Children & Crime

This began to change as reformers pushed for changes in the way the justice system dealt with children rather than merely categorizing them as criminals, as had been the case in the first half of the nineteenth century. Legislation with the Juvenile Offences Act of 1847, made it possible so that children under 14 be tried in a court different from that of adults; the age was raised to 16 in 1850. By 1870 the Education Act made education accessible, and by 1880 made mandatory. Horsfall’s ideas, helped obtain an amendment to the Education Code, which allowed schoolchildren for the first time to visit museums and art galleries, such as The Manchester Art Museum in Ancoats, during school hours as part of their education. He sought to create an environment where children, especially those from the lower class, could experience art, nature, and beauty believing that, as Stuart Eagles writes, art could transcend social barriers, and prove transformative for those touched by it. He reacted to the poor conditions created by the Industrial Revolution and the environment that permeated cities like Manchester. The large populations in industrial cities had made conditions and problems of crime increasingly visible, and complaints grew numerous. Children turned to criminality in large part due to the upheavals of industrialization. Nevertheless, by mid-1800s there was a decrease in crime through the gradual emergence of a social system that included regular schools and reformatories.

"Pleading at the Bar" or Popular Education

George Cruikshank, Pleading at the bar or Popular Education – a Farce, performed every Sessions, 1828.

Middle class reformers became interested in taking these children off the streets. Doli incapacitas was the belief that children below the age of seven, were incapable of evil, therefore not responsible for their actions. Once eight, children had the same status as adults and could suffer legal consequences. A group of Quaker reformers conducted an investigation, Report of the committee for investingating the causes of the alarming increase of juvenile delinquency in the metropolis, in 1816 as concern over child crime began to grow. They concluded that thousands of boys and girls under seventeen years of age were daily engaged in the commission of crime. This report created a dual sense of fear and sympathy towards poor children and led to further investigations. The Malicious Trespass Act and the Vagrant Act passed in the 1820s were meant to discourage idle and criminal behavior, however it increased the number of children in prison. There was also the emerging belief among reformers that crime was caused by environments of poverty and neglect. The idea that children could be tried as adults and even sent to the same prisons, as Oscar Wilde and Edward Gibbon Wakefield note in some of their work, was being challenged. There was a growing need to remove children from such haphazard environments (products of the Industrial Revolution) and provide them with care and guidance. 


George Cruikshank’s illustration, Pleading at the bar comments on the absurdity of trying children in adult courts. This satirical piece shows two very young kids accused of stealing black pudding worth one penny. They repeat everything the jailor says to them, demonstrating they cannot even think for themselves. It is absurd to be trying them for a minor offence in an adult criminal court. Care for children would have to start by changing instituted policies that treated children as criminals. The reality of child crime became further explored by realist authors like Charles Dickens

Oliver amazed at the Dodger's mode of going to work

George Cruikshank, Oliver amazed at the Dodger's Mode of 'going to work', 1838.

As middle class anxieties about their own safety grew, so did their desire to improve conditions of the lower class. The visibility of child crime was largely due to the press and literature at the time. Crimes were reported on a mass scale because of the increased use of publicly accessible written material provided. Dickens’s Oliver Twist was one of the first literary works to help bring awareness to the topic of children and crime through Fagin’s gang of child pickpockets. Oliver finds himself in a world of desperation and corruption, where children are corrupted by the environment. Oliver, at first, has no idea of what Fagin trains his boys to do. Seeing Fagin cares for them, Oliver is trusting of him. As the story progresses, he begins to notice that, “Whenever the Dodger or Charley Bates came home at night, empty-handed, he would expatiate with great vehemence on the misery of idle and lazy habits…sending them supperless to bed…he even went so far as to knock them both down a flight of stairs…” Authors like Dickens became the voice of social critique. The novel presents children at the mercy of manipulative villains.  From this, we are given to understand how children were driven down a criminal path leading them to act, as the image shows, like Jack Dawkin and Charley Bates who rob an unsuspecting gentleman as he stands distracted reading a book. Reports, pamphlets, newspaper articles, and literature reached middle-class audiences making them increasingly aware of the conditions created by industrialization, such as child labor, the decrease in apprenticeships, establishment of workhouses, and rapid urbanization, all believed to be connected to the rise in child crime.

Mrs Mary Carpenter and her First Reformatory Girl, Annie Woolham, at Red Lodge, October 10, 1854

George Edmund Butler, Mrs. Mary Carpenter and Her First Reformatory Girl, Annie Woolham, and Red Lodge, 1922.

Horsfall would have been aware of the different publications pertaining the conditions of children and how they were involved in criminal activities. There was a growing consensus that childhood should be protected and education was key in achieving that. Before Horsfall was actively pursuing change for lower class children, Mary Carpenter was an important figure who pushed for the official establishment of reformatory and industrial schools in the early 1850s. Like Horsfall she believed, “Knowledge must be made attractive to them by employment of pictures and varied illustrations, and by communicating it so skillfully that the actual exercise of their faculties shall be a pleasure to them” (Carpenter, 172-173). Her goal was to remove children from prisons and workhouses because those did not treat kids in a favorable manner or provide with the necessary skills to live a decent life after completing sentences. The painting by George Edmund Butler depicts Carpenter as a nurturing mother welcoming a young girl into the Red Loge reformatory. She felt that corporal punishment should be limited and believed that children in reformatories should be treated with love and respect. Furthermore, education programs were to include a balance between work and recreation opportunities. Her ideas helped pass legislation like The Youthful Offenders Act of 1854, allowing children under 16 to serve sentences in reformatories. By 1854 she helped establish Red Lodge Reform School for Girls and in 1857 the Kingswood Reform School for Boys.

The changes gave children more rights and thus a special place in society. In the early 1800s, the notable rise in child crime was beginning to be a cause for concern. As crime became more rampant and visible, the middle class grew ill at ease, leading them to search for ways to remove children from the streets. By the mid-1800s reformers, while still anxious about criminal children, sought ways to not simply remove children from the street but tried to get to the root of the problem. They began to understand that children may not be completely at fault for their actions, but rather crime was a product of influences and surrounding environment. Reformers push for change in policies dealing with children and shifting views in how people saw childhood, led to an overall decrease in crime. By the late 1800s and early 1900s, the time in which Horsfall was active, there was a consensus among those of the middle class that legislation and education were key to solving many of the problems children were faced with. At the start of the twentieth century, children under 12 had almost disappeared from the prison system, and those under 16 had fallen to a thousand. Ultimately, reformers pushed for the change of penal policies and education which would dramatically change the way childhood was experienced across class and gender. The belief that all should have access to art, beauty, and nature would become vital to changing the conditions and environments the lower class found themselves in.


Written by Annie Castaneda