A CHILD MURDERED BY CHILDREN

In 1861, two eight-year-old Stockport boys were tried for the murder of a toddler. As well as having uncanny similarities to more recent cases, their trial illustrates the cruelty of Britain's antiquated laws

JUST OVER a year ago, not long after Gitta Sereny wrote about the murder of James Bulger in this magazine, she received a letter from Mr FR Schofield, the branch historian of the Royal British Legion in Edmonton, north London, which enclosed cuttings from both the Times and the Tottenham & Edmonton Weekly Herald of August 1861. Mr Schofield wondered whether she knew that the murder of James Bulger was virtually identical to another murder, committed over 130 years ago, no more than 30 miles from Liverpool. Then, as now, he wrote, "the taking of the child was witnessed by several people, and then, as now, the murder shocked the whole nation. It is with these witnesses in mind that I write," he continued, thinking it might "ease the minds of the Liverpool witnesses just a little if they knew that almost precisely the same thing had happened to a number of good people like themselves almost a century-and-a-half ago."

The murder he referred to took place in Stockport, Cheshire, on 11 April 1861. Two eight-year-old boys, Peter Barratt and James Bradley, had killed two-year-old George Burgess, a child they had - so far as is known, just as in the Bulger case - never laid eyes upon before. The story that unfolded, with the unstinting help of librarians and researchers in London, Stockport and elsewhere, tells us a great deal about the society of the day and, more surprisingly, about its penal system, which, in this case at least, turns out to have been wiser and more compassionate than our own.

"An Inquisition indented and taken for our Sovereign Lady the Queen, sitting at the house of Thomas Shelmardine known by the sign of The White House Tavern in the Township of Stockport on the thirteenth day of April in the year of our Lord 1861, before William Johnson, Gentleman Coroner... on View of the body of George Burgess then and there lying dead upon the Oath of the jurors . . . to enquire . . . when how and by what means the said George Burgess came to his death do upon their Oath say that Peter Henry Barratt and James Bradley not having the fear of God before their eyes but being moved and seduced by the instigation of the Devil . . . feloniously wilfully and of their malice aforesaid . . . did kill and murder . . ."

IT WAS AT 1pm on Saturday, 13 April 1861, that William Johnson took his place at the head of the long table set up in the main room of the White House Tavern in Hempshaw Lane, Stockport, with its white walls and black beams one of the more beautiful of the cotton and hat manufacturing town's many pubs. It was the custom of the time for the coroner and his jury to sit in the locality of a crime, close to the site and within easy walking distance for potential witnesses. Taverns or hotels were the places of choice. None of the men looked foward to the task ahead. For in an outhouse attached to the tavern, in an open coffin, lay the body of the two-year-old boy who had been found the previous day, suffocated, with his face in the water of a brook, his unclothed body brutally beaten.

Stockport, about five miles outside Manchester, is a prosperous town today, its cotton manufacturing replaced by a variety of hi-tech industries. But in 1861 it was, by contemporary accounts, a grim place. The Victorian writer Fairleigh Owen describes it as "dirty, swarming with squalid and neglected children", a warren of "dark entries... low arches where flakes of drifting cotton hang in foul and dirty masses ..." Only the houses of the rich had running water or gas; the rest of the population used standpipes in the streets. Hillgate, the very centre of the town, only a stone's throw from the four cotton mills and four hat manufacturers (including the famous Christy's, still there today) which were the town's principal employers, was the home for the three families involved in this story. Everything we know about them now comes from records - the census taken every 10 years, the rate books kept up to date every quarter, the voters' lists, the Sunday and church school attendance registers, police files, the "thieves list" meticulously updated by the police, court dossiers, reformatory school reports, Home Office correspondence and - probably the most informative - the excellent newspapers of the time. But while all this provides us with records of events, births, marriages, changes of address, earnings, crimes, punishments, and deaths - even, when we are lucky, descriptions of the clothes they wore and the work they did - the records cannot show us the faces; they cannot tell us who loved and who hated or abused whom and how. We have to use our imagination to try to understand what happened in their lives.

That Saturday, the 14 men charged with the inquiry into the death of a toddler had arrived at the White House tavern at noon and, as was their duty, had first viewed the body on which the post mortem had just been carried out. Then, before settling down to the difficult task before them, the tavern's owner (and one of the jurors), Thomas Shelmerdine, had invited them into a separate small room at the back of the bar for some refreshments - pies, bread, cheese and cider. Moments later, the witnesses would sit in that small room waiting to be called.

Although coroners' hearings were open to the public, newspapers - Stockport and nearby larger Macclesfield had two good ones - appeared only once a week, on Friday. For the rest of the week the population - few of whom anyway could read - depended for their news on word of mouth.

