Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Seven Curses of London, by James Greenwood, 1869


Criminal Suppression and Punishment.

Lord Romilly's Suggestion concerning the Education of the Children of Criminals---Desperate Criminals---The Alleys of the Borough---The worst Quarters not, as a rule, the most Noisy---The Evil Example of "Gallows Heroes," "Dick Turpin," "Bluesk in," &c---The Talent for "Cam moning Lady Green. "---A worthy Governor's Opinion as to the best way of "Breaking" a Bad Boy---Affection for "Mother. "---The Dark Cell and its Inmate.--- An Affecting Interview.

   No less an authority than Lord Romilly, discoursing on the alarming prevalence and increase of crime, especially amongst the juveniles of the criminal class, remarks: "It is a recognised fact, that there is a great disposition on the part of children to follow the vocation of their father, and in the case of the children of thieves there is no alternative. They become thieves because they are educated in the way, and have no other trade to apply themselves to. To strike at the root of the evil, I would suggest, that if a man committed felony, all his children under the age, say of ten, should be taken from him, and educated at the expense of the State. It might perhaps be said, that a man who wanted to provide for his children, need in that case only to commit felony to accomplish his object, but I believe that the effect would be just the contrary. I believe that no respectable person would commit felony for such a purpose, and that if we knew more about the feelings of thieves, we should find that they had amongst them a species of morality, and displayed affection for their children. My opinion is, that to take their children away from them would be an effectual mode of punishment; and though the expense might be great, it would be repaid in a few years by the diminution in crime.
    Although Lord Romilly's opinions on this subject may be somewhat in advance of those commonly prevalent, there can be no question that they tend in the right direction. Crime may be suppressed, but it can never be exterminated by simply lopping the flourishing boughs and branches it puts forth; it should be attacked at the root, and the thief child is the root of the adult growth, tough, stronglimbed, and six feet high. Precisely the same argument as that used as regards the abolition of neglected children applies in the case of the infant born in crime. The nest in which for generations crime has bred should be destroyed. It is only, however, to the initiated that the secluded spots where these nests may be found is known. A correspondent of the Times lately made an exploration, from the report of which the following is an extract. 
    "I was shown in the east and south sides of London what I may almost say were scores of men, about whom the detectives, who accompanied me, expressed grave doubts as to my life being safe among them for a single hour, if it were known I had £20 or £30 about me; and above all, if the crime of knocking me on the head could be committed under such circumstances as would afford fair probabilities of eluding detection. I don't mean to say that these desperate criminals are confined to any particular quarter of London; unfortunately they are not, or if they were, there is only one particular quarter in which we should wish to see them all confined, and that is Newgate. But no matter how numerous they may be elsewhere, there is certainly one quarter in which they are pre-eminently abundant, and that is around the alleys of the Borough. Here are to be found, not only the lowest description of infamous houses, but the very nests and nurseries of crime. The great mass of the class here is simply incorrigible. Their hand is against every man; their life is one continuous conspiracy against the usages of property and safety of society. They have been suckled, cradled, and hardened in scenes of guilt, intemperance, and profligacy. Here are to be found the lowest of the low class of beershops in London, and probably in the world, the acknowledged haunts of "smashers," burglars, thieves, and forgers. There is hardly a grade in crime, the chief representatives of which may not be met among the purlieus of the Borough. There are people who have been convicted over and over again, but there are also hundreds of known ruffians who are as yet unconvicted, and who, by marvellous good luck, as well as by subtle cunning, have managed up to the present time to elude detection. It is the greatest error to suppose that all, or even a majority of the criminal classes are continually passing through the hands of justice. Griffith, the bank-note forger, who was tried, I think, in 1862, stated in prison that he had carried on the printing of counterfeit notes for more than 15 years. Of course this man was sedulous in concealing his occupation from the police, but there are hundreds of others who almost openly follow equally criminal and far more dangerous pursuits with whom the police cannot interfere. Our present business should be to lock up these vagabonds, and our future vocation to destroy their recognised haunts. It is no good killing one wasp when we leave the nest untouched. Thieves, it must be remembered, are a complete fraternity, and have a perfect organization among themselves. The quarter round Kent Street, in the Borough, for instance, is almost wholly tenanted by them, and the houses they occupy are very good property, for thieves will pay almost any amount of rent, and pay it regularly, for the sake of keeping together. The aspect of this quarter is low, foul and dingy. Obscurity of language and conduct is of course common to all parts of it, but it is not as a rule a riotous neighbourhood. Thieves do not rob each other, and they have a wholesome fear of making rows, lest it should bring the police into their notorious territory. These haunts are not only the refuges and abiding places of criminals, but they are the training colleges for young thieves. Apart from the crimes which arise, I might say almost naturally from passion or poverty---apart also from the mere relaxation of moral culture, caused by the daily exhibition of apparent success in crime, it is known that an organized corruption is carried on by the adult thieves among the lads of London."  
