Corpun file 18025
Daily Mail, London, 19 July 2006
Victorian 'hoodies' truly deserved a hug
Flat-cap Hoodies. Their crimes? Pitiful, when compared to
today's teen gangs. Their punishment? Barbaric beatings.
By Glenys Roberts
Little George Sayers was scarcely a hardened criminal. Just 13
years old, small for his age due to malnourishment, his little
face screwed up in an expression of bewilderment, he faced the
police camera in May 1900 fearing, quite rightly, that he would
be beaten for his crimes.
George was accused of stealing handkerchiefs, rugs, skirts and
shirts worth three pounds and ten shillings from the Newcastle
shop where he was employed as an errand boy.
When he heard the charge, he burst into tears. One of some 14
children, whose father had deserted his 52-year-old mother Emma,
leaving her to feed and clothe her huge brood alone. He was
accused along with his mother, who admitted she had put him up to
his petty thieving. 'I told him to take them. Don't
blame the boy,' she gallantly told the police.
Another of the pair's methods was to steal clothes off
the neighbours' washing lines, whereupon Emma would whisk
the loot around to the local pawnbroker where they were hocked to
get money for the family. It was the pawnbroker who tipped off
the police when he became suspicious.
These stories, and some 300 others, all equally poignant, have
just been uncovered by retired North Shields policeman Ken Banks.
When the local force deserted the Victorian police station
where he had worked all his life, the records of a long-lost way
of life were about to be thrown into a skip. Instead, they were
rescued by Banks's far-seeing boss, who gave them to the
The full picture was completed by historian Nigel Green, who
trawled the local records trying to match each miserable
photograph with stories of the children on trial.
The custom in those days was to line up the accused and get them
to hold a slate on which their name would be written in chalk,
together with the alleged offence and the date on which it was
Compared with the austere mugshots of today the accused, with
their idiosyncratic clothing and vulnerable gazes, as pitiful
Yet while times were different and the punishments meted out much
harsher than today, their stories are surprisingly timeless.
Green, who has authored a book, Tough Times, about his
discoveries, turned up records of binge-drinking in the early
1800s, prostitution in the 1870s and race riots in the 1930s.
But the saddest tales of all are about the Victorian
While the Industrial Revolution had made Britain rich, it led to
grinding poverty in cramped inner-city slums plagued by hunger
and disease. Boys like George Sayers were soon educated in the
skills of street survival by their parents and condemned as often
as not to a life of crime.
Police records show that in the years from 1838 to 1851 the
number of minors arrested for petty crimes more than doubled.
What a picture of desolation lies behind these cold statistics.
Some of the children picked up by the police were as young as
eight, and they were often held in stinking prison cells
Green uncovered a list of 15 boys who between them had been to
prison nearly 250 times. He discovered how, of 45 families living
in one street, 40 of the mothers were addicted to drink while six
or eight people were sleeping in one room regardless of sex or
age. The language used was obscene, the place utterly squalid.
In one house, a habitual drunkard was living with her two sons in
a darkened room 10ft by 5ft, with no furniture. The children were
driven onto the streets nearly naked to beg.
Two sisters, whose mother died when they were only ten and 13,
were locked out of their home by their father and encouraged to
steal from shops. For such children, rehabilitation was not an
Police records show that, no matter how hard the children were
punished, there were some who would not, or could not, change
Francis Dixon, from Newcastle, was only nine when he received six
lashes for stealing oranges in 1856. The next year, he was given
ten lashes for stealing apples. A few months later, he got 12
lashes for stealing lead, followed by six weeks in prison with
But his life of crime continued, and by the age of 47, Dixon had
received 16 prison sentences totalling 26 years.
Unlike today, he would have served all of that time behind bars.
Only occasionally was a judge inclined to show leniency, as
demonstrated by one case from County Durham in 1873, which has
echoes of today's girl gangs.
Fourteen-year-old Mary Wardle was visiting Barnard Castle Fair
when she started brawling with another girl, Jane Gargett, over a
shawl that Mary was wearing.
Jane claimed the shawl belonged to her aunt and accused Mary of
stealing it. There followed a slanging match during which Mary
punched Jane in the face. Jane then rolled up her sleeves and,
preparing to fight for real, tried to pick up a stone to hurl at
her opponent. But Mary got to the stone first and hurled it at
Jane's head with such force that it killed her on the spot.
When Mary Wardle appeared before Durham Assizes two months later
charged with manslaughter — 'a simple-looking girl' according to a local journalist — she was in floods of tears.
The judge took pity on her, telling her: 'You see how wrong
a thing you have done, but I'm sure you did not mean to do
The girl replied: 'No sir.'
Incredibly, in a climate where young boys were flogged for simply
being at the scene of the crime, the judge told her: 'I
shall not sentence you at all but, if you do such a thing again,
you will be punished for what you have done now. You may go
© 2006 Associated Newspapers Ltd
Note by C.F.: This piece shows us that the Daily Mail is just as tendentious and ill-researched when it is having one of its 'liberal' moments as it is when in its more customary reactionary mode.
It is true that juvenile criminals in the first half of the 19th century "were often held in stinking prison cells alongside adults". That is precisely why birching became the norm later in the century for young petty offenders -- to keep them out of prison. It is misleading to describe juvenile birching as "barbaric beating" and "lashes". It was a minor punishment, on a par with what was customarily doled out in grammar and public schools in those days.
Nor is it "incredible" that a judge should have shown leniency on occasion, especially to a girl. The newspapers of the era are full of such cases, as anyone with a public library card can find out in about ten minutes.
For more on juvenile judicial birching in the UK, see these external links.