NOTE: This article was updated on November 6, 2019 to include author David Cooper Holmes’ suggestion on where to purchase the book.
The following book review was written by Bobbi King:
Who Was Ann Gregg?
The author recounts the story of his fifth-great-grandmother Ann Gregg, purportedly to be Cumberland, England’s, if not the entirety of the country of England’s, most notorious female criminal of the latter 1700s, and her brothers, sisters, husbands, and children. He tells the story well, with sympathy and veneration for his eighteenth-century ancestral unfortunates born and mired in the cruel times of severe class distinction and the intractable brutishness of the penal codes.
A short version of this extraordinarily free spirited, or perhaps eccentrically misfitted, ancestor Ann Gregg would cover:
- Her birth in 1756 in Cumberland, a northernmost English territory, into the sect of the Picts, a belligerent society that ferociously resisted the Romans’ incursions into their territories (the Romans gave up and retreated three hundred years later, the Picts stayed put);
- Her membership, and possible leadership, of a gang of faws, in Northumberland;
- Her death sentence in 1777 for stealing handkerchiefs;
- Her sentence for transport in 1794 and 1824;
- Her incarcerations and escapes from gaols across several counties;
- Her many aliases (fourteen at last count by the author);
- Her thirteen children, some born in gaols, who themselves earned transport sentences, one of whom started a brothel on a convict ship, and a grandchild who during transport initiated an uprising on the ship; and
- Her one friend who shared Ann’s time in gaol as a prostitute who dressed as a man.
Ann Gregg is also a wide-ranging study of the criminal underworld of those times. We know superficially that criminals exist, that persons not guilty of egregious crimes can be egregiously punished, and that this state of affairs has been around since the Biblical Cain and Abel. But here we have a whole family set of lines whose documents reveal people who became convicts, lawbreakers, and most disastrously, sufferers of the penal system, sordid as it was. These characters slowly represent to us not abstract circumstances, but natural breathing persons who earn our deference and compassionate respect.
Mr. Holmes imaged old documents, always interesting to look at and to study. He recounts a lot of background and context history, such as about the faws, or gypsies, also known as the Travellers, a faction at the lowest clique of the poor and uneducated classes. He used DNA research to tie up the loose ends as the genre became cheaper and the hits more expansive.
But Mr. Holmes particularly gives a picture of the criminal underworld that seems more real than any page in Wikipedia. He relates descriptions of the court systems; meticulously transcribed court documents and newspaper accounts with their Old English colloquialisms and quaint voices; gets into the sociology of being poor and without opportunity nor resource for the betterment of one’s lot; and he details the despair and wretchedness of the penitentiary system.
Mr. Holmes confesses that coming across the scalawags of his family absolutely hooked him into persevering the pursuit of uncovering even more about the Greggs. His writing has a knack for narrating the events with warmth and sympathy for the characters, and there is an easy flow of his writing from one stage to the next, not an easy task for nonfiction writers.
His respect for his characters comes through the narrative, and the reader comes to regard their resiliency as a most redeeming quality.
His mischievous delight in the discoveries of all these family rascals is boldly apparent, and all the readers in the Gregg families will likely share his sentiment.
According to author David Cooper Holmes:
“The best [way to obtain Who Was Ann Gregg?] is to order from Book Depository (owned by Amazon|). They offer a free worldwide delivery service:
“There has been a bit of a rush in sales recently which has caused them to run out of stock, but they will have more very shortly.
“If potential readers leave their e-mail address on the web site, they will be notified as soon as stock arrives.”