Gangland Girls: Why 'Ripper Street's Long Susan Isn't All Make-Believe

Who would want to be a nineteenth century woman? If you manage to make it to your twenty-fifth birthday without dying of syphilis, alcoholism, or childbirth you could consider yourself one of the lucky ones.

Who would want to be a 19th Century woman? If you manage to make it to your 25th birthday without dying of syphilis, alcoholism, or childbirth you could consider yourself one of the lucky ones. Unless you were a wealthy single woman or a widow, the moment you married, your property, body and money belonged immediately to your husband.

You had no political rights, no vote, and little equality, and, until 1885, the Contagious Diseases Act meant that in towns and ports like London, you could be arrested, taken to court and then locked away in a hospital for nine months. Your crime? Having been infected with an STD.

But Victorian women were a hardy lot. They didn't give up, they didn't back down, and they definitely didn't care for the rules society seemed to expect them to live by. This is the time of Annie Besant, who published a guide to contraception including everything from the withdrawal method to condoms, and Josephine Butler, who fought to outlaw child prostitution and raise the age of consent from 13 to 16.

As Ripper Street series three returns, so do its controversial and fiercely independent women. Long Susan - brilliantly played by MyAnna Buring - the former brothel madam turned 'respectable' businesswoman, is attempting to push Whitechapel in a new and modern direction. Not only has she set up a clinic to treat women, run by qualified female doctors and nurses, but she's also running a criminal empire and holding Edmund Reid's missing daughter, Matilda, as an unwitting hostage in her home.

But Long Susan's story is not as impossible as you might believe, it's all there in the history. The first place to train female doctors, the London School of Medicine for Women, had opened in 1874, and was set up by Sophia Jax-Blake, one of the 'Edinburgh Seven' - a group of women who fought, successfully, to have the law changed to allow them to train and qualify as doctors.

Long Susan's illegal activities also have a historical connection. In 1896, the trial of 'The Queen of The Forty Thieves' made headlines across the UK, when Mary Carr, 25, was sentenced to three years in jail for the kidnap of a young boy at Epsom race course. Mary was the leader of the 'Forty Thieves' - an all girl criminal gang who 'infested the Strand' and caused havoc throughout London right into the 20th Century.

Mary and her lover 'Darkie Kemp' were believed to have stolen the boy from his family at Epsom, and then kept him secret in a house in Stamford Street - just behind today's IMAX cinema at Waterloo.

Their reputation was legendary, but, unlike other East End villains, these women have been forgotten. One of the brilliant things about Ripper Street is that it brings all these amazing historical women together, and shows us that we are not so different after all.

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