The remarkable life of Fagin-like runner of house of ill-repute “Lady” Barton

The remarkable life of Fagin-like runner of house of ill-repute “Lady” Barton

By Gareth Dennison | 28/08/2020

The remarkable life of Fagin-like runner of house of ill-repute “Lady” Barton


NOTORIOUS brothel owner Maria Barton was known as Lady — even in news reports of her many appearances before Rotherham’s courts.

It is a mystery how she came to be called by the title but she became well known across town and something of a nemesis to chief constable John Bland.

In the 19th century it was common for people to be hauled before magistrates accused of keeping “houses of ill-fame” or “disorderly houses”.

These places, usually in the more disreputable parts of towns and cities, also held lodgers — and the attention of the Victorian-era police.

Lady Barton’s was at Millgate, just east of where the tranquil Minster Gardens lies today.

She was first mentioned in the press in January 1839, charged with being the keeper of a “house of ill-fame”.

This was dropped when she promised to leave town — a regular outcome in such cases — but her absence from Rotherham was short-lived. She resumed her lifestyle — becoming a sort of female Fagin figure to young criminals and continuing to flout the laws.

January 1845 saw Lady Barton back in court on the same charge as before. Chief Con Bland gave evidence, saying he had known the defendant for a decade.

She had “kept a house of the most disorderly and dissolute character” for most of those ten years, the top cop added.

And he was elated when she was sentenced to 12 months in prison with hard labour.

He was delighted when he saw the following month’s crime figures. He saw that incidents related to brothels and lodging houses were way down — and said: “The greatest receptacle in the town for such purposes had been broken up, and the keeper Maria Barton had been prosecuted and convicted.”

Three years later and Lady Barton was back causing problems for the legal authorities.

She was back before the courthouse at College Square on August 21, 1848, this time charged with selling ale without a licence from the Millgate dwelling.

Lodger Robert Winter told the hearing that he had asked for a pint the day after sleeping at Lady Barton’s premises.

She went upstairs to fetch him the drink — when PC Hudson arrived, looking for two prostitutes.

Other lodgers were called by defence counsel Mr Whitfield to argue that Lady Barton’s barrel was kept in her bedroom for her own consumption. The case was dismissed.

Frequent stories of this kind added to her infamy but the big one was in May 1850 when the press covered “The Trial of Lady Barton” — the first time they had used her adopted title.

This case involved the receipt of stolen goods — namely, one smock frock which she bought for 3d from youngsters Henry Jones and John Faulkner, who said they had found the garment at a Doncaster farm.

The transaction took place in the presence of 36-year-old Charles Shirtcliffe, who lived with Lady Barton and is described as her “protector”.

The smock was reported stolen by William Shepherd and police soon learned that it had been seen hanging on the washing line at a familiar address on Millgate.

The case for the defence was not helped by the fact that Shirtcliffe had stitched several of the smock’s buttons to his trousers.

All four defendants went to trial at the Rotherham Quarter Sessions, with Jones agreeing to be a witness for the prosecution.

During proceedings, the house on Millgate was called “notorious for the frequency with which its occupants have figured before the Rotherham magistrates”.

The court was crowded and there was difficulty selecting a jury because so many people knew of Lady Barton’s reputation.

Her defence solicitor, Mr Overend, defiantly referred to his client as “this respectable woman” — to much laughter from the court’s public gallery.

His efforts were in vain and the jury quickly found Lady Barton guilty.

The chairman of the bench told the prisoners: “We look upon every receiver of stolen goods as worse than the thief, and that if it were not for them, young travelling thieves such as Faulkner and Jones would not have the same temptation to commit the crimes they did.”

The court sentenced Shirtcliffe to be kept to hard labour for 12 months and Lady Barton received six months with hard labour.

Faulkner, who had previous charges, was given seven years transportation — the relocation of convicted criminals to distant places or penal colonies. Jones got just three months’ imprisonment with hard labour thanks to his giving evidence against the others.

There was a blaze at the Millgate house the following summer, allegedly started by the child of some lodgers who set fire to wood shavings.

Lady Barton’s son-in-law James Heppenstall was stabbed in the forehead at the house — called “a den of profligacy and infamy” in the papers — a couple of months later in August 1851.

He said he had been watching a riot from the door of the property. Patrick Masterman was arrested and sentenced to ten years’ transportation.

Chief Con Bland returned in 1852, continuing his vendetta against Lady Barton. He had her back before court after finding 15 people in the lodging house, when it was only registered for ten. Lady Barton was fined 40s and costs.

After being done for the same overcrowding offence twice in 1853, she decided to leave town — moving to Whiston and renting a second premises.

Chief Con Bland visited the new dwelling in 1855 and found problems with its registration, so back to court they went.

Magistrate Mr J Fullerton asked Lady Barton if she had any comment. She told him that if the bench did not wish her to keep lodgers, then she would be without.

Lady Barton was fined — just 40s of a possible £10 — and then never heard of again.

Local history author Margaret Drinkall said: “Whatever fate befell her, there would be little doubt that if she had come to the end of her life, the police authorities and magistrates of Rotherham would have breathed a great sigh of relief.”

* THIS feature was adapted from a chapter in Margaret Drinkall’s The Lockdown Book of Rotherham’s Criminals. There are three volumes currently available, with proceeds going to the NHS in Rotherham.

The books are available on Amazon as paperbacks or Kindle downloads.