George Burgess had been found dead on Friday 12 April, and the first day of the inquest was virtually unattended. Three days later, on the afternoon of the day little George was buried, with over 1,000 mourners lining the 20-minute route to the cemetery, there would be hundreds seeking to attend the second hearing, many of them, after the room was full, remaining standing in silence in the street outside. That opening day, however, little was known: children, not only of the labouring classes, were often punished mercilessly for the slightest wrongdoing, whether by their parents, masters, priests and chaplains or employers. But in an age when children were the property of their parents, violence against the very young was almost entirely restricted to that within the family and the home. Murder of small children by strangers in strange places was so rare as to be virtually unheard-of. Thus it would be from those with responsibility for caring for the dead child that the jury would hear first.

Ralph Burgess, George's father, was 30 years old and a cotton weaver. His wife Hannah, also a cotton weaver, by all accounts was not present at the inquest; the couple had two other children, William, one, and Ralph, three months old. Ralph Burgess was the first witness to be called:

I am a power loom weaver and live at 179 Baguley Street, Higher Hillgate [he stated]. George Burgess was my son. He was two years three months and nine days old. I last saw him alive about ten minutes before two o'clock on Thursday afternoon last. He was then in some waste land near the Star Inn in the Higher Hillgate. He was playing with another little Boy about his own age, Samuel Burton.

Ralph Burgess (the reports say he spoke haltingly and cried throughout his testimony) told the court that little George - a rather unusual circumstance for a small child from a labouring family in those times - had not been living with his parents.

He was placed out at nurse with Sarah Ann Warren who lives in Shawcross Street, Higher Hillgate. On Thursday night, as I was returning from work about twenty minutes before seven, and went to the house where he was nursed, I was told he was missing. I employed the bellman and searched for him until three o'clock the next morning, but without success. About one o'clock yesterday afternoon I heard the dead body of a child had been found in a brook near Love Lane, and that it had been taken to the White House Tavern in Hempshaw Lane. I went there and saw the body, and it was my Son.

We cannot know now why these two working parents had put their two-year- old out to nurse. Usually, an older family member, or a neighbour who was not at work, would look after small children. Babies would be brought to the mother at work, who would breast-feed the baby where she sat or stood, while the work continued around her.

What the record does tell us, and it may make us ponder about the care little George had received in his short life, is that his body showed a number of old scars: his arm had been broken twice; he had once been "severely scalded" and once "burned". By whose fault, we cannot know, but it appears that while his father regularly visited him after work, there is no word in the reports about his mother. It is written though that little blond George was "quite a pet in the neighbourhood", and that he was a "lively chatty and playful" boy.

Sarah Ann Warren, the next witness, was a single woman, and her home, aside from being only one street away from the Burgesses' home at Baguley Street, was right opposite the Star Inn. The toddler had been placed in her charge to nurse, night and day, she said, about three months before. "Both his parents work at the cotton mill," she explained. She had dressed the little boy about 7am that Thursday in a red flannel waistcoat, calico shirt, linsey petticoat, brown stuff skirt, plaid skirt and plaid frock. The flannel waistcoat was tied up the front, two skirts were buttoned behind, and the frock was fastened with hooks and eyes. "I think it impossible," she stated, "that [he] could have undressed himself."

I last saw him alive on Thursday a little after two o'clock in the afternoon. He was then in a piece of waste land opposite my House. Another little boy was playing with him and they had a wheelbarrow. I missed him in about half an hour afterwards. I searched for him and made enquiry but did not find him. I afterward gave information to the police. I have seen the dead body of the deceased lying here. It is George Burgess.

The father searched for his little boy, even employing the no doubt expensive bellman to announce his disappearance, and one can assume the police did too when they were told he was missing. But the 1851 map of Stockport shows a patchwork of fields, brooks and reservoirs beyond Shawcross Street and the Star Inn. What the Stockport police and little George's family most probably feared that Thursday night was that the small boy had got lost or had an accident. But even this small comfort would be denied them, after he had been found just after noon the next day, Friday, by a farm labourer, John Buckley. Here is Buckley's deposition of that first hearing, as recorded by the coroner's clerk. (The language of all the statements would, of course, not have been entirely theirs; they would have been asked questions; would have answered them colloquially, sometimes fearfully and certainly falteringly. What has survived almost a century-and-a-half later is the tidied-up version of their stories, indeed of their lives.)

I am a Labourer and reside in No 10, Birch Street, Higher Hill Gate. Yesterday, a little after 12 o'clock, I was working in a field adjoining the brook in Love Lane. I saw the body of a child lying in the brook. It was face downwards. The body was naked with the exception of a pair of clogs. I didn't touch the body but sent information to the police. The head of the child was under water.

William Walker, the Inspector of the Stockport Borough Police, had received the information about 12.30pm that April day, and had gone there immediately, he stated, and found the dead child as Buckley had described:

The back of the head was not underwater, and the buttocks were also a little exposed. The face rested on a large stone in the brook and when I raised the body, the nose appeared as if it had been pressed against the stone. The body was quite naked with the exception of the clogs. The child's back had dark stripes upon it as if it had been lashed.

