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Records of crimes and criminals from the 19th century can now be seen online
Thirteen-year-old Henry Sutton has tattoos inked up his arm and is guilty of violent assault.
At the age of 14, John Bright has a history of truancy, while 12-year-old petty thief Richard Cardwall is described as “uncontrollable”.
But before you tut-tut at the out-of-control, undisciplined youth of today, you should know that these were young offenders of more than a century ago.
Victorian youth offenders, and their crimes – ranging from pigeon theft to financial fraud – are revealed online in the newly-digitised West Yorkshire Collection by family history resource Ancestry.co.uk.
The collection, spanning 1779 to 1914, contains more than 9,000 reformatory school records revealing criminal behaviour of children as young as five. It includes information on each crime, newspaper clippings and ‘mugshot’ photographs.
The collection can be accessed at West Yorkshire Archive Services – Bradford’s records are based in a refurbished area of the old Central Library – but this week, for the first time, thousands of 19th century child criminal records are published, shedding light on the delinquent and destitute children of Victorian Britain.
The collection details the crimes of boys admitted to Calder Farm Reformatory in Mirfield, East Moor Community Home School in Leeds and the Shadwell Children’s Centre in Leeds. Crimes range from gambling and petty criminality to forgery, burglary and violent assault.
Each entry lists the boy’s name, age, birth date and birthplace and selected records include physical descriptions and photographs, background information on their families and remarks on general attitude and behaviour. Release notes also detail how they fared up to three years after discharge from reformatory school.
Bradford child convicts include George Ackroyd, 13, of Manchester Road, who, in 1910, was given a five-year sentence for stealing a purse containing three shillings and twopence. His previous character is described as “bad”, having had a previous conviction of “malicious injury”, for which his parents were fined a shilling.
A pupil at St John’s School, Ashley Street, George was from a family of ten. His record states that his father deserted the family six years previously, and was thought to be with a troupe of “travelling actors”, and his mother worked as a weaver and was “addicted to drink”.
Thomas Anderson, 13, of Keighley, was given five years for stealing two shillings. Under previous character it says, “Up to 12 months ago good, then he has frequently stolen from his parents, then strayed away from home for a few days at a time”.
Twelve-year-old Herbert Wells, along with his friend William Jamieson, committed forgery and larceny after stealing an old chequebook from a local vet, faking his signature and drawing out significant funds. John Green was served a five-year sentence after “Trespassing on North Eastern Railway property”. The 14-year-old was caught “gambling with other boys in the station yard”.
John Bright, admitted, aged 14, for not attending school, is listed as “truant and untruthful”. His record includes a newspaper cutting reporting how he managed to escape from Shadwell but was caught, re-tried and returned.
Henry Sutton, 13, noted as having a “very violent temper” was admitted for “unlawful assault”. Despite his age, his records reveal that he already had “five indistinct tattoo marks on his left forearm”.
Listed as “uncontrollable”, Richard Cardwall, 12, was sent to East Moor Community Home School for four years after stealing a pigeon.
It wasn’t just offending that could land a boy at reform school. Aged just five, William Judge was sent to one after being found “wandering, not having any home or visible means of subsistence”.
The first reformatory schools were established in the UK following the passing of two Youth Offender Acts in 1854 that required the Home Office to certify certain institutions in which to place not only juvenile offenders but neglected or abandoned children.
In a society committed to reform, it quickly became apparent that prison was not the best place to send young, impressionable and often petty child criminals.
But many were forced to serve a short time in prison as initial punishment before being transferred to a reformatory school to complete their sentence.
From a 21st century perspective, Victorian methods of punishment and discipline seem harsh and barbaric, especially since so many of these youngsters would have had troubled childhoods.
But it appears that the strict order and heavy-handed discipline of the reformatory schools helped many boys build better lives. Admitted to Calder Farm, aged 15, for stealing lead, orphan Sidney Taylor went on to became a staff sergeant in the Royal Horse Artillery and died in Belgium during the First World War.
Maurice Walch arrived at Calder Farm, aged 15, after a long history of petty theft and went on to become a lance corporal in the Military Mounted Police. He was awarded both the Victory and British Campaign medals.
Miriam Silverman, Ancestry.co.uk content manager, says: “These records chart the progression from zero tolerance to the idea of reform in Victorian society - for the young at least.
“Despite their early crimes, it’s heartening to see that a few troubled children managed to avoid a life behind bars and prospered as adults, with some even commended for their wartime bravery. Now is the perfect time to get online and uncover if your own ancestors stood on the right or wrong side of the law.”
Guilty Adults Also Spotlighted In Collection
The collection also contains details of nearly 400,000 adult convicts in West Yorkshire, with offences ranging from petty theft to cold-blooded murder. Each record contains the prisoner’s name, age, occupation, nature of offence, sentence, and dates of admission and discharge. Selected records also give background information and physical descriptions.
Convicts include Peter O’Hara, sentenced to two months in jail after assaulting a police officer. His record reveals that his hands were tattooed with the rather incongruous inking “my father’s love”.
Sarah Barlow, 49, sentenced to three years for stealing an umbrella, appeared to have had a penchant for clothing theft. Her 15 previous convictions include the theft of a shirt, two shawls, a pair of boots, a jacket and a hairbrush.
Richard Belch, 28, was found guilty of common assault after maliciously wounding Henry Sutton on May 25, 1902. His court records reveal he had five previous convictions for assault, gaming and drunken and disorderly behaviour The Backhouse brothers, Charles and Frederick, were charged with the wilful murder of policeman John Kew. Although Frederick received a reprieve and had his sentence changed to life imprisonment, Charles was hanged in the first double execution of the 20th century.