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Crime and PunishmentTreatment of Juvenile Criminals Return to the main page
Case Study 4 - Were the Victorians cruel to children who broke the law? Task Glossary

Governments in 19th century Britain were worried about crime in general and juvenile crime (crimes committed by people below adult age) in particular. They could see that there was a problem of child criminals. Charles Dickens portrayed the most famous of them, the Artful Dodger and Fagin's gang, in his novel "Oliver Twist", in 1837.

There were no separate prisons for children at the beginning of this period, many writers pointed out that there was little point in sending young criminals to prison alongside hardened adult criminals who would only teach them better ways to steal. Courts sometimes let child offenders off because they feared the worst from sending them to prison. Other courts were, however, quite ready to give long, tough prison sentences to children on their second, or later, offence.

Change was slow. In 1834 Parkhurst Prison was built as a prison for boys. In 1854 Reformatory Schools for child offenders were started. Life in these prisons was tough, with corporal punishment -whipping and birching - regularly used. There were still 1500 children in adult prisons in 1871. However, by this time the government understood the need for separate treatment for children and there were special rules for those who ended up in adult prisons. By 1890 there were only 253 children in adult prisons. From 1899 no children could be sent to one and further reforms followed in the early 20th century (see Gallery Punishment in the 20th Century).

Case Study 4 Sources Source 1 Source 3 Source 2 Source 4