Victorian Magistrate Orders Child Horse Thieves to be “Well Birched”

A Girl and a Boy Riding Ponies in Wales, 1885 .(National Library of Wales)

A Girl and a Boy Riding Ponies in Wales, 1885 .
(National Library of Wales)

Stealing a horse during the 19th century was a serious crime.  Those convicted could be heavily fined, sent to prison, sentenced to hard labor, or even executed.  But what if the horse thief in question was only a child?  Unsurprisingly, there were many incidents of child horse thieves in Victorian England.  Not all were hardened street criminals.  Some were simply immature youths tempted by the opportunity of an open stable door and the chance to make an easy few pounds.  An 1886 issue of the Dundee Evening Telegraph reports just such a story.  The fiendish criminal in question?  A ten-year-old boy from South Yorkshire.

On September 13, 1886, the Barnsley Magistrates investigated a case of horse-stealing committed by ten-year-old Frank Marsh.  The incident occurred at Penistone, not far from where Frank’s parents lived.  According to the September 15, 1886 edition of the Dundee Evening Telegraph:

“The prisoner gained admittance to the stable at the Wentworth Arms, Penistone, and having saddled a bay mare worth £30, he rode her to Huddersfield.”

Horses in a Stable by Wouterus Verschuur, 1812-1874.

Horses in a Stable by Wouterus Verschuur, 1812-1874.

Upon arrival in Huddersfield, Frank took his stolen mount to the stable at the Victoria Hotel.  There, he conscientiously “washed the legs of the mare” and then hopped back on and rode her out of town.  Before leaving, however, he put it about amongst the locals that the mare was for sale for £30.  The Dundee Evening Telegraph reports:

“Suspicion being aroused, the landlord caused the mare to be detained.  The prisoner, on account of his youth, was summarily dealt with.  He was ordered to be well birched.”

Such a punishment was not at all abnormal for very young horse thieves in the 19th century.  An article in an 1888 edition of the Hull Daily Mail reports the story of two “promising youths” named Albert Smith and Henry May who surreptitiously made off with a pony, a cart, and several pairs of breeches – all belonging to a local market gardener by the name of Robert Copland.  As the article states:

“[Copland] asked May to take charge of the pony and cart while he got some dinner.  The boy said he would do so, but when Mr. Copland returned to where he had left the boy with the animal and the cart he could not find them.  He searched until 7 o’clock in the evening for them, and then informed the police.  In the meantime May had been joined by Smith, and the pair took the horse to Hessle, where they sold the breeches and tried to sell the pony.  As they could not dispose of the pony at Hessle, they trotted on towards Anlaby, but on the way a policeman put in an appearance.”

Grey Shooting Pony with a Groom by Thomas Woodward, 1835.

Grey Shooting Pony with a Groom by Thomas Woodward, 1835.

Terrified by the unexpected sight of the policeman, Albert Smith and Henry May both fled.  They were later captured and, the next morning, handed over to a detective.  When brought before Mr. Twiss, the “stipendiary magistrate” at the Hull Police Court, it was agreed that the charge of stealing the pony and cart would be withdrawn (presumably because the property had been returned).  Instead, the boys were charged only with stealing the breeches, which they had “disposed of at Hessle.”  To this charge, both boys pleaded not guilty.  The magistrate was unsympathetic.  According to the Hull Daily Mail:

“Mr. Twiss found them guilty, and ordered each to receive six strokes with the birch rod.”

A birching may not sound as if it would be a very pleasant experience; however, when compared to prison or hard labor, six strokes of the birch rod might not have seemed like such a bad deal for our young offenders.  Did it have the desired effect?  I cannot say.  There is no way to know for certain what became of Frank Marsh, Albert Smith, or Henry May once their punishment had been meted out.  We can only hope that after being “well birched” – and very likely scared out of their wits by the police and the magistrate – these child horse thieves mended their ways and never again gave in to the temptation to hop on someone else’s horse and trot it out of town.

A Bay Horse Approached by a Stable-Lad with Food and a Halter by George Garrard, 1789.

A Bay Horse Approached by a Stable-Lad with Food and a Halter by George Garrard, 1789.

Thus concludes another of my Friday features on Animals in Literature and History.  If you are interested in helping a horse or pony in need, I encourage you to utilize the following links as resources:

Equine Rescue League (United States)

RSCPA Horses and Ponies Rehoming and Adoption (United Kingdom)


Works Referenced or Cited in this Article

“A Ten-Year-Old Horse Thief.”  Dundee Evening Telegraph.  Angus, Scotland.  September 15, 1886.

