Combating Juvenile Crime in Victorian Britain

Throughout the entire duration of the 19th century, juvenile crime in Britain had become more and more a cause for concern amongst local authorities and higher classes. From the juvenile truant choosing to rebel against state education to the youthful pickpocket committing theft on Oxford’s street corner, in the eyes of the middle-classes present in the nineteenth century, something had to be done.

Myths of Juvenile Crime

The main reason that a sudden fear of juvenile crime in Victorian Britain was triggered was London’s increasing interest of juvenile crime within literature, which at this time reached it’s height of popularity. The works of such writers as Charles Dickens in the early 19th century had created a popular mythology within London of a ‘criminal underworld’ in which a supposed criminal class (youths included) were thought to have prospered. According to this popular lore there existed in Britain’s capital a series of dark allies and rookeries which played host to nothing but young criminals. Such characters were present, but not on such a large scale.

children of the slums
Children of the slums

The Law’s approach to reforming children

Prior to the Victorian era, no distinction was made between criminals of any age. This meant that young children could be sent to an adult prison. In the most extreme instances, children aged as young as 12 were even being hanged.

flogged children

Only in 1854 were improvements made to how England dealt with young criminals, setting up Reformatory Schools for offenders under 16 years old. These were very tough places, with firm discipline enforced by regular beatings. Young people were sent there for long sentences, usually several years. However, a young offender normally still began their sentence with a brief spell in an adult prison.

Despite these ever growing concerns throughout the 19th century it wasn’t until the 1890’s in which there was a greater concern for child welfare in England, largely symbolised by the 1889 “Prevention of cruelty and protection of children act”. This act was crucial as it showed that local authorities were actively attempting to solve the problem of youth crime rather than simple contain it. From then on there was less hesitancy to intervene between children and their parents, the court could even take action if necessary.

Changes in Law enforcement

This new approach also found itself changing certain practices of law enforcement. London’s police had been officially established in 1829, but the degree of its professionalism only increased at the turn of the 20th century.

Whereas previously police constables would be fairly lenient towards certain street-culture traditions such as ‘Knock-out ginger’, this was no longer favoured. Even against more serious forms of delinquency such as property theft (the most common amongst youths) use of the stick as a form of punishment became less frequent due to welfare institutions favouring more preventative forms of punishment.

pick pocket 2

Along with the new policies towards child welfare, came a greater concentration on specific welfare institutions such as more reformatories and a greater focus on youth work projects. These projects were introduced by government to help combat delinquent lifestyles and to implant positive habits into young criminals, with the hopeful outcome that they would mature into an appropriate working class.

Resistance to these changes

The most common form of resistance against state control was known as ‘larking about’ a simple yet efficient crime. This practice of ‘larking’ was so successful as it had the ability to spread from the working-class into the children of middle-classes. For middle-class delinquents however, larking was seen as a form of release from their traditionally strict lifestyle whereas for the working-class it was an essential part of street culture amongst children.

pick pocket

The most irritating form of larking for authorities was also the most obvious, truancy, which was not restricted to any class of child. For higher classes, education was thought to have been an essential process in reforming juvenile delinquents, helping to develop conformity but more importantly predictability in the working class child. Truancy acted as an effective way in which youths attempted to resist strict control.

Aaron Potter

Aaron Potter

Hello I’m Aaron and like most other people you’ll find on this website I love writing about history, so much that I chose to study it in my home city of Bristol. There is only one past but many histories, and it’s in researching these histories which gets me pumped as I discover a possible untold story. When I’m not trudging through archives or writing about the past, you can find me sharing my thoughts about all things gaming related at and critiquing movies and movie news on my weekly podcast