‘It is really quite dreadful to see young children standing in the dock charged with drunkenness’. Two young girls are led astray

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We might like to believe that children grow up faster these days or lose their innocence at an earlier age than they did in the past, but how true is this? There is a temptation to believe that everything was better in the past when prices were lower, the elderly were respected, and there was less crime. Often this mythical ‘golden age’ is associated with the 1950s the last decade before standards dropped as the ‘swinging sixties’ turned society upside down.

In reality of course the problems we face today are not really new ones just old ones in modern packaging. There were, for example, concerns about youth gangs in the Victorian period, and fears about the feckless nature of working-class youth go back to the end of the Napoleonic wars and beyond, as Geoffrey Pearson showed in his seminal study of youth crime Hooligans in 1983. So it is not at all surprising to find Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper reporting on ‘rival gangs of roughs’ staging pitch battles in the capital in 1887.

Members of ‘gangs’ from Child’s Hill and Hendon fought with ‘lads’ from Maida Vale, Kilburn and Lisson Grove that autumn, arriving in ‘forces of 50 to 100, armed with sticks and belts’. According to the police ‘quite a riot followed’. Two of the combatants ended up before the magistrate at  Marylebone where they were charged with assault on a policeman that intervened in the battle. Edward Martell (17) was sent to gaol for 21 days and Arthur Hillman (19) for two weeks. But it was two other young people that caught my attention in the report of cases heard at Marylebone that week, Mary Ann Cook and Helen Cawthorn.

Mary was 12 and Helen 13 and they were brought in for being found drunk and incapable. The magistrate, Mr De Rutzen, was told that Mary Cook was lying in the gutter late on Sunday night when PC Miles (122S) discovered her as he patrolled Camden High Street. He picked her up and took her to the police station. Helen Cawthorn had already been taken to the Temperance Hospital on Hampstead Road and PC Sinclair (302S) had been called to collect her by officials there. Once they were both at the police station the desk sergeant sent for a doctor to examine the girls and he confirmed that they were both quite drunk.

In court the police deposed that enquiries were made and it had been discovered that the pair had ‘been with some ‘low rough boys’ from the neighbourhood and it was them that had led them astray and encouraged them to drink. They suspected that the boys had taken them to a public house but they couldn’t find out yet which one that was. Presumably they would have brought a prosecution against the landlord if they had.

Both girls’ parents were in court to speak up for their children. Mrs Cook said that her daughter had asked to go out to play on Sunday evening and she had allowed it. The first she heard of any trouble was when the police informed her that Mary was in custody. The mother was clearly shocked as she and her husband ‘were abstainers and encouraged their children in temperance principles’. Mr Cawthorn also said his daughter was usually very well behaved and that this was out of character.

The magistrate addressed the girls and said that ‘really quite dreadful to see two young children standing in the dock charged with drunkenness’. He accepted that the local boys had led them on but they should have known better than to go to a pub with them.  ‘It was the first step down hill’ he declared but fining them would do not good (since they’d have no money to pay)  and prison would ‘only make them worse’. So he discharged them into the care of their parents and hoped the disgrace of a court appearance would serve as sufficient warning for the future.

At this point a Mr Thompson steeped forward. He was a police court missionary, a member of a charitable organization that acted to help defendants if they promised to take the pledge and abstain from alcohol. He stated that it was his belief that both girls had once belonged to a Band of Hope, a temperance organization that had been established  mid century in Leeds. Children could join at the age of six and were taught to avoid the evils of drink. Thompson said he would try to get the pair reinstated in the group so they could be steered away from the dangerous path they had set themselves upon.

The police court missionaries started as an offshoot of the Temperance  movement but established themselves as an important part of the life of the police courts. They advised magistrates who came to trust them, especially where  (as was often the case) the offence the accused was up for involved drunkenness. In 1887 parliament passed the Probation of First Offenders Act which allowed a person charged on a first offence to be released without punishment if the court deemed it appropriate. There was no supervision order at first but this followed in subsequent legislation and eventfully, in 1907, the Probation service was created. Not only did probation offer the first real alternative to a custodial sentence it also signaled a new welfare approach to offenders, once aimed at helping them to reform rather than simply locking them up and hoping they learned the appropriate message.

It was an important breakthrough in offender management so it is deeply troubling that 112 years later probation has been allowed to fall into such a parlous state that the justice secretary has had to admit today that its experiment with part privatization has failed. David Gauke has effectively reversed the 2014 decision of one of his predecessors, the woefully incompetent Chris Graying, and returned the supervision of those on probation to public sector control. Grayling’s mistake has cost the taxpayer close to £500,000,000 and Dame Glenys Stacey (Chief probation inspector) said it was ‘irredeemably flawed’. It is not just the financial cost of course, Grayling’s bungling has had a negative effect on the lives of those realised into supervision and the general public who have suffered because of poor or insufficient supervision.

In May this year Grayling cancelled was forced to cancel ferry contracts he’d sanctioned to ‘ensure critical imports could reach the UK in the event of a no-deal Brexit’ costing us £50,000,000. He had already been forced to pay £33,000,000 in compensation for not including Eurotunnel in the bidding for the same contracts. £1,000,000 was paid to consultants in seeking to make a contract with a ferry company (Seaborne Freight) who had no ships.

Chris Grayling is still a minister in Her Majesty’s government.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, September 25, 1887]

If you enjoy this blog series you might be interested in Drew’s jointly authored study of the Whitechapel (or ‘Jack the Ripper’) murders which is published by Amberley Books on 15 June this year. You can find details here:

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