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History in Focus

the guide to historical resources • Issue 14: Welfare •


Portrait of Octavia Hill

Octavia Hill, Victorian social reformer
National Trust Picture Library/John Hammond©

Juvenile delinquency and the evolution of the British juvenile courts, c.1900-1950

Kate Bradley, University of Kent

When looking at the problem of youth crime in the early 21st century, we are confronted with a highly punitive discourse which talks of 'clamping down' on youth crime, of 'zero tolerance' of 'anti-social behaviour'. While criminologists and practitioners within youth justice alike have attacked this punitive philosophy (1), it would be wrong to see the youth court system as having always been castigatory in its tone and methods. Rather, as this piece will demonstrate, the origins of this system lie in idealistic attempts to solve social problems through tackling the deprivations of young working-class people in order to divert them from criminal ways and to encourage them to play a constructive role in society.

Concern for the welfare of the young was nothing new, as many charities, religious bodies and philanthropists had long been active in providing orphanages, schools and medical services to the children of the poor. However, the growth of this interest in the course of the 19th century accompanied increasing anxieties about Britain's position in the world. These worries were fuelled by debates about the impact of the industrial, urban environment upon British society, and whether this was stripping the nation of a healthy, morally robust workforce. These fears were heightened by the poor physical state of conscripts to the Boer Wars at the turn of the century, which in turn prompted the 1904 Report of the Interdepartmental Committee on Physical Deterioration. Concern was expressed about the abilities of working-class parents - especially mothers - to bring up strong, fit workers who would be an asset to society, rather than producing lawless thugs. This dread also coincided with and gave impetus to the expansion of opportunities for middle- and upper-class women to expand their public roles through philanthropic activities.

The British legal system introduced different treatments for young offenders from the 1850s onwards, when reformatory and industrial schools were first introduced. In addition to the creation of new punitive measures for dealing with the young, laws were passed removing children from certain areas of industry and restricting their activities in others, while compulsory elementary education was introduced in 1870. In 1889, the 'Children's Charter' introduced legal protections for children from various types of cruelty and enabled the state to intervene in family life. Efforts snowballed, as campaigners pressed in the 1890s and 1900s for greater legal protection and coverage for children and young people. These changes were part of a gradual evolution in the concept of childhood, and a growing interest in how the experiences of youth shaped the adult. These new laws were part of, among other things, an effort to ameliorate the condition of young people by providing them with new opportunities and protections; a growing awareness of the developmental importance of childhood; and of attempts to impose a middle-class conception of childhood upon the working classes.

Changes in the perception of childhood led to new ideas about the ways in which the delinquent and vulnerable young should be handled by the state. From the 1880s onwards, campaigners began to call in particular for the introduction of a special court to handle cases involving children and young people. (2) These efforts finally bore fruit in the Children Act of 1908, one of several reforms of the Liberal Governments of 1906-14, which included the provision of school meals, school medical inspections and pensions for orphans. Herbert Samuel, the Home Secretary, used the new Children Act to consolidate and simplify a number of existing pieces of legislation, as well as to introduce new features. The Act had six parts: infant life protection; the prevention of cruelty; the prohibition of juvenile smoking; the refining of the roles of industrial and reformatory schools; the creation of the juvenile courts; and a 'miscellaneous' division which included such provision as the banning of under-fourteens from public houses. (3) While the Act made the law clearer in certain areas, it further extended the power of the state to determine family matters, and it formally introduced the juvenile court to the British legal systems.

The British juvenile courts drew upon a diverse range of intellectual influences. They owed much to the development of the social and socio-medical sciences, notably criminology, psychology and psychiatry. These disciplines developed partly as an attempt to discover the causes of and solutions for deviant behaviours and social problems. While some, like Cesare Lombroso, the Italian criminal anthropologist, (4) looked for biological predispositions towards delinquent behaviours, others looked to the mind. Child psychology and psychiatry - as they are now known - developed at a much slower rate than the study of adults, but had emerged as a distinct discipline by the 1860s. Researchers, from the 1860s onwards, turned their attention to the psychological problems of childhood and how these may differ from those suffered by adults . (5) The Child Study Movement was founded in 1893 by James Sully, a British psychologist. The movement attracted other experts - such as the American psychiatrist G. Stanley Hall - and it also provided a forum for amateur readers alike to explore the psychology and psychiatry of the young. The Child Study Movement encouraged the view that all children were individuals, and should be treated as such by parents, teachers, and medical and social professionals. This also had resonance with radical changes in the operation of philanthropic welfare activities, notably the development by the Charity Organisation Society (COS) of case work. The COS were concerned with the rational distribution of charitable alms among the needy, which they hoped to achieve through the careful investigation and consideration of the needs of individual families. (6)

