The Criminal Children: Charity, Care and Compassion

If poor Hannah trembled with fear as these charges were read, her terror must have intensified when the ‘prosecutrix’ – Elizabeth Wilson – was sworn and stated she lived in ‘Great Russel-street, Bloomsbury’[v]. There, on the 16th of April, when going up to her garret, she had picked up a ‘duplicate’ [pawn ticket] made out in Hannah’s name. As she continued

I am a lodger there; Hannah is a servant there, Mr. Wright’s servant, I lodge at his house; I went to the pawnbroker, at the end of Hanover-yard, as a matter of curiosity to see what such a child could pawn; I had missed nothing of my own there; I asked the pawnbroker to let me see what it was; I found this handkerchief there; I took it out of pawn, I went home, I asked her how she could be such a naughty girl as to take my handkerchief and pawn it?

Then questioned about the place from where she believed the handkerchief was taken, Mrs. Wilson stoutly replied:

Out of my room. She told me that her mother had persuaded her to do it; I immediately went up stairs to look over my things, and I found I had lost many other things; another pocket handkerchief, a muslin handkerchief, a shift, a pair of silk stockings, a cap, a piece of muslin, half a handkerchief, and one towel … She was put in the watch-house that night … the next day she was taken before a justice, at Bow-street, and I had a search warrant, and me and the constable went to the mother’s lodgings, and we found two duplicates on her.

Next asked about what had been done with these duplicates, Mrs. Wilson informed the court that:

I went to two different pawnbrokers, one was in Princes-street; I found an handkerchief, in Princes-street, and I found a pocket handkerchief at the other pawnbrokers.

With the prosecutrix unable to provide evidence to prove that the defendants had taken her stockings, shift, and towel – and with Hannah bravely protesting she knew ‘nothing at all of these things, and them I found, and gave to my mother, to wash’ – Robert Gastrel, the Bow-street constable, then made an entrance into the witness box. Confirming he had executed the search warrant at the mother’s house in Little Windmill-street, he also explained that:

I found nothing there but two duplicates, I found them in the mother’s pocket book, in her pocket; they were two handkerchiefs pawned for sixpence each, at different pawnbrokers, Mr. Priestman and Mr. Freer’s.

At which point in the proceedings, John Farmer (who took in one of the handkerchiefs at Mr. Priestman’s pawn shop – from a ‘Mrs. Smith’) and John Catherine (who took in the second at Mr. Freer’s) were called as witnesses to the alleged crimes. Neither, however, could identify who had pawned the handkerchiefs – which, Mrs. Wilson insisted, were hers for she recognised ‘several iron moulds’ on a corner of one and the other because her ‘nose had been bleeding, and it is rather bloody’.

Invited to disclose what she had said to Hannah when the first handkerchief was found – and confiding that ‘I had told her it would be better for her to tell the truth’ – Mrs. Wilson’s contribution to the courtroom cacophony ceased and the jury rapidly delivered its verdict of:

Both not GUILTY

Alas, this Old Bailey account does not mention who – if anyone – acted as counsel for Hannah and her mother. Neither does it divulge details of what Mr. Baron Thompson said in his summing-up of the evidence and guidance to the jury. Although such fragmentary documentation of acquittals was not unusual at this time, reference to the Philanthropic Society ledgers provides us with further glimpse of – and a slightly different perspective on – these Old Bailey proceedings. Indeed, an entry, made on the 9th of May 1794, discloses that Hannah was speedily admitted to the Reform having been:

… tried on Saturday last at the Old Bailey for felony with her mother who stood indicted for recovering a quantity of apparel stolen by the child. It appeared that there were little doubt of the facts charged against them being true, but the prosecutor having admitted that she had soothed the child into a confession [together with] the helpless age of the unfortunate girl who was clearly instigated to commit the theft solely by the abandoned mother – these concurring circumstances influenced the humane judge to recommend her a proper object for this charity where if admitted she could be separated from her wicked parent and her criminal associates and might be saved from misery both in her present and future state.

As the legal network was, no doubt, buzzing with news of how compassionate judges and magistrates were now diverting children from dreadful fates and into the Philanthropic Society’s protection, we can understand why Garrow – accompanied by fellow lawyer Mr. Sylvester – would be keen to visit the Institution at St. George’s Fields and explore how the pioneering reformatory experiment was being conducted. Garrow would also sustain a charitable interest in the Philanthropic Society enterprise by subscribing to its funds and (just before being appointed Solicitor General in 1812) also urged its committee to establish a department for the ‘infant offspring of convicts’ and agree to ‘the immediate admission of a child of two years old of that description’.

Although Garrow’s proposals for expanding its operations were rejected, the Philanthropic Society’s reformatory endeavours continued. Remarkably, these would involve the development of an astonishing model for juvenile justice provision: one which was vigorously supported by Home Secretaries and government officials before being formalised by Parliament in the landmark Reformatory Schools Act of 1854.

That, however, is another interesting story – which can be found in my book, Nipping Crime in the Bud, now available from


Muriel Whitten

December 2010

[i] Garrow’s Law (BBC1: Series 2, Episode 4).

[ii] Garrow’s Law (BBC1: Series 1, Episode 2.

[iii] Available at Surrey History Centre, Woking:

[iv] reference no: t17940430-71: case no. 299

[v] Most criminal prosecutions were conducted by the victims themselves in this period.

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