In 19th-Century Britain, People Hired Violent Child Gangs To Do Their Bidding

In the 19th century, child labor was legal, and thousands of children were sequestered into mines and factories. The life of a child worker was grueling, and often short. Many were forced to begin working before they were 10 years old, as jobs like chimney sweeping required children who could fit into small places. While working conditions left much to be desired, at least the children were making money on the up and up; the same cannot be said for the gangs of child criminals who plagued England. 

The Victorian discipline system was harsh, even for adolescents. Punishments ranged from prison to flogging, and over a hundred children were sentenced to death. On top of this, children who were forced to work in violent gangs often found themselves thrown into prison as young as age eight, and up until the Juvenile Offenses Act of 1847, young children were tried as adults. 

Child pickpockets had an even more dangerous life. They often worked for strict adults who took all their stolen riches and forced them to live in flash houses, much like in the Charles Dickens novel Oliver Twist. As pint-sized gangs terrorized Victorian cities, juvenile crime became a big concern, even though most of the children were struggling to survive. 

  • Children As Young As Eight Were Sentenced To Hard Labor

    In Victorian London, police arrested children every day, and the so-called criminals were often as young as eight. Commonly, child criminals were sentenced to hard labor, which included breaking up stones in a prison yard, and being forced to walk in a wooden treadwheel to power a mill. The child's biological sex didn't matter, as both boys and girls received prison sentences of hard labor.

    James Scullion was only 13 when he was sentenced to hard labor for stealing clothes. At the time, the boy was barely four feet tall, and was likely malnourished and severely impoverished. After his prison sentence, Scullion spent three years in a reformatory school.

  • Young Pickpockets Were Trained By Adults
    Photo: Hine, Lewis Wickes; National Child Labor Committee Collection / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Young Pickpockets Were Trained By Adults

    Pickpocketing was one of the most common "professions" among young Victorian criminals. While some operated independently, others worked in gangs that teamed up to steal from the pockets of the rich. Some child criminals bragged about their activities, and one young orphan told a journalist that "picking pockets... is the daringest thing that a boy can do."

    Many of these gangs were controlled by adults who taught children how to steal, and who demanded that they bring back their "earnings" to be sold on the black market. While it wasn't a lucrative business for the children, adults could easily hire a violent youth gang to target their enemies.

    Some of these criminal bosses became famous, such as Thomas Duggin, a "thief-trainer" who worked in the slums and controlled a gang of boys. Ikey Solomon also trained thieves, and faced arrest several times for selling stolen goods. Another criminal boss named Charles King ran a group of professional pickpockets, one of whom — 13-year-old John Reeves — stole over £100 in a single week. However, the names of crime bosses rarely appear in police reports, as gang members were too scared to rat out their superiors. 

  • Homeless Child Criminals Lived In Flash Houses
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Homeless Child Criminals Lived In Flash Houses

    Early in the 19th century, a startling new real estate trend emerged. Reports started coming in of criminals who sold flash houses (or stolen property) to be used as cheap housing for child gang members and other impoverished citizens. For many, flash houses were the only alternative to homelessness, and a single house often supported dozens of children who had no other option.

    The police called flash houses "nurseries of crime," and in 1837 a police witness claimed that a house in London contained "20 boys and 10 girls under the age of 16," all living together. All the dwelling's residents were led by a captain and "encouraged in picking pockets."

  • Child Labor Was A Popular Alternative To Child Gangs
    Photo: Lewis Hine/National Child Labor Committee collection / Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division / No known restrictions

    Child Labor Was A Popular Alternative To Child Gangs

    Child gangs weren't the only problem in Victorian Britain. Thousands of children labored in factories and mines, often under horrific working conditions. On average, 19th century British children started working at age 10, but even younger children were put to work in industrial areas. 

    In 1878, the Factory Act banned hiring workers younger than 10, and the 1880 Education Act introduced compulsory schooling for children under 10. While both were an improvement, child laborers were still abused by employers and had few rights. However, unlike child gangs, child laborers were at least legally and gainfully employed. 

  • The Children Believed Stealing Was Morally Just
    Photo: Lewis Hine/National Child Labor Committee collection / Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division / No known restrictions

    The Children Believed Stealing Was Morally Just

    Stories of British child gangs play out like urban versions of Robin Hood, according to the children at least. In the mid-1800s, an investigative journalist named James Greenwood wrote that the children believed that stealing was morally just: "They have an ingrained conviction that it is you who are wrong, not them." In the eyes of the children, their actions couldn't even be described as stealing, Greenwood reported: "You are wrong in the first place in appropriating all the good things the world affords, leaving none for them but what they steal."

  • Five Thousand Prisoners Were Shipped To Australia

    In the early 1800s, there was no separate juvenile justice system, so everyone was tried with the same severity. Between 1801 and 1836, the criminal court dubbed Old Bailey saw 103 children age 14 or younger sentenced to death. However, almost none of them ended up being executed, as their punishment was usually commuted to something less grave. In 1847, the Juvenile Justice Act declared that children under 14 should be tried in a separate court from adult offenders.

    While children were rarely given the death sentence, many were shipped off to penal colonies around the world, and by the 1830s, 5,000 prisoners as young as 10 were sent to Australia. In Australia, convicts might work on public projects, or be given other manual labor tasks. Some even built prisons once they arrived at the penal colony.