Victorian England’s real-life Artful Dodgers

What is the going rate, sentence-wise, for juvenile crime – a good whipping perhaps, or maybe a few month’s hard labour? Hardly…Juvenile crime these days can go anywhere from petty theft to drug-dealing, rape and even murder. Do today’s sentences match the crimes, though?

What’s striking about the images below is not just the innocence of some of the faces or the hard looks of others, it’s the severity of the penalties imposed on these young offenders.

This collection of young criminals from the Victorian era was recently released by Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums in Britain. It offers up a fascinating insight into the penal system of 1870s’ England. The Daily Mail made an excellent report of it in its paper at the time.

The mugshots are of children from the Newcastle area – some of them as young as 11 – and includes thieves who stole everything from clothes to pieces of metal.

Charles Dickens painted a grim picture of the Victorian criminal underclass with Fagin and his merry band of child thieves, in Oliver Twist. The original film version gave us songs and dances by scampish rogues like The Artful Dodger.

The reality, though, was very different; thieves as young as 13 ordered to complete two weeks’ hard labour for stealing clothes. And when children were arrested by police they were invariably held in filthy cells alongside adults.

In fact, Victorian children could expect anything from whipping to imprisonment for their crimes. For example, one 17-year-old girl from the1870s’ gallery was jailed for three months for stealing linen, while a 15-year-old girl received two months jail and hard labour for stealing a single coat.

Teenage boys had it just as hard, as one 17-year-old was jailed for six months for stealing money, and a 15-year-old got two weeks’ hard labour for stealing a section of pipe.

Another offender, James Scullion, was sentenced to 14 days’ hard labour in Newcastle City Jail for taking clothes. Afterwards he was packed off to Reformatory School for three years.

Newcastle was the epicentre of Britain’s shipbuilding and engineering, but the very success of these industries also caused severe poverty in cramped inner-city slums plagued by hunger and disease. There is a feral quality to the faces in some of these pictures. It is wrought from the children’s impoverished environment and the desperate need to survive.

…A case of being old before their time? Yes, and probably ‘before their crime’, too.

For a full set of images go to:

About historywithatwist

I am a journalist, author and book editor. I have published five novels - four (Tan, The Golden Grave, A Time of Traitors and Patriots' Blood) set during the Irish War of Independence and Civil War, and the fifth (High Crimes), a modern thriller. I'm a history enthusiast who loves a good yarn.
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10 Responses to Victorian England’s real-life Artful Dodgers

  1. Glynis Smy says:

    No luxuries for those desperate tikes. Not like the young offenders of modern day.

  2. No. They have it a lot easier these days (I’m beginning to sound like Victor Meldrew!)

    • Glynis Smy says:

      Lol, you are not alone. For some, prison is better than home. I should imaging even the poorest homes in the 1800’s were luxurious compared to the prisons. Horrifying to think the children were put in such places.

  3. No wonder poor John Reid looks so mad. He got 5 years while the rest got 6 months or less. Poor guy. Either he stole a much larger sum or the judge was feeling extra cranky.

  4. Awesome article! Juvenile justice/injustice is a plot thread in my latest novel. It’s set in America, but I found lots of research regarding the topic is written about Victorian England. I love these mugshots. Thanks so much for sharing them and I’m so glad I found your blog!

    • Glad it was of use, Kathleen. I hope you saw the other article on Victorian mughsots, which deals with adult offenders. There is also a piece on Australian crime in the 1920s – I mention the latter because it might give you more inspiration for characters when you see those mugshots. Good luck with your writing.

  5. What a great article. Those pictures are fantastic. Thanks for the post!

  6. mikeod47 says:

    Only John Reed looks a bit ‘hard’. Didn’t they get even fiercer sentences earlier in the century? Transportation or worse, even for nippers?

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