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OOC – Victorian child criminals

Most of us know the Artful Dodger from Dickens’ Oliver Twist if not the original story then the happier ending movie. Subconsciously I knew that children were criminals, often for survival sake, and that some were transported (none of my ancestors though).

But it’s another story when you see the mug shots and the crimes that go with them. I stumbled across this page Victorian Children in trouble with the law.

This little tacker was 11. He got caught stealing a Quarter (about 28lbs or 12.7kgs) of Gooseberries. His sentence: 1 month Hard Labour (in an adult prison) followed by 5 years in a reform school.

Our urchins have it soft.

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  1. Giles Berithos Giles Berithos June 3, 2011

    Thank you for sharing this, sir.  I’ve been very interested in Victorian crime and punishment since I read Michael Crichton’s excellent book, The Great Train Robbery many, many years ago.  I’ve never read much about crime among children, though.

    Your post reminds me of the scene in Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd where Alan Rickman’s character sentences a child to hang.  Our urchins DO have it too soft.

  2. Breezy Carver Breezy Carver June 4, 2011

    Looks up at the Duke and frowns  .. can’t you ever share “happy things” ???   *grins*

    ((Thank YOU Edward for sharing as always *Good Stuff”))

  3. Enoch Harris Enoch Harris June 4, 2011

    Were there other documents with this? I’m wondering how you came up with quarter of a hundredweight rather than just quarter of a pound?

    As it says “(growing)” next to the offence, I assume he picked them off the bush. Be interesting to know if they estimated 1/4 cwt to have gone missing… cos I’m pretty sure he couldn’t have eaten them in one sitting, 1/4lb is enough to make most people sick.

    • Edward Pearse Edward Pearse June 4, 2011

      My bad. Fixed the link at the top of the page.

      A “Quarter” is an actual measurement. A 1/4 of a lb is a fraction of a measurement. That would be my guess anyway.

  4. Christine McAllister Pearse Christine McAllister Pearse June 4, 2011

    What about the measurement (quart of milk, quart of berries, etc)?  If so, that makes the punishment even more brutal and harsh.

    • Edward Pearse Edward Pearse June 4, 2011

      Quart is for liquids which is sold by volume, not weight.

      • Mr Tenk Mr Tenk June 4, 2011

        8 quarts is one peck

        32 quarts is one bushel.

        • Edward Pearse Edward Pearse June 4, 2011

          *Shrug* Transcription on the National Archives website says:

          Offence for which convicted – St[ealin]g a Q[uar]t[er] of Goosberries (growing)

          I figure they know the difference between a quart and a quarter better than I do.

          • Enoch Harris Enoch Harris June 4, 2011

            When I was a kid… even when a teenager, we used to by sweets by 1/4 lb. As in, ” A quater of licorice comforts please”.


            It’s interesting to note that the registra uses the word “whipping”, rather than canning, birching or flogging, which you would expect.  He also says  ‘Bolyn Castle’, which if memory serves, was a nickname for the manour house in East Ham.

            When studying documents, I alwasy try to check to see how accurate the author is being before taking anything as gospel.

        • Enoch Harris Enoch Harris June 4, 2011

          8 quarts is one peck

          32 quarts is one bushel.”

          True… however…

          Damn, I can bore your pants of with this subject!!!


          A lot of history is driven by enthusiasts, modelers, collectors, re-enactors… so there is a great demand for detail. There is a tendency to want to make details fit with something. If you say a post box is red, people ask for the paint code!

          Just because a paint formula existed, and standardization existed to a degree… doesn’t mean that it was actually used. There are lots of reasons why not, but not least because “close is good enough” was common right up into the 1980s (I know, I was there).

          In the past I have fact checked history books, and I have often seen historians try to make something fit a measure, when in fact the craftsman was probably using ‘about so big’. I worked, restoring Victorian pubs for several years and my experience tends to bare this out. 

