Juvenile crime in the 18th and 19th century

Victorian child labour farm

‘Treachery don’t come natural to beaming youth; but trust and pity, love and constancy,–they do, thank God!’            Charles Dickens

Young people have always got into trouble with the law. What changes over time is how society deals with its young offenders.

Although youth crime has been a concern since the 1700s, the change from what was basically a farming, village based way of life to an industrial city life in the 1800s did much to create fears among the general public about the activities of criminal gangs of boys and girls in London and elsewhere.

By 1800 sensational stories of crime and violence filled the pages of the popular press with details of juvenile crime appearing in newspapers, broadsides and pamphlets. The activities of so-called ‘lads-men’ were regularly reported. These were criminal bosses who supposedly trained young boys to steal and then later sold on the stolen goods they received from them. (see Pickpockets and Ragamuffins)

In 1880, there were 6,500 children under 16 in adult prisons, of whom 900 were under 12. Evidence from the courts and newspaper articles during the first half of the 19th century suggests that juvenile crime was indeed perceived as a genuine problem. Young gangs of boys pickpocketing was a particular problem in cities where large crowds gathered.

This evidence is further supported by the findings of social investigators at work during the 19th century. Journalist Henry Mayhew, for example, wrote extensively about the corrupting effects of poverty on the young. In London Labour and the London Poor, Mayhew described life in the capital’s ‘low-lodging houses’, where he found several young boys engaged in daily petty thefts, including one who recounted how he was regularly drunk at the age of 10. Mayhew also described the activities of ‘Mudlarks’: boys and girls aged between eight and 15, who plundered goods from barges moored on the River Thames.

In the 18th century young children were not really viewed as serious criminals. Farmers whose apples had been taken may have complained to the children’s parents and the local constable might have given them a severe telling off or a clip on the ear but only the most difficult and persistent child offenders found themselves in court. However in the late 18th and early19th centuries juvenile crime was taken far more seriously.


Warwickshire assizes 1874

‘A return of all cases of Children under 14 years of age committed to the Prison during the past Quarter. January, February and March 1874’ . The chart shows the offence, the age and the punishment given. You can see that for children ranged 9 to 13 years old the punishments were severe for very minor offences (stealing pigeons, a coat or an umbrella). Several children were sent to prison briefly and then on to a reformatory for five years; some were whipped and one (aged 13) was sent for trial at the Assizes, where he could have received the death penalty if found guilty of murder.

Age 11: 14 days gaol + 5 years Reformatory for Stealing a Coat
Age 12: 14 days gaol + 5 years Reformatory for Stealing Boots
Age 11: 1 day gaol and whipped, for Stealing Pigeons
Age 9: 1 day gaol and whipped, for Stealing Pigeons [three boys]
Age 13: Trial at the Assizes, accused of Murder
Age 12: 21 days gaol + 5 years Reformatory, for Stealing Money
Age 13: 14 days gaol, for Stealing an Umbrella.

Warwickshire County Record Office


The industrial revolution

All this is set against the backdrop of the industrial revolution when labourers were in greater demand than ever. Mines, factories and shops needed help, and there were not enough men or women to fill their needs. Children were cheap, plentiful, and easy to control. Orphanages and even parents would give their children to the owners of cotton mills and other businesses in exchange for the cost of maintaining them. It’s hardly surprising that many children ran away to a life if crime.


Population Growth

Between 1700 and 1750, the population of England stayed relatively stable, with little growth. Then, between 1750 and 1850, it more than doubled.

Ours to sell

It must be remembered that for hundreds of years, families put their children to work on their farms or to whatever labour was necessary for the family to survive. Up until the last one hundred years or so, children were considered to be the property of their parents and when parents could no longer afford to feed them or could find no work for them they were often forced to sell them.

Many sold their daughters into prostitution. In 1848, it was claimed that almost 2,700 girls in London between the ages of 11 and 16 were hospitalised because of venereal disease, many as a result of prostituition. However a scandal caused the government to raise the age of consent and tackle child prostitution. In 1875, the age of consent, which had remained at 12 since 1285, was raised to 13, partly as a result of concerns about child prostitution.

Even eminent Victorians like John Ruskin wooed young girls. In a letter to his physician John Simon on 15 May 1886, Ruskin wrote:

“I like my girls from ten to sixteen – allowing of 17 or 18 as long as they’re not in love with anybody but me – I’ve got some darlings of eight, 12 and 14.”

If a child was not sold into employment he or she would inevitably end up homeless and living on the streets, in all manner of weather amongst the raw sewage, rotting animal and vegetable waste, rats, disease, and bad water. Many slum children had to endure filthy conditions as they fought a daily battle for survival. Hardly surprising that many turned to crime. What were the alternatives?

By the mid 1800s the life expectancy in cities averaged between 25 and 30 years, but in rural areas it was generally higher at around 40 years. Of course some people did live on into their 70s and 80s, but the average is low because infant and child mortality rates were so high, especially in the cities. About a third of children born died before the age of three. In the undrained slum areas of some industrial towns the average age of death was just thirteen.


The Society for the prevention of cruelty to animals was created in 1824.

The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children was created in 1891.



Juvenile crime in the 19th century
Richard Brown
Quarter Session minutes, part one. Our Warwickshire

Iain Roberts


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