Two little urchins embark on a life of crime

The age of criminal responsibility in England stands at ten years old, below that children are not deemed responsible for their actions. Up to 1998 they were not considered capable of criminal intent (doli incapax) until the age of 14 but the Bulger case led to a change in the law in the face of widespread horror at the actions of the two boys involved. In 1836 the law held those aged over 7 accountable with the caveat that those under 14 were obliged to demonstrate that they knew the difference between right and wrong.

Two little boys, James Branston and James Oxford, found themselves in court at the Guildhall in July of that year. The ‘little urchins’ (as they were described by the newspaper reporter) had been accused of breaking into a silk manufacturer’s shop and stealing four pair of gloves. This was a serious crime with potentially serious consequences. An adult criminal might expect to be transported to Australia or to suffer a lengthy prison spell at best.

Branston had been brought to the local beadle by his parents when they discovered the stolen items. Presumably they hoped the parish officer would admonish the child and scare him out of future criminality. He questioned the lad who spun a few lies before he spoke the truth. At first he said he’d picked up the parcel of gloves in Puddle Dock (near Blackfriars’ bridge), then that he had pinched them from a shop on Blackfriars’ Road.

The truth was that he and his mate had climbed over the board that protected Mr Ellis’ silk shop (on Ludgate Street) at six in the evening of Sunday last, where they had found some carpentry tools. They used the tools to cut a hole around the lock and break in. The beadle checked the story and found it to be accurate. It was quite an accomplished burglary for children and all the more so given that Branston was 7 and Oxford just 6 years of age!

Nor was it the first time they had raided a shop in this way; a witness testified that they had been seen giving away pairs of gloves to their little friends before.The magistrate could do little with them because he noted they were too young to ‘be held accountable for their acts in a criminal court’. Instead he said that their parents would have to ‘watch them closely, and punish them when they did wrong’.

The hope that they might change their ways seems to have been unlikely in the eyes of the paper’s correspondent, who noted that the two showed no sign that they found being arrested or presented in court in the least bit troubling.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, July 12, 1836]

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