He had found the little boy's clothes "about seven or eight yards up the brook" with one odd stocking 20 yards further away, all "quite dry".

The inspector did not see how it could have been an accident, for had the child fallen, "it [officials always referred to the boy as "the deceased" or "it"] might have got out": the descent of the bank, he said, was gradual. He had observed footmarks, which corresponded in size to the clogs the child had been wearing, but he had also seen "feetmarks which were larger than those made by the clog of the deceased". He had the body removed from the brook and taken to the White House Tavern, "where it now lies".

Between early that afternoon and noon the next day, Saturday, when the Coroner's Court convened, the police made their inquiries in the few houses and farms near the brook in Love Lane. Three people - two women, Mary Whitehead and Emma Williams, with her 13-year-old son Frank - had seen little George with two boys that Thursday afternoon. All of them would describe the boys and the scene with some care, though both women, it turned out later (in a strange parallel to some witnesses in the James Bulger case), mistook their size for an indication of their age.

Mary Whitehead said she had seen two boys with the little two-and-a-half- year-old "just before 3 o'clock", one about 10, the other "behind and nine years". "The larger," she said, had the small one, who was crying, by the hand. This "elder boy" she said, was dressed in dark clothes and a cap and "was rather stoutly built. He was dragging the deceased along who seemed unwilling to go with them. The other boy was dressed in a loose tunic but had no belt or cap." She asked the boys where they were going and they said "Down Love Lane."

Emma Williams and her son, giving an identical description of the two boys' clothes, had seen them over an hour later, but now the little boy had been naked. She too said that "the elder boy [meaning the "larger"] was [holding] the little boy. I called and asked `What are you doing with that Child undressed?' " But they had not answered. Her son Frank said: "I saw the second Boy pick a twig out of the fence and hit the little boy over the leg. The little boy rubbed his leg immediately afterwards." He didn't think the blow was "a heavy one" but the boys had run off toward Love Lane as soon as his mother had called out to them.

A few hours before the court had convened, the Stockport surgeon, Thomas Massey, had performed the post-mortem examination on the little boy and described his terrible injuries - his back and buttocks lashed bloody, his head, too, covered with blood from blows with a stick. The injuries, he said, would "have required great violence to produce. The blows on the top of the head might have produced concussion of the brain and consequent insensibility. Such a blow upon a live child would probably have stunned it." But all the marks, he said, "were produced while the child was alive". After his face had been pressed down on to a stone in the water of the brook, he concluded, "he will have suffocated from drowning". At 6.30pm, at the conclusion of the surgeon's statement, the inquiry was adjourned until Tuesday 16 April at 3pm, for the production of further evidence.

BY THIS TIME, the police had questioned others who could identify the two boys. And at 7.30pm, PC William Morley went to 79 Middle Hillgate, the home of 38-year-old hairdresser Peter Barratt, his Irish-born wife Mary Ann, and their three children, Peter Henry, eight, Emma, six, and Mary, three. Peter Henry and Emma are described in the 1861 census as "scholars" and were enrolled at a nearby church school. Emma, it appears, attended regularly; her older brother rarely. Like many children at that time, school, for those of eight and over, was secondary to adding to the family's earnings. Children would run errands for shopkeepers, supplement farm labour at harvest time in groups or gangs, would "pull potatoes" in the autumn and pick fruit in summer for one penny a week. Peter Henry, like other shopkeepers' sons, also had to help customers and clean the shop. It was here, where the father was cutting a customer's hair that Saturday evening, that Officer Morley found the boy, sweeping the floor. He told the father that he wished to speak to Peter Henry.

"What about?"

"They say he's one that has taken this child away," the officer said.

"I don't think that can be so, but take the boy into the kitchen and see what he says about it," the father replied, continuing his haircut. (Mr Morley would state three days later to the court of inquiry that he did as suggested and "From the statements the Boy made I asked him to go with me to Barlow Row, Middle Hillgate, the home of John Bradley.")

Higher Barlow Row, where John and Eliza Bradley lived with their four children, Joseph, 10, James, eight, Sarah , four, and Ellis, two, was called "the street of the hatters": everybody who lived there probably rented their flats or houses from their employers, and most of the Bradley family worked at Christy's throughout their lives. They were known as a tidy family, all Cheshire-born: the records make a point of their regular attendance at the nearby Congregational Tabernacle, the fact that all the adults worked, and that most of their children were good scholars. Thirty-seven-year-old John Bradley was a "Hat Washer" for Christy's, Eliza, 38, a "House Servant" in one of the big houses nearby; Joseph, the oldest, was a good student at a nearby Church School, while his brother James's education (like Peter Henry Barratt's) had so far been restricted to a weekly visit to the Sunday School which they had joined only four weeks earlier.

An incident at the Sunday School 10 days before the murder seems of particular relevance to what followed. It is remarkably similar to the aggressively conspicuous behaviour of Mary and Norma Bell during the days before the two little boys in Newcastle were killed in 1968, and that of Robert Thompson and Jon Venables in the days leading up to the murder of James Bulger in 1993.

