Jane Cakebread: The Drunkest Woman in the World

Jane Cakebread, or “Miss Cakebread” as she liked to call herself, was a homeless and destitute woman considered the drunkest woman in the world in the 1800s. That was because she broke all records being arrested hundreds of times and convicted an amazing 281 times for drunkenness. Her constant drunkenness also meant that she constantly moved from “court to prison, from prison to the streets, thence again to the court.”[1]

Jane Cakebread

Jane Cakebread. Author’s collection.

She was born to a respectable tradesman from Hertfordshire around the 1820s, perhaps around the time that Napoleon Bonaparte died. Around the age of fifty, Jane Cakebread decided to take to the bottle, but prior to acquiring a reputation as the drunkest woman in the world, Cakebread functioned as a domestic servant working as either a house or parlor maid and recalled her time of sobriety with great pride:

“Dressed like a lady I used to be at one o’clock. Muslin aprons with five tucks in them. …. ‘This is what you write and say: Say as you present 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 you could trust Jane Cakebread, for honesty, industry, and sobility.’ … I knows just what’s to be done when there’s company, and dozens of champagne bottles I have opened.”[2]

Jane Cakebread drifted from Hertfordshire to London, which is where her drinking began. In London, she was described as shrewd and cleaned face. A Westminster Budget reporter claimed in 1895 that despite her drunkenness her appearance “[bespoke] a totally different class of person from that which might readily be imagined. There are no symptoms upon her of the habitual drunkard.”[3] However, a Dr. Robert Jones involved in insanity and epilepsy related to life insurance policies reported she “was not a drunkard in the ordinary sense … having vanity, love of display and notoriety found in hysterics and other instabilities.”[4]  

Thomas Holmes of the Church of England Missionary Society worked in behalf of drunken women. He also wrote a book about the problems in London police courts and came to know Jane Cakebread personally. Of her he provided this eye-opening description:

“Five minutes’ conversation with Jane was quite sufficient to prove to me, at any rate, that she was an absolutely irresponsible creature, of unsound mind; not insane in the ordinary acceptation of the term, yet insane beyond a doubt. Her language in conversation would vary, sometimes choice, grammatical, and well-expressed, the next moment drivel, the next idiotic. I have seen her eyes light up with keen intelligence one moment, and the next moment be dulled with vacancy. [Yet] when before the magistrate she was always at her best, and the knowledge that she was sure to be the cause of many paragraphs next day seemed to brace her up for a special effort.”[5]

Because of her drinking Jane Cakebread became a familiar and regular figure at Worship Street in Clerkenwell and in the North London police courts. Of this familiarity with the law it was reported:

“[T]he smallest amount of drink roused the worst elements within her; a pennyworth of four ale was quite sufficient, and after the nearest policeman she would go. The police often fled at the sight of her; they did not want to take her into custody. Many an officer had bribed her to go away when she approached him. I have seen policemen running away and ‘old Jane’ after them to be taken into custody. When she could not catch them, she would lie down on her back, screaming ‘Murder!’ and ‘Police!’ when of course they had to return and arrest her; but not an inch would she budge then till they had fetched the ‘perambulator,’ as she called the ambulance; and fetched it had to be, and Jane strapped on it, before they got her to the station.”[6]

Magistrates were also highly familiar with Jane Cakebread. Most treated her “kindly and leniently.” Further, it was reported that she was often amusing and verbose when she appeared in court. There she was also reported to regularly state that “it was quite a pleasure to appear before a Metropolitan police magistrate.”[7] In fact, it was maintained:

“[T]he old woman thoroughly enjoyed her periodical visits to the courts. She delighted in the fact that she was always ‘reported,’ and evinced a supreme contempt for the policeman who did not know her.”[8]

One explanation as to alcoholic behavior was detailed in 1905 in The Alienist and Neurologist. It appeared in an article written by Dr. James G. Kernan (a fellow of the Chicago Academy of Medicine, Honorary Member of Chicago Neurological Society, and Professor of Medical Jurisprudence in Dearborn) that was titled, “Mixoscopic Adolescent Survivals in Art, Literature, and Pseudo-ethics.” Kernan stated of Cakebread:

