Wearside Echoes: Criminal treatment of starving children

COACH AND HORSES:Trading in High Street West from 1820 and rebuilt in 1876. It closed in 1959.
COACH AND HORSES:Trading in High Street West from 1820 and rebuilt in 1876. It closed in 1959.
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SUNDERLAND youngsters caught stealing in Victorian times could expect savage beatings or even a spell of hard labour in prison. Today we find out more.

THE jailing of a starving 11-year-old schoolgirl would make national headlines today, especially if she had stolen just to keep herself alive.

But the sentence of seven days hard labour at Newcastle Gaol handed out to Durham-born Ellen Woodman went unreported – even in her local newspaper.

The frail and underfed youngster appeared before magistrates in 1873, after being caught stealing scrap metal. Three teenage girls were charged alongside her.

None of the girls had any previous convictions, but were all sentenced to hard labour. Ellen became the youngest prisoner to serve her time at the jail that year.

Details of Ellen’s case, and dozens more, are included in a fascinating book written by Barry Redfern, the retired Chief Superintendent of Northumbria Police.

Records held by a Sunderland family, the Watsons of Hendon, were used as the basis of the study, Victorian Villains – Prisoners from Newcastle Gaol from 1871-1873.

And the 160-page book, published by Newcastle Libraries, is also filled with dozens of police ‘mug shots’ – portraying the desperate, needy and downright dangerous.

“The faces of the four young girls are among the most poignant in the collection,” said Barry. “What sort of lives did they lead after their hard labour?

“They are understandably distressed, their clothes are unkempt and Ellen Woodman, the youngest, looks malnourished.”

Another child featured in the rogue’s gallery is a cherubic 12-year-old choir boy, Henry Leonard Stephenson, who was born at Castle Eden near Peterlee.

The youngster, said to be ‘of respectable parents,’ earned himself a severe punishment after embarking on a crime spree with fellow chorister Michael Fisher.

Between September 6 and 30 in 1872 the boys broke into three houses, stealing jewellery, cash, a violin case and other items from their victims.

It was claimed in court, however, that they were acting out scenes from books to appear ‘heroic’ and ‘manly,’ rather than stealing for the sake of gaining property.

The boys escaped a public whipping after a plea by solicitors, but Fisher was jailed for four months with hard labour, while Stephenson endured a two-month prison stint.

“Each was to have a day’s solitary confinement at the beginning and end of the term of imprisonment,” Barry records in his book.

Two unnamed 12-year-old Durham boys did not get off so lightly, however, being sentenced to eight strokes of the rod each after stealing screws and nails.

Dozens of cases involving adult criminals are also included in Victorian Villains, including that of Durham-born labourer William Harrison.

Harrison managed, by ‘some sort of trick or false pretence,’ to obtain 77 pounds of oats from a woman called Sarah Renwick, probably the servant of the real owner.

The 51-year-old, who had two previous convictions for obtaining oats by false pretences, was sentenced to twelve months in prison with hard labour in 1872.

Three confidence tricksters who cheated Haswell Colliery pitman Charles Penman out of £2 and a watch during a pub betting game in 1872 also fell foul of the law.

The trio used an old gambling trick, Thimble Rigging, to persuade Penman to part with his cash, urging him to guess which of three thimbles a pea was under.

“The game was a complete sham and he lost money and his watch,” said Barry. “The gullible Mr Penman, realising he had been duped, went off and found a constable.”

The gang was rounded up and James Davit, Thomas Smith alias Woodhall and William Cotter duly appeared in court charged with cheating and defrauding.

Cotter, however, was later acquitted on the court’s instructions, while Irishman Davit, 19, served six weeks in prison and American-born Smith, 32, served three months.

It was reported in the press that, after the sentence was announced, Davit laughed and told the magistrate: “Thank you, my Lord, I didn’t expect to get off so safe.”

One person who wasn’t laughing, however, after his own court appearance, was 16-year-old apprentice blacksmith Michael Dixon from Newcastle.

Dixon was sent to prison for 14 days after ‘absenting himself without leave’ from his job at Sir William Armstrong and Co in December 1873. A harsh lesson for anyone.

Liz Rees, chief archivist at Tyne and Wear Archives Service, said: “Barry Redfern’s painstaking research paints an evocative picture of everyday life in the 19th century.

“The stories that emerge are a mixture of social interaction, physical hardship, bad luck and stupidity. We gain a unique insight into the lives our forebears lived.”

** Victorian Villains – Prisoners from Newcastle Gaol from 1871-1873 is published by Tyne Bridge Publishing, in association with Tyne and Wear Archives, at £6.99.