Article by Ellie Veryard. Edited by Hannah Lyons. Additional Research by Thom Absalom.
Youth; never has a description been so coveted and so maligned. It’s become a bit of a curse in society lately, haunting those trying to slow down the emergence of wrinkles and those dodging hooded gangs in bus stops and on street corners. And while we might all at some point worry that we’re no longer youthful, it is the current youth themselves that appear to cause us the most stress, regardless of whether our fears are unfounded, prompted by media hype or a real reflection of society’s problems. Whether it’s early sexualisation, their lack of employment opportunities or what seems like an abnormally high rate of violence among young people, the problem of youth and the anxiety which it causes never seems very far away.
Fears about the younger members of our society are not new, nor are they necessarily on a larger scale than before. Criminal records from the long eighteenth century show some very similar parallels to the worries we have today, including a range of problems from youth gangs to the problem of punishment. Parental control over children was just as contentious an issue in the eighteenth century as it is today. Unlike current teenagers, most children would be expected to leave home and become apprenticed to a master in their early teens, occupying an ambiguous role in the master’s household. Adulthood was not typically considered to begin until marriage, which, for the poorer sections of society, took place when they were around twenty-eight years old. It was around this age that both men and women had earned enough through their work to be able to finance their own household. (Contemporary notions of the ‘teenager’ had not yet been invented so young people were subjected to several years in a sort of limbo between childhood and adulthood.) Old enough to be independent, earning and migrating to find work, these ‘teenagers’ were still constrained to childhood reverence and answered directly to their masters as they would their parents.
This ‘limbo’ caused frequent tensions in the households of masters. Apprentices often refused to conform to the standards or rules that their masters set, often answering or fighting back when discipline was administered. In the face of this defiance masters could be left unsure how to control an apprentice who refused to respect their authority. In the most extreme cases masters resorted to applying to a magistrate, either hoping to scare the trouble maker into acting straight or to have them committed for a short period to a house of correction.
Contemporaries also believed that apprentices could pose just as much of a problem outside of the household. They behaved worse, it was perceived, when acting in groups, often inciting one another to commit worse behaviour. There is ample evidence, some criminal, some anecdotal, that apprentices would work together to steal alcohol to supplement their leisure time and even some instances where they worked together to rob in the streets. Whilst the law was used to punish them in these circumstances, these actions posed further problems for masters who had to decide how to deal with the offender, often resulting in the dismissal of an apprentice from his position. By the late eighteenth century several social commentators regarded this dismissal as simply furthering the problems of youth misbehaviour, for without work- and to a large extent discipline- many of these disgraced apprentices either turned crime or became a burden on the parish poor relief, all in an attempt to survive.
In a very similar way our society today also struggles with the question of how to deal with young offenders, or those who consistently misbehave. Punishment of such activities was just as contentious then as it is today. Despite stories of eighteenth-century teenagers being hung for pitifully small thefts the fact remains that most contemporaries also believed youths deserved a second chance. Young people were much more likely to receive a pardon or corporal punishment at the hands of a master or parent than their older counterparts. Furthermore, criminals under eighteen received a lesser punishment than those in their early twenties.
By the end of the eighteenth century the desire to reform criminals instead of simply punishing them was becoming widespread. This desire led to an increase in the number of young people being sentenced to transportation in the hope that the hard conditions of the colonies would, aside from acting as a punishment, help them to discover the virtues of hard labour and an honest life. How successful this was is difficult to tell and certainly many contemporary commentators thought its usefulness to society negligent; they claimed its only redeeming factor was that it got criminals out of the country. The ‘Houses of Correction’ that were employed throughout the century demonstrated that locking people up and subjecting them to corporal punishment had little effect except to institutionalise and alienate them from society. Despite this, when transportation was no longer feasible, prison prevailed.
It was not only apprentices who were regarded by contemporaries as potential troublemakers; an entire generation of migratory young people seeking work was regarded as both a burden and a hindrance to society. The numbers of young people who flooded into the capital to find work increased dramatically across the eighteenth century. The employment market was unable to sustain such an influx of workers and, coupled with the often seasonal and unstable nature of city work, many young people found themselves unemployed or shifting from job to job to survive. Young women hoping to go into the domestic service were especially at risk in an industry with both a high turnover and wages too low to provide a sufficient income. When supplementary – or even any – employment could not be found it was not uncommon for women to exchange sexual favours for food or money.