At the Stockport Sunday School on 31 March 1861, Peter Henry and James tore into fragments two new bibles, and two boys' caps. Confronted by the school's inspectors and teachers, they readily admitted their offence but "seemed unable to comprehend [writes an observer later] the extent of their sin". It was decided that their teachers should inform the parents that their children could not enter the school again unless the parents promised "earnestly to co-operate with the teachers in endeavouring to reclaim them". This promise, it appears was made, without the time, of course, to fulfill it: indeed, the connection of the boys with the school was so brief, that they had not been entered on the register.

In the Barratts' hairdressing shop in Middle Hillgate, a mere four minutes' walk away from the Bradleys' home in Higher Barlow Row, Peter Henry's father had appeared little interested in the police officer's presence. He left the boy alone with him as he was questioned in the kitchen, and continued his work as they left. At the Bradleys, however, where the questioning of the two boys also took place in the kitchen, John Bradley was there to support his boy.

Mr Morley began by asking Peter Henry the same questions he had already put to him at home. "Do you go to school?"

"Sometimes, on a Sunday," Peter replied.

"Who did you play with on last Thursday afternoon?"

"With Jemmy Bradley."

"Where did you go to?"

"We went beside the Star Inn."

"Which way did you go then?"

"Down the narrow lane by the Star Inn, down Hempshaw Lane and up Love Lane."

"Was there anyone else with you?"

Peter Barratt didn't reply, but James Bradley said, "A little Boy as we met beside the Star Inn."

"Did you see anyone in Love Lane?"

"Yes, we saw a woman," James continued.

"Where did you go afterwards?"

"We went on down Love Lane until we got to a hole with some water in."

"What did you do then?"

"Peter said I must undress it," James said.

And Peter said quickly, "Thou undressed it as well as me."

"Then you both undressed it?" asked Mr Morley.

"Yes," said James.

"What did you do then?"

"Peter pushed it into the water and I took my clogs off and went in and took it out again, and Peter then said it must have another."

"Another what?"

"Another dip in the water," Bradley answered. "Peter then got a stick out of the hedge and hit it."

"Well, thou hit it as well as me," Peter said angrily.

"Where did you hit it?"

"Over the back," James said.

"Did you hit it anywhere else besides the back?"

"Yes," said James, "over the head."

"Was it in the water then?"

"Yes."

"How long did you hit it with that stick?"

"Until it was dead," James Bradley said; Barratt was silent.

"Was it quite dead before you left it?"

"Yes," now said Peter Henry Barratt.

Mr Morley asked whether they left "it" in the water when they came away and James answered "Yes".

"What did you do with the stick?"

"We hauled it i'th' field."

NEITHER of the mothers apparently attended the court, either that day, when, following this confession, the two boys were taken to the "lock- up" in the courthouse, or during the hearing three days later, when the witnesses would be heard again in the presence of the two accused, and the boys were subsequently charged. But it seemed, at least during those first days of incarceration, that these two eight-year-olds (in exactly the same way as the children accused of murder in Newcastle and Liverpool over a century later) had no real concept of what they had done. It is reported that they ate well of the supper they were given that night and slept deeply afterwards. Over the next days they were in high spirits, amusing themselves by playing marbles and throwing half-pennies which kindly police officers had given them, and apparently never mentioning, to each other or anyone else, the event that brought them there.

On Sunday morning, 14 April, PC Morley had gone to the side of the brook where little George's body had been found, and, taking James Bradley's clogs and Peter Barratt's shoes, had compared these with impressions he found in the earth there. "The clogs of Bradley and the shoes of Barratt," he would state three days later to the court, "corresponded exactly with the foot marks by the Brook."

THE ATMOSPHERE at the White House Tavern was very different on 16 April, when the second session convened. Hillgate had been quiet as of that morning when the carriage bearing the small coffin had set out for Christ Church cemetery, Heaton Norris, about two miles away, followed by over 1,000 people on foot, among them some of the cotton mill bosses and many of Ralph and Mary Burgess's co-workers who had been given time off.

By now everyone in Stockport knew that the little boy had been murdered, and at least the whole neighbourhood knew the identity of the arrested suspects. And so, when the coroner and jurors took their places at 3pm, and the two accused boys were brought in to sit against a wall with their fathers and between two police officers, an angry murmur went through the room bursting with people before the coroner brought the crowd to order.

On this occasion, the eye-witnesses, whose statements had already been heard three days before, and PC Morley, who had questioned the boys that Saturday night, were now re-sworn and re-examined in front of the accused. At the end of her testimony, directed by the coroner to look at the two boys as she said it, Mary Whitehead declared:

The two prisoners, Peter Henry Barratt and James Bradley, are the two Boys I saw pass my House with the deceased on Thursday afternoon. James Bradley had the deceased boy by the hand.

She then swore she had spoken the truth, and made her mark in lieu of a signature on her statement which was then signed by the coroner.

