Four go wild in Kilburn, until the police spoil their fun

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For anyone that has read the Famous Five books, or Swallows and Amazons  this story might chime with memories of childhoods past. Today children seem to be hard wired to televisions, computers, or mobile devices, playing video games or ‘chatting’ with friends via social media. In the past – in the days before ‘technology’ – kids played in the street, built tree houses, and had ‘adventures’.

For the record I’m not sure exactly how trueand of that is, it may yet another myth of a British past that never existed (the same one where everyone could leave their front doors unlocked, you could see a film and get fish and chips all for tuppence, the trains ran on time, and England were good at football).

Whether or not this ‘golden age’ ever existed I do suspect that working-class children and youth had a very different experience of life than their wealthier compatriots. Most working class children in the 1800s would have worked, few would have gone to school beyond a basic primary education, and very few would have enjoyed much in the way of ‘luxuries’. Sadly, it seems, a decade or more of austerity is bringing that experience of the past back to some working class communities today.

Children (in any period of history) will find ways to amuse themselves if they are not otherwise engaged in tasks or education by adults. They will also ape adults, and seek to find space away from adults to act our their own fantasies of life.

Ernest Digwood, George Cronin, James Harwood, and William Wallace (probably no relation) were four small boys intent on creating their own world within the adult one. If they’d lived in the countryside they’d have played in the woods and fields, climbing trees, stealing eggs for nests, swimming in ponds or rivers, and running through corn fields.

But they didn’t grow up in rural Essex, or Buckinghmashire, or anywhere very green at all. Instead they had to make their fun in West London, among the streets and houses of one of the world’s busiest cities. Boys being boys they explored their patch and found an empty house on Kensal Road, at number 174, close to the canal. Today the area has little trace of its Victorian past, rows of modern social housing and warehouse space make this part of London indistinguishable from many others. But in 1892 these four boys found a place to play.

They had established a den, built a fire in kitchen grate and had brought provisions. I say ‘brought’ because they certainly hadn’t ‘bought’ them. The quartet had been out in the surrounding streets and had found a delivery van with an ample supply of food. Helping themselves, they returned to the house with ‘eggs, two loaves [of bread], some sugar, liver, steak, and four bottles of gingerade’. It was a veritable feast but they never got to enjoy it.

Someone must have seen them or heard them in the property and reported it to the police. PC 412X arrived and arrested them, taking them before Mr Plowden at the West London Police court. James Harwood was known to the court, having been in trouble there before. The birching he’d received then clearly hadn’t acted as the deterrent it was intended. He and Ernest were sent to the workhouse, probably to be beaten again. George Cronin and William Wallace were released into the care of their parents but could hardly expect to get away without a slippering from their respective fathers.

They stole and the broke into an empty house, and of course that’s wrong. But at least they had an adventure, which is something, surely?

[from The Standard, Friday, January 15, 1892]

Little boys should not play with guns: a cautionary tale from West Ham

Vintage engraving from 1864 of showing a victorian Revolver

William Slade wasn’t a bad lad but like many nine year old boys he was fascinated with guns. His father kept a loaded revolver in his desk and, while he was supposed to keep this locked he had lost the key some time ago. William knew where the gun was and in November 1885 he took it out of the drawer to play with.

On the 18 November he took the pistol down to the river bank at Plaistow where he showed it off to his friends who used it to shoot at the pigeons and wildfowl. He must have enjoyed being the centre of attention so the next day he and his mates were back by the river again, getting through his father’s arsenal of 30 live cartridges.

At half past one he was back at school where no doubt more small children wanted to see the now famous weapon in action. William loaded the chamber with a fresh bullet and thought he’d carefully fixed the firing hammer so it couldn’t go off.

But then tragedy struck. He was ‘swinging the revolver about when it went bang’. A boy next to him fell to the ground and William rushed off home to his father. In the meantime the stricken lad, another nine year-old named Henry Leach, was taken to Poplar Hospital where he died of his wounds.

When William admitted what he’d Mr Slade took him by the arm and delivered him to the police station to face the music. Inspector Golding  attended the inquest into Henry Leach’s death where a verdict of misadventure was recorded.

Later that month father, son and police inspector were all present at West ham Police court to hear the magistrate (Mr Phillips) express his sorrow for the death of Henry and the trauma suffered by both families. As the coroner had determined that the death was an accident he discharged William into the care of his father.

