The 200-year-old Asbos (they make Blair's Britain seem a soft touch)
Sunday 19 March 2006
Teenage yobs on the rampage in the inner cities, vandalism, theft and underage drunkenness. Sound familiar? In fact, zero-tolerance policies such as the modern Asbo have been struggling to tackle juvenile delinquents for hundreds of years.
Such measures have been trumpeted by New Labour as radical new ways of tackling anti-social behaviour among the nation's youth. However, archive material made public today reveals that equivalent measures were being used in Britain more than 200 years ago.
Logbooks from the Philanthropic Society, set up in 1806 to reform boys involved in crime, also show that petty offending and yobbish behaviour were just as prevalent in the 1800s as today.
Tackling out-of-control children and teenagers has become one of the most pressing issues for Tony Blair. Nearly 2,000 anti-social behaviour orders have been issued by police to target children who have not committed a crime but are classed as trouble-makers.
Yet a similar strategy was used two centuries ago to deal with children, some as young as nine, whose parents were unable to control them. Although young offenders were sent straight to prison from the courts, under-age tearaways who had not committed crimes were ordered by police and magistrates into a special reform programme backed by ministers.
The approach was to tame what were seen as feral urchins through vocational education such as printing, tailoring and shoemaking, using prevention rather than punishment to keep them away from crime.
In another parallel with modern "respect" policies, reformers in the 1800s identified the need to compel "careless and unnatural parents to do their duty", echoing today's parenting orders where people are given lessons in how to control their children.
Rainer, as the Philanthropic Society is now known, said the similarities between now and then are "striking", despite the 200-year time gap. The charity also said that they demonstrate that prevention is a more successful approach to youth crime than punishment, which has been "failing us for centuries".
"There was a complete panic about perceived rising levels of youth crime and delinquency, and people were worried about the gangs of urchins on the streets," said Joyce Moseley, chief executive of Rainer, which has opened its archives to mark the 200th anniversary of the charity being recognised by an Act of Parliament.
"At least they had access to proper housing, support and education, elements that have only just started to fully appear in the respect agenda."
Themes that dominate the society's logbooks include petty theft, criminals within families, as well as absent parents, a similar risk factor leading to youth-offending today.
The archives give an insight into the behaviour of these young tearaways, the 18th-century equivalent of modern prolific troublemakers such as the teenager dubbed "Rat Boy" in the press.
They include nine-year-old James Brady, who is described as possessing an "ungovernable temper and behaves very ill to his mother". The behaviour of the children he hung around with was so bad that he was deemed to be in "utmost danger" of offending.
Another, a 13-year-old called William Pearce, is described as "distrustful" and the cause of "great affliction" to his distressed mother. One young boy, who is not named, is described as having been "nine times in jail and not as yet as tall as this table".
Hassling shopkeepers was also another deviant pastime, which was already a problem 200 years ago. One report from the Philanthropic Society archives highlights the case of a gingerbread baker who complained that a boy was trying to run an extortion racket by demanding money from him in return for not smashing his windows.
Under-age binge drinking was another huge issue in the 1800s. Records from courts in Liverpool show that, at one point, more than 97 boys and 18 girls under the age of 10 and more than 500 boys and nearly 100 girls between 10 and 14 were hauled before magistrates for drunken behaviour.
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