The Child Study Movement and ideas about the 'scientific' application of welfare had an important influence upon the establishment of the Cook County Juvenile Court. This court was founded in Chicago, Illinois in 1899 by female reformers connected with the city's Hull-House Settlement and its Women's Club. The reformer's aim was to provide individual treatment for troubled children and to neutralise the impact of poor adult influence. They believed that dysfunctional families were the principal cause of juvenile delinquency. More specifically, that slum children misbehaved and broke the law because they were not cared for by their parents in 'appropriate' ways. The women attached to the Cook County Court in turn were highly influential in shaping other courts across the United States, although an alternate model was presented by Ben Lindsay, the self-appointed juvenile judge of Denver, Colorado. Lindsay was a firm proponent of developing 'character' among those young men who attended his court, of instilling in them the middle-class values of duty, courage, independence and self-control. (7) These developments caused a stir among reformist circles in the UK, and inspired the first British juvenile court, which was established in Birmingham in 1900. The British courts shared much in common with their American counterparts in terms of a belief that the delinquent young needed to be saved in order to protect the wider society. As on the other side of the Atlantic, the causes of juvenile delinquency were located in the failure of 'character' and of suitable (male) role modelling as well as in the failure of the family. (8)

The outbreak of the First World War in 1914 created new problems for those involved in the juvenile courts. Although the courts had made progress in establishing a new model for dealing with the delinquent and vulnerable young, they were stretched to the limit by the rise in juvenile crime that occurred during the war. Cecil Leeson, commissioned by the Howard League to explore this phenomenon, found that the rising crime rate was connected to such role models as fathers, other male relatives, teachers, boys' club leaders and the like being away at the Front. Leeson also believed that many mothers were unable to supervise their children effectively as their energies were pulled between the demands of war work, queuing for rationed food and necessities, keeping up with domestic duties and anxieties about serving relatives and spouses. (9) Leeson's findings resonated with the existing discourse about the needs of the young. From the 1890s, a robust literature about the beneficial impact of boys' clubs had developed. Memoirs such as Alexander Paterson's Across the Bridges exhorted young male graduates to abandon their comfortable surroundings for boys' clubs at university settlements in the slums of East and South East London, while Charles E. B. Russell wrote at length of how the intervention of a sympathetic club leader could restore delinquent boys to good citizenship. (10) As Victor Bailey has pointed out, many of those who were involved in boys' clubs at university settlements went on to prominence within the juvenile courts; Paterson and Russell, both inspectors of industrial and reformatory schools, are a good example. (11) Young male graduates were seen to be 'good' role models for young working-class boys. The graduate club leaders could help to keep their club boys out of trouble by providing them with constructive leisure interests, moral guidance and support. While boys' clubs could have a preventative role, a similar model was used by probation officers. The 1907 Probation Act formally introduced probation as a means of rehabilitating those who had broken the law. Before the late 1960s, probation was commonly used to deal with child and youth rather than adult offenders. Probationers could be required to go to a boys' club or to reside away from bad influences; the probation officer made regular visits to his or her charges to ensure that they were following their terms and that their welfare needs were being met. (12)

Governmental commitment to the task of reducing and ideally preventing juvenile delinquency continued after the First World War, especially as the Home Office became more comfortable with the changes introduced by the Children Act of 1908. (13) The Children's Branch of the Home Office was established in 1919, which extended their remit beyond the inspection of reformatory and industrial schools to include the management of juvenile courts, probation and places of detention. The Children's Branch was also responsible for monitoring the employment of children, for preventing cruelty to children, as well as for monitoring obscene publications and the trafficking of women and children. (14) It was through the Children's Branch that subsequent reforms of the 1908 Act were carried out.