One hopes that Mr Leach secured the revolver and young William never handled a gun again.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, 26 November, 1885]

A ‘young hero’ engages in an ‘attaque à outrance’ near Battersea Bridge

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On Sunday afternoon, the 7 October 1860 PC John McGuire of V Division was called to attend an incident in Lindsay Place close to Battersea Bridge.  When he got there he saw a huge crowd of youths, possibly as many as 200, which formed a ring. As he forced his way through the throng he found two young lads, aged about 10, slugging it out in the centre.

He stopped the fight and soon discovered that the boys had been at it for ages, being dragged apart on no less that six occasions already. They seemed very determined to fight and it took all of PC McGuire’s physical and persuasive abilities to get them to stand down and to take them into custody.

Both lads were bailed to appear the following morning at Westminster Police court but only one of them, James Wood, turned up.    The court heard that ‘the mantles of Sayers and Heenan’ had ‘descended upon their shoulders’ and that they had ‘made up their minds to do battle à l’outrance’ (or attack to excess as the expression translates).

The reference to Sayers and Heenan was to what has been termed the world’s first title fight which took place in April 1860. The American champion John Carmel Heenan came to England to fight the British boxer Tom ‘Brighton Titch’ Sayers. Thousands flocked to Farnborough to see the fight that ended in a bloody draw as the police raided the venue. The fight was illegal and no rules on the length of ‘rounds’ applied then. However, the fight prompted questions in Parliament and led to the formation of the ‘Dozen Rules’ by the London Amateur Athletic Club in 1865. These were approved in parliament and were sponsored by John Sholto Douglas, the Marquess of Queensbury.

As for James Wood the magistrate at Westminster, Mr Paynter, asked why the fight had occurred. James explained that he had caught his opponent trying to drown a dog and when he had tried to stop him the pair had agreed to settle it with their fists. It was a noble gesture in the eyes of the press who described him as a ‘young hero’ (perhaps a little tongue in cheek), and Mr Paynter perhaps agreed. However, fighting on a Sunday was against the law and the justice warned him not to engage in it again, and then let him go, his reputation significantly enhanced by his day in court.

The other lad (who remained unnamed) suffered by comparison. The papers suggested that ‘the long arm of the law [was possibly] too strong for his juvenile constitution’.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, October 09, 1860]

Like this? You might enjoy these other posts that involve boxing:

Illegal boxing in North East London

‘They fought very severely for little boys’; tragedy in Rotherhithe.

The Marlborough Street magistrate helps Big Ben’s missus deliver a knock-out blow

An open window is an invitation to thieves

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Ellen Dunn was sitting at her desk in the evening, doing her household accounts. She had her receipts and an account book open in front of her, and a bag containing around £12 in cash on the floor beside her chair. The widow lived at 68 Warden Road in Kentish Town and her daughter was in a room upstairs.

At about eight o’clock Mrs Dunn heard a noise in the room. Looking up she watched with horror as the window ‘was thrown open’ and someone entered the room. Ellen ran out of the room to the front door to see who was breaking in but couldn’t get out; someone or something was preventing her from opening her own front door.

She went back into the room and leaned out of the open window and yelled ‘police!’ This brought her daughter running downstairs to see what the matter was. There was no one visible in the street but Mrs Dunn’s bag of money was missing. The next morning the empty bag was found in the front garden – Mrs Dunn realized had been burgled.

Fortunately the police had a witness from within the Dunn’s own household. Amy Sefton was a 14 year-old serving girl, probably very junior, but she proved to be a very capable young woman. She said she had seen a group of lads watching the house just before the robbery had taken place. She saw a boy she recognized as someone who lived locally run away from the house clutching a bag that seemed very similar to the one found that morning.

He took the bag to his mates who were clustered around a lamppost. Using the light it offered the boys peered inside. ‘Here is a go: there is some money!’ one of them cried, clearly delighted with the prize.

Then they removed the cash, stuffed it in their pockets and dashed off. One of them was dispatched to throw away the bag and this is when they spotted Amy watching them. They swore at her but she held her ground and made sure she got a good look at them. This resulted in the police picking up a lad one 17 named William Hine, who was produced at Marylebone Police court on the following day.

Hine was charged (along with several others in absentia) with entering a dwelling house and stealing £12. It was a serious property crime and the magistrate remanded William in custody so the police investigation could continue. The justice made a point of commending Amy for her quick thinking and bravery.

