An entry dated 13 March 1908 in the Batley Borough Court records attracted my attention. On that day two 13-year-old boys and another aged 12 appeared before the Town Hall Magistrates charged with pigeon-stealing. They stood accused of taking four dark, dappled birds on 8 March from Back Cross Park Street.
Juvenile crime was not uncommon in the Court listings. But two things attracted me to this one:
- The sentencing notes were slightly unusual; and
- I recognised the names of all three lads.
The Court Register entry combined with the newspaper report build up a fuller picture. It should be noted that the newspaper is, in some crucial areas, at variance with the Court record. The name of one of the lads is slightly different. And the ages are given as 12, 13 and 14.
The birds belonged to miner Robert Dewhirst. They were housed in a cote containing 15 pigeons. Robert locked it at around 5pm on Sunday teatime. When he checked it at around 5am the following morning he found the door swinging open, the padlock discarded on the floor and four birds missing. They had an estimated value of £2 according to the Court notes.
Later that day the birds were recovered. They were in the possession of Robert Clarkson, a Commercial Street fish and game dealer. He said he told the boys the pigeons were old and not worth more than 6d. He also claimed to have told them to fetch the owner and he would pay for them. The boys never returned. The Court Register and papers are silent about any charges preferred against Robert, so it seems there were none.
The three youths, a school boy, errand boy and pony driver, were not so fortunate. Two pleaded guilty to the charge; the other put in a “not guilty” plea. Despite this he was convicted of the crime, along with his two friends.
This is where the sentencing twist came into play. They were discharged on entering recognizances for 12 months. They were instructed as to their good behaviour during this time. During this period they were to be under the supervision of Mr Gladwin, the probation officer. He was to visit them and submit regular reports to the magistrates about their conduct. Alongside this a 20s surety applied.
The noteworthy facet of the sentencing: this was the first ever case for the local probation officer.
This new service owed its origins in 1876 to Hertfordshire printer Frederic Rainer, a volunteer with the Church of England Temperance Society (CETS). Initially London-based, it worked with magistrates via the London Police Courts Mission (LPCM) to release offenders on condition they kept in touch and accepted guidance from the “missionaries”. The system was extended countrywide with the 1886 Probation of First Time Offenders Act. With an emphasis on religious mission and temperance, this Act allowed courts to appoint similar missionaries if they wanted to. Few chose to do so.
The 1907 Probation of Offenders Act gave these missionaries official status as “officers of the court”. Furthermore it was now possible for courts to appoint probation officers paid for by the local authority. The Act allowed courts to suspend punishment and discharge offenders who entered into a recognisance of between one and three years. As part of the conditions of this suspension, the offender agreed to be supervised by a “probation officer”.
Durham-born James Gladwin was Batley’s Probation Officer. He had held the Town Missionary post for a number of years, being recorded as such from the 1901 census onwards. However the three Batley lads, all from St Mary’s parish, were his first cases following the 1907 Probation Act.
The sentence was partially effective. Two of the lads did indeed steer clear of further trouble. Sadly, the youngest failed to do so. He appeared once more before the Magistrates on 7 December 1908. This time he was charged with stealing a pair of men’s moleskin trousers, valued at 2s 6d from Joseph Bennett’s Commercial Street pawnshop on 5 December. Bennett took the precaution of ticketing his shop contents. The lad failed to notice this. So when he then attempted to pawn them at another shop on Wellington Street, Bennett’s mark was recognised and the boy apprehended.
This was around nine months after the pigeon-stealing incident, which as a result now came into play. Mr Gladwin, his Probation Officer, gave his character opinion of the lad. He was sorry, but not surprised, to see him in trouble again. He was always on “the edge of it”, always promising to do better. Police Inspector Wright said the lad was a bad influence on the other boys in town. Despite pleadings from his father, he was now convicted of both the trouser and pigeon-stealing offences. To save him from a life of trouble he was sentenced to five years in a Reformatory.
