The Criminal Children: Charity, Care and Compassion

Cross over London Bridge into the Borough High Street and step back in time to imagine you have joined William Garrow as he cleaves his way through a chaos of carts and carriages, the jostling hubbub of Borough Market and, with the stench of breweries, tanneries and slaughterhouses in the air, passes by the Marshelsea and Kings Bench prisons and heads towards St George’s Fields, on the 5th of May 1798.

Garrow’s destination that Saturday was the Philanthropic Society’s Reform. Built in 1793, near to where the Imperial War Museum now stands, this extraordinary Institution was the first to provide education, training and employment for children at risk of committing crimes and for those who already had embarked on a criminal career. It was, indeed, an innovating voluntary enterprise and, importantly, was founded at a time when no separate juvenile justice system existed.

The horrors children might suffer under the eighteenth century’s Bloody Legal Code were dramatically highlighted in Garrow’s Law[i] through its depiction of the case of Thomas Wylie. Only 12 years old when he stood peeping over the dock in the middle of a raucously crowded courtroom, on being found guilty of theft the bewildered Thomas was sentenced to death – as an adult would have been – and swiftly dispatched to the gallows.

Yet, although Thomas’s dreadful fate plunged Garrow into the depths of despair over a ‘murderous’ legal system that allowed children to hang, most boys and girls who were convicted of a felony in this period would have received a Royal Pardon on account of their ‘tender years’ and have their capital sentence transmuted to imprisonment or transportation.

Such relatively happier outcomes were, nonetheless, fraught with other dangers. Children – some as young as eight years old – were afterwards incarcerated in the crowded, stinking, dank and vermin infested prisons and hulks of the day, alongside the most debauched and hardened of adult criminals. What was more, if they did manage to resist corrupting influences – and survive the rampaging gaol fever that swirled around them – these unfortunate children were hardly likely to earn an honest livelihood and become law-abiding citizens on their release.

The winds of change were starting to stir, nonetheless. As a practical response to compassionate concerns such as Garrow’s – and with the intention of rescuing children from ruin and peril – the Philanthropic Society was founded in 1788. Beginning its operations, on a small scale, in houses around Cambridge Heath, Hackney, this charity soon attracted the financial and personal support of many influential figures, including Dr. James Sims (President of the London Medical Society) Jeremiah Bentham (a Middlesex magistrate and father of Jeremy), Sir Richard Pepper Arden (Master of the Rolls) as well as Members of Parliament Samuel Whitbread, William Wilberforce and John Julius Angerstein.

The fabulously wealthy Angerstein (who features in Garrow’s Law[ii] offering a reward for the capture of the ‘London Monster’) was one of the most active Philanthropic Society committee members. Along with the equally active Dr. Sims, he played a major role in ensuring that the Philanthropic Reform was built, on a very large scale, at St. George’s Fields on a plot of land leased from the City of London Corporation. Inside the Institution’s enveloping walls soon came a horde of destitute and homeless children, along with many others who fitted the admission criteria of being:

such objects as have been brought before a magistrate liable to be discharged for defect of evidence, or some other cause altho’ a strong suspicion of their guilt remains; or such as have been tried and convicted but from favourable circumstances are objects of mercy, and those only on the recommendation of the magistrate or judge before whom the culprit was examined and convicted

So, who were the children embraced in these categories? How did they come to the Philanthropic Society’s attention? Fortunately, as the Philanthropic Society’s leather-bound ledgers still survive in the archives[iii] we can delve through the handwritten pages of case-histories and find that amongst the children admitted during the 1790s were:

Edward Edwards (aged 13) whose father was ‘by profession a dog-stealer – the boy lived with a gang of thieves – was apprehended for stealing a carpet & recommended by the magistrates at the Westminster Sessions’

Thomas Pearce (aged 14) who had been ‘turned out of doors by his father who is a violent and drunken man – and lived among thieves above two years – was imprisoned in Clerkenwell for a robbery … recommended by the magistrates of the Quarter Session’

Charles Richmond (aged 11) ‘a chimney sweeper’s boy – in which situation he had committed a variety of thefts – was imprisoned in the Compter & recommended from thence by one of the City magistrates’

William Dancy/Darcy (aged 13) who was ‘turned out of doors by his mother and obliged to get his living in the streets – was imprisoned in the Poultry Compter for theft and recommended by Sir James Sanderson [merchant, banker, Alderman, Lord Mayor of London (1792) and a Philanthropic Society vice-president]’

Thomas Rutland (aged 12) whose father was a ‘vile wretch who instructed the boy to commit a variety of thefts for some of which he was committed to prison and thence recommended by the magistrates of Essex’

Joseph Francis (aged 13) ‘a boy on whom sentence of death had been passed for horse stealing – was afterwards in consideration of his youth reprieved for transportation, and by a further extension of mercy from His Majesty, pardoned on condition of being received under the protection of the Society’

Hannah Maria Schreader (aged 11) was also admitted.

Amazingly, if we examine The Proceedings of the Old Bailey: London’s Central Criminal Court, 1674 to 1913[iv], these records allow us to trace Hannah’s route into the Philanthropic Reform. Appearing on indictment at the Old Bailey Sessions commencing on 30th April 1794, Hannah was ‘tried by the second Middlesex Jury before Mr. Baron THOMPSON’ for stealing, on the 11th day of that month:

a cotton handkerchief, value 6s. a muslin handkerchief, value 6d. a linen shift, value 2s. a pair of silk stockings, value 2s. a muslin half handkerchief, value 8d. a linen towel, value 6d. and a muslin cap, value 4d. the goods of Elizabeth Wilson.

Alongside Hannah in the dock stood her mother, Frances, who, as the Old Bailey transcripts also note, had been indicted for receiving, on the 12th April, a cotton handkerchief, value 6d. and a muslin handkerchief, also 6d. in value, being a ‘parcel of the same goods, knowing them to have been stolen’

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