Elizabeth Dunham, The Woman Who Stole From the Bank of England and Early Feminist

It's not often you hear about a theft being achieved from inside the Bank of England, but one nineteenth-century woman managed just that - except the item she stole is probably not what you'd expect. 

In 1819, a well-dressed and articulate Elizabeth Dunham stood in front of a judge accused of stealing two keys from the Bank of England. As well as the keys being the property of the Bank, the bankers claimed they were motivated to bring Elizabeth to court as they were also worried about her mental health. On searching her room, more than four thousand other keys were found, carefully labelled with the date and time of their taking, as well as the building they belonged to. Other keys in her possession included those that opened doors in important buildings such as the Royal Exchange, the Prison in Maidstone and the padlock of Greenwich Watch House.

The porter of the Bank came forward to identify the key. When he had done this, Elizabeth disputed it was the one found in her room and asked if she could hold it to be sure. Once in her hands, she was said to have exclaimed 'triumphantly', 'Now I have got them, I shall hold them for the rights of my king, my country and myself'. She wrapped the key gently in a handkerchief and put it into a pocket.

The Bank of England as Elizabeth Dunham would have known it, 1816.
Yale Center of British Art, Public Domain

When questioned, Elizabeth refused to acknowledge that she was guilty of theft. Instead, she argued that she took the keys for her own protection. If she had the keys, then important men were 'therefore obliged to come forward and do her justice'. She spoke of this being able to give her rights that otherwise she would not be able to obtain. The court, it was said, acquitted her on grounds of insanity and she was free to leave.

However Elizabeth's argument is interesting, and when placed in its social context, has a different meaning. In 1819, women had very few rights, and the husband was the main legal power in the household. Married women could not own property, as once married, it transferred to the husband. They were also, of course, unable to vote. Elizabeth's claims that she could use the keys owned by important and influential establishments and men shows that she was willing to use them as leverage to obtain power. It also hints that she sought a wider power, as she collected keys to use their influence for the good of the king. too. Bearing this in mind, it sounds very much as if her actions were triggered, in a large part, through frustration with her social position as a woman.

Elizabeth lived during subtle and important changes that began to challenge and shape society's expectations of women. Jane Austen, who died two years before Elizabeth's trial, gently challenged this norm in her writings. Women controlled the story, and her characters were not all content to marry the husbands their families had chosen for them. Later, the century was marked by the beginning of parliamentary acknowledgement that women sought further rights, such as the 1866 petition that women should have the same political rights, and the following year, the start of the Suffrage movement, in Manchester.

Elizabeth would also have been aware of the writings of Mary Wollstonecraft, who argued for the equal rights of women in 1792, along with other writers and philosophers of the age. She also had the example of Mary Wortley Montagu, who drove forward the vaccine for smallpox in the early years of the eighteenth century and is considered an early feminist.

Despite the judges passing off Elizabeth as insane, her legacy is lasting. I would argue that it demonstrates womens' wider irritation with the social norms expected of them in the early nineteenth century. We should add Elizabeth Dunham to the growing list of women we find who experienced and voiced these frustrations. For her, her trace in the record came following the discovery of thousands of stolen keys - collected for social leverage - in her room.

Liked this? You might also like Women of Power in Anglo Saxon England - A Review, Ladies of Magna Carta and The Women of Bedlam

Interested in other women from history? My book, Forgotten Women of the Wars of the Roses explores the many roles they played underneath the fifteenth century conflict. It's published by Pen and Sword Books. You can Order your copy here.

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Historic England, Birth of a Movement
Celebrated Trials and Remarkable Cases of Criminal Jurisprudence, George Borrow. Volume 6, 1825.