The Reformatory system was established in 1854 for under-16s convicted of crime. With concern about the way children were treated in the criminal system, the Philanthropic Society was at the forefront of this change to the criminal system. Children sent to Reformatory schools spent between two to five years there. However, until 1899, those committed to such establishments still spent 14 days in an adult prison first. This was thankfully no longer the case by the time of this lad’s sentence.
As a Catholic he was sent to serve out his sentence at St William’s School for Training Catholic Boys, situated at Holme upon Spalding Moor, near Market Weighton in the East Riding. Founded in 1856 as the Yorkshire Catholic Reform School, this was in a remote, rural location. The work the boys undertook reflected its countryside locality, with a large proportion dividing their time between studies and farm labouring. Other trades included shoemakers, bricklayers, printers, tailors, bookbinders, laundry and horse boys.
At the time he entered the Reformatory, it was headed by Rev Charles Ottaway who took over in 1906. It was Father Ottaway who instigated the name-change to St William’s. He was still in charge in the 1911 census, where the boy is shown as an inmate dividing his time between schooling and working as a farm boy labourer.
Under Father Ottaway’s regime the boys wore a uniform of plain cord knickers and a tweed coat. However despite the uniform and name-change, the Reformatory under his tenure was noted for its poor discipline and too frequent punishments, as noted in highly critical inspection reports. The covering letter to a December 1911 inspection said:
“Father Ottaway overloaded, boys have insufficient food, overwork and lack of recreation, stunted in growth and underweight, approved dietary scale not adhered to and substitutes inadequate, punishments not accurately recorded, carelessness, cells unfit for use…..”
Another report in May 1912 by Brigdier Mark Sykes M.P., a member of the Reformatory Committtee, noted amongst other things improper cleaning; ill-shod boys in ragged, disreputable clothing; an unvaried, disgusting diet; too frequent and too trivial punishments; inadequate fire-safety and escape provisions and damnning indictments on various staff members. His report ended:
“I consider that with the exception of Mr Hart it would be best to discharge the whole of the present staff and start afresh“.
In short the entire establishment lacked go and discipline.
The declining numbers of boys being admitted during Father Ottaway’s tenure was a probable reflection of the lack of care, schooling, work-training and basic facilities such as toilets and washing on offer there. Nevertheless Batley Borough Court continued to use it for its “wayward” Catholic boys, including two sent there in March 1912 for stealing a box of biscuits. And Father Ottaway remained in charge until the summer of 1912.
Back to the pigeon and trouser-stealing boy though. The lad’s father had a maintenance order of 2s a week imposed by the Court, in order to provide for his son’s upkeep in this establishment. Parents had to contribute towards the costs, and this was means-tested based on the family income. As the newspaper noted the family had £2 10s coming into the household each week.
East Riding Archives hold extensive records for this particular Reformatory, including admission registers, report books and medical registers. So well worth a visit for those with ancestors who spent time there, either working or as inmates.
At the beginning of this post I mentioned I recognised the names of all three lads charged with pigeon-stealing. They are all connected with my parish church. And all three lads were dead just over eight years following the pigeon incident. All lost their lives in the Great War: One in 1914, the other 1915 and the final one in 1916. They are all on the church War Memorial.
I have deliberately not named any of the boys involved.
- Batley Borough Court Records held at West Yorkshire Archives, Wakefield
- “Batley Reporter” and “Batley News” newspapers – Various editions , March and December 1908
- Census 1891-1911
- Children’s Homes website: http://www.childrenshomes.org.uk/
- Inside Time – A Short History of the Probation Service: http://insidetime.org/a-short-history-of-the-probation-service/
- “The Guardian” – Society – Timeline: A history of probation http://www.theguardian.com/society/2007/may/02/crime.penal
- Pharos Tutors “Victorian Crime & Punishment” course
- “The Yorkshire Catholic Reformatory Market Weighton” – J D Hicks
 In 1891 his occupation was given as “home missionary”
 East Riding Archives Finding Reference DDSW, St William’s Community Home
 I have taken the Court Register names to be the correct ones. As I mentioned earlier in the post, the only newspaper report for this incident had a different Christian name and slightly different surname for one of the boys. However checking baptisms, births and censuses there is no-one matching the newspaper name.