Two street urchins try (and fail) to argue the toss with a magistrate

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Charles McCarthy and John Harrison were described by the Standard’s  court reporter as ‘urchins’. We should probably understand that to mean that, in the late 1870s, they were young members of the working class. Youngsters like these played on the streets and were often associated with the so-called ‘criminal class’ that exercised contemporary commentators like Henry Mayhew and James Greenwood.

From the early 1800s discourse concerning youth crime focused on reform and the importance of education, good parenting, and work opportunities. It was argued that younger criminals needed to be separated from older ones, to avoid corruption. There was also a long standing concern about gambling, particularly by children and youth.

The ‘new police’ who patrolled London’s streets from 1829 were actively involved in the enforcement of laws that prohibited gambling, especially amongst the young. In April a police constable had arrested Charles and John for gambling in the streets, and so they were produced before the magistrate at Bow Street. However, they made a bold attempt to deny the charge, and in doing so reveal a little about the sort of passtimes that children got up to in the late 1800s.

They were accused of gambling on a Sunday (which made it worse, as they should have been in church) by an unnamed PC. They were ‘tossing for halfpence’ and this was, the paper’s correspondent reported, quite a common offence; there were ‘a dozen similar cases on a Monday’. What made this worthy of writing about was the bravado the boys displayed.

The eldest lad denied they were gambling, they were just ‘having a game [of] “back”‘. This involved tossing a halfpence coin up into the air and trying to catch it on the back of the hand. This is still a child’s game today, (although I suspect there is probably a mobile phone app for it now…).

The boy showed the magistrate (Mr Flowers) what he meant by taking out a coin and flipping it in court. ‘Why we only had a ha’penny betwixt us. That ain’t gambling’, said the youth.

The justice turned to the policeman and quipped:

‘I fear these boys have been reading the Act of Parliament for the purpose of evading its provisions’, drawing laughter from the courtroom.

Did they have more than penny on them, he asked? They did, said the constable, ‘There were a penny and a halfpenny lying on the ground close to them, your worship’, adding, ‘they are always at it’.

That was probably the most damning statement. Under the law the constable was probably  correct in arresting them but what happened next shows how’s unfair the Victorian justice system was to youngsters like these two. They were indulging in a pretty harmless game of chance, with little actual ‘gambling’ going on. Hearing the constable’s evidence Mr Flowers turned to the lads and said:

‘Ah that looks bad. You must pay a fine of 1s each, or be imprisoned one day’.

Just what good a day in prison would do for these two is questionable, nor do I imagine they could easily get hold of two shillings between them unless their parents were able to intervene. So probably these lads got a taste of Victorian ‘justice’ and came out a little less disposed to respect the law in the future.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, April 22, 1879]

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