Emma Williams was manifestly troubled when she came into the room on that second occasion, and saw the boys. She said that James Bradley corresponded in dress and appearance to one of them; he had hold of the child's hand when she spoke to him. But she could not "speak to" (identify) the prisoner Barratt by the tunic now worn by him.

It was explained to the coroner that Barratt's clothes had been changed on Sunday. The coroner told PC Morley to go to Barratt's house and fetch the tunic he had worn on the day of the murder, which was of dark-coloured frieze. When the tunic had been brought and put on the boy, Mrs Williams seemed amazed by what she now saw. Reluctant to conclude her evidence, she buried her face in her handkerchief.

The coroner remined her that, regardless of her feelings, she must speak the truth. She said that the prisoners were indeed the boys whom she saw and spoke to in Ford's field while they were pulling the naked child through the field towards the brook. She had "particularly noticed Bradley's shoulders" (by which, presumably, she meant their size). Indeed, she now said, she had no doubt of their identity. And her son Frank said immediately upon entering the room:

These are the two boys I saw in Ford's field on Thursday last as mentioned in my previous examination. I have no doubt of it.

The coroner then called the two fathers, to identify their sons.

"The prisoner Peter Henry Barratt is my son," said Peter Barratt. "He was eight years of age on the twelfth day of December last."

Then John Bradley said (in the record it is saith): "The Prisoner James Bradley is my son. He was eight years of age on the 20th of February last."

Finally, PC Morley was called and reported exactly the conversation he had had with the two boys on Saturday night.

I then took them into custody. Bradley's father was present, and did not object to the questions I asked. Barratt's father was not present. I used neither threats nor promises to them, as to any statement they might make.

The coroner then turned to James Bradley's father. "Have you any questions to ask the police officer?" he said. "Has he stated correctly the conversation he had with your son in your presence?"

"I have no question to ask, sir," the father answered, crying. "He has stated them very correctly - more's the pity for me."

THE CASE, said the coroner in his summing up, was "very painful, but, unfortunately, easy of solution". There was no doubt that the immediate cause of death was suffocation from drowning, but equally there was nothing to suggest that the death had been accidental. Though the boys had no obvious motive for their "horrifyingly brutal" attack, in not disclosing it, and in choosing a "secluded place" to carry it out, they had given unquestionable proof of their "consciousness of guilt".

Because they were so young, he said, it was necessary for him to explain the law as to their "capacity to commit the crime". Before the age of seven, he said (this is now the age of 10 in England and Wales, but still eight under Scottish law) no infant can be guilty of or punished for a capital offence. But between eight and 14, "the presumption. . . that an infant is incapable of judging between good and evil can be rebutted by strong and pregnant evidence of a mischievous discretion." It is such "mischievous discretion" that the two boys were shown to exhibit, and it was their "strength of understanding and judgement," rather than their age, that proved their true "capacity to do evil or contract guilt".

The jury therefore had to be satisfied that the child's death was caused by the two boys; and that they, at the time, were capable of discerning good from evil. If they were satisfied on both these points, he said, their verdict must be one of "wilful murder, for there was nothing in the evidence to reduce it below that offence, and the case would then be dealt with by a higher tribunal."

The jury, without hesitation, returned a verdict of wilful murder against Peter Henry Barratt and James Bradley; and they were fully committed to Chester Assizes for trial, under the coroner's warrant.

THE CHESTER Summer Assizes of 1861 opened on Saturday 3 August at 4pm. The court records at Chancery Lane tell us that Sir Charles Compton, the presiding High Court judge, informed the jury of the cases they were to try. There were 35 of them, and they would all be heard in four days, from Monday 5 August to Thursday 8 August. Six cases would be for burglary; 12 for forgery, larceny, or intent to deceive; four for bigamy; one for bestiality; one for rape; four for "attempt to have carnal knowledge of a girl under the age of ten" - one was aged five; four for wounding with intent to murder and/or grievous bodily harm. At the end of his opening address, the judge told the jury that during this session they would be called upon to judge only one case of murder. "But as it is a very difficult and distressing case, of a child aged two years," he said,"I will hear it last. It is," he said, "very sad."

In the intervening four months, the prisoners had been detained in the Stockport "lock-up" for five days after their arrest - where they had already, according to reports from the time, begun to quarrel, Peter attacking his younger companion with the buckle of his belt - during which time crowds continuously beseiged the court house, "in the hope", as the Stockport Advertiser put it, of "indulging in a morbid appetite to see the young prisoners".

It was doubtless because of this morbid appetite that on Thursday 18 April, before dawn, the two boys had been taken under police guard in a locked compartment on the 4.25am mail train via Crewe to Chester, 40 miles away. With the change at Crewe, the journey, now 20 minutes, would have taken just under five hours.

