Conditions in the metropolis of
London (with an estimated
1.1 million inhabitants in 1797) led to thousands of vagrant children living on
the streets and turning to theft or other criminal activities for survival.
There were also juveniles who, as paupers, were under the guardianship of the
Parish. Many of them were put out to work, ostensibly as apprentices but
actually as unskilled child labourers. The system was open to abuse.
Much is heard of the wickedness of the Regency years but there were individuals who had a social conscience and made efforts to improve the lot of the underprivileged. Influenced by the missionary and evangelical movements, they believed that ‘philanthropy was an expression of piety, benevolence a moral obligation’. One such philanthropist was Edward Pelham Brenton, the founder of the Children’s Friend Society.
Brenton, a Captain in the Royal Navy, retired on half-pay at the end of the War. Though offered another command, he had no wish to serve during the Peace, and dedicated his life to improving the situation of the working classes, particularly the children of the poor.
In 1829 the notorious Hibner trial made a sensation in the British press. The story had a profound effect on Brenton. In the Memoir written by his brother, Sir Jahleel Brenton, Captain Brenton’s own words are quoted:
A woman named Hibner, a tambour worker … had murdered two of her little female apprentices. These unhappy children were poor orphan parish girls of St Pancras. She had six of them bound to her and the testimony of the survivors, corroborated by indisputable evidence, exposed to the public a scene of tyranny and cruelty … I immediately made myself acquainted with the process of binding parish apprentices, the motives of the guardians of the poor in getting rid of them, as well as those of the generality of tradesmen who apply for them.
[The trial proceedings can be accessed at www.oldbaileyonline.org under the keyword Hibner]
Brenton, with the support of like-minded patrons, began his crusade by founding the Society for the Suppression of Juvenile Vagrancy in 1830, and establishing an ‘asylum’ at West Ham Abbey near Bow in Essex, where twenty boys of ‘a forlorn and neglected condition’ were received. In 1833, this institution was relocated to Hackney Wick and named the Brenton Juvenile Asylum. The Society for the Suppression of Juvenile Vagrancy was given a more positive title - The Children’s Friend Society (CFS).
WORKHOUSES AND PRISONS
Brenton was a man of strong religious beliefs who expressed his views forthrightly Describing himself as ‘the uncompromising enemy’ of the workhouse system, he pointed out its many flaws. Workhouses were ‘receptacles of misery …fraught with the very germ and essence of all moral depravity …’ Those who, though not ‘vicious’, were driven by circumstances to take refuge in the workhouse, were crowded together with the most depraved and were inevitably influenced for the worse. The workhouses too often relieved the poor with money, irresponsible parents spending this on gin and leaving their children to beg.
Equally critical of prisons, Brenton wrote:
Many poor little boys are shut up among thieves for robbing orchards and fruit gardens’. Conversely, ‘at our little Asylum at West Ham our boys are reclaimed and happy, without police, or iron bar, or flogging'.
However, it was clear that vagrant children were frequently enticed into organized crime:
... in the neighbourhood of St Giles … a very large house was let out at 4d per night to pickpockets and thieves, chiefly from 10-16 years of age, who were seen every morning sallying forth in groups of three and four, having previously arranged their routes for the day.
|Oliver Twist asks for More|
To be continued