Mary Broadbent, fl. 1726-1777

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Singlewoman and Pauper

Mary Broadbent spent her whole life on the margins of London life. Seeming never to stray far from St. Martin’s Lane where she was raised by an uncaring father who prosecuted her for theft in 1726, Mary lived and died in the parish. She was first admitted to St. Martin’s Workhouse in 1729 and she returned several times later in life. In 1777, Mary Broadbent died after her eighth admission to the Workhouse. Her story shows the problems in a society where affectionate families weren’t always a reality.

Early Life

Details of Mary’s early life are sketchy and contradictory. She was born sometime between 1712 and 1716 to Paul Broadbent, a barber and resident of St. Martin’s Lane, and his first wife, Elizabeth.1 After Mary’s mother died, Paul married Eleanor Smith at St. Martin’s in the Field in August of 1724.2 Mary’s position in the family became tenuous. She frequented the company of the family’s former charwoman, Mary Cosier, and sought refuge at the house of her aunt and uncle, the Hudsons, as well as the Hardings, mother Mary and daughter Phillis.

Prosecution and Vindication

Mary Broadbent appeared before the Old Bailey at about ten years of age. On April 5, 1726, Paul Broadbent charged his young daughter, Mary, and three neighbours, Mary Cosier, Mary Harding and Phillis Harding, with theft and receiving of stolen goods. The four women were committed to Newgate and their trial began two weeks later. Mary’s father and stepmother claimed that many household goods and rags used in his barbering trade had gone missing. They had uncovered some items that had come from the Broadbent’s home while searching Mary Cosier’s residence, although many were admittedly gifts from the previous Mrs. Broadbent. Nevertheless, Paul and Eleanor brought young Mary and the three women before a justice who committed them to Newgate.

The trial opened with the Broadbent’s account of a young girl seduced to rob her family by the wiles of her neighbours. Mrs. Broadbent attested to how carefully she had raised young Mary:

As for the Child, I love her as well as if she had been my own a thousand Times. She has been instructed in the Fear of God; she can say her Catechism in English and French, and can answer all lawful Questions, but she has been drawn aside by wicked Neighbours.

Further items were claimed to have been stolen, but Mr. Broadbent’s sister, Mrs. Hudson, deposed that the curtains he’d mentioned had been given to her, years earlier. Furthermore, she claimed that her brother and his wife beat young Mary until she would confess to anything. More damaging words came from Mr. Hudson, who attested that his niece not only preferred to sleep on his stairs rather than in her home but that his brother-in-law had said, when challenged about his treatment of Mary

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.

With witnesses attesting to the character of the other women, Paul Broadbent’s prosecution backfired. All four were acquitted and the court intervened to provide for Mary Broadbent:

thinking it improper she should go to live again with her Father and Step-Mother, brought him to an Agreement, to allow his Sister Mrs. Hudson, 10 l. a Year for the Child's Board and Apparel, and order'd him to pay the Prisoner's Fees.

Mary found a safer home in the care of her aunt and uncle, with her three friends vindicated. But how long could this last?

Young Pauper

Within a few years, something thrust Mary Broadbent back into the notice of authorities. In June of 1729 she was admitted to the newly finished St. Martin’s workhouse, although her age was wrongly recorded at about sixteen years. In October, an examination revealed Mary’s straitened circumstances. She had no means of support for herself, noting she had not been apprenticed, married nor settled in a situation as a servant:

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 Lane

This was important as it established Mary’s residency in her neighbourhood, thereby ensuring she wouldn’t be removed under the terms of the Act of Settlement. More critically, discovering that her father was a resident and taxpayer put the onus of her support onto his shoulders instead of the parish’s. Resident and with a parent to provide for her care, Mary disappeared from the pauper ranks for almost a quarter of a century and, when she does, she retains the same name, indicating she likely joined the ranks of London’s singlewomen.

It was not a sad, rare or pitiable end to be an unmarried woman in eighteenth century London. While marriage was the expectation, many singlewomen enjoyed extensive social networks. Even if Mary Broadbent’s father and stepmother were indifferent to her fate, she likely continued in the friendships she had already known amongst co-workers, neighbours and other singlewomen.3 Phillis Harding was admitted to the workhouse in 1745 as a pauper. Mary Cosier was still alive in 1742 as she testified in the first of the St. Martin’s Roundhouse disaster trials against William Bird as one of the survivors of the infamous Hole.

We don’t know what profession Mary Broadbent followed. Many urban singlewomen worked as servants. Without an apprenticeship, as she mentioned in 1729, Mary likely did not have a trade to follow and if she had begun working as a servant, she had not settled into a resident position at that point. She seems not to have fallen into a criminal life as there were no further charges recorded against her at the Old Bailey. We can only presume that Mary managed to keep herself afloat in her old familiar neighbourhood, at least until the 1760s when she was forced to resort to the systems of parish relief.

A Singlewoman’s Struggles

Beginning at Christmas, 1762, Londoners suffered a sustained and bitter cold, lasting for weeks.4 In January of 1763, Mary Broadbent was readmitted to the St. Martin’s Workhouse where she stayed for only a week. We can presume from her relatively young age (reportedly 43 but more likely to be 47) that it wasn’t extreme frailty that drove her to the workhouse, but rather the extraordinary inclement weather possibly combined with illness. It is likely that her father was now dead and Mary had no long-term employer to provide her care and shelter, otherwise she wouldn’t have resorted to the workhouse.

In May of 1769, Mary was admitted a third time, again for a week’s stay. Her reported age was now 50. In neither case was any cause for her admission recorded but the discharge in short order suggests it was a passing problem. Because of her earlier settlement, she retained the right to be supported in the parish: a valuable prerogative as life only became more difficult for Mary Broadbent in the years to come.

Reliant on the Workhouse

The pattern of Mary’s contact with the parish authorities changed in 1772. She was admitted for an extended stay that ran from August into November of that year. Just three weeks later, Mary Broadbent returned to the workhouse for her longest stay yet, running from late November of 1772 into June of 1774. In doing so, she joined the ranks of many long-term residents such as Henry Danker, whose ten month stay in St. Martin’s Workhouse during an earlier decade included regular Sunday visits to a friend who lived nearby.5 Presumably, Mary retained some acquaintance in the wider parish, perhaps a former employer or co-worker, who showed her similar charity during the almost eighteen months of her stay. Aging and without any supportive family, profession or assets, Mary Broadbent likely found the workhouse to be her best hope for medical care and social services.


In late February of 1777, Mary was admitted to St. Martin’s Workhouse for the last time. She died on April 16, 1777, reportedly 64 years of age. She had spent just over two years of her life as a resident of St. Martin’s Workhouse, from her first admission in 1729 to her death almost fifty years later. Lacking family support, Mary received none of the advantages that might have improved her life: an apprenticeship, a marriage or even a settled situation. But given her mother’s early death and her father’s antipathy, Mary Broadbent was fortunate to have avoided a life of crime or an early death as other young women did when forced to the margins of eighteenth century London life.

External Sources

  • Family Search
  • Amy M. Froide, Never Married: Singlewomen in Early Modern England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).
  • Tim Hitchcock, Down and Out in Eighteenth-Century London (London: Hambledon Continuum, 2007).


1 Parents’ marriage: Family Search.

2 Father’s remarriage: Family Search.

3 Amy M. Froide, Never Married: Singlewomen in Early Modern England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), pp.44-47.

4 Historical Weather Events

5 Tim Hitchcock, Down and Out in Eighteenth-Century London (London: Hambledon Continuum, 2007), p. 135.

About this Biography

Created by

Janice Liedl

Further contributions by

Sharon Howard