Chester Castle served both as the Court for Quarter Sessions and Assizes, and as the county prison, with a male and female wing, and an infirmary. No remand wing is indicated in the records, nor do they show us where the many child or juvenile prisoners were kept. It is probable, however, that as the boys were to be there until 8 August, and because, as we already know, they were at odds with each other even before the first week was out, they would have been kept apart, either in the infirmary, or in the female wing.

"PRISONERS at the bar," said the judge, and the two boys, nudged by the police officers next to them, jumped to their feet, the tops of their heads now just above the front rail of the dock.

It was 10.10pm on 8 August, 1861: the court had listened to the case since nine that morning. All the evidence that had been presented to the coroner's court in Stockport four months earlier had been heard. Members of the public had been seen drying their tears when Constable Morley repeated his interrogation of the boys, and their admission of the deed; defence counsel, Mr Morgan Lloyd, had pointed out to the jury the extreme youth of the prisoners - "mere babies themselves, who could not have known the crime they committed". The judge, in his summing up, made it very clear, as judges often do, what he expected from the jury: they must first satisfy themselves that the prisoners were capable of discerning between right and wrong. If so, they would have to decide whether they knew the effect of the act they were committing; if they did not, then the presumption of malice would be rebutted and the crime reduced from murder to manslaughter. He could not help expressing his opinion, he said, that it seemed straining the case to charge such young children with the crime of wilful murder...

The jury had retired at about 9.45pm and returned after less than 15 minutes with a verdict of manslaughter. Sir Charles Compton told them that he entirely agreed with their verdict. "The prisoners," he said, "will be sent to the Reformatory at Bradwall from whose excellent manager I received a letter stating that although the boys were younger than the generality of those under his care, under the peculiar circumstances of the case, he would have great pleasure in taking them and in looking after their future welfare. They will therefore be removed from their bad companions in Stockport; they will be taught better things and will have a chance of becoming better boys. If they behave themselves properly there, Government might dismiss them before the full period of the sentence I am about to pass upon them expires."

The boys had been laughing and joking before the jury returned, and while the judge addressed the jury, looked repeatedly at each other, clearly not understanding what the words and sentences meant. As the judge finished, Peter Barratt was seen to wink at his companion who, however, had quite soon begun to cry.

"I am afraid," the judge then said, leaning down from his throned seat as they stood before him, "you have been very wicked, naughty boys, and I have no doubt you have caused the death of this little boy by the brutal way in which you used him. I am going to send you to a place where you will have an opportunity of becoming good boys, for there you will have a chance of being brought up in a way you should be, and I doubt not but that in time, when you come to understand the nature of the crime you have committed, you will repent of what you have done. The sentence is," he went on, "that each of you be imprisoned and kept in gaol for one month, and at the expiration of that period you be sent to a Reformatory for five years."

As the boys, now both crying, were removed, there were loud acclamations from the public testifying to their approval of the verdict and the sentence. The noise only stopped when the judge came to his feet, bowed to the jury, and then, after acknowledging the deep bows of the court, slowly walked out. It was 10.20pm.

What was different for the families of both these boys in 1861 (compared to the treatment of the families of Robert Thompson and Jon Venables in 1993), was that after the murder of little George Burgess, and the trial and imprisonment of their boys, they were able to stay on in Stockport, in their homes, and in their jobs. It would seem to underline the comparative moral stability of society then - in the sense that good and evil were firmly established in people's minds - that it was believed that if a child had been "evil" ("moved and seduced by the instigation of the devil", as it stated in the coroner's inquisition), then he could be helped, in time, to become "good". There was hope. And because the blame was put on an outside agent, ie the devil, the children would not be condemned forever, and the parents could be absolved from any responsibility.

The record does not inform us of how the two eight-year-olds passed their month in prison. But in 1860, the Home Office, under public pressure, particularly from women's groups who had become aware of the abuse young boys and girls were suffering in common cells with adults, had established a ruling that all child prisoners, of whom there were many, were to be kept in individual cells, throughout their period of incarceration. Given this rule, and the anger the two Stockport boys had shown towards each other almost from the start, we can presume that they continued to be kept strictly apart. This was confirmed by the discovery among the Home Office records at the Public Record Office in Kew, of the Admission and Register file of the Bradwall Reformatory - renamed some years later the Saltersford Boys School. The register made no mention of Peter Henry Barratt: it had manifestly been decided to separate the boys for good.

However, it records quite clearly that "James Bradley: 8 1/2 years old, height 3ft 91/2 ins, who could neither read or write", was convicted of manslaughter at the Chester Assizes of August 1861 to one month's imprisonment and five years at Reformatory; that he had had no previous conviction; that his parents were John Bradley, Barlow Row, Hillgate, Stockport, Hatter, earning 20 shillings per week, and Elizabeth, Hat Trimmer, contributing 1/6d per week, with two other children, the older earning 2/6 per week; and that he was admitted to Bradwall on 2 September 1861 and discharged "on license, 28 January 1866". "Term expired," the form adds, "2nd September 1866".

