18 SEPTEMBER 1880, Page 9


WE sincerely hope the discussion raised by the action of the Home Secretary in the case of the boy Dean will not die away without a result on opinion, for the matter is a very grave one. If there is any prominent Member of Parlia- ment in want of a subject which he can make his own, as Mr. Plimsoll has made the safety of the sailors his own, and which he can hammer away at until he has compelled a reform, this of the statutory punishment of children well deserves his attention. The Home Secretary, by his order in the Dean case, by his letter demanding reports from the Country Magistrates, by his circular to the London Stipendiaries deprecating imprison- ment for juvenile offences, and by his language in Parliament, is making the punishment of children under the existing law next to impossible. The Magistrates are completely at sea. So late as Thursday, the Times contains a notice of a case which shows that they are perplexed till they are unwilling to act at all, even in cases where the welfare of the children them- selves calls as strongly for discipline as does that of society. The limes' reporter says :—" Three little boys, named James and Matthew Clarke and Richard Collin, were on Tuesday re- manded by the Liverpool stipendiary magistrate on a charge of robbing a girl. The boys were all under ten years of age. They had waylaid the girl as she was going on an errand, and while one held his hand over her mouth another took Gs. from her hand. The money was spent in sweets and going to a theatre. The magistrate did not know what to do with them, as they were too young to send to a reformatory. The mother of the Clarkes said her sons were had lads, but Collin's mother said her son was 'good sometimes.'" The conduct of Mr. Saunders, the Stipendiary sitting at Lambeth on Thurs- day, is even more suggestive :- "A girl under 14, who had been summoned, appeared with her mother on a charge of having assaulted a child. Mr. Saunders said he could only order the child-defendant to pay a fine, and, failing payment, he could only send her to prison ; and he could not commit her, as the Home Secretary had intimated that children under 14 should not be committed to prison. Had the defendant been a boy, a whipping might have been ordered. As a fine, if one was imposed, would not in all probability be paid, he must decline to enter upon the case, and allowed the child to go away with her mother. A boy under 14 was summoned for wheeling a barrow on the footway, and Mr. Saunders said he could not fine him, as, in the event of non-payment, he could not be committed to prison, in accordance with the opinion expressed by the Secretary of State, and he was allowed to leave with his mother, being under 12 years of age. Another boy, of 13, was charged with stealing a pair of wheels from a perambulator in an artful manner, telling his father that he had bought them for 6d., and they were proved to be worth 6s. The boy said he was earning 7s. per week. Mr. Saunders told him he was a very bad boy, but, being under 14, he was not to be sent to gaol. He should, however, order him to receive five strokes with a birch rod, and then be liberated."

To leave boys like the Clarkes uncorrected is to breed high- waymen knowingly; yet, we presume, they were "discharged with a caution," to depart confident that to rob little girls sent out with their mothers' silver for small purchases—a universal practice among the poor—was no great offence, after all, and involved no risk to be compared with the delight of unlimited toffee and a visit to a twopenny theatre. If the case were an isolated one it would be bad enough, but it will be repeated all over England, where on an average eight thou- sand children pass annually through the prisons. It is easy to say that is infamous, and we are as strongly opposed to this use of prisons as Sir William Harcourt is ; but what is to be done with the children There is a sort of theory in London that the rural Magistrates imprison the children from mere wantonness, or out of a caste-feeling, or through an overweening belief in the sanctity of property, but that is a delusion. The Magistrates act sometimes a little too much from their know- ledge of a boy's general badness, and a clerical magistrate here and there may pay more regard to abstract right and wrong than to the law ; but generally speaking the Justices are kindly men, who employ the only means of discipline placed in their hands. They know a truth which the well-to-do never recognise,—that poor children, if neglected, are under the strongest temptation to thieve, that a few weeks of impunity will make theft a habit, and that a confirmed thief might as well be a convict, for any good that will ever be got out of him. Englishmen, being rich, do not at heart rank larceny as a serious crime ; but scarcely any other demoralises so quickly, and we repeat the opinion of a most experienced Judge, when we say that "a grown-up thief has usually less good in his inner character, less potentiality of permanent change, than any kind of criminal. He has to plan crime in cold-blood all his life."

It is folly, and worse, to let an army of little thieves, street roughs, and malignant imps loose on society, emboldened with a conviction of their legal immunities ; and if, as the Home Secretary and general opinion seem to have decided— as we believe, rightly—imprisonment is not a fitting penalty, it is the duty of the Legislature to discover one which will be. Whipping might succeed, but we very much doubt if it would. Boys readily forget the kind of whipping which alone public opinion will sanction, and if the whipping were made as severe as the old " hiding " with an ash stick, which thirty years ago was the universal country corrective, there would arise within a mouth a public outcry against the torture of the young. England is governed by the well-to-do, and the well-to-do are convinced that mild lecturing, an occasional box on the ear, and a far-distant prospect of a conceivable birching, are quite sufficient as disciplinary punishments. The Mrs. Clarkes of the report quoted above, cursed with unruly boys as wilful as savages, as strong as wild animals, and under incessant tempta- tion, think very differently ; but they are quite powerless to act on their opinions or, indeed, to administer even the lecture or the birching. Whipping alone will not do, and we believe Parliament will be driven at last to two reforms, —an Act making a parent's responsibility for malignantly mischievous children a real thing, real enough to induce him to keep them in order ; and the establishment of a few dis- ciplinary schools, where children convicted of such offences as the Clarkes committed shall for six months be under severe school discipline, made to work, and to learn, and to obey orders implicitly. Such schools, which might be separate wards in the large Union schools, would not be prisons or convey the prison stigma, and would be distinctly dreaded by lads with the " wild " tendency, which, as the Standard justly says, is half of it uncontrolled energy, and nothing else. Such schools need not cost much, not more, at all events, than prison accommodation ; and in the case of elder boys, might be made th'pots for the service which, of all others, most quickly dis- ciplines such lads,—the lower mercantile marine. A " lar- rikin" at sea, in a collier or a timber ship, is in the place he was made for. He has energy, he has quickness, he can stand the life, he learns that indiscipline produces weals as naturally as playing with fire produces blisters, and if he robs his mates his life becomes a burden. The country is opposed, as Sir W. Harcourt has perceived, to imprisonment for children ; but we do not believe it is opposed to reasonably stringent discipline, or that English fathers have become so gelatinous as to wish their children, when they thieve, to be encouraged to go on thieving by a discharge "on account of their youth."