This week my second year undergraduates at Northampton are exploring the topic of juvenile crime. In particular they are looking at the notion that ‘delinquency’ was ‘invented’ in the early 1800s. Now of course I am not suggesting that children and young people did not start committing crime or being ‘delinquent’ before then but rather than the 1800s saw a concentration of attention on young offending for the first time.
In 1815 a committee of concerned individuals was created to investigate the ‘alarming increase’ in juvenile crime. Dickens’ Oliver Twist (published in parts between 1837-9) highlighted the problems, and in the second half of the century the Reformatory (and Industrial) School movement offered an alternative solution to locking young offenders up with adult ones.
In January 1840 at Worship Street Police Court (one of two magistrate courts that served the East End of London) two youngsters were placed in the dock and charged with theft. Timothy Regan was recorded as just 10 years old and his female accomplice Mary Wood was 16.
They had met with a girl of 8 (Martha Sarah Briggs) who was on her way back from running an errand for her mother. Mrs Briggs had sent her daughter out with a crown piece to buy some bread. As she ran home with the loaf and the change Regan and Wood and a third boy (not in custody), ‘got her between them…hustled the girl, and forcibly took from her the purse with its contents’.
The three thieves then made their escape but the whole incident had been seen by a passerby who quickly gave the information to the police. The young thieves were tracked to a pub where they had ordered “ale-hot”. Just as they were served the police arrived but they had either posted a lookout of this was a well-known ‘flash house’ (where thieves and criminals gathered) and the young crooks abandoned their drink and legged it.
Sergeant Brennan (20G of the Metropolitan Police) caught Wood and Regan but not the other boy. Both were well known to the police the policeman later told the court. When they were locked up in separate cells they called to each other, using cant or slang so the police would not understand them (or so they hoped).
Mary told her younger companion that ‘if he did not split they would not be lagged’; in other words if he kept his mouth shut they would not be able to build case against them. In court the pair denied saying any such thing and even tried to deny knowing each other. Unfortunately for them they were identified by little Martha and the justice committed them for trial by jury.
At the Old Bailey on 3 February they were formally indicted for pickpocketing; stealing a purse (valued at 2s 6d) containing 4s 4d belonging to a Mr John Briggs (all property of curse belonged to the male head of the household, whoever had charge of it).
The other lad was never caught and so Timothy Regan and Mary Wood stood trial on their own. While the Worship Street court had their ages as 10 and 16 respectfully (possibly because this is what they told the magistrate or the police), the Old Bailey records them as 15 and 18. In court the police reported that Wood had in fact said ‘Don’t split, or we shall be booked, don’t tell them that I know Pinfold [presumably the other offender] or you’.
It was a very short trial; the account of it is just a few exchanges and ends with the boy’s previous conviction being cited in court. They were found guilty and sentenced to be transported for ten years.
For stealing 4s and a purse.
[from The Morning Post, Friday, January 17,1840]