‘Gross profligacy’ by a child

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In the early nineteenth century the idea of the juvenile offender began to crystallize in contemporary commentary. In 1815 a committee of like-minded individuals expressed their concern at the ‘alarming increase in juvenile delinquency’ in London and placed the blame on poor parenting, a lack of (moral) education, and reduced employment opportunities. From then on contemporary debates about what to do with the ‘youth’ problem filled column inches fairly consistently .

In May 1850 Sophie Stanton (‘a child of about 11 years of age’) was brought before the sitting magistrate at Marlborough Street police office. She was accused of stealing a gold ring from an older girl, Hannah Lamborne, in a house in Fitzroy Square. Hannah had only left it out for few hours and Sophie admitted taking it away and hiding in a ‘dust-hole’.

Her parents declared that she had been a difficult child all her short life. At four she was ‘stealing everything she could lay her hands on’, and by six Sophie had been guilty of ‘gross profligacy’ and was confined in ‘various asylums’. More recently she had accused a gentleman of a ‘felonious assault on her’ but the case had been thrown out. The magistrate had been shocked at the girl’s accusation, describing it as the ‘worst case’ he had seen.

He remanded Sophie for further examination and commented that it was a shame that ‘there was not some national asylum for such children; a jail was not a fit receptacle for them’. There was a children’s prison – Parkhurst, on the Isle of Wight – but it took only boys, and only from 12 years of age.

In the 1850s the Reformation movement sprang up, led by Mary Carpenter. Carpenter advocated the building of Reformatories and Industrial Schools for young offenders. In these institutions children could be taken away from the polluting environmental influence of London and other major towns and trained and educated for a better life. The intention was the break the cycle of poverty-crime-punishment but the system was underfunded and public opinion insisted that young offenders spent some time in gaol before the reformatories got them.

Juvenile delinquency remains high on criminal justice agendas and we continue to place the blame on similar targets. Plus ca change…

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