When sleeping rough or accepting a dare lands a teenager in prison


Sir Robert Fowler,  by Theobald Chartran, Vanity Fair (June 1881) 

I am currently trying to write a research paper on the Police Courts for a conference in Liverpool this September (2017). I’ve only got 20 minutes to deliver my talk which always feels far too short (perhaps not to my audience however!) and so I’m considering what I need to say and what I want to say. Part of the talk is about the ways in which I’m combining fairly cryptic archival records of the Thames Police Court with the more narrative newspaper accounts, to better understand what is going on in them.

One of the offences that emerges occasionally in the 1881 register for Thames is that of being found on enclosed premises. Most of those charged were teenagers or even younger children (like Alfred and William Gay and their friend George Clarke who were 11,9 and 10 years of age). Walter Cummings was 17 when he was found in a building at 165 Queen Victoria Street in August 1887.

A policeman on his beta noticed that the door to the property was ajar and went to investigate. He discovered Walter in ‘a lumber-room under some papers’. He told the policeman that he had been dared into entering the premises by someone he only knew by a nickname.

The pair had gained access but broken a window in the process. The other lad had scarpered telling Walter to get out too, but he had presumably got scared and chose to hide. When the constable found him he was barefoot, the lack of shoes probably testimony to his poverty. The pair may well have been intent on mischief or even theft but Walter may well have made his ‘friend’ up and was simply looking for some shelter to sleep for the night.

Sir Robert Fowler (magistrate and former Lord Mayor, the last to serve two terms in fact) had no pity for the young man’s plight and sent him to prison for six weeks at hard labour. Under the rather extensive remit of the Vagrancy laws any person found within a house, warehouse or other building deemed to acting suspiciously or otherwise up to no good could be imprisoned for up to 3 months at hard labour, so Sir Robert was following procedure outlined in legal texts such as Oke’s Magisterial (my copy is 1881).

Quite what he hoped to gain by sending a teenager to prison for six weeks is anyone’s guess but I doubt it did him much good. I suppose the alternative course might have been to use some discretion and get him admitted to the workhouse. I’m not sure Walter would have much liked that either. At Thames the younger boys were discharged if they were under about 14 although if no parents appeared to claim them the magistrates may well have been within their rights to consider sending them to a reformatory or industrial school. That too was harsh punishment but at least it carried the intention of ‘helping’ them by intervening in their lives.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, August 24, 1887]

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