In another Home Office volume we found the explanation for his release, six months early, in a reply from the Home Secretary to GW Latham Esq, Bradwall Hall, dated 29 January 1866: "Sir J. Grey [the Home Secretary]," it said, "having considered your application for the release of James Bradley from Bradwall Reformatory School, I am directed to acquaint you that having regard to the serious nature of the offence of which this lad was convicted, he thinks it would not be right to remit any portion of the sentence passed upon him by the court. Signed J.G. Baring."

This letter, given the post of that time, will have arrived in the postal town of Sandbach, Cheshire, two miles from Bradwall, in the first days of February - by which time, James Bradley, now just under 13, had evidently already been released on the authority of George Latham, founder and manager of Bradwall Reformatory.

George William Latham, Lord of the Manor of Bradwall Hall and the 2,104 acres of the village and township of Bradwall (291 inhabitants), was a remarkable man and pioneer in the treatment of difficult boys. In 1855, assisted by subscriptions of the neighbouring nobility, he founded the Bradwall Reformatory School which for many years afterwards, with Latham himself as the manager, was to rank as the most enlightened and successful institution of its kind in the country.

Intended for the accommodation of 60 boys over the age of 11 referred by the courts (James Bradley, at eight, was to be the only exception to the age rule), their acceptance at the Manager's discretion, Bradwall was built at a cost of £255.10/2d and staffed by a superintendent and four qualified teachers. With the approval of the government and under the benevolent surveillance of HM Inspectors of Reformatory Schools, it opened on 10 December 1855.

George Latham's ideas, which must sound increasingly attractive to the educators of difficult children today, were, above all, to create for children who had largely lived in chaos and a degree of violence, a moral framework and a structure of hard physical work and basic academic learning. Toward this purpose, adequately clothed and well fed, they rose at 6am and were in bed by 9pm. They were housed in large dormitories and all employed in the cultivation of the land. They were taught draining, hedging, ditching, but equally could learn any additional skill they found liking for. They learnt to cook and clean, did physical exercises every evening after work and attended family worship before breakfast, after supper and at the parish church on Sundays. All boys had three hours of secular and religious instruction daily, learning first to read, write, spell and count, with more advanced subjects available to them when and if they desired. A "News and Reading-Room" was also open to the boys.

Beating was forbidden, although "moderate Personal Correction" was allowed. All punishments had to be entered in a punishment book. If punishment was confinement in a separate room or cell, no boy was to be given less than 1lb of bread a day and in case of cold weather one hot meal. If a boy's offence merited more than three days' punishment, he had to have exercise every day, be allowed a minimum of 11/2lbs of bread and gruel, milk and water. If a boy was confined for more than seven days, he had to be visited by the medical officer of the school every day. Parents and relations were allowed to visit the boys at pre-arranged hours any day of the week except Sunday, and boys, if they had proved reliable, were given leave to visit home. Boys received rewards and wages for work well done, the money credited to them and held for them until their discharge, at which point "places" (jobs) were provided for them "if their conduct deserved it".

Even the most enlightened and benevolent penal institution will not succeed in preventing all its inmates from returning to a life of crime, but Home Office statistics from early this century attest to the fact that, in contrast to most reformatories in the country, 60 per cent of boys detained at Bradwall had made good later. There are many letters of thanks on record from former boys to George Latham.

While we thus know how James Bradley spent his five years' sentence (reduced to four and a half), Peter Henry Barratt proved far more difficult to track down. After a long search through the Home Office files of communications with Inspectors for Institutions, however, under the date 10 December 1861, we found a mention of his name, when a (or the) Senior Inspector, the Reverend Sidney Turner, sent a brief note to the Home Secretary: "Peter Hy. Barratt. Recommend transfer to Warwickshire Reformatory."

Although it doesn't tell us where Peter Henry would be transferred from, nor why, and we could find no descriptions of this institution and only one document from it, it is probable that the "Warwickshire Weston Colony" (as the reformatory was called), like most penal institutions at the time, was larger and very different from the pioneering Bradwall. (It would later become an insane asylum.) The Warwick Record Office did find an account book for the period, but all it said was that there were "three admissions between December 1861 and the end of 1862"; it gave no names. What the records do tell us is that many boys, upon release from that institution, were "transported" to Australia or Canada. Is it possible they would have shipped a 13-year-old? I asked Christopher Jeen, the head of the Warwick Record Office. "Judging from these records," he said, "yes, if the parents agreed. They might have sent him to Canada to work."

Certainly Peter Henry Barratt didn't appear on any subsequent Cheshire or Warwickshire census records, Post Office lists or rate books, and we can only speculate on his fate after his release at 13.

IN THE WEEK after the sentencing of the two boys at Chester Assizes, both local and national newspapers carried cogent and enlightened editorials. Written before the advent of psychiatry or child psychology, and at a time when the acceptance of innate evil was deeply engrained, they made perfectly good psychological and sociological arguments

The Chester Standard reminded its readers of deficiences in society which, its editorial writer felt, contributed to such crimes: "We must remember [that these boys] are only in a wild degree what all our boys would be without religion or education . . ."

