In 1888, Dorcas Carr was described as ‘a woman of ill fame’ by The Cambrian newspaper. In a time when it was thought that a woman’s name should only appear in print at her birth, marriage and death, it was nevertheless her visible and recorded notoriety which allows us periodic glimpses into her life. Indeed, over the last few years I have both searched for and stumbled upon numerous allusions to Dorcas Carr in various sources.
Our first encounter was in the 1891 census for Swansea Gaol, in which I was surprised to find so many women prisoners. Several of them, including Dorcas, were described as ‘Pros’, and this first acquaintance ignited my interest and subsequent research of Victorian prostitution. Dorcas was not a stranger to the gaol, in 1887, she had been imprisoned for short periods, generally for being drunk and disorderly, in August, twice in September, in October and December.
Dorcas was also waiting for me when I began researching the Cwmdonkin Shelter, which was a rescue home for ‘fallen girls’ and had been established in Swansea since 1887. She did not fit the received profile of a woman who would be welcomed into many institutions, she was a widow and not a young girl, the 1891 census gave her age at 32, and it is likely she had shaved a couple of years off. Although, when she was first mentioned in the Cwmdonkin Shelter Minute Book, she appeared unwilling to enter the home, three months later the minutes report her being sent from the Shelter to London, probably to a larger ‘rescue’ establishment.
It is unclear how long she remained in London, but she returned to Swansea within six months as she was imprisoned again for indecent behaviour the following December. Despite numerous incarcerations over the next three years, Dorcas was admitted for a final time to the Shelter in 1891, when the minutes record her as being sent to an ‘inebriate home’.
The inebriate home did not appear to hold her for long as she was again gaoled in Swansea on two occasions in 1892 for ‘indecent behaviour’ and ‘disorderly’. In May 1893, she appears to claim she has married as she is recorded in the Prison Register as ‘Dorcas Smith, alias Carr’, and her occupation is no longer listed as ‘pros’ but instead, ‘married’. There is, however, no record of any marriage in the index of marriages between 1891 and 1893.
There is no doubt that the life of Dorcas Carr was hard and one of makeshifts and struggles with poverty and alcoholism. But why her inclusion in ‘Workhouse Tales’? On 19 April 1911, Dorcas died in Swansea Workhouse, one cause of her death being syphilis. She was buried in a pauper’s grave in Danygraig Cemetery on 25 April 1911.
In 2011, on the one hundredth anniversary of Dorcas’ burial which fell on a beautiful, sunny Easter Monday, myself and Elizabeth Belcham from West Glamorgan Archives Service went to pay our respects. As you can see from the photo above, her ‘grave’ is just an expanse of grass which had been marked for us to find by the cemetery authorities. So, I will remember her as an ordinary working-class woman who did what she could to survive. I certainly do not consider her life (and death) to be of no importance. Rest easy Dorcas.
Cwmdonkin Shelter documents are available in Swansea University Richard Burton Archives, Swansea Museum and Swansea Central Library. The work of the Shelter and especially the women of the Ladies’ Committee will be explored in a future post