was taken to the Spinning-house three weeks ago, by Mr. Kingsley; I was put in cell next where Elizabeth Howe slept; the bed was very damp; I caught a bad cold and cough, in consequence sleeping there was ill when I went in, but much worse when I came out; I was committed for a fortnight, but being very ill, went in again ; the Proctor told me that the room had been ventilated ; I saw Elizabeth Howe come out of the Spinning-house ; she told she was so ill she did not know what to do; she believed she had been sleeping in a damp bed.

“Coroner : Gentlemen of the Jury, you examined the bed at the Spinning-house yesterday, one you can give evidence upon the state in which you found them.

“Mr. Branton (a Juryman):

  • We examined the two beds;
  • they were very damp;
  • we only found two blankets and rug;
  • the rug was not so damp as the blankets;
  • the beds were not long as the mattresses by two feet;
  • there was no glasses in the windows in any of the cells;
  • the windows are blocked in iron shutters, with a little squire left in the middle, in neither of which was glass;
  • we also found the iron shutters where are did not fit close, that a great draught is admitted which comes directly on the head of bed ;
  • we considered the walls of the cells damp;
  • asked the keeper how long the glass had been out of the windows; he said six eight days;
  • the rooms were tolerably clean.

“Mr. Willson: When I went there first there were only two blankets allowed ; thought that not sufficient and applied for extra one, which was granted. When some of the beds are not occupied I let them have an extra blanket and counterpane.

“The Coroner called the attention of the jury to the evidence, observing that they would have to say, first whether they were satisfied that death had’ resulted from exposure the weather whilst confined in the Spinning-house ; and secondly if they were so satisfied, whether any party was criminally culpable.

“Although several things had come out in the course the inquiry which had induced them think that Willson, the keeper, was not kind and humane as could be wished to the unfortunate creatures under his charge, yet it was but fair to him to bear in mind that the cold which the deceased suffered was in some degree caused by the shutter being open all night. It did not appear that Willson knew this.

Had it so appeared, he (the Coroner) had no hesitation in saying that the case against him would have assumed a very serious aspect. The circumstances under which deceased was apprehended were these : ”She was, beyond all doubt, a person coming within the description of common prostitute; but appeared distinctly, that at the time she was apprehended she was not conducting herself disorderly or indecently.

“As regards prostitutes misconducting themselves, the Legislature had provided that they should be deemed idle and disorderly persons, and punishable such under the Vagrant Act; but the University officers claimed the extraordinary power of apprehending without warrant any prostitute whatever found within the town or precincts Cambridge.

“Mr. Kingsley stated that he believed the University officers had the power do this but referred to no authority, and stated it only matter of opinion. This power was really claimed under Charter of Queen Elizabeth, granted to the University in 1561, by which she empowered the Masters, and Scholars, by themselves or their deputies, officers, servants, and ministers, from time to time, well by day as by nighty at their pleasure, to make scrutiny, search, and inquisition in the town and suburbs, and Barnwell and Sturbridge, for all commenwomen, bawds, vagabonds, and other suspected persons coming or resorting to the town and suburbs, the said lairs, and punish-all whom on such scrutiny, search, and inquisition, they should find guilty or suspected of evil, by imprisonment of their bodies, banishment, or otherwise, as the Chancellor or his vicegerent should deem fit.

“This grant was clearly bad of common law, but ten years afterwards the University claimed an Act of Parliament which it was confirmed in most ample manner; and effect, the Charter became an Act of Parliament. Large the power granted was, (the Coroner) had great doubts if its powers were ample enough justify an arrest without warrant; but still looking the practice which had prevailed for many years, he was not prepared to charge the jury that point of law the arrest of the deceased was clearly illegal. If it were, it would involve Mr. Kingsley in charge of manslaughter, inasmuch it would a violation of the liberty of the subject and the law was, that if death resulted, though unavoidably from a trespass, the trespasser was guilty of manslaughter.

“It would, however, be most inconvenient that question to the construction of a doubtful charter should be raised in such manner. was averse to stretching to criminal law in cases where there was no culpable intent, and if the relatives of the deceased thought proper, the question might be raised, under an Act of Parliament passed last session, under which action could brought, for wrongful act, although the party wronged died; and, although such wrongful act amounted in law to a felony, he sincerely hoped that what he stated would induce the officers of the University to take the opinion of their able and learned legal advisers as to the construction the charter in question, and as a well-wisher to the University, should be rejoiced to find that the result of this inquiry was the abandonment of a practice which was most repugnant the spirit of freedom, which formed the boast of modern times, and which he firmly believed was in degree necessary for the preservation of peace and good order.

“Indeed, its exercise was constantly causing outrage, riot, and bad feeling. The discipline of University could be amply preserved the provisions of the Vagrant Act, to which he had alluded.

The Coroner then referred to the place which the deceased had been confined. That place was notoriously improper for the confinement of women, and the evidence adduced fully shewed the miseries to which the poor creatures who were committed there were subjected. They must be sent to prison, why could not they be sent to the Town or County Gaols, which were under the care of the most humane men, and under the constant inspection and supervision of the Magistracy.

“By the University Charter of Elizabeth, they had power commit delinquents to either of these prisons. One irregularity of a very gross character had appeared in the course of the inquiry, to which be must particularly allude. It appeared that the keeper was allowed to sell provisions, although this was expressly prohibited by the 6th Geo the 4th cap 64 [Reference to legislation under George IV]

“The Spinning-house was in short a pest and a nuisance, which imperatively called for immediate abatement. This was strong language, but used it advisedly and without reference the circumstance that it was originally built for a far different purpose. If Thomas Hobson, the benevolent individual who founded this house endowed it, for purpose of doing good to the University and Town, could rise from I his grave. he would shrink with horror at finding that his well-intentioned foundation was perverted to the purposes which had been disclosed in evidence.

“If the result of this inquiry should call the attention the of the University to the scenes of misery be found in an establishment under the care of its officers, much good would be effected,

“The law was, that if a gaoler so far ill treated his prisoner that death ensued, it would murder or manslaughter, according the circumstances and according: the degree of duress used ; but looking at all the circumstances of the case, he could hardly think i that they would justified in returning a verdict which would affect Willson.

“The fault appeared to him rather in the system than in the individual. Those who died in gaols were under the especial protection of the law, and in all such cases an inquest was indispensably necessary from whatever cause death might have arisen

“So in all cases which it was suggested that the cause of death was to be traced to confinement in prison, an inquest appeared to him to be called for. He felt satisfied  that the jury would give the case their impartial and cool consideration, with no bias against any party, but with a determination not shield any party, he whom might, whom in their judgment they might think culpable.

“He had been induced to make the enquiries which led to the inquest, in consequence of representations made to him by a member of the University, who had desired that his name might not disclosed, but whose information upon further enquiry, proved to be substantially correct.


We find that Elizabeth Howe died Rheumatic Fever, caused by a violent cold caught at the Spinning-house, on the night of the 6th of November 1846, she having keen conveyed thither in the custody William Towler Kingsley, Proctor of University, and confined for that night in a cold and damp cell, from the effects of which she died.

“The Jury cannot separate without expressing their abhorrence at a system which sanctions the apprehension of females when not offending against the general law of the land, and confining them in gaol unfit for the worst of felons. The Jury also request the Coroner forward a report of the whole of the proceedings to the Secretary State for the Home Department.”

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