“She desired admiration and approbation, and her exalted ideas of her own importance accorded well with her love of power. The happiness she derived from hearing her name called in the police court amply compensated for a night spent in a cell, and one of her greatest joys consisted in reading clippings or extracts about herself from the police news. Her susceptibility to the opposite sex was merely an esthetic interest springing mainly from vanity. She would put up her hair in curl-papers, decorate herself with bits of ribbon, lace, etc., to impress the doctors on their rounds. Like a child, her greatest pleasure was to ‘show off,’ but she was indifferent and indiscriminating as to her audience. It was accompanied by jealousy, distrust of the nurses, who she thought injured her, and by violent outbursts of anger when praise was not forthcoming.”[9]

Despite Cakebread loving the press she received for her drunkenness and despite all the attention associated with her alcoholism, the English public developed a certain odd affection for her. This caused some to recount of her:

“Queen of her domain, she held the field against all comers. Many were her challengers for notoriety, but they came and went, the grave closed over them, yet she held on. … Her quips and cranks, ready wit, and cool assurance, made her dear to reporters, Jane became national property.”[10]

It is noteworthy that Cakebread’s behavior (her constant drunkenness and notoriety) was the origin behind the Habitual Drunkards Act of 1879. This act allowed authorities to establish retreats for inebriates but payments by inmates were required. Thus, despite the act being well-meaning it excluded many drunkards among the working-class, the very people who were at highest risk and the least able to pay for the retreats.

Private citizens also became involved and tried to help the alcoholics. Among them was Lady Henry Somerset, a British philanthropist, temperance leader, and campaigner for women’s rights. She got involved with drunkenness after a close friend of hers committed suicide while intoxicated.

Lady Henry Somerset. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Lady Somerset founded a rehabilitative center for female alcoholics named the Colony for Women Inebriates. It opened in 1895 in Reigate. At the time, Somerset thought she could help the most well-known alcoholic in the United Kingdom, Jane Cakebread. She therefore took her there only to find her efforts unsuccessful. It seems that “Jane objected to be ‘buried alive’ and made things so unpleasant that at last … [she sent] her back to London.”[11] Similarly, as time passed Holmes also found it increasingly difficult to deal with Jane Cakebread:

“[She] became a great nuisance, not only to the public but especially to my family. As soon as she was discharged from prison she would make her way to the street in which I lived; but she never could remember which was the right house, and as there was a number of houses exactly alike, she invariably began at the first and inquired at every one till she arrived at mine.”[12]

Cakebread wasn’t the only woman who gain notoriety for her drinking. In America, there was a Mary Green of Newark, New Jersey. She had been arrested and discharged numerous times, although in Green’s case she had only been arrest 144 times. Like Cakebread, Green was also the target of reformers. After her release in November 1895, the Sunday News of Pennsylvania reported that Green was intent on making a permanent change, but as the paper noted, it appeared as if it would be unlikely:

“[Green] is seventy years old … has seen a good deal of life in her way and now she wants the quiet and the peace of a respectable home. [She] has experienced and expressed these cravings for the beautiful and the good many times … but a few days later she would be back in her old serving out another thirty or sixty days.”[13]

Mary Green and Jane Cakebread. Author’s collection.

Another American case of a female drunk was Kate Kelley of Evanston, Illinois. She was said to be a “replica” of Cakebread because like her, Kelley had been arrested hundreds of times over a twenty-five year period shocking “ordinary conventionalities” with her drunkenness. She also displayed unusual characteristics, just like Cakebread, including Jane’s “hysteric desire” for infamy.

Despite Cakebread’s drinking she was said to take excellent care of her teeth. She could be found pounding bricks into a fine brick powder so that she would have “tooth powder” to clean her teeth. She also frequently told stories about her teeth, which were so nice attendants often thought them false and when they tried to remove them for fear she would choke on them, they found themselves involved in a horrendous fight. “She bit right and left, and they soon came to the conclusion that her teeth were best let alone.”[14]

By the 1890s, although some kind-hearted people were on occasion able to provide sanctuary for the elderly Jane Cakebread, she was not always able to find shelter. In fact, she usually only achieved it when she was in incarcerated in the gaol. Indicative of this was that during the great frost of 1894 and 1895 that was referred to in the United Kingdom as the “Little Ice Age,” Cakebread was stuck outdoors for a nine week period. Of this time Holmes noted:

“[H]er lodging the bare ground, her bed a bundle of sticks, her dressing-room the banks of the Lead, where morning by morning she broke the ice that she might wash. ‘Ladies always wash in cold water,’ she was fond of saying.”[15]

