In the current cultural climate, films, video games and the media can be held heavily responsible for having a negative influence on young children. Back in the 19th century, newspapers and literature at the time also had an impact on the behaviour of young boys. Many of whom ended up being convicted of crimes and sent to the juvenile prisons or even transported.
One of the main culprits of this blame was Jack Sheppard – famous thief and escape artist. Alive during the 1700’s, Sheppard gained a celebrity status, particularly with the working-classes… and young boys.
As mentioned in a previous blog post, criminal broadsides were an accessible way of getting a quick fix of the daily criminal convictions. These broadsides influenced the way crime became a part of popular culture for the working classes and how certain stories would circulate between social groups – usually in the form of the ‘Newgate Novel’. Crime almost became a form of entertainment, so much so that they began to show stories like Jack Sheppard in the theatres.
Juvenile criminality in Liverpool was analysed by parliament in the ‘Report from the Select Committee on Criminal and Destitute Juveniles; together with the proceedings of the committee, minutes of evidence, appendix and index’ and it was found that ‘the evils produced in children by the gratification of this passion for the theatre, has […] been aggravated by the introduction of a novel kind of amusing and dramatic literature’ (Appendix, No. 2, 408).
Not only does this particular report interest me as I study in Liverpool but it is a useful source as it includes many different accounts of criminality from young boys of different age groups and backgrounds. Although it must be recognised that the questions asked may have been leading questions, it is still a useful resource to use in terms of gauging how popular and influential John Sheppard and similar criminals were to these audiences.
Evidently, other factors had an impact on the criminal behaviour of these youths. Many were reported as orphans or as coming from poverty-stricken family with drunken parents. Some boys even came from fairly respectable homes but were heavily influenced by their time at the theatre and the boys they met with there.
One juvenile delinquent stated ‘it was the theatres that first created in me a desire to steal, and the cause of my getting into bad company’ (414, Appendix No 2, “51. – H. T., 19.) revealing that the plays shown at the theatre featuring behaviour like thieving planted the seed of criminality in this particular delinquent’s head. He goes on to say, ‘I have seen Jack Sheppard’ performed; I think it will be the means of inducing boys to copy his tricks. I have read his Life; many boys have it.’
A pattern throughout this report is the young offenders having read Jack Sheppard’s ‘Life’ and watching wrong doings at the theatre. Not only was the theatre a place to watch these crimes unfold, but also an opportunity for young boys to meet up and discuss and even partake in these crimes. It seems the theatre became a place to learn and pick up this criminal behaviour for boys between the ages of around 7-19.
For an interesting read on what happened to juvenile criminals after completing their sentence, click here.
Rayner, Gordon. ‘From Artful Dodger to Honest Worker: How Apprenticeships Kept Juvenile re-offending Rates Down in Victorian Times’, The Telegraph, 15 April 2015, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/law-and-order/11537704/From-Artful-Dodger-to-honest-worker-how-apprenticeships-kept-juvenile-re-offending-rates-down-in-Victorian-times.html?hootPostID=d8a2f999d67773e4ac5e03acba05ee34 accessed 12/12/18.
‘Report from the Select Committee on Criminal and Destitute Juveniles; Together with the Proceedings of the Committee, Minutes of Evidence, Appendix and Index’, 1852 (515), House of Commons Parliamentary Papers Online, 2005 ProQuest Information and Learning Company.
‘1724: Jack Sheppard, Celebrity Escape Artist’, ExecutedToday 16 November 2011, accessed 13/12/18. http://www.executedtoday.com/2011/11/16/1724-jack-sheppard-celebrity-escape-artist/