By Melissa Rayner
Victor Hugo’s famed novel–and the play that sprung forth from that novel–has been in the media quite a bit lately. Who that hears the story doesn’t fall in love with the noble criminal, Jean Valjean? Sure, he stole, but it was only a loaf of bread, and he was only trying to feed his impoverished nieces and nephews. Did he really need to be imprisoned for the better part of his adult life?
Book reviewers–both contemporary to our times and contemporary to Hugo’s–agree that Jean Valjean is a tragic figure, a noble one. Just check out this concluding snippet from an 1862 review of the novel in the Birmingham Daily Post (courtesy of 19th Century British Newspapers). Despite the obvious ethnocentric nature of his stance, it’s clear the reviewer was a fan–and that he understood its message:
So why then did this same era care little for the plight of its youngsters who were driven to commit the same petty crimes due to nothing more than poverty? Just take a look at these records from the Prison Commission (courtesy of Nineteenth Century Collections Online), which detail Juvenile Crime and Detention along with images of these hardened, pubescent convicts from the UK:
Augustus committed simple larceny in late 19th century Britain, while Valjean committed the same crime in early 19th century France. Well, our young convict friend is 18 years old, and he only served 12 months hard labor as opposed to Valjean’s 19 years.
So what if we keep the time period and the crime the same but find a convict who is a bit younger?
Meet convict John; he’s only 11! He committed simple larceny too. In fact, we even know what he stole–a quart of gooseberries. For this, he was assigned one month hard labor and five years in a reformatory. But, wait… John is a repeat felon. As his record indicates, this is his third crime on record. His first two crimes also fell into the category of simple larceny; he stole coal. What a fun thing to steal! He was obviously taking it for fun and not because his poverty demanded it. But, don’t worry, they made him do hard labor for those misdeeds as well, and as a special bonus, they whipped him.
So it must be only boys who were treated this way by the penal system, right? Wrong! Meet convict Mary Ann.
As you can see, this 14-year-old girl also committed simple larceny and was sentenced to one month hard labor and four years in a reformatory, despite it being her first offense.
I could go on and on. In fact, I have access to 170 such records via Nineteenth Century Collections Online, and the bulk of them come from a single year in history.
So this got me thinking, if all these children were convicted for simple larceny, how common was this particular crime during this particular time? To find out, I went to The Making of Modern Law: Trials and performed a search for “simple larceny” between the years of 1862 (Les Mis’s publication date) and 1873 (the year all these child convicts were arrested).
Of course, I found out that simple larceny was extremely common. In fact, it made up 64% of crimes in Liverpool and 69% of crimes in Manchester for the year 1867.
In this same police report on crime in Manchester, I found an even more interesting table outlining and classifying known criminals. Check this out:
So where would you put our children convicts? Where would you put Jean Valjean? And doesn’t it make you wonder what they used to do to punish criminals like Jack the Ripper (who committed his string of heinous murders in 1888) whenever they managed to catch them?
- Aspland, Alfred. Crime in Manchester, and police administration. London: Longmans, Green, 1868. The Making of Modern Law: Legal Treatises, 1800-1926. Web. 29 Oct. 2014.
- Clarke, Henry. “Presumed Inmate at Wakefield Prison, Wakefield, York.” Photographs from the Wellcome Library for the History of Medicine. Primary Source Media, 1869. Nineteenth Century Collections Online. Web. 29 Oct. 2014.
- PCOM 2/291/241: Home Office and Prison Commission: Prisons Records, Series 1, Prisoners: Greening, John. Age on Discharge: 11. 18 June 1873. MS Juvenile Crime and Detention: Records from the Prison Commission PCOM 2/291/241. The National Archives (Kew, United Kingdom). Nineteenth Century Collections Online. Web. 29 Oct. 2014.
- PCOM 2/291/247: Home Office and Prison Commission: Prisons Records, Series 1, Prisoners: Harris, Augustus. Age on Discharge: 18. 24 July 1872. MS Juvenile Crime and Detention: Records from the Prison Commission PCOM 2/291/247. The National Archives (Kew, United Kingdom). Nineteenth Century Collections Online. Web. 29 Oct. 2014.
- PCOM 2/291/325: Home Office and Prison Commission: Prisons Records, Series 1, Prisoners: Rawlings, Mary Ann. Age on Discharge: 14. 18 July 1873. MS Juvenile Crime and Detention: Records from the Prison Commission PCOM 2/291/325. The National Archives (Kew, United Kingdom). Nineteenth Century Collections Online. Web. 29 Oct. 2014.
- “VICTOR HUGO’S ‘LES MISERABLES.’.” Birmingham Daily Post 27 Nov. 1862. 19th Century British Newspapers. Web. 28 Oct. 2014.
About the Author
Melissa is obsessed with books, birds, and bonbons. She is a new mom and holds an MA in Applied Sociology. She also writes fiction and skips about the interweb as Emlyn Chand.
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