In 1845 an eight-year-old boy was brought to trial at the August sessions in Clerkenwell near St.Pancras. His name was Thomas Miller and he had been caught ‘stealing boxes’. For this crime the boy was sentenced to a month in jail – and he was whipped.
In fairness it has to be said that in Victorian England there were only a few children under the age of 10 in prison, though the number of young criminals in jail aged more than 10 rises steeply. In the early years of the century all criminals were more or less thrown together in the common jail regardless of crime or age. But change was in the air and concern was rising over the rapid increase of petty crime. The first significant move came in 1823, when laws were introduced that provided separate lock-ups for those awaiting trial and the convicted and hardened criminals. Then it was recognized that a distinction should be made between the habitual and the casual criminal. Separate prisons were designated. We must assume that Thomas spent his month in the company of other casual criminals awaiting trial and not with the hardened convicts.
The punishment of transportation had been resumed by Act of Parliament in 1784, ‘to any place beyond the seas, either within or without the British dominions, as his Majesty might appoint’. Two years later an order was published fixing the eastern coast of Australia as the future penal colonies. The first band of transports left England for Botany Bay – and so the colony of New South Wales was founded. Within 50 years 100,000 had been transported to Australia – some 2000 a year.
Thomas was never sent to Australia. His sentence was commuted to 3 more months in prison. For the next four years he was in and out of prison, avoiding deportation twice and spending many months behind bars in the company of hardened criminals. The records lose sight of him after his conviction of June 1852, ‘when he was sentenced, under the Larceny Act, to be whipped and imprisoned 2 days. He is now only 12 years of age, and not more than 4 feet 2 inches in height.’
For the distance of time it is hard to imagine the state of London in the nineteenth century, before the motorcar or the railways, before the sewage system was built, before national health and guaranteed pensions, before the minimum wage. In 1872 Hippolyte Taine remarked that he recalled ‘the lanes which open off Oxford Street, stifling alleys thick with human effluvia, troops of pale children crouching on filthy staircases; the street benches at London Bridge where all night whole families huddle close, heads hanging, shaking with cold…abject, miserable poverty.’ Peter Ackroyd adds his comment: ‘In a city based upon money and power, those who are moneyless and powerless are peculiarly oppressed.’
It was the poverty, filth and squalour that drove many to crime – crime to brighten the darkness of life and to provide the means to survive. Many among the poor knew no other profession and the skills were handed down from father to son. And society responded with a severity that often failed to discern the root of the problem – locking away the luckless criminals or deporting them to a far away land.
John Garwood of the newly formed London City Mission, writing in 1853, expresses his distress over the number of children in jail: ‘The collecting of the prisoners for Divine service almost resembles the collecting of children to their school. This is undoubtedly the most affecting sight which a prison reveals. The writer has visited the prisoner awaiting execution, under sentence of death for murder, and he has visited the female wards of a prison. Both these are very pitiable sights to behold, but the swarms of juvenile prisoners are a still more pitiable sight.’
Captain Williams, Inspector of Prisons in the mid 1800s, told a select Committee of the House of Commons: ‘I do not know any fact that can strike any person more sadly than seeing a child under 9 or10 years of age in a prison. In conversing with this class, the feeling of pity increases… They are older when young than any other class.’ The number of sentences to imprisonment in England and Wales, under 17 years of age in 1849 was 10,460 of whom 214 were transported to Australia.
Lord Romilly, a distinguished reformer at the beginning of the 19th century, recorded his impressions of a visit to jail.
I had never before seen a dark cell, and therefore had no idea of the horrible place it was. A cell within a cell. The interior of the first is so black that when the governor entered it I speedily lost sight of him, and I was only made aware of his opening an inner door by hearing the key clicking in the lock.
"Come out here, lad," he exclaimed firmly, but kindly. The lad came out, looming like a small and ragged patch of twilight in utter blackness until he gradually appeared before us. He was not a big lad, not more than thirteen years old, I should say, with a short-cropped bullet-head, and with an old hard face with twice thirteen years of vice in it.
The prison dress consisted of a sort of blouse and trousers… he shambled out of the pitchy blackness at a snail’s pace, his white cotton braces trailing behind like a tail, and completing his goblin-like appearance.
For the poor there was little mercy in the eyes of the law. Edward Joghill at the age of 10 had been convicted eight times and spent many days in prison. His crimes?
Mr.Sergeant Adams stated before a Committee of the House of Commons that 30 to 40 children, of ages from 10 to 13, were often brought before him to be tried and sentenced at the Sessions; and that he had tried a child as young as 7 years of age, and a vast number of 8 and 9,sometimes for offences as small as stealing a penny tart.
‘Some years ago,’ he continued,‘I went over the Maidstone Gaol. I saw a little urchin about 10 years of age, and I said, "Who is that boy?" "Oh," said the Gaoler, "he has been committed by the County Magistrates for stealing damsons." He had got over a garden wall, and got a hatful of damsons and had been sent to prison for a month.’
Punishments were invariably harsh and not aimed at reforming the criminal or providing for their future. At the beginning of the century, children were punished in the same way as adults – sent to the same prisons, sometimes transported to Australia, whipped or sentenced to death. In 1814 five child criminals under the age of 14 were hanged at the Old Bailey, the youngest being only eight years old. Until 1808 pick-pocketing was punishable by death, along with 222 different crimes, from forgery to letter-stealing. William Potter was hanged in 1814 for ‘cutting down an orchard’.
Petty crime especially among children had increased sharply at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Looking for reasons is not simple, but the short answer has to be the increase in urban poverty, as a result of the growing industrial revolution that was turning British society on its head. In 1816 Parliament set up a committee ‘for investigating the alarming increase in juvenile crime in the metropolis (London)’.As people poured into the cities in the hope of finding work, so poverty increased and the slums proliferated. The Law was inadequate to deal with the new class of urban unemployed. Mass unemployment led to desperate poverty, overcrowding and squalour with the accompanying vices of crime, drink and prostitution. The children suffered through violence at home and poverty meant that many never went to school and took to the streets in gangs to engage in petty thievery and pickpocketing, the ‘prince of crimes’.
In 1832 the New Poor Law was introduced, providing facilities to deal with the problems of poverty. In principle the workhouses were not to provide much relief. ‘Those entering the workhouse would find life there harsh, monotonous and characterised by the intent of improving the inmate’s moral character.’
At the same time reformers began to look at the law, which up to that time had treated children as small adults – putting them in the same jails, judging them by the same harsh standards and punishing them with equal severity. Morality and child welfare entered the agenda both of Parliament and the conscience of the nation, stirred and eagerly promoted by a succession fine Christian reformers who made a lasting impression for good on society.