Poverty Is The Real Crime
As I delve into the life of a child criminal from Preston, Lancashire in 1850, I cannot but help wonder where so many people would be if they had better childhoods, better access to the things we take for granted…or even sadder to say, better parents. Not only do I see evidence almost daily in the research I do, but for many years I worked as a youth worker with homeless children in Brisbane city, and even then…generations after our forebears came to this great southern land…there was a hopeless trend and vicious circle that kept spinning from the lives of those less fortunate. But is it really fortune??? Are they just “unfortunate”? This country was not only built by the adventurous and brave pioneers that left their native countries for better lives, but it was also forged and put on the map by our ancestors who didn’t have a bloomin’ chance in life because of the circumstances they lived in back home; indeed, coming to Australia as a convict might have been a frightful thought for some, but thank God it was actually the road to a better life. The way things were going back in England for the working class, was, to say the least, appalling. Agricultural and industrial revolutions at the beginning of the 19th century started to take the work away from the worker; father’s who toiled for 14 hours a day, 7 days a week just to feed their families were being replaced by new gadgets and machines. And who was left to suffer? The children of course. I’m sure that just as we “overhear” today when ignorance blames the youth for their “wicked ways”, the same was said back then by aristocratic majorities. And just as it might be hard to swallow now, as it was back then, the truth is much further from ignorance than you might believe. As Jeannie Duckworth writes in her amazing book, Fagin’s Children, Criminal Children in Victorian England,
“Crime and poverty were inseparably associated and most of the young who suffered gaol sentences were victims of poverty; wholly uncared for by family, church or state“.
How true. The young chap I have been getting to know through convict and criminal records from both England and Tasmania, was definitely a victim of this most atrocious crime called Poverty. He lost his mother at 5 then his father remarried and he immediately gained another 3 siblings…then his new step mother had another 4 children to his father…bringing the total of kids in the house to 12. Were they all competing for love and attention from his father and their mother? Of course…all children want are love and attention. Yet at the same time, in Preston, Lancashire, things were changing economically and socially. Masses of people were migrating to growing cities such as Preston, all because of the revolutions changing how jobs were done and so many thought the cities held a better chance of making a living. While young Abraham was needing love and nurturing, his father was most likely being told that his hours as a weaver were being reduced, therefore necessitating him to apply for poor relief. But feeding 12 children with poor relief would not have been easy, and before long Abraham’s father was working as a farm labourer, maybe even longer hours than before and so less time at home in his role as a father. Before long, Abraham was caught up in the criminal dealings of the Preston Thieves, and he was arrested on a number of offences including larceny. Finally in 1850 he was sentenced to 7 years transportation for stealing a cotton sheet; most likely taken to keep him warm at night. At the young age of 22 after years on the street, Abraham endured the conditions of Millbank Prison and prison hulks until he was sent to Tasmania 2 years later in 1852. Yet he must have turned a new leaf, some would say, or as I would put it…he was glad to be away from the poverty and cold of the streets and wanted to make good for himself. Either way, he earned a ticket of leave before leaving England, and when arriving in Tasmania (or Van Diemen’s Land as it was then), he didn’t have to wait long for a conditional pardon. Then, of all the jobs to be given, Abraham became a police constable and instead of causing riot on the streets, he was now helping to subdue it. I think he would have made a “top cop”…empathy all the way (I hope)!
So was this the norm? Not even close. Sadly most children died and their names will never be known…Abraham was one of the “fortunate” ones. Yet we also are fortunate for his contribution to those he helped along the way, and his descendants can be thankful and proud. Abraham was not unlucky in his childhood, he was a victim. And without the tools and traits that any capable parent gives their child, he really had little chance at a better life. I have truly enjoyed getting to know you Abraham and what a privilege it is to tell just a portion of your amazing story!