Campaigners and civil servants alike were unhappy with the limits imposed by the Act, and wished to add more proactive measures to reduce delinquency. A report commissioned by the Board of Education in 1920 argued for a link between the high wages earned by boys in 'blind-alley' labour, the paucity of constructive leisure activities in some areas and higher rates of juvenile crime - again picking up themes expressed by Leeson and other researchers as well as those who had been involved in urban youth work. In January 1925, William Joynson-Hicks, then the Conservative Home Secretary, appointed a committee, chaired by Sir Thomas Molony, to investigate the treatment of 'young offenders'. When the committee reported in 1927, they concluded that 'the welfare of the child or young person should be the primary object of the juvenile court'. They also called for magistrates with experience in dealing with young people, and that younger magistrates should be recruited to these posts. The report reiterated the importance of issues raised by the 1908 Act, notably that juvenile courts should be held at different times and in different places to adult sittings of courts. It also demanded that court proceedings be made as simple as possible in order that children and young people might better understand what was happening around them. But the report went further, calling for children and young people to remain anonymous and to be in no way identifiable in media reporting of cases. It was felt that public knowledge of a child's acts could in future unfairly jeopardise their chances of finding employment. The report also demanded that courts be furnished with as much information as possible about the lives of the children brought before it, about their school attendance, their health and their home environment. Probation was an important part of the work of the court with young offenders, a method by which the young person could be reclaimed to good citizenship through the firm and wise guidance of an appropriate adult. (15)

The report served as the foundation for the Children and Young Persons Bill, which reached enactment in 1933. The Children and Young Persons Act extended those features of the 1908 Act that were seen as needing adjustment, notably in terms of how the courts operated and by reducing the stigma of going to court. The emphasis was squarely upon reclaiming young offenders to good citizenship, of trying to counteract the impact of poverty upon the lives of young people and thereby to reduce levels of criminal behaviour. Although middle-class children certainly came before the courts - often for such crimes as travelling on the railway without a valid ticket - working-class children were disproportionately represented in the courts, with boys forming the majority of all cases seen. (16) The boys were seen as suffering from a wide range of disadvantages that arose from their less fortunate backgrounds: parents who could not provide adequate supervision as they were preoccupied with caring for younger children or working; limited access to leisure facilities and supervised play; or parents with high wages and a lack of direction in how to spend and save wisely. Certainly the Acts and the reformers behind them can be seen as attempting to control and shape the working-class family based on a middle-class model.

Poverty was not the main explanation of delinquency in all cases. By the inter-war period, magistrates were increasingly referring children and young people for psychological tests. This was a continuation of the influence of the Child Study Movement, and particularly of the development of the Child Guidance Clinics. The first Child Guidance Clinic had been set up in East London in 1927 by Emanuel Miller on Bell Lane in Spitalfields, supported financially by the Jewish Health Organisation. (17) The clinic had close working links with the East or Inner London Juvenile Court, which was based a few streets away at the Toynbee Hall settlement, as well as with Sir Cyril Burt. Burt had been appointed as psychologist to the London County Council and came to be a pioneer in the field of educational and social psychology. In 1925, he published a book based on his work with young offenders, called The Young Delinquent. He argued that delinquency was caused by neglect and various forms of poor parenting, and again emphasised that the treatment of such children by the courts required careful investigation and an individualised approach. Burt also argued for the extensive use of child guidance clinics by all juvenile courts as a means of preventing future recidivism. (18)

Some juvenile court magistrates, such as Sir William Clarke Hall, Basil Henriques, Cynthia Colville and others, keenly embraced new thinking about the causes of juvenile delinquency and the ways in which children and young people could be rehabilitated. Yet not all magistrates were as interested in reclaiming young offenders. As Deborah Thom has pointed out, the pro-corporal punishment lobby remained a powerful one - the bill which became the 1933 Children and Young Persons Act was held up on its way through the Lords so that provision for beating could be reinstated. Until the 1948 Children Act banned the practice, males could still be sentenced to a birching. Regardless of psychological evidence to the contrary, corporal punishment was seen as an effective means of instilling character into a young man, and was widely used in schools, in the Forces and by families. (19) Corporal punishment on boys aged under 14 increased in the course of the Second World War. In 1938 and 1939 there were 48 and 58 cases of whippings respectively in England and Wales; this rose to a high of 531 in 1941, gradually dropping to 165 by the end of 1943 before returning to pre-war levels in 1944 when 37 cases were handled in this way. (20) This rise has been attributed to the need to deal with increasing juvenile crime during the war in combination with retired magistrates being reinstated to cope with the dual pressures of an increasing caseload and younger magistrates serving on war duty. Therefore, attitudes to how children and young people should be treated varied from court to court, region to region, and even among members of the same bench of magistrates. Although the various Children's Acts set the pace, the magistracy did not always keep up and more authoritarian views remained in currency in some parts.