Crime was thus the main repercussion perceived by contemporaries in response to this disparity between employment and young employment seekers. Indeed a large number of young people convicted for theft (the highest indictable offence in the eighteenth century) cited poverty as their mitigating circumstances. (Whether this was an attempt to construct their actions in justifiable terms or an actual declaration of desperation is not always clear, and debated by both contemporaries and historians alike.) What is clear is that contemporaries regarded people between the ages of around seventeen to early twenties as one of the groups most likely to commit crimes.
To some extent this perception was a self-fulfilling prophecy. Due to this anxiety young people were much more likely to be pushed through the justice system and into the court than someone who fell into the age category of a ‘less feared’ group. In pushing such large numbers of young people through the court, society only served to vindicate the idea that the youth were the most frequent perpetrators of crime.
However it was not just those at the poorer end of society who caused trouble. Gangs of young gentlemen often posed problems in their own right and there were several scares throughout the period of young, marauding gangs attacking and wounding innocent men and women. The ‘Mohocks’ are perhaps the most famous of these gangs and it was in the early months of 1712 that they caused considerable damage by attacking passersby with knives and swords. Society was shocked by these pointless intentions to injure the innocent, yet despite the public outcry these types of attacks by various groups would continue to resurface over subsequent decades. Historians such as Robert Shoemaker argue that such wanton acts of violence were part of an attempt by the young men involved to affirm their masculinity and sexuality in an era when homosexuality was first beginning to be considered deviant. By using violence against other men and women these men were demonstrating masculine traits of bravado and power that bolstered their esteem in the eyes of their peers. We can still identify this type of bravado in many modern gangs, often through what we are told is an initiation, where gang members are forced to commit acts of violence against others to prove their worth.
For all the parallels we can draw between fear of young people in the eighteenth century and today’s current anxieties there are still many irregularities and contradictions that cannot be addressed in the space of this article. But what is most telling for me is the striking continuity in the way we portray and regard our youth. Undoubtedly eighteenth-century anxieties contained a mixture of misconceptions, overblown fears and real problems that needed immediate attention. The same may be said for our society today. Does it simply lead us to the stark realisation that some things never change? Does this say something more about the older generations in a society than the youth? Perhaps more significantly we should be scrutinising the way in which the media presents young people. There is no hiding from the fact that the tone and nature of both the eighteenth-century and contemporary press greatly influences public opinion. If they prioritise and sensationalise the crimes and misdemeanours of young people over those of their older counterparts is it any wonder we and our past forebears have demonised this section of society?
- One of the youngest boys to be sentenced was William Barrett, accused of stealing a watch to the value of 30 shillings belonging to a Mr George Tanfield of the Strand. Barrett was found guilty of theft and was sentenced ‘To be sent to sea’ (i.e to serve with the Royal Navy). He was just twelve years old.
- One of the youngest girls to be sentenced was Eliza Toysbin, who, along with her mother (also Eliza Toysbin), was convicted of theft in April 1835. The two stole eighty-four and a half yards of silk. They were sentenced to transportation to the colonies and to remain there for the rest of their lives. The younger Eliza was just nine years old.
- Transportation to Australia was a common punishment. Between 1788, when the first group of convicts were sent to Australia, and 1868, when the last group arrived, more than 165,000 people were transported overseas.
- Youth crime is still considered a problem in the UK. Those involved in the London Riots of August 2011 were mostly young men. The youngest convicted rioter was an eleven-year-old boy. The boy had stolen a £50 bin from a Debenhams in Romford. His punishment was an 18-month youth rehabilitation order – much better than being deported!
- The Proceedings of the Old Bailey website (www.oldbaileyonline.org/) contains records of 197,745 cases at the Old Bailey court conducted between 1674 and 1913. The website features fully searchable records of all the trials with details of the accused, their crimes and their punishments. The website is the result of a collaboration between the Open University (Prof. Clive Emsley), the University of Hertfordshire (Prof. Tim Hitchcock) and the University of Sheffield (Prof. Robert Shoemaker).