The peril of children running errands on London’s streets

Boys exercising at Tothill Fields Prison

I recall being dispatched to buy cigarettes for my father on several occasions in my youth, or to return ‘pop’ bottles for the deposit. Both involved a long walk (or run) down (and then back up) the hill where we lived. Running ‘errands’ like this was a common enough thing in the past but I suspect it is one of those things that no longer happens, especially with small children, given the perceived perils of modern society.

In the nineteenth century sending a child (even one as young as 7) out to fetch food or drink, or to deliver a message, was very normal. After all children worked at a much younger age and until mid century school was really only for the sons and daughters of the better off.

But the streets could be just as dangerous a place for children in the 1800s as they are today. Carts and coaches rumbled along the cobbled thoroughfares at great speed and could rarely stop in time to avoid a running child if they stepped into its path; thieves and villains lurked around every corner, and child prostitution rackets operated in the capital.

Sometimes the threat came from young people not much older than themselves, as in this case from 1855. In early March Ann Jane Hatley had been sent out with sixpence to buy some butter. She was 7 years of age and lived with her parents in Exeter Street, Chelsea. As she walked along a small boy, about 12 or 13 came up to her and asked where she was going. When she explained he said she needed to be careful of lest she drop the 6in the mud of the street.

The lad, whose name was William Smith, produced a piece of paper and said the best thing was for her to wrap her coin in it to protect it. When Ann handed over the money for him to do so he promptly ran off with it. Fortunately, a passer-by had seen what happened and set off in pursuit. William was captured and brought before the magistrate at Westminster.

In court several other children were produced who reported similar robberies on them whilst out running errands. Susannah Welsh (who was 9 or 10) had been sent to buy flour. William had followed her for ‘some distance’ before he suddenly pounced and wrestled the money she was carrying (2s) from her grasp.

Thomas Mursell (just 8) had been entrusted with 9to pay a baker’s bill when Smith approached him and asked what he was doing. When he discovered the boy had money Smith contrived to knock it out of his hand, as ‘if by accident’, and then offered him some paper to wrap it in as they pair collected it from the street. It was only when Thomas got to the baker’s shop that he realized that William had managed to steal over half of it.

There were a string of other small boys and girls with similar tales to tell but the magistrate (Mr Arnold) had heard enough. He duly committed the ‘expert juvenile highwayman’ (as Reynold’s Newspaper dubbed him) for trial before a jury.

William went for trial at the Westminster Quarter Sessions where he was convicted of two thefts (from Ann and Susannah) and sentenced to a spell in the house of detention.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, March 4, 1855]

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