    It is by laying hands on these children, and providing them with employment, the pleasurable exercise of which shall of itself convince them how infinitely superior as a "policy" honesty is to be preferred to that which consigned their father to Portland, that we may do more good than by the concoction of as many legislative enactments as have had birth since Magna Charta. Of the children who are not the progeny of thieves, but who somehow find their way into the criminal ranks, it is undoubtedly true that pernicious literature, more than once alluded to in these pages, does much to influence them towards evil courses. This is a belief that is justified, not alone by observation and inference, but by the confession of juvenile prisoners themselves. It is a fact that at least fifty per cent. of the young thieves lodged in goal, when questioned on the subject, affect that it was the shining example furnished by such gallows heroes as "Dick Turpin" and "Blueskin," that first beguiled them from the path of rectitude, and that a large proportion of their ill-gotten gains was expended in the purchase of such delectable biographies.  
    This, however, is ground that should be trod with caution. Useful as such revelations may be in guiding us towards conclusions on which vigorous action may be based, it should be constantly borne in mind that it is not all pure and untainted truth that proceeds from the mouths of the juvenile habitual criminal in gaol any more than from his elders under the same conditions. A talent for gammoning "Lady Green," as the prison chaplain is irreverently styled, is highly appreciated amongst the thieving fraternity. Boys are as quick-witted as men in their way, and on certain matters much quicker. They are less doggedly obstinate than most adults of the same class, and more keenly alive to mischief, especially when its practice may bring them some benefit. I have witnessed several instances of this, and many others have been brought under my notice by prison officials. As, for instance, in a certain gaol that shall be nameless, the governor has a fixed conviction that the one huge fountain head of juvenile depravity is the tobacco pipe. And ample indeed are his grounds for such conclusion, since almost every boy that comes into his custody testifies to his sagacity. His old customers never fail. He invariably questions the male delinquent on the subject, and as invariably he gets the answer he expects, and which favours his pet theory: "It is all through smoking, sir; I never knowed what bad 'abits was afore I took to 'bacca.'" The probabilities, however, are that the little villains are aware of the governor's weakness, and humour it.  
    It would seem so the more, because these same boys when quartered in another gaol, the master of which rode a hobby of another pattern, alter their tune so as to meet the emergency. There is a prison in the suburbs of London, one of the largest, and as far as I have had opportunity of judging, one of the best managed and conducted; but the governor of it has his boy-weakness. He is quite convinced in his own mind that the main spring of crime is the perusal of the sort of literature herein alluded to. This is a fact generally known among the juvenile criminal population, and they never fall to make the most of it when the time comes. I went the rounds of his gaol with this governor on one occasion, when the "boy wing" was occupied by about forty tenants, and in each case was the important question put, and in the majority of cases it was answered, "It was them there penny numbers what I used to take in, sir," or words to that effect, and the little humbug was rewarded by a pat on the head, and an admonition "always to speak the truth."  
