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ictorian Britain was a brutal place, especially for those who had to work for long hours in the country’s many factories. Due to the low pay that many of these workers received, many couldn’t make ends meet, leading to crime rates within the city skyrocketing as the industrial revolution took hold of the urban areas of the United Kingdom.

Such tough conditions meant that many parents couldn’t afford to send their children to school. Children would sometimes even have to get jobs, with children as young as four-years-old being sent down to the mines to help move the coal mined in the underground catacombs. As such, it is not surprising that not only the adults but also the children turned to crime as money became scarcer and scarcer, leading to younger and younger people going to jail.

The streets of London

A London street scene in the 1870s. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The life of the average Victorian child was very tough. Due to limited resources available to put many of these children in schools, as well as the limited financial capacity of many of the working-class families, the literacy rates across the country for men stood at 60% and 30% for women around the 1850s. For a country that at the time occupied quite large swathes of the rich Indian continent as well as large parts of the Americas, such figures are not impressive. The lack of education led many to a life of crime, going from petty theft, stealing materials from their workplace, taking part in smuggling rings, to even turning to a life of crime on the 7 seas by becoming a pirate.

As crime grew across the country, the government started to crack down on it more and more as such, the age of those convicted started to get lower and lower. This trend got worse and worse until 1870, when the subject of our article, 7-year-old Julia Ann Crumpling, was arrested and sentenced to 7 days of hard labor for a petty crime.

No ‘criminal’ left unpunished

A common question on someone’s mind right now would be. What could a 7-year-old do to be sentenced to 7 days of hard labor in an actual prison?

Young boys in the yard of a British prison exercising circa the 1800s. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Well, according to records which only resurfaced in 2012, the young Victorian girl who lived in Oxfordshire stole a pram from a couple known as Mr. and Mrs. Edmund Smith of Witney. She was turned in by a maid who recognized the pram as the property of Mr. and Mrs. Edmund Smith of Witney.

As a ‘slap on the wrist,’ the judge sentenced the young girl to 7 days of hard labor at the local Oxford prison. There she was placed with the other women prisoners.

This hard labor would have probably been done in the form of helping with the laundry of the prison. During her stay, like the other prisoners, she would only be allowed to bathe once and was only given one set of prison clothes for the duration of her stay.

Change the system

Many other young criminals would be sentenced like Julia, but none would be as young as her. This youth crime problem would slowly fade away as regulation on child labor, most notably through the introduction of the Factory Act of 1878, which banned any child below the age of 10 from working; unlike previous regulatory acts, this applies to all fields of labor.

The Factory Act reform, as well as the Education Act of 1880, which made it illegal for a child not to receive an education until the age of 10 (later changed to 12), greatly, played a great role in the decreasing crime rates seen across the entire country from 1880 to 1900.

Graph showing the prosecution rates in the United Kingdom. Source: digitalpanopticon.org

As the turn of the century came, so did a new wave of human rights concerns meaning that children in the United Kingdom would never have to experience the conditions those felt under the Victorian reign.

Although it is not a problem in the United Kingdom, any more many countries that are going through the same industrialization process face the same problems as the United Kingdom faced more than 150 years ago. Let’s hope that these countries learn from the mistakes of the United Kingdom and focus on their youth rather than stunting their mental growth by forcing them into crime or labor.

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