‘The devil finds work for idle hands to do’: a youngster pays the price for his temptation

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William Barham was only 11 years of age when he stood in the dock at mansion House Police court. His experience is a reminder that attitudes towards children (especially juvenile offenders) have changed enormously in the past 150 years.

William’s father worked in a local market close to Mark Lane as a ‘sampler of corn’. He was well respected having held the post for many years. His lad often went into work with him and was allowed to play and run about the offices at the New Corn Exchange. The beadle had an office there, where the boy was allowed occasionally to wash himself.

On the 8 May William was watching Mr Wise the beadle tie up some bags of silver coin. The temptation  must have been too great because when the beadle left the room William helped himself to one of the bags. Wise spotted the loss on his return and his suspicions immediately fell on young William.

This was compounded by the eleven year-old’s absence and so on the following morning, when he reappeared, he was questioned closely about the missing money (which amounted to £5). William denied all knowledge of it and the matter was handed over to the police. Now William cracked; handling questions from his father and a man he knew was one thing, but being interrogated by police detective, perhaps in a cell nearby clearly unsettled the child.

Accompanied by his father, the beadle and the detective, William took them across the river to ‘an orchard in a retired part of Bermonsdsey’ where he’d buried his loot. They dug up the bag which still contained most of the silver; William had spent 36but wouldn’t say on what.

At his first appearance in court, soon after the discovery of the theft, William was remanded in custody at the request of his father. Mr Barham said he wanted his son to be placed in a juvenile reformatory, for his own good. The magistrate agreed but sent the child back to a police cell while the arrangements were made. This had taken about a week and now father and son were reunited at the Mansion House, along with the boy’s mother.

Alderman Challis, sitting as magistrate, asked the parents what they wanted to happen to William. They said they were ‘both anxious that some steps should be taken to reclaim their son from the dangerous career on which he had entered’.

Detective Monger explained that his enquiries had established that William had be led on by an older boy, a common trope in juvenile crime.

This other lad had persuaded William to ‘steal anything he could lay his hands on’ and, as a result, ‘he had frequently robbed his father and mother’.

Today William would have been seen as a troubled child, perhaps one that played truant or had been excluded from school. William didn’t go to school in 1860, nor, it seems, did he work. As the proverb suggests, ‘the devil finds work for idle hands to do’.

The alderman agreed that a reformatory school was the best place for William but the law required that he face a spell in prison first. William was sentenced to 14 days in Holloway gaol so that he could face the full consequences of his criminal actions and hopefully learn from it. Thereafter he would be sent to the Home in the East School for the Reformation of Criminal Boys at Bow, for four years. His father was obliged to pay 2sa week towards his keep, the intention being that parents should not evade their responsibilities entirely.

William was led away in tears and ‘for some minutes after was heard shrieking loudly for his father and mother’. It was a harsh system and we can only hope that William emerged in his early teens unscathed by it and perhaps one step removed from the influences that had led him to steal in the first place.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Saturday, May 19, 1860]

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