Judge brands back-street abortion woman "wicked and loathsome"

Historian Keith Johnson takes a look back at the case of a back-street abortion...

By The Newsroom
Friday, 20th October 2017, 12:59 pm
Updated Tuesday, 12th December 2017, 1:01 pm
The widow Holland spent some time in the Preston Union Workhouse
The widow Holland spent some time in the Preston Union Workhouse

In mid-May 1921 Mary Alice Holland, aged 53, a weaver of Hilton Street, Preston, appeared in the Preston police-court charged on remand with carrying out an illegal operation.

Ada Chesters, the wife of Ernest Chesters, of Herbert Street, Preston, was at the centre of the allegation.

The 30-year-old mother of three children claimed that she had called on the accused regarding her unwanted pregnancy and that she had promised to do something about it if she could find £3.

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Over the following weeks Mrs. Chesters claimed she had visited the accused seven times, the last visit being in late April when she gave the prisoner a further £5.

Two days later Mrs. Chesters was taken ill and confined to bed under the instructions of Dr. Eadie prior to having a miscarriage.

Det. Insp Kellett was called and gave evidence as to the arresting of Mrs. Holland, who was a widow, and her denial of ever knowing Mrs. Chesters. Although later she admitted that the woman had visited her asking her to assist in having a miscarriage.

Refusing to have anything to say in her defence, except to ask for legal assistance, the accused was then committed to stand trial at Lancaster Assizes.

In mid-June 1921 Mary Alice Holland pleaded not guilty before Mr. Justice Rigby Swift and the evidence was brought before the jury as from the previous hearing.

Mr. Jackson who defended the accused suggested that Mrs. Chester had quarrelled with the accused because she would not carry out her request and this had led to false accusations. When called to give evidence the accused repeated her denial regarding treatment and stated that she earned her living by doing crocheting work. The jury after a short retirement returned a guilty verdict.

His Lordship then told the court that at the Manchester Summer Assizes of 1911 the accused had been convicted of performing an illegal operation and sentenced to four years penal servitude.

She had been released in February 1913 on special licence due to ill health. For 18 months afterwards she was in the Preston Union Workhouse and then spent a short time employed as a weaver before trade became slack.

His Lordship then addressed the prisoner saying that she was a wicked woman, carrying on a loathsome, disreputable trade for some years.

Obviously your previous sentence does not seem to have deterred you, and you must go to penal servitude for four more years. As sentence was pronounced there were screams from the body of the court, and a middle aged woman was carried out in a swoon.

The problem of illegal operations to procure abortions was one that Mr. Justice Rigby Swift would constantly come across in the next decade. One such occasion was in February 1930 when three women from Oldham stood before him at the Manchester Assizes.

Sarah Woods a local barmaid was given a three-year prison sentence and her co-accused received lesser sentences. Once again there were women crying and shouting hysterically as sentence was passed and Wood fainted and had to be carried from the dock after hearing her fate.