In the 1800’s in Victorian England, scores of children under the age of 20, roamed the streets in a Dickensian world, eeking out an existence made famous in the 1968 movie, Oliver.
In the day, Britain feared a French revolution might erupt within the lower classes and so wished to contain this potential political menace by executing or shipping any trouble-makers off to North America, or Australia. In those times, to commit a crime of any sort was seen as a character flaw which could not be altered through rehabilitation.
Why did Victorian Children Live on the Streets
Street children were often the progeny of delinquent parents, or who had parents who’d abandoned them or were sitting in a Debtor’s prison. A child could take its chances living on the streets, working in a dangerous textile factory or remain in squalid conditions in a poorhouse, if they were lucky.
Child Workers and Conditions in Textile Factories
In 1851, more than 500,000 of Britain’s children sometimes as young as six, were working in the textile mills.
Being small, children were used to crawl inside textile machinery to clear blockages in the spinning frames. It was extremely dangerous and many were killed or injured, as the machinery was slow to stop if a worker got caught.
The machines were very loud and they thundered relentlessly all day long. Workers could be fined. beaten or sacked for falling behind. In cotton mills, dust from the yarn covered the workers and got in their throats. To make the cotton strong, factory owners kept their mills warm and damp. This meant that the workers suffered from lung and chest infections.primaryfacts.com
With these options, it was no surprise that many children took their chances living on the streets.
Penalties for Child Criminals in England
In Victorian England, a child caught stealing would be sent to reform school or sentenced to hard labour. Once they had amassed a record of over 200 crimes, the child would hang from the gallows. If the magistrate was kind, a death sentence may be commuted from hanging to transportation, for life, to a convict colony, in Australia.
Sometimes, these children were the lucky ones, and other times, not.
Steve Harris’ book called,”The Lost Boys of Mr Dickens,” recounts the real-life story of two young boys, in the 19th century, sent by the British Government, as impoverished and unwanted juveniles to exile to Van Diemen’s Land, now Tasmania, in the world’s first prison built exclusively for children.
Prejudice, moral panic, harsh justice and expedience saw unwanted boys condemned to severe isolation, solitary confinement, hard labour in chains and thrashings in a juvenile version of notorious Port Arthur, a ground-breaking chapter in the history of juvenile crime and punishment. Some quietly endured in the hope of salvation through rudimentary trade and Biblical instruction, but others became relentlessly defiant and mutinous in a brotherhood of resistance and bullying, inexorably slipping from hope to hell.Booktopia.com
A Convict in the Family
Ironically, having a convict ancestor in one’s family history is now seen as an asset to a Genealogist. Not only is there widespread documents and history related to convicts, but many times, there are details of their physical description and life story, sometimes even their words, letters or deeds they performed.
John Martin, although not a child convict, was convicted of stealing a sheep’s carcass, at 24 years of age. His sentence of life imprisonment aboard the convict hulks moored in British harbours was commuted to transportation, for life, to Australia. Therein starts our Australian family adventure as John was my 3 x Great Grandfather.
John Thomas Martin was indeed one of the lucky ones to escape the gallows or a potential life in the textile factories. John went on to become a convict overseer, gain his ticket of leave and later marry into one of the first free settler families in Australia, having a large brood of 11 children, one of which was Eve Martin, his daughter, my 2nd Great Grandmother.
I wonder why Eve wore her heart brooch upside down?
Their farm near Paterson in country New South Wales was called ‘Forest Wood,” and the small town of Martin’s Creek now bears the family’s name. From the inscription his free settler wife, Jemima had inscribed into his tombstone, one might think she was determined that history would know of his true character, more than his criminal past.
“He was an affectionate husband and a kind father.”
Something to Ponder About