    The same gentleman has another peculiarity; it does not deserve to be stigmatised a weakness, its nature is so amiable. He has a firm belief that the best way of "breaking" a bad boy, is to appeal to his bygone affection for his mother. "The boy who is callous to an appeal of that sort is past hope in my opinion," said the worthy governor, and in justice to the lads at the time in his keeping, I must confess that there was not a callous one amongst them, for they all most dutifully wept, in some cases bellowed as loudly as the stern restriction of the silent system would permit, as soon as the delicate subject was broached.  
    The effect of this talisman was curiously exhibited in the case of a boy, about as depraved and hardened a little wretch as it is possible to imagine. He had only been admitted the previous day, and already he was incarcerated in a dark cell for outrageous conduct.  
    I had never before seen a dark cell, and therefore had no idea of the horrible place it was. A cell within a cell. The interior of the first is so black that when the governor entered it I speedily lost sight of him, and I was only made aware of his opening an inner door by hearing the key clicking in the lock.  
    "Come out here, lad," he exclaimed firmly, but kindly.  
    The lad came out, looming like a small and ragged patch of twilight in utter blackness until he gradually appeared before us. He was not a big lad, not more than thirteen years old, I should say, with a short-cropped bullet-head, and with an old hard face with twice thirteen years of vice in it.  
    The prison dress consisted of a sort of blouse and trousers, both of a stout woollen material of slate colour. It was evening, and evidently, the captive, hopeless of release that night, had, previously to our disturbing him, composed himself for slumber. His method, doubtless derived from frequent experience of so disposing his attire as to get as much warmth out of it as possible, was somewhat curious: he had released his trousers of their braces, so that they descended below his feet, and the collar of his blouse was pulled up high over his ears. Owing to his embarrassed habiliments, he shambled out of the pitchy blackness at a snail's pace, his white cotton braces trailing behind like a tail, and completing his goblin-like appearance.  
    "This is a very bad lad, sir," remarked the governor sternly; "he only came in yesterday, and to-day while out for exercise with the others, he must misconduct himself, and when the warder reproved him, he must swear some horrible oath against him. It is for that he is here. How niany times have you been here, lad?"
   Lad (gulping desperately). "Three times, sir!"  
   >Governor (sternly)."What! speak the truth, lad." 
    Lad (with a determined effort to gouge tears out of his eyes with his knuckles). "Four times, sir. 
    Governor. "Four times! and so you'll go on till you are sent away, I'm afraid. Can you read, lad?" 
   Lad (with a penitential wriggle). "Yes, sir; I wish as I couldn't, sir.  
   Governor. "Ah!why so?" 
   Lad (with a doleful wag of his bullet head). "Cos then I shouldn't have read none of them highwaymen's books, sir; it was them as was the beginning of it."  
   Governor. "Ah!" (a pause) "Have you a mother, my lad?" 
   Lad. "Boo-oh!" 
   Governor. "Answer me, my lad, have you a mother?"  
   Lad (convulsively clasping the corners of his collars, and hiding his eyes in them). "Ye-ye-ess, sir!" 
   Governor. "Ah, I thought so! where does she live?"  
   Lad. "Man-manchester, please, sir!" (a tremulous sniff, indicative of the impending explosion).  
   Governor. "And what do you think would be her feelings could she see you as you now are?"  
Lad. "Boo-ooh" (here a writhe so agonized that a hand had to be spared from his eyes to save his trousers from slipping down). "Boo-ooh! I was just a thinkin' on her when you opened the cell, sir! Boo-oo-ooh!"  
   Governor. "You were thinking of your mother, eh? Well, well, I'm glad to hear that. If I let you go back to your own cell, will you promise never to swear again?"  
   Lad. "Booh!yes, sir."
   Governor. "You may go, then."  
    And with a countenance almost radiant with his unexpected stroke of good luck, the incorrigible young thief grasped his trouser legs, and scuttled up the long dim corridor till, except for his white tail, he was lost in the darkness.  
    "They don't like the dark cell," remarked the humane governor, as he gazed after the retreating figure; "anything rather than that."  
    "The younger prisoners especially, I should say," I returned.  
    "Oh, I don't know that," said the governor, at the same time, however, shaking his head rather as a man who did know, but did not care to say.

James Greenwood, The Seven Curses of London, 1869