‘ASBO youths’ in the 1870s

A few years ago the papers in England were filled with stories of anti-social youth causing trouble and making light of any attempt to control them using the law. The ASBO (anti-social behaviour order)  were introduced by Tony Blair’s Labour government in 1998 and survived until 2015. They have been superseded by similar forms of legislation designed to curb bad behaviour – usually by youths; the idea being to punish action not deemed worthy of a more formal carceral forms of sentence (such as youth detention or prison).

There is a long history of worrying about anti-social behaviour by young people in Britain, mostly notably in the early 1960s when gangs of Mods and Rockers clashed at Margate and Brighton or when rival groups of football hooligans fought pitched battles in the 1970s and 80s.

The Victorians were well aware of this sort of unpleasant behaviour – drunkenness, abusive language, petty theft, and causal violence – and periodically it erupted into mini moral panics abut the state of youth in the nation.

In November 1877 no less than eight youths were summoned to the Marylebone Police Court to hear the complaints of several locals who had been affected by their behaviour over a succession of days and nights.

As the press reported inhabitants of the areas around the Edgware Road had ‘complained to the police of the nuisance of a number of young men and women congregating’ there, and ‘making use of bad language, and pushing persons of the pavement’. This had been happening for several weeks and months and presumably the territory the youths occupied was becoming something to be avoided.

The situation had become so dire that the residents petitioned the head  of the police in London, Colonel Henderson (the Chief Commissioner) and he sent a senior officer to assess the problem. Superintendent George Draper attended and witnessed the problem for himself:

George Smith and Edward Cox ‘with seven or eight others [were] pushing against every person that passed. They joined hands and cleared the pavement a distance of six yards’.

But that was not all, Draper reported.

‘Smith ran and jumped over a young lady’s back, pushed her several yards and pulled off her bonnet. The other defendants were seen to behave in a disorderly manner by pushing against females and striking them with sticks’.

This was intolerable behaviour and had outraged the community. The police had seemed reluctant or unable to stop it and so it had been taken to the local magistrate by a handful of local residents. One man told the court that the language the young people was so bad he could no longer sit in his front room for fear of his family hearing it through the windows.

The magistrate wanted to hear from the young women who had been assaulted, because this would turn a charge of disorderly behaviour into a more serious one of violent assault, with heavier consequences for the youths involved. So he remanded the 8 boys for a week so that further evidence (and the women) could be sought. It had the added advantage of course that the youths would spend a week in police cells rather than being free to cause havoc on the streets.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, November 20, 1877]

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