Posted by on April 30, 2014 in Collections

Thousands of 19th century child criminal records have been published online for the first time – shedding light on the delinquent and destitute children of Victorian Britain.

The West Yorkshire Collection (1779-1914) details the crimes of thousands of boys admitted to Calder Farm Reformatory, East Moor Community Home School and The Shadwell Children’s Center. More than 9,000 reformatory school records reveal criminal behaviour of kids as young as five. Close to 400,000 adult offenders in the West Yorkshire area are also featured within the records.

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Crimes range from gambling and petty criminality through to forgery, burglary and violent assault. Of the many young offenders, some examples of child convicts include:

  • Herbert Wells – Along with his friend William Jamieson, 12-year-old Herbert committed forgery and larceny after stealing an old chequebook from a local vet, faking his signature and drawing out significant funds
  • John Green – Middlesbrough based John was served a five-year sentence after ‘Trespassing on North Eastern Railway property’. The 14-year-old was caught ‘gambling with other boys in the station yard’
  • William Judge – Aged just five, young William was sent to the reformatory school after being found ‘wandering, not having any home or visible means of subsistence’
  • John Bright – Admitted aged 14 for not attending school, John’s previous character is listed as ‘truant and untruthful’. His record also includes a newspaper cutting that details how he managed to escape from Shadwell but was caught, retried and returned
  • Henry Sutton – Noted as having a ‘very violent temper’ 13-year-old Henry was admitted for ‘unlawful assault’. Despite his age, his records reveal that he already had ‘five indistinct tattoo marks on his left forearm’
  • Richard Cardwall – Listed as ‘uncontrollable’ 12-year-old Richard Cardwall was sent to East Moor Community Home School for four years after stealing a pigeon

Each entry lists the boy’s name, age, birth date and birthplace and selected records include physical descriptions and photographs, background information on their families and remarks on general attitude and behaviour. Release notes also detail how they fared up to three years after discharge.

The first reformatory schools were established in the UK following the passing of two Youth Offender Acts in 1854 that required the Home Office to certify certain institutions in which to place not only juvenile offenders but neglected or abandoned children.

In a society committed to reform, it quickly became apparent that prison was not the best place to send young, impressionable and often petty child criminals. Accordingly, many were forced to serve a short time in prison as initial punishment before being transferred to a reformatory school to complete their sentence.

Despite their troubled childhoods, the strict order and heavy-handed discipline of the reformatory schools helped many boys back on the straight and narrow. Admitted to Calder Farm aged 15 for stealing lead, orphan Sidney Taylor went on to became Staff Sergeant in the Royal Horse Artillery and died fighting for his country on the battlefields of Belgium in WWI.

Maurice Walch was another brave solider who spent time at Calder Farm. He arrived aged 15 after a long history of petty theft and went on to become a Lance Corporal in the Military Mounted Police. Such was his heroism; he was later awarded both the Victory and British Campaign Medals. As well as original admission records to Calder Farm, both men’s discharge, general wartime and medal records are available to view online at Ancestry.co.uk.

In addition to child criminals, the details of nearly 400,000 adult offenders are also included within this collection. Each record contains the prisoner’s name, age, occupation, nature of the offence, sentence, and dates of admission and discharge. Selected records also give background information and physical descriptions. Example convicts include:

  • Peter O Hara  Sentenced to two calendar months inside jail after assaulting a police officer, Peter’s record reveals that his hands were tattooed with the rather incongruous inking ‘my father’s love’
  • Sarah Barlow  Sentenced to three years for theft of an umbrella, 49-year-old Sarah appeared to have had a penchant for pinching clothing. Her 15 previous convictions include the theft of a shirt, two shawls, a pair of boots, a jacket and even a hairbrush
  • Richard Henry Belch28-year-old Belch was found guilty of common assault after ‘maliciously wounding Henry Sutton on the 25th May 1902’. His court records reveal he had five previous convictions for assault, gaming and general drunken and disorderly behaviour
  • The Backhouse Brothers Charles Benjamin Backhouse and Frederick Lawder Backhouse were charged with the willful murder of policeman John Kew. Though Frederick received a reprieve and had his sentence changed to life imprisonment, Charles was hanged in the first double execution of the 20th century

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Physically located at the West Yorkshire Archive Service, The West Yorkshire Collection 1779-1914 collection is now available exclusively online at Ancestry.co.uk. These fascinating archives can also be accessed free, at each of the West Yorkshire Archive Service offices.

Quote:

Miriam Silverman, Ancestry.co.uk content manager: “These records chart the progression from zero tolerance to the idea of reform in Victorian society – for the young at least. Despite their early crimes, it’s heartening to see that a few troubled children managed to avoid a life behind bars and prospered as adults – with some even commended for their wartime bravery. Now is the perfect time to get online and uncover if your own ancestors stood on the right or wrong side of the law.”

Also launched today as part of The West Yorkshire Collection 1779-1914 are over 32,000 historic Police Records and nearly 3,000 registers pertaining to local Militia.

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