A wilful act of youthful vandalism that echoes down the centuries

RAGGED TRUANTS CAPTURED

I used to live opposite a bus stop on a busy route into Northampton. The stop had a glass shelter to protect passengers from the elements, and buses called every 10-15 minutes at peak times. Behind the shelter was one of the town’s larger parks, laid out in the Victorian period for the good people of Northampton to enjoy. However, the park at night (while locked up) also provided a suitable hiding place for a group of small boys who took great pleasure in aiming small stones at the bus shelter whilst remaining hidden from prying eyes.

With depressing regularity the youths smashed the glass in the shelter which was then cleaned up within a few days and the glass replaced. Only, of course, for the cycle of criminal damage to begin again. One of my neighbours decided to watch the shelter from an upstairs window and called the police when the boys started their attack. I’m not sure they were caught but the violence stopped and the bus company’s property has only suffered more mild forms of vandalism since.

I can almost hear the complaints about ‘cereal’ modern youth, with no respect for property, and no curbs on their behaviour. ‘Young people these days…’ and all that.

But the reality is that teenagers behaving badly is not a new phenomena; it has little or nothing to do with the internet, with computer games, with modern divorce rates, or the end of corporal punishment in schools or any of the reasons the Daily Mail and its ilk like to present as symptoms of the decline of a once great Britain.

Take this tale, from 1881, a mere 137 years ago (when we had corporal – and capital – punishment, divorce was all but impossible, and women hadn’t yet got the vote). George Martin, the verger of the presbyterian church in Upper George Street, Marylebone, was fed up with arriving in the morning to find the windows of his church broken during the night.

Martin decided to set a trap for the culprits (whom he suspected to be a group of local lads) and he lay in watch to see what happened. A about six o’clock on the evening of Friday 2 September 1881 he watched as a group of four lads entered the churchyard. They picked up some stones and started to lob them at the church’s windows. As one hit and broke a pane Martin leapt out from behind a tree and chased after the now fleeing boys. Three escaped but he managed to catch one on of them, and hands him over the police.

On the Saturday morning Edgar Ashworth – a 13 year-old milk seller from Paddington appeared in court at Marylebone charged with breaking the church’s windows. George Martin had helpfully produced a drawing of the church windows, indicating where the damage was. He put the cost of the broken window of the previous night at 1s but said that upwards of 70 small panes had been broken in the last fortnight.

The magistrate, Mr De Rutzen was appalled; he ‘said he’d never heard a more miserable case that this’, and was determined that someone should be held responsible. ‘The evidence against the prisoner was as clear as noonday’, he said and he decided to fine him 40s for the criminal damage plus 1costs. His father was in court to hear this and said he had no intention of paying for his son’s actions.

As a result Edgar would be obliged to suffer the alternative: he was sent to prison for seven days.

My modern vandals would have been dealt with quite differently of course, but it is sobering to think that even the prospect of a hefty fine or imprisonment did not deter Edgar and his chums from a similar act.

[from The Standard, Monday, September 05, 1881]

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