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Presenter: Good evening and welcome to Newsnight with Jodie McLoughlin and Linn Martinussen. William Towers who, at the age of twelve, was accused of stealing rabbits, and was sentenced to one month hard labour in prison is there on his deathbed. William has made an exclusive interview to Newsnight. Our reporter is now with William and a prison reformer who is in favour of reforming conditions of punishment for children.

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William Towers on his deathbed (1906)

[music plays]

Reporter: Thank you Jodie and Linn. I just want to talk to you Mr Towers and I just want to say when you came back from the prison how did you feel?

William: I felt very shocked because society was so different and I had been kept in prison and it was very hard for me.

Reporter: Have you any advice for people coming out of prison?

William: I would say to be strong and to create a new life for yourself because I went into my father’s bricklaying business and made a new life for myself and I have now got a beautiful wife and five lovely kids.

Reporter: Could I ask you now you are looking back on your life what were the prison conditions like compared to how they are today?

William: In those days prison conditions were cold, they were very damp, I was very very lonely because I was alone for twenty three hours a day. It is very very hard and especially because I was so small I was very vulnerable.

Reporter: Campaign reformer, can we have your comments please.

Campaign reformer: Certainly. People like William Towers who are sent to prison for reasons either for helping their families or just stealing in general, they can’t be subjected to the punishments that adults are subjected to. I mean these are children. They can’t be kept in rooms for twenty three out of twenty four hours a day in cold conditions that surely provoked illness, discomfort and general loneliness for the children. The government are at the moment proposing to change the system for punishing children who do break the law and I think that it is about time that they recognise that children should deserve the right to be children and not be turned into miniature adults and dealt with as such.

Reporter: Mr Tower I just want to ask you what have you achieved in your life?

William: Well like I said before I am a bricklayer now, well I was, and I’ve now got a family that I love very much.

Reporter: When you stole the rabbit did you have any feelings for the people down there?

William: Well I stole the rabbits for a good cause. I needed to make sure that my family would not starve and I felt that it was very important considering the rabbits belonged to a very wealthy family. So I do not regret it.

Reporter: Thank you very much. Back to the studio.

Presenter: Now moving away from William’s deathbed we are lucky to have some archive reports from 1872 that we are now going to listen to.

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Interview with Rose, the victim (1872)

Presenter: Okay. I am going to interview our special guest tonight. It is the young lady who is the victim of Mr Tower’s rabbit theft. It’s the young lady here and her name is Rose. Good evening Rose. Thank you for coming to see us tonight. I appreciate your time. I am just going to talk to you about Mr Towers and the whole incident and how you feel about that if that’s okay. My first question is how did you feel when you initially realised that your rabbits had been stolen?

Rose: I was most distraught. I’ve only had them a week. I got them for my tenth birthday.

Presenter: I am sure you were. I can understand how distressing that must have been. I have rabbits myself so can certainly empathise with that. How did you feel when you realised the person who had stolen the rabbits was only after all a young lad only a few years older than yourself, did that change how you felt about what had happened or about this person?

Rose: No it didn’t, but it just goes to show that boys are selfish pigs.

Presenter: Well some people might have that opinion. Do you think the punishment that Mr Towers received was correct considering his age and circumstances? You are aware that he was from a very poor background. That doesn’t excuse theft and, of course, punishments must fit the crime but he is only such a young lad and he is from a very poor background and he did need those rabbits to feed his family.

Rose: It’s his own fault for being poor because it’s a crime, he must have committed a sin and I think he should have been punished more. I think he should have been starved to death.

Presenter: I see. And that’s the way you’ve been bought up to believe then.

Rose: Most definitely.

Presenter: I see and you think the punishment is correct do you?

Rose: Yes

Presenter: Okay. Thank you very much for your time Rose. That was very informative.

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Interview with William's family (1872)

Presenter: Now I’d like to introduce William’s family in order to get their reaction. I believe we are going to be speaking to the mother, the father and brothers and sisters. And over to our reporters.

(William’s family interviewed in 1872)

Reporter: Did you beg the judge not to send your son to prison?

William’s Mother: Of course I did.

Father: There wasn’t much point, he’s a judge.

Reporter: Could you have done something to prevent this?

Father: No

Mother: Yes you did, you did it, you took him poaching.

Father: How is this — any of this — my fault?

Mother: Because you took him poaching.

Father: I took him poaching for the good of the family.

Mother: You still took him poaching.

Father: Be quiet.

Reporter: How do you feel now your child has gone?

Mother: I’m very upset.

Father: Certainly disappointed, very disappointed.

Reporter: Why do you think he committed the crime.

Mother: Because he took him poaching.

Father: Because he was trying to do what was good for the family.