The Times leader on 10 August argues that children of that age cannot be held legally accountable in the same way as adults. "What is the reason then," the leader writer asks, "why it should have been absurd and monstrous that these two children should have been treated like murderers?... As far as it went [their conscience] was a sound and a genuine a conscience as that of a grown man: it told them that what they were doing was wrong . . . [But] conscience, like other natural faculties, admits of degrees: it is weak, and has not arrived at its proper growth in children, though it has a real existence and a voice within them; it does not speak with that force and seriousness which justifies us in treating the child as a legally responsible being."

What these two writers said in 1861 has been said many times since. Today, when our education system is failing to reach a huge number of the most vulnerable children; when the waning of religious influence has weakened the moral framework of our lives; and when our children need more discipline, less entertainment and much more time with their parents, we too have to ask ourselves how much deficiencies in our society have contributed to the similar cases we have witnessed. And we, too, are questioning the wisdom of the law.

For nothing has happened in Britain to change the judicial system as it applies to children who kill. Whereas in Europe and much of the United States, such cases are judged in Family Courts under the guidance of psychologists and with strict provisions protecting the child's anonymity, children in Britain accused of murder, though their names are frequently withheld, are tried in the full panoply of the High Court with all the attendant publicity. The final outrage of this system is that their minimum sentence is decided not by the court which heard the case, but by a politician, the Home Secretary of the day. In the latest of these cases, the murder of James Bulger, some members of the British and American legal community were so outraged by Michael Howard's decision on a minimum sentence of 15 years for Jon Venables and Robert Thompson - which would keep them in prison until they are 26 before they can even be considered for parole - that an appeal was made to the European court. It seems a sad day if Britain cannot take responsibility for amending an antiquated part of its judicial system without pressure from abroad.

By far the majority of children who have been sentenced in Britain to indefinite periods of imprisonment for murder or manslaughter will never understand what they did, nor what was done to them. In 1861, work and moral rectitude was the available answer to "invasion by the devil". At the end of the 20th century, we know that violence in children is mostly caused by violence to children, and we therefore believe in treatment. We cannot know what happened within these Stockport families 130 years ago, but we do know today that if children commit violent crime, it is not only they who must receive treatment, but the environment that damaged them. Anything else is not only pointless but cruel; for it perpetuates both the circumstances which have caused the damage, and the child's uncomprehending feelings of guilt.

The fact of these cases is that children who kill have to be detained; they have to be treated; and they have to be taught. Their detention, however (as we see by this example of 1861), needs to be limited in time so that they can retain hope. It has to have the purpose of giving them as much education as they can assimilate, practical skills which will equip them to make a living, and a sense of responsibility for themselves and towards others in their future lives.

THERE IS nothing in the records to indicate that either James Bradley or Peter Henry Barratt ever came back to Stockport. The 1864 postal register reports Peter Henry Barratt's father as having expanded his hairdressing establishment: he was now also a newsagent and photographer. And the rate books show him punctiliously paying increasing rates until 1867 (the year after Peter Henry's release?), when he begins to be in arrears. In 1870, he disappeared from all Stockport records and neither he, nor his wife Mary, figures on the 1871 census, although their two daughters, Mary and Emma, do, both as "boarders" - Mary as a 13-year-old cotton weaver and 17-year-old Emma as a general servant.

By 1876, we find James Bradley's oldest brother, Joseph, now 25, married to a Stockport girl called Mary Anne, living in Aveston in Warwickshire, another hatters' town, with their two children. (Could they have taken in Joseph's younger brother for a while upon his release?) But by the 1881 census, they are back in Stockport, and Joseph's mother, Eliza, now 58, is recorded as head of the household. Also living with her is Ellis, 20, and a 17-year-old daughter, another Eliza. In 1883, Ellis married 21-year-old Mary Ludlow and by 1891 they had three children, Ellen, five, Arthur, three, and Annie, two. Eliza Bradley died in 1901, and in 1903 we find the record of her estranged husband John's death, aged 78, at the Union Workhouse. Ellis Bradley, the last of James Bradley's siblings, died on 16 October 1925. Among the list of those who attended, or sent flowers to, his funeral at Stockport Borough Cemetery, are many familiar names from the records. But one stands out: a floral tribute from "Nellie, Jim, Edward, and their families". Not one of these names is traceable in the Stockport records between 1861 and Ellis Bradley's death.

Perhaps it was another Jim, who married a girl called Nellie and had a child called Edward. But I would like to think it was James Bradley, now aged 72, and that, as the Judge hoped in 1861, and as we were led to believe by Mr George Latham's request for his early release in January 1866, he became a good boy, and a good man.

! The author wishes to thank Roz Lathbury, David Reed, and particularly Barbara Chadwick, without whose help at the Heritage Library in Stockport this story could not have been written.

c Gitta Sereny 1995

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