This would be a hard case to prove however; Amy said she would be able to identify William and one or other of the lads but without forensics or any of the money being found on them the police may have struggled to build a case against them. Hine doesn’t feature in the Old Bailey records or in the Digital Panopticon. His absence from both doesn’t mean he wasn’t prosecuted further but without a clear trail I wonder if, on this occasion, the lads got away with it. On thing is likely however: Mrs Dunn would have been careful not to leave her windows open in future.

[from The Standard, Thursday, September 28, 1893]

A teenage girl gets the benefit of the doubt

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Since 1908 we have had separate courts for juvenile defendants and even before then there was a recognition that young children at least needed to be dealt with differently when they were caught up in the criminal justice system.

Today we wouldn’t think of placing a child of 13 in the dock of a magistrate’s court. Instead they would be brought before a youth court (if they are aged 10-17) and a parent or guardian would have to be present. The public are excluded from youth courts (but allowed in Magistrates’ courts) and defendants are called by their first name, and the presiding magistrates are specially trained.

The emphasis is on the welfare of the child, rather than their supposed criminality or deviant behaviour. Serious charges (murder for example) will potentially  end up before a judge and jury but nearly all other youth crime is heard in a Youth court where the legal process is more relaxed and less intimidating.

In the mid nineteenth century things were a little different. Welfare was not uppermost in the minds of the penal authorities and children were routinely imprisoned and even transported for a whole series of offences. Earlier in the century children (those aged below 16) could still end up on the gallows if they were convicted of murder, although this was extremely rare. So in 125 John Smith was hanged for burglary, he was 15; more infamously John Any Bird Bell was executed in 1831 for murdering a 13 year-old child, John was only a year older himself.

So when Anne Mabley appeared in the dock at Southwark Police court it’s no wonder she sobbed through her entire hearing. Anne was 13 and was accused of stabbing a younger child, nine year-old Richard Sparrowhall in the face.

The court was told that as Richard had passed Anne at ten that morning (the 19 September 1847) in Bermondsey she called to him. As he turned she asked him ‘how he should like to have his head cut off!’

Not surprisingly Richard replied that he wouldn’t like it, not at all!

But Anne produced a knife and tapped him on the shoulder with it. He pushed her roughly away, presumably in defence, and she stabbed him in the face. The blade cut his cheek below his eye and, very fortunately,  did little damage. Anne panicked and ran away but several witnesses saw what happened and caught hold of her.

While the lad was taken to have his wound looked at Anne was questioned by a policeman. She denied do anything and swore she had no knife but PC 159M soon found it and arrested her. He brought her straight to court as a day charge and her mother was sent for.

In between her tears Anne swore it was an accident, a joke that went wrong and said she’d been using the knife to trim her nails. The magistrate was inclined to believe and since Richard had escaped serious injury common sense prevailed and Anne was released into the care of her mother. So this story has a happy ending but on another day the 13 year-old girl could have faced a custodial sentence, of several weeks or even months, in an adult prison. The consequences of that experience may well have mentally scarred her for life, just as her attack on Richard might have scarred him physically.

[from The Standard, Monday, September 20, 1847]

Is there ‘anything more shocking than a woman teaching a child to rob its parents’?

Worship Street from Builder

When Mr and Mrs Thomas French began to notice money was missing from the till they scratched their heads for an explanation. The couple ran the Chequers pub in Worship Street, Finsbury and the only other person they thought could be responsible was their young son, a child of just nine years of age.

Ada French decided to collar her boy and make him tell her the truth: had he been stealing, and if so, why? The poor lad confessed but said a woman named Bencker who lived in Fitzrovia had put him up to it. Ada resolved to find out if he was lying so set a trap for him (and his partner in crime).

Acting on the advice of the police she marked a handful of sixpence pieces and put them in the till. Soon afterwards she saw her son take coins from it and leave the pub. She followed afterwards  with a police constable and tracked the lad to Windmill Street, Fitzrovia, where Louise Bencker lived.

Ada found her boy inside the 36 year-old fur sewer’s home and the policeman discovered the two marker coins in Bencker’s possession. She was arrested and brought before Mr Bushby at Worship Street Police court in the morning. The magistrate was horrified:

He told the prisoner

that anything more shocking than a woman teaching a child to rob its parents he could not conceive’,

and he sentenced Louisa to three months at hard labour.

But what exactly did Louise Bencker have on the unnamed nine year-old? What do she say or do to induce him to risk a beating at the very least, and possibly worse, by stealing from his family? And what was he doing all the way over in Fitzrovia? Sadly of course, that bit of the story we will probably never know.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, September 16, 1877]

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]