Description of a reformers' dinner for juvenile offenders ("prison fledglings") addressed by Mr. ----, convicted thief.
Published in The Railway Review, 23 July 1880 - read the original article through our digital collectionLink opens in a new window.
Illustration: "A convict's home", from 'Street Life in London', 1877, by John Thomson and Adolphe Smith, available through the LSE Digital LibraryLink opens in a new window.
The admission ticket set forth that that night Mr.------, himself a converted thief, would address as many juvenile thieves as chose to come and listen to him; and, as an inducement for them to do so, he promised them a good supper of soup and bread, and to all who behaved themselves until the proceedings were at an end, the sum of fourpence each when they were dismissed. A legible line on the ticket gave notice that none but boys who had been convicted would be eligible for the supper, &c. It was further intimated that Mr.------- would give hearty welcome to as many honest folk as would honour him with their presence on the occasion.
The occasion had no attraction for me on the score of novelty. The questionable experiment had, I knew, been tried several times during the last ten years, and more than once I had been present at the strange exhibition, but not so frequently as to dissipate my original impression that there was a considerable amount of danger in the business, and that it was possible to try it once too often. Urged by this, perhaps, somewhat morbid reflection, I joined the honest throng that was admitted at a side entrance, and when some fifty or sixty had so entered and taken their seats, the guardian of the main portal gave admission to the young thieves.
I found that the terms of the ticket were strictly adhered to. In a brief conversation I had with Mr.-----, he made known to me that he would warrant he would in no single instance be imposed on as regards his youthful guests. "You see, sir," said he, with a confident smile, "I've been right through the mill myself from the earliest stages, and with a half-dozen simple questions could confound any boy who tried to pass as a convicted thief and was not, however well he may have been 'coached' by his friends." And I found he did not overestimate his keenness of perception.
The foremost of the throng passed him in the passage unchallenged; but presently he laid his quick hand on the head of a boy who was hurrying in. "Who are you?" he asked, detaining the suspected one. "Oh, I'm a convicted 'un, Mr.-----," was the ready response. "When, what for, and to what prison?" asked the converted one, sharply; and after a bungling and shamefaced attempt to make good his claim, the boy was expelled amid the jeers of his luckier friends. Nor was this an isolated instance. Out of about forty that applied for admission at least half a dozen tried this novel imposture, and were in like manner ignominiously exposed.
I took the liberty of mentioning to Mr. -------- that his rule seemed a little opposed to the ordinary recognised system of rewards and punishments. To do him justice he seemed to see the force of my argument, but submitted that he was not responsible. He only invited convicted boys; and if unconvicted ones presented themselves under false pretences, he could not help it.
I must say this for the prison fledglings that no company of honest boys could have behaved more decorously. Tattered, hollow-eyed, hungry, poor little wretches, they made for the space set apart for them and took their seats before the as yet empty basins. One's heart melted towards them when it was seen with what avidity they disposed of the good soup, and asked again, and still again for more, and bit at their hunks of bread with all their teeth. It showed, if it need have been shown, for the thousand-and-first time, what a beggarly trade petty thieving is, and how much harder those who follow it fare than the poorest of honest drudges. When they had supped the wolfish expression faded from their faces, and they leant back in their seats with their dirty fingers interlaced and reposing below their waists as contented as aldermen. In language best suited to their understanding Mr.------- related to them his earliest experiences of crime, and vividly described his first night in prison, and what were his sensations when he was doomed to penal servitude. Dilated optics and mouths ajar, denoted how absorbing was the interest such themes possessed for them; but truth compels me to state that when he ceased to hold himself up as a living illustration, and commenced in earnest, almost passionate language to assure them that all that had happened to him, and possibly more, would be their fate unless they turned and led an upright and righteous life, there was a marked falling off in the attention they paid him. Boys who had leaned forward stiff-necked, and with every limb rigid in breathless expectation, could now swing their legs loosely under the forms and gaze about them with a disengaged air. And, with every possible respect for those ladies and gentlemen who hold otherwise, I am much afraid that this is a feature inseparable from all such bold experiments. It is the blind and foolish desire to figure as a "hero," such as he reads about, that turns many an honest man's son to the paths of crime, and it can be no other than mischievous than to call together a troop of boys, bidding them come undisguisedly and fearlessly in their proper charactors of thieves. It affords to the misguided, poor little vagabonds an opportunity for vaunting their defiance of the law, and figuring as desperate villians of consequence. Those who know anything of the matter are aware that it is companionship that makes a life of crime, if not enjoyable, at least tolerable. It is there where the brag and the boast and the reckless dissipation comes in, and the profitless perils of the occupation are forgotten. It is good work, undoubtedly, to rescue a boy from a life of degradation und ignominy, but, as far as regards first catching him for that laudable purpose, he should be baited for and taken singly.