Victorian ‘hoodies’ truly deserved a hug

Flat-cap Hoodies. Their crimes? Pitiful, when compared to today’s teen gangs. Their punishment? Barbaric beatings.

By Glenys Roberts

Little George Sayers was scarcely a hardened criminal. Just 13 years old, small for his age due to malnourishment, his little face screwed up in an expression of bewilderment, he faced the police camera in May 1900 fearing, quite rightly, that he would be beaten for his crimes.

George was accused of stealing handkerchiefs, rugs, skirts and shirts worth three pounds and ten shillings from the Newcastle shop where he was employed as an errand boy.

When he heard the charge, he burst into tears. One of some 14 children, whose father had deserted his 52-year-old mother Emma, leaving her to feed and clothe her huge brood alone. He was accused along with his mother, who admitted she had put him up to his petty thieving. ‘I told him to take them. Don’t blame the boy,’ she gallantly told the police.

Another of the pair’s methods was to steal clothes off the neighbours’ washing lines, whereupon Emma would whisk the loot around to the local pawnbroker where they were hocked to get money for the family. It was the pawnbroker who tipped off the police when he became suspicious.

These stories, and some 300 others, all equally poignant, have just been uncovered by retired North Shields policeman Ken Banks.

When the local force deserted the Victorian police station where he had worked all his life, the records of a long-lost way of life were about to be thrown into a skip. Instead, they were rescued by Banks’s far-seeing boss, who gave them to the detective.

The full picture was completed by historian Nigel Green, who trawled the local records trying to match each miserable photograph with stories of the children on trial.

The custom in those days was to line up the accused and get them to hold a slate on which their name would be written in chalk, together with the alleged offence and the date on which it was committed.

Compared with the austere mugshots of today the accused, with their idiosyncratic clothing and vulnerable gazes, as pitiful creatures [sic].

Yet while times were different and the punishments meted out much harsher than today, their stories are surprisingly timeless. Green, who has authored a book, Tough Times, about his discoveries, turned up records of binge-drinking in the early 1800s, prostitution in the 1870s and race riots in the 1930s.

But the saddest tales of all are about the Victorian child-criminals.

While the Industrial Revolution had made Britain rich, it led to grinding poverty in cramped inner-city slums plagued by hunger and disease. Boys like George Sayers were soon educated in the skills of street survival by their parents and condemned as often as not to a life of crime.

Police records show that in the years from 1838 to 1851 the number of minors arrested for petty crimes more than doubled.

What a picture of desolation lies behind these cold statistics. Some of the children picked up by the police were as young as eight, and they were often held in stinking prison cells alongside adults.

Green uncovered a list of 15 boys who between them had been to prison nearly 250 times. He discovered how, of 45 families living in one street, 40 of the mothers were addicted to drink while six or eight people were sleeping in one room regardless of sex or age. The language used was obscene, the place utterly squalid.

In one house, a habitual drunkard was living with her two sons in a darkened room 10ft by 5ft, with no furniture. The children were driven onto the streets nearly naked to beg.

Two sisters, whose mother died when they were only ten and 13, were locked out of their home by their father and encouraged to steal from shops. For such children, rehabilitation was not an option.

Police records show that, no matter how hard the children were punished, there were some who would not, or could not, change their ways.

Francis Dixon, from Newcastle, was only nine when he received six lashes for stealing oranges in 1856. The next year, he was given ten lashes for stealing apples. A few months later, he got 12 lashes for stealing lead, followed by six weeks in prison with hard labour.

But his life of crime continued, and by the age of 47, Dixon had received 16 prison sentences totalling 26 years.

Unlike today, he would have served all of that time behind bars.

Only occasionally was a judge inclined to show leniency, as demonstrated by one case from County Durham in 1873, which has echoes of today’s girl gangs.

Fourteen-year-old Mary Wardle was visiting Barnard Castle Fair when she started brawling with another girl, Jane Gargett, over a shawl that Mary was wearing.

Jane claimed the shawl belonged to her aunt and accused Mary of stealing it. There followed a slanging match during which Mary punched Jane in the face. Jane then rolled up her sleeves and, preparing to fight for real, tried to pick up a stone to hurl at her opponent. But Mary got to the stone first and hurled it at Jane’s head with such force that it killed her on the spot.

When Mary Wardle appeared before Durham Assizes two months later charged with manslaughter — ‘a simple-looking girl’ according to a local journalist — she was in floods of tears.

The judge took pity on her, telling her: ‘You see how wrong a thing you have done, but I’m sure you did not mean to do it.’
The girl replied: ‘No sir.’

Incredibly, in a climate where young boys were flogged for simply being at the scene of the crime, the judge told her: ‘I shall not sentence you at all but, if you do such a thing again, you will be punished for what you have done now. You may go home.’