‘Two fine candidates for the Reformatory’: a pair of ‘street arabs’ are sent to sea

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HMS Cornwall, a floating juvenile reformatory

As you may know if you are a regular visitor to this blog space, I teach a module on the history of crime at the University of Northampton. It covers the period 1700-1900 and looks at a variety of topics including different types of offending (from petty theft to murder), the evolution of the court system, development of policing, and the changing nature of punishment (from hanging to the prison). We also explore a number of themes – such as gender, class, continuity and change, and youth.

This week’s topic is youth crime and the suggestion that in some respects the Victorian’s ‘invented’ juvenile delinquency. Arguably ‘Victorian’ is incorrect but there is a persuasive argument that it was in the nineteenth century that commentators really focused their attention on youth crime and that it was then that the word ‘delinquent’ emerged.  The 1815 report of the ‘committee for investigating the alarming increase in juvenile delinquency in the metropolis’ followed its research into the state of youth crime in London.

In the post war period the fear of crime had risen, as it is always had at the end of Britain’s major European conflicts. Returning soldiers always occasioned a heightened tension around criminality and the tense political period after Waterloo lasted for several years. The creation of the Metropolitan Police (which some early historians attributed, in part, to this tension) meant that there was a more regularized police presence on the capital’s streets, and this directly impacted juveniles.

The Committee had focused on youth because many – believing in the reality of a ‘criminal class’ – felt the obvious thing to do was to nip offending in the bud by making efforts to reform young criminals to prevent them becoming older, more dangerous ones. The police, under pressure to justify the rates spent on them, focused on easy targets to boost arrest figures, and these were often the ‘urchins’ that ‘infested’ the city’s streets.

Charles Nye (14) and William Pincombe (13) were just such a pair of delinquents and in January 1878 they were set in the dock at Clerkenwell Police court charged with theft. They were accused of stealing sixpence from a five-year-old boy, simply named as ‘Hunt’.

The thieves were already known offenders and were under police surveillance. Tow detectives from N Division (Vincent and Armstrong) had been following them at a distance for an hour and a half, watching carefully as they approached, stopped, and chatted to several children. They stopped to chat in a friendly way to the little boy called Hunt then suddenly snatched the bag he was holding and ran away. The police set off after them.

The pair were soon caught but detective Armstrong saw Pincombe discard a sixpence as he fled, trying not to be caught with any evidence. In court the police told Mr Hosack that the lads were suspected of committing a string of robberies and had previously been birched and sent to prison for six weeks for other crimes they’d been convicted of. On this occasion the magistrate was loath to send them to gaol, saying they ‘were too young to undergo a long term of imprisonment’.

Instead he was determined that they should go to a reformatory where they might stand some small chance of being rehabilitated. The Reformatory Movement, led by Mary Carpenter, had flourished from mid century and was founded on the principle that juveniles like Charles and William were better suited to an environment where they could learn some useful skills, alongside discipline and a sense of religious morality, to keep them out of trouble in the future, rather than being dumped into an adult prison where they would simply learn to be ‘better’ thieves.

The court clerk made some enquires and later that day Mr Wills, an Industrial Schools officer appeared in court to say that there were some vacancies on the Cornwall Reformatory Training ship. Happy with this option, Mr Hosack sentenced each lad to 14 days hard labour in prison; thereafter they were to be sent to the Cornwall for two years. Magistrates handing down a reformatory sentence had to include a period of hard labour, to soften up defendants and remind them that they were being given a chance at reform. Carpenter had argued against sending children to prison but society demanded that  they were punished, and so punished they would be.

[from The Standard, Thursday, January 24, 1878]

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