Children in chains

Children in chains

Michelle Higgs investigates the treatment of Victorian juvenile offenders

Michelle Higgs, author

Michelle Higgs


In the 19th century, a brush with the law could have very serious consequences for a child, no matter how minor the offence. It was considered vital to punish juvenile offenders to deter them from a life of crime, especially as it had been calculated that about 60% of habitual criminals began their careers before the age of 15. Whippings, imprisonment, transportation and even capital punishment were all meted out to child criminals during the Victorian period.

Legally, children under the age of seven were not capable of criminal intent and could not therefore be held responsible for a crime. However, if it could be proved that a boy or girl aged between seven and 14 who had committed a criminal offence knew the difference between good and evil, they were considered guilty. These children were classed as ‘juvenile offenders’; anyone over the age of 14 was treated as an adult.

‘Dinner in the Oakum Room at Tothill Fields’
‘Dinner in the Oakum Room at Tothill Fields’ from Mayhew & Binny, The Criminal Prisons of London (1862)

In a large number of cases, children broke the law because of the bad example set by their parents. For instance, in 1842, a poor child of seven years oldwas committed to the Preston House of Correction for illegally pawning. Reverend John Clay, the prison chaplain, reported that the child’s mother had encouraged him in his crime: He had stolen a shirt exposed to dry, and then pledged it, having been taught how to pawn by his mother, who a short time previous, had sent him to pledge a pair of his own trowsers [sic], which she had obtained from charity.

Prison sentences
Visitors to Victorian prisons frequently commented on the inappropriate imprisonment of young children for petty offences such as stealing gooseberries and apples, trespassing in fields, vagrancy and theft. From the mid-19th century, punishments for juvenile offenders were less harsh, but they could still be committed for short prison sentences combined with a whipping. Girls, at least, could not be subjected to corporal punishment.

For many young children sent to prison for the first time, the experience was terrifying. There were no special facilities for juveniles; they occupied cells designed for adults, were expected to undertake a certain amount of work and, until the late 19th century, they slept on hard, plank beds. In the 1890s, the governor at Stafford Prison commented that three or four boys there were so frightened that we have been obliged to light their gas, and leave the door of their cells open by night .

The Boys Schoolroom at Tothill Fields
‘The Boys’ Schoolroom at Tothill Fields’ from Mayhew & Binny

On the other hand, those who did not have a happy home life found prison to be a welcome change. Edwin Witheford, the chief warder at Dorchester prison, reported to the Gladstone Committee in 1894 that a boy under the age of 12 had recently been sentenced to seven days’ imprisonment, adding that prison had not had the desired effect on the child: That boy we sent out of prison last week was perfectly delighted with the treatment he got in prison. There is nothing to deter that boy from coming again. He was treated with utmost kindness: the boy was quite pleased. He was treated kinder in prison than he would be in his own home.

Boys Exercising at Tothill Fields
‘Boys Exercising at Tothill Fields’ from Mayhew & Binny

Life in prison
There were growing concerns about the effect imprisonment had on young children because they were at risk of moral corruption by hardened adult criminals. To help solve the problem, in 1838, the government opened Parkhurst on the Isle of Wight as a prison for boys over 14 sentenced to transportation for serious or multiple offences. The aim was to improve their characters through strict discipline prior to leaving Britain. However, there were always more boys awaiting transportation than places at Parkhurst; the remainder were sent to Millbank. Girls and those under 14 continued to be sent to adult prisons. After transportation ended in 1852, Parkhurst remained as a juvenile prison until 1864.

The daily routine of child prisoners was made up of exercise, school lessons (both religious and secular) and ‘hard labour’.

Most were given oakum to pick – the painful task of unravelling tarred rope by hand. Until 1865, other forms of work included the crank, the capstan and stone-crushing; the treadwheel was outlawed for those under 14 in 1843. While in prison, juvenile offenders could be punished for misbehaviour usually by a period of solitary confinement and a bread and water diet, with flogging as a last resort.

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Prison reformers such as Mary Carpenter continued to campaign for alternatives to jailing children. In her influential book Reformatory Schools for the Children of the Perishing and Dangerous Classes, and for Juvenile Offenders, she argued that juvenile offenders should be treated as children and stated that love draws with… cords far stronger than chains of iron .

Birmingham’s Calendar of Prisoners
Charles Battle’s entry in Birmingham’s Calendar of Prisoners, January 1882 The Library of Birmingham

Towards reform
Change came with the Youthful Offenders’ Act (1854) under which juveniles convicted of a repeat offence were sent to prison for 14 days, followed by between two and five years at a reformatory school. By 1858, there were 50 such institutions and seven years later this had increased to 65. They were considered preferable to prison as juveniles could usually be kept there until the age of 16, removed from the contaminating influences of adult criminals. In addition, well-behaved children could be let out after half of their sentence to serve the remainder on licence while apprenticed to a trade.

The treatment of juvenile offenders bound for reformatories varied from prison to prison. In the 1880s at Manchester, children were given instruction and school books while at Kirkdale, they could sleep in beds and did not have as much work as the other prisoners.

From 1896, prisons were required to separate juveniles from adults completely, and children serving a month or more were to be housed in a prison with a distinct section exclusively for them.

Juveniles were also no longer subjected to the plank bed and could have extra library books, in addition to educational ones. They could work with other children in workshops and at outdoor labour, and were to be instructed in a trade as far as possible. If certified medically fit, the juvenile participated in daily physical drill instead of, or in addition to, the usual walking exercise with a view to his physical development .

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