Reporter: I’ve got a question for the brother. How do you feel now your brother is locked up?

Brother: I feel a bit sorry for him really because at the end of the day he was just trying to help the family out.

Reporter: Are you glad now your brother is sent to prison?

Sister: No, I’m going to miss him. He did sometimes annoy me but I’m going to miss him. He was a good brother.

Reporter: Back to the studio.

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Interview with William as a young boy (1872)

Presenter: And of course a central character to 1872 is William himself who was sentenced to prison. We are going to go back and listen to the interviews with William as a little boy.

(William interviewed as a boy, 1872)

Journalist: Hi I’m Melisha Fox accompanied here by Jess and Georgie and we’re here reporting on William aged only 12, just before he was sent to prison. William, how do you feel after the bad things you’ve heard about the prison that you are to attend?

William: Well I don’t know what to feel, I could lie and say I feel brave and ready to face them or I could say the truth and that is I’m simply terrified.

Reporter: How do you feel for your family?

William: Well I do not know what my family feels so I cannot answer for them.

Reporter: What did you do with the rabbit?

William: When I stole them from the girl I took them home. It was in my nature not to lie so I simply told my mother the truth. We had a family discussion and then the decision was made that I’d take them back. I did. I took them back and placed them where I had found them before. But this girl came out and she had tears running down her face and she ran back. I thought she thought I was stealing them again, but I wasn’t.

Reporter: Do you think you’d cope without your family, especially your brothers, who you are very close to.

William: At first I don’t think I will but I will learn I guess.

Reporter: How do you think your family now feel knowing their son has now gone and their reputation has been ruined?

William: As I said before I cannot answer for my family, I do not know what they feel. As for the reputation, poor people don’t have a reputation to ruin.

Reporter: Will you commit a crime that bad again?

William: I don’t know. It depends what the poaching will do to me.

Reporter: Do you think the punishment is appropriate for a twelve year old? If not, what do you think would be appropriate?

William: I don’t think it is appropriate for a twelve year old. I think it is appropriate for an eighteen or twenty year old. If I could choose a punishment it would be to make a school where everybody equally can learn what is right and what is wrong.

Reporter: By poaching, is this going to involve your father as an accomplice?

William: No because my father hadn’t helped me for what I did; it was my choice. He was only passing on a trait that had been going in the family from generation to generation. I was the first to be going to prison.

Reporter: Now back to the studio.

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Interview with magistrates (1872

Presenter: Okay. Thank you very much for that report. Now we are going to cross over and talk to the magistrates and get their views on the punishment of children. And this is going back to our archive footage. Over to you.

[Back to 1872]

Reporter: Thank you Linn and Jodie. We are the news reporters investigating the magistrate who gave William Towers his punishment.

Reporter: Don’t you think the punishment was a bit harsh?

Magistrate 1: I most certainly do not. If young children are going to behave in this manner and commit crimes such as this, then they have to be punished.

Magistrate 2: The cities are overrun with unruly hooligans that need to be sorted out.

Reporter: Why did you not account for poverty? We feel that you cannot relate to the family situation as you have all the food you need, therefore what would you do in this situation?

Magistrate 1: Well there is only one simple answer to that. If people are in immense poverty then the solution is to find a suitable job that can support your family.

Reporter: If you were in the government would you get the public schools to teach right and wrong?

Magistrate 2: Well in this situation it wouldn’t be relevant anyway because William Towers wasn’t actually at school so it wouldn’t of taught him a thing. However it’s not really my place to say because it’s the government’s decision, not mine. It’s not my job.

Reporter: And I know that you don’t get paid for your job?

Magistrate 2: Is that really necessary?

Reporter: How could you send a baby to prison, to be tortured? Why couldn’t you have given him another punishment say work for the person you stole from?

Magistrate 1: Well first of all that is a bit of an exaggeration, he was a young man. Secondly, in answer to your question, it would be been too distressing for the victim to work with the offender. So therefore to reform this young man into a good member of society, the only possible solution would be to imprison him and sentence him to a month’s hard labour.

Reporter: What would you feel like if you were the parents?

Magistrate 2: I would never find myself in that situation because I have brought my children up to know the difference between right and wrong.

Reporter: I’ve got one last question.

Magistrates (together): I think we’ve said enough.

Reporter: That’s it for us. Back to the studio.

[Back to 1906]

Programme Presenters: Okay. Thank you very much. If you’d like to find out more information about William Towers and our special report you can go onto The National Archives website which is on or as well as that you can also try From me Jodie McLoughlin and from my colleague Linn Martinussen thank you for tuning in and we wish you all a good night.

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Behind the scenes

Find out how the play was made, and how we brought everything together.

Records of another child prisoner are available for you to study and produce your own play.

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