On 4 October 1857 Edmund Matthews and Stephen Anderson, aged 11 and 12, appeared at Cardiff Borough Petty Sessions court on a charge of stealing two sacks worth 4s. On the same date Sarah Taylor, aged 13, was charged with stealing 100lb of iron from the Taff Vale Railway Company. All three were convicted, receiving sentences of three months, one month and two months hard labour respectively. They are thus the first to appear on record in a major series of documents relating to juvenile convictions.
These court hearings took place under an ‘Act for the more speedy Trial and Punishment of Juvenile Offenders’ of 1847. Forms recording convictions under this act were sent to the Clerk of the Peace and preserved amongst the Quarter Sessions records. The system remained much the same until 1879, when convictions ceased to be collected centrally as a result of administrative changes.
The juvenile convictions themselves are bound into 14 volumes, each one containing some 150 convictions. This article will look at the first volume, covering the years 1847-1852, as an example. Each conviction appears on a separate parchment, and is expressed in a standard form laid down by the Act. Some are entirely handwritten, but many of the courts used printed forms created for the purpose with only the variable details handwritten.
The date is given first, followed by the place; the name of the offender; the names of the justices, who sign and seal each form; the type of court; the date of the offence and the offender’s age on that date; the place where the offence was committed; the item stolen, its estimated value, and the name of its owner; and the sentence, including where it would be served and / or administered. Several offenders may appear on the same form if the offence was carried out jointly, and sometimes information is omitted, for example if it proved impossible to judge the offender’s age precisely.
The occurrence of joint offences means that the 141 documents in this first volume represent 152 convictions. Of these, 67 were the decision of Merthyr Tydfil Police Court, 33 of Cardiff, 22 of Swansea Borough Petty Sessions, 16 of Neath, and the remainder shared between Cowbridge, Bridgend, Llandaff, Caerphilly, Llantrisant and Aberdare. This would seem to confirm the view that juvenile crime, or at least the prosecution of juvenile offenders, was rare in rural areas.
Many of the thefts were connected with local industry. Of these 152 convictions, 44 were for thefts of coal, quoting amounts from 10lb to 200lb. The precision of some weights given – 29lb, 68lb etc. – suggests that more than guesswork was involved here, though quite how a 13 year old girl stole 200lb of coal may be difficult to imagine. Nearly three quarters of these coal thefts were carried out by girls, twenty of whom were aged 13 years or over, and it seems likely that most of these were employed as surface workers at local mines. There were, of course, thefts of iron too.
The most ambitious industrial theft was that committed by Benjamin Evans, aged 13, who stole ‘a machine’ worth £50 belonging to Sir Josiah J. Guest of Dowlais Iron Works. This is the most expensive item that appears in the volume. Occasional thefts of rope, sacks, or small tools also appear, and amount to no more than a few shillings in value.
Prosecution in all these cases must have been at the instigation of the managers and owners in the industries affected. For the other thefts, complaints often seem to be from shopkeepers, whose livelihood would be threatened by pilferings. This can be demonstrated by cross referencing thefts of food in 1852 with entries in a trade directory for that year: John Hughes, from whom Thomas Kenvin stole 84lb potatoes, was probably John Hughes, grocer, of High Street, Dowlais; the owner of 2lb of bacon stolen by Dennis Murray may have been John Cross who ran a grocer’s shop in Great Frederick Street, Cardiff.
Other food thefts were of veal, lemons, apples and tea, and all took place in Merthyr, Swansea or Cardiff. The total of 10 convictions is surprisingly low; one may suspect that there was a resistance to prosecute for the lesser offences of this kind.
Some thefts of clothes or footwear may also have constituted shoplifting. Boys commonly stole a coat, a cap, or a pair of boots, but the five thefts by girls include more substantial armfuls. The youngest offender was Mary Davies, aged 8, who stole a cotton frock, a silk frock, a bedsheet and a clothes brush; a 15 year old, Elizabeth Jones, stole a basket, a dress worth 20s, an apron, a kerchief, a pair of clogs, a bonnet and an umbrella – perhaps all these were the contents of the basket? One assumes that these girls’ motive was profit rather than use, and this was probably so for Elias Roberts, who stole a coat and trousers along with 5 sovereigns. Another boy was convicted of stealing two handkerchiefs in October 1852, and was in court again six weeks later for stealing a coat.
There are 15 convictions for thefts of money, many pickpocketing, and this increases to 17 if thefts of watches are included. It is striking that no girls appear in this group, and the boys are of a younger age than the average. One of the watches was stolen by a 7 year old. The only 15 year old is the head of a gang of younger boys, and such joint enterprises are frequent. A purse containing £15 provided the largest sum; there were also the 5 sovereigns mentioned above, and £4 in a cash box. On the other hand there were thefts of small change, the smallest being 3½d.
There are other diverse thefts. Some are clearly of shop goods, for instance a joint theft of 96 pieces of crockery; there are other items of hardware, including a looking glass. Lead, tobacco, cress seeds, a spade, and a bell complete the list.
In terms of sentencing, there are clear patterns discernible. The most striking difference is that between the fate of boys and girls. This was partly provided for in law, as whipping was a penalty reserved for boys. But it’s also clear that the use of fines as an alternative to imprisonment was almost exclusively applied to girls. Half the girls therefore escaped with a fine of 5s or 10s, whilst of the three boys who suffered this penalty one paid the maximum possible fine of £3.
Six girls and six boys received the punishment of brief imprisonment and the average was about 10 days served. Surprisingly, the figures for sentences of hard labour are roughly equivalent for boys and girls, with the length of sentence averaging 25 days. 40 boys, however, were sentenced to hard labour plus a whipping, and the hard labour here had an average of 20 days. A further 17 boys suffered imprisonment and a whipping, with an average of 12 days in prison.
There was one major change in sentencing during the years 1847-1879. A series of Acts introduced the possibility of sending offenders to reformatories or industrial schools. The former were for those convicted of imprisonable sentences, the latter for any others who came before the court. However, it appears such sentences were considered as additions to the penalties already available; Thomas Barry, who stole six rhubarb tarts in 1864, was sentenced to 14 days hard labour and 4 years at reform school. Comparable offenders in the early-1850s would only have served the hard labour.
These few examples provide an impression of the experiences of young law-breakers during the 19th century. Thanks to the hard work of Glamorgan Archives volunteers, in particular Laurie Thompson, the calendars of the Glamorgan Juvenile Convictions can now be searched using the Glamorgan Archives catalogue Canfod http://calmview.cardiff.gov.uk/ using the reference Q/S/JC, allowing further investigation into patterns of juvenile crime and punishment in 19th century Glamorgan, and the possibility of tracking down criminal ancestors!