Our child ancestors grew up in a violent society. Corporal punishment was widespread at home, in schools, and in the judicial system. Child convicts were flogged, sentenced to hard labour or transported overseas.
The age of criminal responsibility was seven years; when a child was 14 (later 16), he or she was treated as an adult in the courts. Capital punishment for children under sixteen was not abolished until 1908 (and for under-18s, not until 1932).
Most children were convicted for petty offences like stealing or picking pockets, although there were some child murderers, like John Bell (14), tried at Maidstone Assizes on 4 May 1831 for the murder of 13-year-old Richard Taylor. John robbed Richard and cut his throat; he was convicted of murder and hanged on 31 May.
Until the late eighteenth century prison sentences for children were uncommon, although they spent months in jail awaiting trial.
There were no separate detention facilities for children and young people until the late 1830s. Life in prison was harsh: boys and girls performed hard labour such as picking oakum.
Prisons were grossly overcrowded, and to relieve the pressure, former naval vessels – the ‘hulks’ - were pressed into service in the 1770s. Over the years thousands of men and boys were imprisoned in these insanitary, crowded hell-holes, which held convicts awaiting transportation.
Records for 18th and 19th century young offenders can be found in quarter sessions, assizes and petty sessions files at local record offices - Tracing Your Ancestors' Childhood has more detailed guidance. It wasn't until 1905 that Britain had its first children’s law court - at Birmingham. Then in 1908 the Children’s Act introduced special juvenile courts across Britain.
Some people questioned the severity of the treatment of child criminals, and I'll be discussing reformatories in a future blog post.
Images from the author's collection:
Prisoners including child felons: ‘stopping at the Baptist’s Head in St John’s Lane on the day of removal from the New Prison (Clerkenwell) to Newgate’. Illustration by Dodd, engraved by T.Smith c.1790.
The Artful Dodger picks a pocket. Illustration by George Cruikshank, The Adventures of Oliver Twist, (Chapman & Hall Ltd, and Henry Frowde, circa 1905).