The Sad End of Mary Broadbent

In my conference presentation at the Berks and again in my post on Criminally Wicked Stepmothers, I made mention of the case of Mary Broadbent. At about ten years of age in 1726, Mary was charged by her own father with theft, all with the hearty agreement of Mary’s stepmother. The court case revealed that the senior Broadbents were fabricating evidence against Mary and other neighbour women, simply hoping, in the words of Mary’s uncle, Mr. Hudson, (Broadbent’s brother-in-law):

The Child has met with such cruel Usage from the Prosecutor and his Wife, that she would run to any of the Neighbours for Succour. I was coming down one Morning, and found her upon my Stairs, where I understood, that she had lain all Night; for I being a Bed, when she came home, she would not knock at my Chamber Door, and was afraid to go home. I went to her Father, and asks him how he could use his own Child in such a Manner What’s that to you, says he. Have ye a Mind she should come to be Hang’d or Transported? Says he, I don’t care, if I can but get rid of her.1

It was heartening to read that the jury acquited Mary and the neighbour women against these trumped-up charges, even more so when the judgment included provisions to transfer Mary to the care of her aunt and uncle at a hefty 10l. charge to her delinquent father.2

But three years later in the summer of 1729, in the St. Martin’s Workhouse register, a Mary Broadbent appears, twice in a short space of time.3 Sure, she might not be the same person. Her age is listed at sixteen, not thirteen or fourteen as we’d expect. But ages in early modern records are notoriously unreliable, especially for someone who’d come from a family so dysfunctional as to drive a young girl to run away repeatedly and sleep on the stoop of her uncle’s house rather wake her relatives or stay at home.

I believe that this is our Mary Broadbent based on a further record from October of 1729. In this account, a Mary Broadbent, aged fifteen, appears in the Pauper Examinations of the same parish and the brief mention is very revealing:

Mary Broadbent aged upwds of 15 yers Says she was never an Apprentice never Marrd never a yearly hired Servt for the Space of Twelve months Says she was born in the Strand in the Parish of St Martin in the ffields where her ffather kept house knows not what rent he paid but he pd all Taxes & now Lives & keeps shop in St Martins Lane4

That fits all too well with what we know of Paul Broadbent, the prosecutor and father in the first case. And her age dropping back down fits even more closely with the profile of young Mary the accused.

Did Mary’s aunt or uncle die or simply tire of caring for her? Did her father cease paying the court-mandated maintenance and young Mary leave the Hudsons’ home, rather than be a burden on her charitable relatives? We will never know, although the excellent historical background articles on The Parish Poor and “Workhouses” shed light on the practices put in place to try to ensure that support was only given to those the parish owed a duty and on what terms.5 (See also the excellent Pauper Lives Project website.)

Mary Broadbent disappears from the records for some years, only reappearing in 1763, again as a pauper in the St. Martin’s Workhouse register. Her age is listed as 43 which departs even moreso from the first mention. Might this be a different Mary Broadbent? The register suggests not, recording that Mary has been admitted twice before.6 This has to be our Mary!

From here on, an intermittent record attests to Mary’s marginal life. She’s readmitted in 1769 and twice in 1772, changing wards (I need to check and see if this is the ward boundaries shifting or suggests that she was itinerant).7

1777 marks her last appearance in the historical record. Mary Broadbent, pauper, died in the workhouse on the 16th of April, reportedly 64 years of age, just short of two months after her final admission.8 I found no marriage records and the parish documents would seem to suggest that Mary didn’t make it far from where she started in terms of poverty and troubles. We know today that a bad start in life is difficult to overcome. How much more was that the case for Mary Broadbent in the eighteenth century, victimized by her father and stepmother and only briefly succoured by her aunt and uncle? I might almost title this “The Stepmother’s Revenge” but I think Mary’s father played the biggest role in limiting her future.


  1. Old Bailey Proceedings Online (, version 6.0, 28 June 2011), April 1726, trial of Mary Broadbent Mary Cosier Mary Harding Phillis Harding (t17260420-63).

  2. Ibid.

  3. St Martin’s in the Fields Pauper Biographies Project, Workhouse Admissions and Discharge Registers, 19th June 1729 – 10th July 1729, London Lives, smdswhr_49_4943 (, 27 June 2011), Westminster Archives Centre, Ms. F4002.

  4. St Martin’s in the Fields Pauper Biographies Project, St Martin in the Fields Pauper Examinations, 1725-1793, 22nd October 1729, London Lives, smdsset_14_1487 (, 27 June 2011), Westminster Archives Centre, Ms. F5022.

  5. Tim Hitchcock, Sharon Howard and Robert Shoemaker, “The Parish Poor” and “Workhouses”, London Lives, 1690-1800 (, 27 June 2011).

  6. St Martin’s in the Fields Pauper Biographies Project, Workhouse Admissions and Discharge Registers, 20th January 1763 – 26th January 1763, London Lives, smdswhr_401_40121 (, 27 June 2011), Westminster Archives Centre, Ms. F4076.

  7. St Martin’s in the Fields Pauper Biographies Project, Workhouse Admissions and Discharge Registers, 23rd May 1769 – 1st June 1769, 27th August 1772 – 7th November 1772 and 24th November 1772 – 17th June 1774, London Lives, smdswhr_407_40728, smdswhr_462_46239 and smdswhr_462_46272 (, 27 June 2011), Westminster Archives Centre, Ms. F4076 and F4077.

  8. St Martin’s in the Fields Pauper Biographies Project, Workhouse Admissions and Discharge Registers, 25th February 1777 – 16th April 1777, London Lives, smdswhr_468_46896 (, 27 June 2011), Westminster Archives Centre, Ms. F4077.



Filed under history

2 responses to “The Sad End of Mary Broadbent

  1. Thanks, Janice–It’s amazing the kind of archival evidence overlap you’ve found, as uncertain and unreliable as the various mentions of Mary Broadbent may be. But, I’d go with your theory that they’re the same person–in many respects I’m sure they *were* the same person because of their abandonment by family and having to make their way in the world as impoverished singlewomen.

  2. jliedl

    The geographic, age links and stories line up too much in the October account for me to have many doubts. As you say, the reality of impoverished singlewomen was a harsh one. For all the conduct books that assured us that marriage was the natural end for women and that a godly life would ensure security through a loving family? These stories are a useful corrective.