Victorian children in trouble with the law

Lesson at a glance

Suitable for: Key stage 2, Key stage 3

Time period: Victorians 1850-1901

Download: Lesson pack

Did the punishment fit the crime?

Young people have always got into trouble with the law. What changes over time is how society deals with its young offenders.

Before Victorian times no distinction was made between criminals of any age. Accordingly, young children could be sent to an adult prison. There are records of children aged 12 being hanged.

The Victorians were very worried about crime and its causes. Reformers were asking questions about how young people who had broken the law ought to be treated. They could see that locking children up with adult criminals was hardly likely to make them lead honest lives in the future. On the other hand, they believed firmly in stiff punishments. In 1854 Reformatory Schools were set up for offenders under 16 years old. These were very tough places, with stiff discipline enforced by frequent 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.


1. Look at Source 1. Read through the document to make sure you understand what it is telling you.

  • How old was Joseph?
  • What offence had he committed?
  • What was his sentence?

2. Look at Source 2. Read through the document and compare it with the one shown in Source 1.

  • How old was John?
  • What offence had he committed?
  • What was his sentence?
  • There are two parts to John’s sentence. What do you think the Victorians thought was the point of:
    • Sending the offender to prison?
    • Sending the offender to the Reformatory?

3. Look at Source 3. Another form of Victorian punishment was transportation to a penal colony in a different country.

  • What is the average age of these convicts who are being transported?
  • What are the crimes that most of them have been convicted of? (Hint : Larceny means theft)
  • How long is the average sentence?
  • Do you think they were allowed to come home at the end of their sentence?
  • Which of the following words do you think describes conditions at the penal colony? Explain why
    • hard
    • easy
    • frightening
    • simple
    • tough
    • boring
    • interesting

4. Punishment of crime has a number of aims:

  • punish the offender
  • reform the offender so they won’t do it again
  • deter others from committing crimes
  • protect the public

Which of these aims were being met by these sentences on Victorian young offenders?

5. What would happen to Joseph Lewis and John Greening if they committed the same crimes today?

6. What sentences would you pass on Joseph Lewis and John Greening? What are the reasons for your decision?


Crime, and how to deal with it, was one of the great issues of Victorian Britain. In the first place there seemed to be a rising crime rate, from about 5,000 recorded crimes per year in 1800 to 20,000 per year in the 1830s. The Victorians had a firm belief in making criminals face up to their responsibilities and in punishment. Between 1842 and 1877, 90 new prisons were built in Britain.

Child crime shocked the Victorians. Dickens’ account of Fagin’s gang of young pickpockets led by the Artful Dodger, in ‘Oliver Twist’ published in 1837, played to this popular concern. In 1816, Parliament even set up a ‘Committee for Investigating the Alarming Increase in Juvenile Crime in the Metropolis’ (London). But how far should ideas of punishment, of making the criminal face up to their actions by a long, tough, prison sentence, apply to children?

A step towards treating children differently was the Juvenile Offences Act of 1847, which said that young people under 14 (soon raised to 16) should be tried in a special court, not an adult court. More far-reaching were the first Reformatory Schools, set up in 1854. Young people were sent to a Reformatory School for long periods – several years. The long sentences were designed to break the child away from the “bad influences” of home and environment.

Reformatories were as far as the government was prepared to go towards treating children differently for most of the 19th century. Attitudes began to swing towards reform in the early 20th century. From 1899 children were no longer sent to adult prisons. In 1902 an experimental school was set up at Borstal, in Kent. It was run like a boarding school, with lots of sport, staff not in uniform and a more encouraging attitude towards the children. Several more ‘Borstals’ were set up, but in 1982 there was a swing away from reform towards punishment and they were mostly turned into Young Offenders Institutes.

The documents are also interesting as an example of early use of photography in police records.

Teachers' notes

This lesson could be used in the context of the history of Crime and Punishment, or as an illustration of one aspect of life in Victorian Britain. Alternatively, it could be used to spark off discussion about prison today.

Crime and the treatment of offenders is always controversial, today as in the past. The pendulum of reform and rehabilitation versus punishment has swung throughout history and continues to swing in most classroom discussions.

The two cases in the documents illustrate what many would see as the severity of Victorian justice, based on retribution.


Image and Source 1 and 2 – PCOM 2/291

Source 3 – PC 1/2717 Lists of convicts embarked on the Elphinstone for Van Diemen’s land

Back to top

Lesson at a glance

Suitable for: Key stage 2, Key stage 3

Time period: Victorians 1850-1901

Download: Lesson pack

Related resources

A Victorian prison

Why were Victorian Prisons so tough?