“Stealing a Pony and Cart in Hull.”  Hull Daily Mail.  November 15, 1888.


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18 thoughts on “Victorian Magistrate Orders Child Horse Thieves to be “Well Birched”

  1. Sarah Waldock says:

    I’d have thought that a good birching would be enough of a shock to be a deterrent, whereas jail was, as it is now, no more than a finishing school to harden young offenders into better trained thieves.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mimi Matthews says:

      You’re exactly right about jail. In one of the articles I read in my research the magistrate even acknowledges that and expresses hope that a birching will have a much better effect in the long run.

      Like

  2. nmayer2015 says:

    They were often well birched at school and at home. In the regency, the laws made horse stealing a capital offense and young horse thieves could be hanged. I do hope the birching and the public humiliation worked . No one has yet come up with a good way to deal with youthful offenders. The youths were not just out for a joy ride but tried to sell the horses. That was the equivalent of stealing an automobile to sell it and not just for a joy ride.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mimi Matthews says:

      Yes, definitely. It was the equivalent of grand theft auto! I think that since they were very young offenders, the magistrates in these two cases used their discretion. Similar cases with boys only a little older had very different results.

      Like

    • Mimi Matthews says:

      What interesting family history! There must be some archive somewhere which would give you more information about who came before him and how he ruled on the cases. I wonder if the city or county keeps records?

      Like

      • Blog Author says:

        I was just in Manchester in October to visit his grave, church he attended, and former home. I’ve researched his life quite a bit and found numerous newspaper articles because of his public service as an Alderman and J.P., plus he owned a brickyard and construction business. His grave stone says, Robert Holland, J.P. What I discovered after visiting the Manchester Genealogy Society at the library that many of the records take weeks to pull from storage locations. Since I was only there seven nights, I couldn’t get anything. However, that doesn’t mean I won’t be back! I do know that he became one of the first members of a Temperance Clubhouse in 1877, yet one of his best friends was a tavern owner. Go figure. LOL

        Liked by 1 person

      • Mimi Matthews says:

        My father has done genealogy research in a similar way – going to visit graves and churches and local archives. I can’t wait for the day all the records are digitized and can be accessed from anywhere! But nothing really beats being able to go and see the sights yourself. Sort of like walking in that historical person’s shoes, I think.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Dorothy says:

    We must remember that, then and now, adult criminals often used children to commit crimes. They were smaller and could get into places and hide in small spaces — remember Oliver Twist?

    A “good walloping” certainly would be more appropriate for a child than jail. If the perp is truly just a child tempted by chance it will teach a lesson. OTOH, if he has been trained by a Fagin there is not much chance of anything being effective.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mimi Matthews says:

      Very true, Dorothy 🙂 I was actually thinking of Fagin and his gang of child thieves as I wrote this. I got the impression, though, from these particular articles, that there were parents involved. Also, they were in a small town and the crimes did not seem to have any sort of premeditation. That’s not to say these kids weren’t thoroughly bad eggs, but it seems more like youthful stupidity and greed coupled with opportunity.

      Like

  4. Vickie says:

    Birching? Is that the equivalent of switching in America – this seemed to be especially popular in the southern states – a great deterrent in my opinion – not much in favor any more – thank God!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sarah Waldock says:

      no, birching is more extreme than switching, the reason that the birch was also used to make brooms [the witch’s broom variety] was because of the way it subdivided into flexible twigs. A bunch of birch twigs used to beat a boy would be a couple of hundred flexible twiglets in one strike, very, very painful but not actually terribly physically damaging, as though it cuts the skin on every twig meaning the cuts also cross, it doesn’t actually cut deep enough to cause real damage.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Mimi Matthews says:

        Ouch! I wonder if the severity of the punishment varied greatly depending upon who wielded the birch? Not sure in the court cases who would be the one carrying out the sentence. I imagine an officer of the court of some kind.

        Like

      • victory50 says:

        Very true, birthing was nothing to be anticipated. The “rod” section of the birth had to measure as wide around as a man thumb and forefinger forming a circle. That’s a good stiff birtch rod. It was strong enough to break bones, depending on the stregenth of the
        Person chosen to apply the lashing.

        Liked by 1 person

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