          In the case of weights and measures. You should bare in mind that leagues, chains and furlongs exist, they are legitimate official standard measures. But they haven’t been in ‘common’ every-day use for a very long time as they are redundant. Most people struggle with feet, yards and miles and would make a real hash of guesstimating them. Chains and furlongs are used buy specific industries and trades.

          In fact, even yards is pretty uncommon unless you know it through sport… so you are less likely to hear a woman talking about yrds than a man.

          While still used, measures like pecks and bushels would be limited to terms-of-art for specific industries. Those industries would also use those terms-of-art exclusively to avoid confusion, therefore, you would have 1/6 of a bushel of grain, they would never break it down into quarts, pounds or anything else.

          So a ‘quarter’ would be dependent on the document it was written. Last time I use Imperial on paperwork, a quarter (of a sack) was approx 1/16 of a hundredweight, as Sacks was the measure and CWT was the load. And approximations was ok, along with a bit of haggling over price.

          This is in fact the beauty and strength of the Imperial system. But in common use, only pounds an ounces would be used, just as it was up until decimalization. Although, as Tepic points out, it’s just about possible it could be by volume, but it could be quarter of a pint. Even today it’s not that uncommon to buy shell fish off a stall in a half or quarter pint measure. The reason for this is that it’s easy to do, as with sweets, you use a scoop, which can be a pint jug.

          It may seem strange now to buy fruit by volume, but if you are a customer, it’s a more trustworthy measure. Grocers were notorious for cheating the scales until branded packets came in at the turn of the century. And for a fruit vendor selling off a barrow, a pint tankard is far cheaper than a set of scales… so it’s not impossible.

          Sorry for boring you, but I researched a lot of this stuff for a book a few years back in order to see if standards were actually being used. 

          I now have a hankering for a quarter of cockles!

  5. Mr Tenk Mr Tenk June 4, 2011

    i read it as a quart of gooseberries.

    scar on forehead… yeah, there’s a pattern.

  6. Leia Rossini Leia Rossini June 4, 2011

    ….and his previous convictions on top of that for stealing coal at the age of 9…poor little creature.  Fascinating read that inspires me to add extra flourishes when I write with my fountain pen.

  7. Orpheus Angkarn Orpheus Angkarn June 4, 2011

    is that scar lightening bolt shaped?

  8. Tepic Harlequin Tepic Harlequin June 4, 2011

    oh my goodness! hope Mr Tenk ain’t getting ideas……

    ((A quart as volume is how gooseberries can be measured, and is about two pints, so he was probably eating off a bush and the number he had eaten was equated to a quart. I noticed that along with hard labour – rock breaking was common – whipping was used as a punishment. Hanging, although most people think it was common, was often sentenced but not often carried out – the records on actual hangings show it was rare.  Between 1770 and 1830, 35,000 death sentences were handed down in England and Wales, but only 7,000 executions were carried out. Having said that, the same records do show that the youngest person hanged in the UK was about nine, a very sad and deadful occurance. Probably
    the youngest child executed in
    England was John Dean who was convicted of
    arson at the Abingdon Assizes on
    the 23rd of February 1629. 
    His age is given in “The Annals of Windsor” as between eight and nine
    years and he had set fire to two houses in
    It would appear that the judge, Mr. Justice Whitelock,
    found evidence of malice, revenge and cunning and therefore did not recommend a
    reprieve for the boy.

  9. Jimmy Branagh Jimmy Branagh June 7, 2011

    “Our urchins have it soft.”

    Our urchins are all armed. :)


  10. Enoch Harris Enoch Harris June 17, 2011

    Speaking of Victorian Crime…

    Can I remind people to check their sources, especially Wikipedia.

    It seems some people are having fun and games inventing crime stories and posting their fiction to Wikipedia as fact.

    Got to admit, some of it is pretty good stuff, and may be done by film production companies to give meat and backstory to their projects. However, it isn’t real and it might be a problem if you are looking for REAL Victorian crime if you base anything on it.

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