Prostitutes and vagabonds

Prostitution. Vagrancy. Insufficient means. Just a few of the punishable crimes Phoebe Harris was imprisoned for in her short life.

Phoebe Harris’ story is not an unusual one for the time. That doesn’t mean it is any less sad. Born somewhere between 1862 and 1865 in England, by the time she was in her early-twenties, Phoebe was charged with her first offence and sentenced to two months of hard labour. Four months after that first charge, she was again sentenced to two months hard labour. In fact, Phoebe’s prison record is a large and varied list of her movements between police stations, court houses and gaol’s over almost forty years.

Phoebe Harris’ mug shot. Image from female prison register, PROV, VPRS 516/P2, Unit 9, p. 226.

In 1885 Phoebe found herself locked up in the Horsham police station for using ‘obscene language’. By 6 o’clock the next morning, only an hour after being checked on, Phoebe was missing from the lock up yard where the ‘staple of the door having been wrenched off by the means of an iron bar’. Her husband, Abraham had been seen loitering around the yards. Phoebe was found and re-arrested three hours later and sentenced to two months for obscene language and a further six months for escaping.

After this, Phoebe’s register is a litany of offences. Crimes which held terms of anywhere from one month and a fine of a few pounds for soliciting prostitution, to six months for ‘invisible’ or ‘insufficient means’, to twelve months of hard labour for larceny. She frequented the pages of the Victorian government police gazettes and newspapers for these offences, which were always followed by the words – ‘repeatedly convicted’. A known criminal around Melbourne, who spent her whole adult life being so poor that she was continually charged with having no money to live by and thus turning to prostitution to survive and then being charged for that.

In August 1915 the Truth reported that ‘Harris, who has an impediment in her speech was once a tailoress, but now she is known in official circles as “Big Phoebe”, one of Fitzroy’s many frail flossies’ was charged with having insufficient means and was known ‘to be a common prostitute’.

Victorian government gazette, 19 September 1908.

On paper Phoebe led a sad life of imprisonment, which was an eternal cycle that continued to put her in gaol. The one consistency in her life at least gave her a place to sleep and food to eat, although not desirable.

In April 1921, Phoebe was sentenced to a further twelve months imprisonment in the female prison in Coburg (Pentridge). Less than seven months later in early November 1921, Phoebe Harris, the brown-eyed brunette and former tailoress and prison laundry attendant was finally set free from gaol when she collapsed after a ‘fainting fit’ and was carried to the hospital. After not regaining consciousness for four days, Phoebe eventually died of advanced kidney disease at the age of 53 years on 6 November.

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  • Phoebe Harris (AKA Phoebe Josephs) prison register, No. 5190 – PROV, VPRS 516/P2, Vol. 9, Pg. 226
  • Phoebe Harris inquest – PROV, VPRS 24/P0, Unit 1014, Item 1921/1140
  • Victorian police gazette
  • The Herald (Melbourne), 22 June 1909, p. 5
  • Truth (Melbourne), 21 August 1915, p. 3
  • Argus (Melbourne), 19 December 1908, p. 20
  • The Age (Melbourne), 19 December 1908, p. 16
  • Argus (Melbourne), 3 January 1885, p. 12