Children at Risk in WW1

Project volunteer, Robert, has been investigating the effects of WW1 on juvenile delinquency in Birmingham. He made a great find in the ‘Leeson Report’[1] written by Birmingham Quaker and Probation Officer, Cyril Leeson, which includes many short case histories and even some verbatim quotes. The image above shows the Harborne Industrial School Boys’ Band in October 1914. 

On the 4th of August 1914 Britain declared war on Germany at 19:00 UTC (effective from 11 pm), following an “unsatisfactory reply” to the British ultimatum that Belgium must be kept neutral. For the people of Birmingham, family life and especially children’s lives would change beyond all recognition and at a speed that would create an environment producing the best of times (mainly for employment) and the very worst of times (poverty and abandonment). The military recruitment to the front line of fathers, brothers, uncles decimated family life and fractured the social structures that bound communities together.

One of the consequences of these changes was a rapid rise in Juvenile delinquency, especially for the more serious and indictable crimes of larceny, burglary, stealing, arson and wounding. In a report by the Howard Association (Today known as the Howard league) by the then secretary Mr Cecil Leeson, published in 1917, showed that an inquiry into the parental condition of 400 juvenile offenders showed that in two instances out of five, the father was serving in the Army or Navy. Below are two extracts from the report of typical cases.

Father abroad with regiment. Mother and three boys 9,11 and 13, the two elder ones on probation for theft; another lad charged with them, sent to reformatory. (He had been charged with theft before). Army allowance (23s) received. “It isn’t enough; that’s why I moved here for” (Family removed shortly after the Father left; used to pay 8s 6d rent, now pay 5s 6d in a much inferior neighbourhood. “ it saves 3s and 3s is money nowadays”) Mother takes in “Plain Sewing”. Complains that “the boys are never in the house,” and they use bad language “It isn’t that they hear it at home. Their father never used a wrong word, nor they didn’t till we came to live down here.

Father in Army. Mother not short of money, and home well cared for. Two well grown boys 12 and 14. both out of control. Mothers attempts at correction met by threats of assault “Two better lads couldn’t be found when their father was at home, yet he never raised his hand to one of them” Mother complains of lads’ bad companions, and late hours. One has been arrested for gambling, the other for theft.

 The war also disrupted family life on the home front, causing many problems. Parents were absent from the family home for long periods of time due to work associated with supporting the war effort (the manufacturing of military equipment and munitions).

mills-munitions-female-workers
Women workers at Mills Munitions.

This meant, that children in these circumstances were left to their own devices and many got into trouble with the law. Below are two extracts from the report of typical cases.

Father a munitions worker, much night work and overtime. An hour and ten minutes’ walk to the factory, no tram, and cannot get a house nearer; mother at home. One lad, 14, whom mother cannot control—- “and his father might as well be in France for what good he is; he’s never here when he’s wanted.” Lad arrested for theft.

 Both parents on munitions, one on nights, the other on days. Three boys, 8,9, and 11 left with neighbour, who prepares their food but makes no attempt to control them. Most of their time is spent on the street and at the cinema; eldest and youngest arrested for theft.

Robert Gould

[1] C. Leeson, The Child and the War, Being Notes on Juvenile Delinquency (London, 1917)

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