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]

“Oh Monsieur, if you don’t take care you will lose your handkerchief out of your pocket!’: A Frenchman amuses the reading audience at Mansion House

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I was watching the news a week or so ago and (surprise, surprise) Brexit was being discussed. The BBC had sent a roaving reporter to Stoke to ask locals what they felt about Britain leaving the EU and at the delays that seemed to be undermining the process. One elderly couple (who self-identified as Leave voters) reflected a fairly common view that it was ‘about time’ the politicians just got on it with, and executed the will of the 52% that voted out.

When asked why he thought it was taking so long the man replied that it was the fault of the Europeans, in particular the French. ‘I’ve never liked the French’ he said.

This version of Francophobia has a long history in British (or rather English) culture.   As our nearest European neighbours France has been perceived as an enemy and economic rival for much of the last 1000 years. This is despite the reality that the long wars of the medieval period were dynastic (effectively French French kings versus English French kings) and the wars with the Bourbons were as much about religion as they were about nationalism, and those that benefited from them were the wealthy, not the poor that fought them.

Similarly the wars with Revolutionary and Napoleonic France were fought to preserve the power and wealth of the English aristocracy and mercantile class, not the ‘scum of the earth’ (as Wellington dubbed some of his infantry) who died in their thousands on foreign soil. Napoleon was a ‘monster’ and the revolutionary ideas of the French were supposedly inimical to English ‘liberty’. The reality was that had the revolution been exported to Britain we’d be quite a different nation today, arguably one without the House of Lords, the monarchy and all the trappings of class privilege.

In the early 1830s Waterloo was still a recent memory. Napoleon had died in 1821 (in exile on St Helena, possibly as a result of poison). France was no longer an enemy, even if it was still an economic rival, but Francophobic views persisted. London was home to plenty of Frenchmen and women and, in March 1835, one of the appeared at the Mansion House Police court to prosecute a pickpocket he’d caught red-handed on the street. The report of the case before the Lord Mayor reveals the casual anti-French sentiment which, I think, (as that man in Stoke demonstrates), continues to this day.

Monsieur Colliard had captured Edward Brown as he attempted to steal a handkerchief from his pocket in Lombard Street near the Bank of England. He described what happened in excellent English but with a heavy French accent. The Morning Post’s reporter wrote it up for the amusement of his readership so that both the working-class thief and his intended French victim  appeared as comic characters in a popular music hall skit.

‘My Lor’ said M. Colliard, ‘I vas going doing Lombar-street, Friday veek, and I felt tug, tug; and ven I turned to see vat it vas, I saw a vera leetle garçon run away with my handkerchief’.

I am now imagining the gentleman in his club or the worker at the bar of the pub amusing his friends by reading this aloud, with perfect comic timing.

Having lost one hankie Colliard was on his guard the following day.

‘So, I thought [this time] I would pin my handkerchief to my pocket, so de leetle garcon should not get him out. So when I go to the place were I vas tugged I felt another tug, and I turned about, and this garcon had a hold of my handkerchief. “Ah” I says, “I have caught you!”

“Oh Mounsier, “ says he, “if you don’t take care you will lose your handkerchief out of your pocket;” but I says to him, ‘I vill take care not to lose you,” and I held him fast, and I bring him here for your Lordship to try him’.

Young Edward Brown attempted to wriggle out of the charge by saying he was only trying to warn the Frenchman that he was in danger of dropping his ‘wipe’ or having it pinched by one of the many ‘bad characters’ that lurked around the Bank.

His show of altruism fooled no one, especially not the Lord Mayor, who told him that if he made ‘the communication without the slight of hand all would have been all right, but he must go to Bridewell for two months for going too far in in his endeavour to protect his neighbour’s property’.

So in the end a very ordinary story of petty theft was dressed up as an amusing tale that allowed the readers to chuckle at the funny accent of our continental neighbours and the misfortune of a ‘street arab’ whose poverty had probably driven him to steal in the first place. For me it is a reminder that some elements of our society continue to enjoy demonizing or ridiculing ‘foreigners’ even at the same time as we enjoy their wine, cheese, countryside, and culture and benefit from the trade between our countries.

The ‘little Englander’ has become a little more prominent as a result of Brexit and, regardless of whether being a member of the EU is a good or bad thing in your opinion, anything which serves to divide peoples who have much more in common than they have in difference, is a sad thing which does no one any good.

Expect, of course, for those that profit from nationalism and division. And that little club contains the real enemies of the people, the far right, religious extremists, and arms traders.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, March 02, 1835]

‘He wants to go to a reformatory your worship’. ‘He cannot do that, he is too old’: one mistake and a life is ruined.

1919

Robert Rayhnam cut a miserable figure in the dock at Mansion House Police court. The 14 year-old kept his head down, hardly spoke, and struggled under the withering glare of the Lord Mayor who sat as the City’s chief magistrate.

Young Robert, who was dressed respectably, had squandered a chance in life denied to very many boys of his class. He’s secured a position at Hackett & Co. a firm of ship agents as a messenger. It was a low paid but responsible job and Robert was trusted with money and cheques and so he had access to the company safe.

Sadly one day temptation got the better of him and he pinched a bag containing £11 and 10s. The bag, which also held notes and memos, was soon lost and Robert was questioned. He denied taking it but a search of the premises turned up some of the bag’s correspondence alongside private papers that belonged to the lad. Confronted with this Robert broke down, admitted his crime and begged for mercy.

His father was called who took him home. In looking through the boy’s papers Mr Hackett found a receipt for £9 for three month’s board and lodging, paid in advance. When he investigated further Hackett  discovered that these lodgings were in the house of man whose daughter Robert had been ‘courting’. So he wanted the money to impress his sweetheart’s father and demonstrate he was a worthy candidate for her  hand. Instead he merely showed himself to be dishonest and unreliable.

Robert’s employer was not ‘vindictive’ (in his words) but the boy had to be corrected. He asked the Lord Mayor if it would be possible to send Robert to a reformatory school. The Lord Mayor asked the boy’s age.

‘He was 14 in August’ Robert’s father replied.

‘Then he is too old for a reformatory’, intoned the magistrate.  ‘What have you to say to this charge?’ he demanded of Robert.

‘Nothing’.

‘Are you desirous that the case should be dealt with here, and that you should not be sent to the Old Bailey for trial?’

Robert said nothing, keeping his head bowed, and probably hoping the ground would swallow him up. The court’s officer leant in and Robert said something to him. ‘He wants to go to a reformatory your worship’, said the officer. ‘He cannot do that, he is too old’, said The Lord Mayor. Robert pleaded guilty and was remanded for three days so they could decide what to do with him.

Despite his crime it is hard not to feel sorry for Robert. He made a bad mistake and paid the price for it. The minimum he could expect was the loss of his job and any reference that might allow him to secure a similar one. He’d undermined his relationship with his father, the father of the girl he loved, and probably ended that relationship in the process (as it was unlikely that her father would allow the pair to see each other). Prison probably awaited him, if only for a few months.

Thereafter he’d be scarred by his experience. His best line of action probably lay in leaving the area he grew up in and seeking a fresh start somewhere else, perhaps with the forces, or on one of the many merchant ships that plied their trade at the London docks. Let’s hope there was a happy ending.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday 23 February, 1859]

‘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]

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