To conclude, the British juvenile justice system underwent significant philosophical changes in the first half of the 20th century. Although there were many who clung to older ideas about the benefits of corporal punishment, the view that children and young people who broke the law should be reclaimed and rehabilitated had become the orthodox view by the passing of the 1948 Children Act, which maintained the 1933 Act and expanded provision for those children looked after by the state. This approach drew upon the views of social workers in the slums of British and American cities, of researchers in the new social and medical sciences, and upon a view that social problems were best tackled 'scientifically' and 'methodically'. Delinquency was seen as part of a social matrix, as resulting from structural inequalities and deficient parenting styles. The solution to the problem of delinquency was seen as lying within the reformation of the structures which caused these inequities. For the more radical magistrates and Home Office advisers, the answer was not to overhaul society, but to reform the ways in which children and young people were treated by the courts. Thus the juvenile courts of the first half of the 20th century were concerned as much with social justice as they were with criminal.

  1. See B. Goldson, The New Youth Justice (Lyme Regis, 2000) p. 309; B. Goldson and J. Muncie, Youth, Crime and Justice: Critical Issues (London, 2006) and D. Garland, The Culture of Control: Crime and Social Order in Contemporary Society (Oxford, 2002). Back to (1)
  2. G. Behlmer, Friends of the Family: The English Home and its Guardians (Stanford, 1998) pp. 242-7. Back to (2)
  3. H. Hendrick, Child Welfare: England 1872 - 1989 (London, 1994) pp. 121-5. Back to (3)
  4. See K. Bradley, 'Cesare Lombroso', in 50 Key Thinkers in Criminology, ed. K. Hayward, S. Maruna and J. Mooney (London, 2009). Back to (4)
  5. W. Llewellyn Parry Jones, 'The history of child and adolescent psychiatry: its present day relevance,' Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 30 (1989), 3-11. Back to (5)
  6. J. Lewis, The Voluntary Sector, the State and Social Work in Britain: the Charity Organisation Society/Family Welfare Association since 1869 (London, 1995) Back to (6)
  7. E. J. Clapp, Mothers of All Children: Women Reformers and the Rise of Juvenile Courts in Progressive Era America (University Park, PA, 1998) p. 89, 45 and 120. Back to (7)
  8. See A. Logan, '"A suitable person for suitable cases": the gendering of juvenile courts in England c.1910-39', 20th Century British History 16 (2005), 129-45 and K. M. Bradley, 'Juvenile delinquency, the juvenile courts and the settlement movement 1908-50: Basil Henriques and Toynbee Hall', 20th Century British History 19 (2008), 133-55. Back to (8)
  9. C. Leeson, The Child and the War, Being Notes on Juvenile Delinquency (London, 1917). Back to (9)
  10. A. Paterson, Across the Bridges: Or Life by the South London Riverside (London, 1911) and C. E. B. Russell, Young Gaol-Birds (London, 1910). Back to (10)
  11. V. Bailey, Delinquency and Citizenship: Reclaiming the Young Offender 1914-18 (Oxford, 1987) p. 2, 10-12 and 15. Back to (11)
  12. See P. Whitehead and R. Statham, The History of Probation: Politics, Power and Cultural Change 1876-2005 (Crayford, 2006). Back to (12)
  13. Behlmer, Friends of the Family, p. 245. Back to (13)
  14. P. Lerman, 'Policing juveniles in London, shifts in guiding discretion, 1893-1968', British Journal of Criminology, 24 (1984), 168-84; 175-6. Back to (14)
  15. Report of the Departmental Committee on the Treatment of Young Offenders, 1925-7 Cmd. 2831 (London, 1927) pp. 121-3. Back to (15)
  16. See B. Henriques, Indiscretions of a Magistrate: Thoughts on the Work of the Juvenile Court (London, 1950); also P. Cox, Gender, Justice and Welfare: Bad Girls in Britain 1900-50 (Basingstoke, 2003) and K. Bradley, Poverty, Philanthropy and the State: Charities and the Working Classes in London 1918-79 (Manchester, 2009). Back to (16)
  17. G. Renton, 'The east London child guidance clinic', Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 19 (1978) 309-12; 309. Back to (17)
  18. C. Burt, The Young Delinquent, (London, 1925). Back to (18)
  19. D. Thom, 'The healthy citizen of empire or juvenile delinquent? Beating and mental health in the UK,' in Cultures of Child Health in Britain and the Netherlands in the 20th Century, ed. M. Gijswijt-Hofstra and H. Marland (Amsterdam, 2003) pp.189-212. Back to (19)
  20. Cmd. 7227, Summary of Statistics Relating to Crime and Criminal Proceedings for the Years 1939-1945, (London, 1946-7), p. 10. Back to (20)

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