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The Cautionary Tale of Elizabeth Kenning (c.1790–1829)

Men of war bound for the Port of Pleasure, caricature 1791 - in National Maritime Museum

Elizabeth Kenning (also spelled Kenyon) had been paralysed for 13 years when she began a memoir charting her transformation from drink-addled prostitute to admired poetess.
Elizabeth’s soldier father was killed overseas soon after she was born, and her mother headed off to seek her fortune in London, leaving Elizabeth with her uncle in Chester. As a child, Elizabeth was "violent and independent...even to the extent of hysterical passion.” She skipped school, and stole, “sometimes…for the mere sake of pilfering.”

“From the seduced I became the seducer...”

Apprentice and prostitute

When she left school, Elizabeth moved to work in Manchester, where wages were higher, and lodged with a girlfriend. Despite being barely in their teens, the pair blew their wages on “dances, the theatre and any other places of public resort,” where they enjoyed male attention, and sometimes partied “whole nights without any rest.”  Soon she had met her first lover, and flattered by “false promises” and presents, she accompanied him for clandestine walks. But he was after more than chaste strolls through the suburbs, and “young and unsuspecting” Elizabeth consented. “No sooner had I done wrong...I fancied that all who knew me could tell that I had deviated from the path of virtue,” she remembered.

Elizabeth urged her lover to marry her, “but he made a jest of it, telling me that marriage was nothing more than priest-craft.” She lived with him for a while, but “after he had accomplished his vile own purposes, he grew tired, began to neglect me and looked very cool.” Seduced and abandoned, Elizabeth “grew very desperate and determined on revenge.” Instead of regretting her loss of virtue, “from the seduced I became the seducer.” She moved into a brothel, where she was entirely “initiated in the ways of infamy and vice” and began to “lay snares for defenseless youth.”

“Temptation presented itself”

Before long, Elizabeth's way of life took its toll on her. She was arrested, and one customer beat her up “without the least provocation,” breaking two of her ribs. She took laudanum for the pain and became addicted to it. Sick and weak, with a “shattered frame,” Elizabeth fled to Chester, only to find that her uncle was long dead. Too ashamed to seek help from friends, she traveled on to Liverpool. There, “without a character and deprived of every means of subsistence,” she was forced back on the streets. Her nights became an endless round of dancing houses, drinking dens and “nurseries of vice”.

During this time, she was frequently in the city House of Correction, where another inmate offered to teach her “for one shilling, the art of picking pockets.” Elizabeth was out of control, “haunted and unhappy,” wishing herself a man, with a man's freedoms. Courageously, she moved to a new part of the city and found work as a seamstress.

However, one evening “temptation presented itself,” in the shape of a handsome young ex-lover. “I had a great partiality for him,” Elizabeth recalled. “He knew my fondness too well and took advantage of it…after having taken some liquor I was easily persuaded.” Elizabeth abandoned her new life and went to live with him. Once again, she was deserted, selling her clothes to buy alcohol, and contemplating suicide while she walked the streets.
One evening Elizabeth accosted a minister, but rather than buying her services, he spoke to her sincerely about religion. Deeply touched, Elizabeth started attending church, and with assistance from her congregation she was admitted into the Liverpool Female Penitentiary at Edgehill, in May 1813.

"Snatched from the dreadful pit of shame"

The penitentiary, one of many homes for fallen women established in the early 19th century, opened in 1809, with the aim to rehabilitate prostitutes to “a respectable station in society.”
Liverpool Female Penitentiary,
Faulkner Street, in 1908
It was a refuge for thousands of women – over 200 were admitted in 1823 alone – until its closure in 1921. Many inmates, like Elizabeth, lived there permanently. In 1825, Henry Smithers included the penitentiary in his book on Liverpool institutions, noting its “order, cleanliness and judicious regulation.” The penitentiary was a haven for Elizabeth: “no licentious sound reached my ear, no human voice calling aloud for vengeance.” She worked in the laundry and got on well with the matrons and other inmates until her legs became paralysed. In May 1817, the Ladies Committee at the Penitentiary recorded: “EK having been 3 years in the house and being now quite helpless is allowed to continue on account of her exemplary conduct, which it is believed has a favourable influence on the minds of the other women.”
Incapacitated, Elizabeth still read the scriptures aloud and wrote religious poems, along the lines of:

“My former life, replete with grief and shame
With every folly, every crime had been
Till smiling mercy to my rescue came
And snatched me from the dreadful pit of shame.”

With her body slowly turning numb, Elizabeth could only use her left hand and mouth. Then she developed lock jaw, and had to have teeth extracted so she could be fed through the side of her mouth. Henry Smithers described Elizabeth's plight in 1824:

“When she became so paralysed...she thought that she could write and draw with her mouth...after much labour and great suffering, she at length succeeded, and, by drawing flowers, butterflies, and watch-papers, which have been purchased by visitors… To show me the manner in which she wrote, colours were brought to her: a brush was, with difficulty, placed between her teeth...and she wrote, in green paint, the three words “God is love.”

Elizabeth died on the 30th January 1829, aged 39. It's hard to say whether she really did write her own memoir - would she have had enough education to write in such an articulate way, or might the penitentiary have used the story of their tragic reformed poetess as a publicity stunt, writing 'for' her?

Elizabeth Kenning’s autobiography, 
Some account of the life of Elizabeth Kenning, 
chiefly drawn up by herself, is held at the British Library.

Henry Smithers’s account of Elizabeth is on Googlebooks: 

Liverpool Central Library

Robert F Edwards Pin It