Eventually, it was reported that Cakebread was more out of control than ever and that her mental state had worsened. People began suggesting that she be sent to an insane asylum, an idea supported by a medical officer named George E. Walker who examined her. He sent the following report to the magistrate:

“H.M. Prison, Holloway, January 27, 1896, Registered No. 17,706 Jane Cakebread, is well known to me. I have always considered her to be of impaired intellect. Her mental condition has, however, so much deteriorated of late that I am of opinion that she is now not responsible for her actions, and that she should be sent to any asylum.”[16]

With that she was ordered to be removed from the prison, but a fiesty Cakebread was not about to go and gaolers found they had a fight on their hands as they tried to pry her loose from the prisoner dock. Holmes eventually arrived and tried to reason with her telling her that it would be better for her if she cooperated and “ultimately, after a struggle, during which she tried to bite the gaoler, she was secured on the police ambulance, and taken to the Hackney Workhouse.”[17]

Eventually Cakebread’s continued drunkenness landed her inside the lunatic asylum at Claybury in Woodford Bridge, London. English architect George Thomas Hine had won the design competition to create the facility. His “compact arrow design” proved to be more logical than any other layout. The asylum opened in 1893 making it the Fifth Middlesex County Asylum and reportedly one of the most important asylums in England in the late 1800s.

Jane Cakebread - Nurses at Claybury in approxiately 1893.

Nurses at Claybury in approximately 1893. Courtesy of Wellcome Images.

Jane Cakebread was never happy about her incarceration at Claybury. Nonetheless she had to stay and while there the Cardiff Times reported on her stating:

“Though there is an indescribable something wanting in the old lady’s mental capacity, her memory and powers of conversation are as active as ever, and she clings fondly to the hope that she will be able to come out and enjoy her fortune and to reward Mr. Holmes … and others who have been kind to her.”[18]

Cakebread’s unhappiness remained even though she was half-blind and even though Holmes visited her numerous times during the eighteen months that she was there. Just before her death Holmes went again to visit her. He found her lying on her bed in a “half-comatose” state. When he spoke to her he got no response and so bent over and touched her stating that he was Holmes. According to him:

“She half opened her eyes for a moment, and said: ‘You are a liar. Mr. Holmes wouldn’t leave me here.’ Even in death she had some kind of faith in me, and I am glad to remember it.”[19]

When Cakebread died in 1898, she was practically forgotten. A few papers did mention her, among them the Western Mail, who reported on her death by writing a single line that stated:

“Jane Cakebread, who appeared hundreds of times at the police-courts of the Metropolis on charges of being drunk and disorderly, died on Saturday in Claybury Asylum.”[20]

She was buried on 9 December 1898 at the Chingford Mount Cemetery, located in the London Borough of Waltham Forest. The funeral was a low-key, quiet affair. The hearse drove up two men lifted her remains out and placed them in the grave before leaving. The clergyman then read a short service. Holmes and a newspaper reporter were the only two in attendance.


  • [1] The Westminster Budget, “A Woman of Importance,” September 13, 1895, p. 29.
  • [2] Ibid.
  • [3] Ibid.
  • [4] C. H. Hughes, The Alienist and Neurologist (St. Louis, 1905), p. 82.
  • [5] T. Holmes, Pictures and Problems from London Police Courts (London: E. Arnold, 1902), p. 81–82.
  • [6] Ibid., p. 84.
  • [7] Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, “Death of Jane Cakebread,” December 11, 1898, p. 10.
  • [8] Ibid.
  • [9] C. H. Hughes. 1905, p. 83–84.
  • [10] T. Holmes. 1902, p. 80.
  • [11] Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, p. 10.
  • [12] T. Holmes. 1902, 86–87.
  • [13] Sunday News, “Locked Up 144 Times,” November 10, 1895, p. 13.
  • [14] T. Holmes. 1902, p. 83.
  • [15] Ibid.
  • [16] Ibid., p. 90.
  • [17] Ibid., p. 91.
  • [18] Cardiff Times, “Jane Cakebread on Her Dignity,” August 28, 1897, p. 2.
  • [19] T. Holmes. 1902, p. 92.
  • [20] Western Mail, “Death of Jane Cakebread,” December 6, 1898, p. 5.

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