Jane Cakebread

On the morning of Saturday, 3rd December, 1898, the death took place at Claybury Lunatic Asylum of one of the “characters” of the London Police Courts.

Her name was Jane Cakebread, and following her death, newspapers countrywide carried obituaries for a woman whose sole claim to fame was the number of times that she had appeared before magistrates on charges of being drunk and disorderly.

She is one of those Victorians who – like Tottie Fay and Williams Onions – became a media celebrity for no other reason than their appalling record of court appearances.


The South Wales Daily News, carried a full report on the life and death of this “legendary” woman on Wednesday 7th December 1898:-

“Jane Cakebread, against whom there were something like 300 convictions for drunkenness, died (as announced yesterday) on Saturday morning in Claybury Lunatic Asylum.

A few years ago an interesting account of her appeared in The Women’s Signal.

Jane’s appearance, it would seem, belied her evil record.

“The shrewd face, with its clean, clear outline, bespeaks a totally different class of person from that which might readily be imagined.

There are no symptoms upon her of the habitual drunkard.”

A Portrait of Jane Cakebread.
From The Cardiff times, Saturday, 17th December, 1898. Copyright, The British Library Board and Richard Jones.


“Jane herself was very much of the same opinion, and had absolutely no fault to find with herself, whatever the magistrates may say:-

“I have quite as good a head-piece; memory, and ability as anyone living,” she says.

“Few heads can beat Jane Cakebread’s.

For ability, memory, and head-piece there’s few to touch Jane Cakebread. It’s the tuppenny drops of rum, that’s what does it, and, why, this last time I didn’t spend a shilling. It was tuppence at one public-house, and on a bit, and then tuppence again, and tuppence more. It’s not the quantity, it’s the drops that does for me.

And then the boys worry me, and then there’s a row, and there’s an end of it; but there’s no woman has been more praised for her work and has held a better position than Jane,” she continues.


By profession Jane Cakebread, before she took to the baleful “tuppeny drops,” was a house and parlour maid, and even in her degenerate days she recalled with pride and pleasure the splendours of her youth:-

“Dressed like a lady I used to be at 1 o’clock., Muslin aprons with five tucks in them.”

“And do you want to engage me?” she adds, looking at you shrewdly.

“This is what you write and say.

Say as you presents your compliments to Mrs —- and wants to know what sort of a servant Jane Cakebread is, and she will answer that she presents her compliments to you, and has always found that she could trust Jane Cakebread for honesty, industry, and sobility.” What the latter virtue was intended to indicate, or whether it was a compound between sobriety and nobility, which lost some of its attributes in the mixture, it would be difficult to say.

“Why, satin shoes,” she continues, “I have put more satin shoes on ladies’ feet that go to the dances round Tottenham than would have filled a shop. I knows just what’s to be done when there’s company, and dozens of champagne bottles I have opened.”


But it was for her family, as well as for herself, that Jane Cakebread “stands up.”

As she said to her interviewer:-

“To a lady I don’t mind speaking as a lady, for my connections are as good as anyone’s in the country. Why, twelve families, all connected with me, holds good positions today. I don’t want no help. All I want is to go back to my own surroundings.

Why, law! I have only to go home tomorrow. I shall be met at the station with a horse and trap and driven to a beautiful home, where one of my relations lives – and I know a lady’s home as well as any. There will be a damask table-cloth and silver, and she will say to me, ‘Why, Jane, I am glad that you have come,’ and her daughter will say, ‘If mother’s glad I am glad,’ and I tell you it’s the truth. There will be a welcome for me.”


“I am talking to you as one lady to another, you know,” she reiterates.

“That makes me able to tell you these things. Why, when I was a girl and I drove round with a trap and horse to hunt, the gentlemen in the red coats which was hunting touched their hats to me and said, ‘Good morning, Miss Cakebread.’

And even now there’s Squire and Squire who would say, ‘I am glad to see you,’ if I went down there.

Why, the wheelwrights, and butchers, and cabinet-makers, and farmers is all amongst my relations  – a regular knot of them.”


For over 15 years Miss Cakebread was a most familiar figure in Worship-street, Clerkenwell, and subsequently in North London Police Courts.

She was always voluble, and seldom failed to be amusing.

Most magistrates treated her kindly and leniently.

She was heard to say on one occasion that it was quite a pleasure to appear before a metropolitan police magistrate.

Indeed, it was suspected that the old woman thoroughly enjoyed her periodical visits to the Police Courts. She delighted in the fact that she was always “reported,” and evinced a supreme contempt for the policeman who did not know her.


Nearly all the magistrates made some attempt to effect a reformation, but not one proved successful.

Mr Thomas Holmes, of the Church of England Missionary Society, whose efforts on behalf of drunken women have in many instances been crowned with success, took the case in hand on several different occasions.

At last he took the woman into his own house.

Here she was very happy for about a month, but at length the longing to get out overcame her, and Miss Cakebread soon found her way to the Police Court.

Mr Holmes came to the conclusion, from close personal observation, that Jane Cakebread was mad, but the medical officers at Holloway [Prison] declined on several occasions to endorse this opinion.

In 1895 Lady Henry Somerset took Jane Cakebread to her home at Reigate – miles away from the temptations of the public-house, but Jane objected to be “buried alive,” as she contemptuously described her life at Lady Henry Somerset’s retreat.

The old woman went back to her old mode of life, sleeping in gardens on Stamford Hill and begging.

She was soon in the hands of the police again.

A photograph of Lady Henry Somerset.
Lady Henry Somerset. From The Illustrated London News, Saturday, January 21st, 1893. Copyright, The British Library Board.


On January 21st, 1896. Mr Paul Taylor remanded her to Holloway for the state of her mind to be inquired into, and this time the doctor certified that she was insane.

She was furious on hearing that she had to go to the Workhouse –  an institution which she dreaded ten times more than she did prison.

But there she was taken on the police ambulance.

At the Workhouse Infirmary, she vigorously attacked Dr. Gordon, whose duty it was to examine her, and rather seriously injured him.

After this Jane Cakebread was regarded as a dangerous character, and the visiting justices had no difficulty in certifying that she was insane.

She was removed to Claybury Asylum, and for the past six months, she has been dying.

The end came at 9 o’clock on Saturday morning.

The funeral will take place at Chingford Mount Cemetery on Thursday.


It is an open secret that the case of Jane Cakebread was the origin of the Habitual Drunkards’ Act, passed during the last Session.

This Act will, in 99 cases out of every 100, affect women of the Jane Cakebread class, of whom there are several hundreds in London alone.

They are not heard of as Jane Cakebread was, because they lack the redeeming virtue – if such it can be called – of humour which made Jane Cakebread a character.”


The Illustrated Police News, carried the following report on her funeral, on Saturday, 17th December, 1898:-

“The funeral of this notorious old lady was mournful in its desolation at Chingford Mount Cemetery on Thursday morning.

The body of the woman whose name was known to many thousands of persons in all parts of the country was consigned to the grave with but one mourner, and he was Mr. Thomas Holmes, the North London Police Court missionary, who had for years striven to do her good in life.

He carried with him a simple wreath of flowers, and placed it reverently upon the coffin, which bore the plain inscription “Jane Cakebread, died Dec. 3, 1898. Aged 64.””