In Pursuit of a Peak District Pensioner Criminal — Tim Knebel — 2nd Sept 2019

Tim is a pro­ject co-ordinator with the “Peak into the Past“ local his­tory organ­isa­tion and gave an inter­est­ing talk on a rather unusual topic. Normally, you would expect a talk on the his­tory of the Peak District to be con­cerned with mining, canals, mills and archae­ology, but this was about the life and crimes of an eld­erly woman who was an habitual crim­inal within the Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire area.

The woman was Annie Burke, also known as Annie Monks, but she had many other ali­ases and was described vari­ously as a hawker, beggar, itin­er­ant and vag­rant. Details of her life are shrouded in mys­tery because she had numer­ous ali­ases. She led a nomadic life and was an accom­plished liar able to spin the most heart-breaking yarns for sym­pathy. She was born in Oldham in 1843. Or was it Hunslet, Leeds, in 1851? Or 1853? Prison records were hazy to say the least. What made her stand out in the crim­inal fra­tern­ity of the time was that she was female and eld­erly, which was not the norm.

She was mar­ried in 1879 to a George Monks and they had eight chil­dren, four of whom died prob­ably when young. They lived in slum dwell­ings in the Narrow Marsh area of Nottingham, which was dan­ger­ous and rife with dis­ease. The mar­riage was not happy with both hus­band and wife appear­ing in court on vari­ous assault charges against each other. The chil­dren were taken into care. Perhaps, this is when Annie became a vag­rant, living by her wits in a chaotic life­style.

Her pat­tern of crim­inal activ­ity was mainly to call on large coun­try houses and vicar­ages and spin the story of her piti­ful plight which invari­ably involved the fate of her hus­band, chil­dren or any other rel­at­ive which could pull the heart strings. Good natured house­hold­ers or ser­vants would give her clothes, food and money but she would take the oppor­tun­ity to scan the house and grounds and steal any­thing of worth. In modern crim­inal par­lance she often dis­trac­ted the vic­tims to select the loot. Also, she would ask for the loan of cloth­ing for a spe­cial occa­sion like a funeral or christen­ing, but the clothes were never returned. Invariably, she would sell the stolen goods in public houses for money which was spent on food or drink .

Clearly, Annie liked her drink which would result in many con­vic­tions for brawl­ing and assault. Her defence in court was often “I was very drunk and don’t remem­ber any­thing.” Her steal­ing and lies invari­ably res­ul­ted in con­vic­tions with hard labour in prison. It was notice­able that many of the con­vic­tions were for the theft of small items like a carpet, a basket of clothes, a bottle of beer and table clothes. Compare that with sen­ten­cing today! At one court appear­ance she explained to the judge that she had 65 con­vic­tions and was going for the cen­tury. She led a chaotic life and one won­ders if her reg­u­lar spells in prison gave her some form of struc­ture with shel­ter, food and dis­cip­line des­pite the pro­spect of hard labour.

Tim was asked why he chose to study the life and crimes of Annie Burke (Monks) and replied that when research­ing prison records he was amazed at the shear number of con­vic­tions she had amassed and was intrigued to know more about her. He came to have a sneak­ing regard for her and, although she was a crim­inal with many vic­tims, she was feisty, hardy and resource­ful. She was a sur­vivor, although there seems to be no record of her where­abouts after 1915, or of her death. Certainly, Annie Burke led a sad, chaotic life and she would never have ima­gined that her life would have been researched and presen­ted to the gentle folk of Stumperlowe Probus Club in 2019.