Oxford University Centre for the History of Childhood Day Conference

oxford uni

Conference Organizers: Professor Laurence Brockliss and Dr Heather Ellis


Building on the Berlin conference, the aim of this conference was to consider recent work on the national and transitional history of juvenile delinquency and youth justice in different parts of the world – with a particular focus on how ideas and understandings of delinquency have travelled across regional and national borders and have been accepted, rejected or adapted in new geographical and cultural contexts. What had already been found in the Berlin conference was that acceptance of Western ideas of childhood and delinquency was not a straightforward comparison between West and East, and that the influence of the West was limited. By assessing further how ideas of juvenile delinquency travelled, the conference wished to assess the limits of this Western influence.

All this builds on the edited collection by Pamela Cox and Heather Shore – this included the linguistic analysis carried out by Paul Griffiths. This collection of essays questioned whether the term “Juvenile delinquency” existed before it was supposedly coined in the nineteenth century. Finding that it did, they also found that juvenile delinquency varied across time, between states, and especially varied outside of the West. It was the hope that this colloquium continue this conversation – to look at national and transnational histories, but also to look in particular at methodologies utilized. This conference is particularly relevant to me as I am studying nineteenth-century juvenile offenders. Having already considered the history of the juvenile delinquent, this conference helped me reflect more on national and transnational juvenile delinquency.

Session 1: Juvenile Delinquency and Colonial Systems


Helen Rogers (Liverpool John Moores): “Being boys? Comparing the Behaviour of Convict Lads Before and After Transportation”

Using a cohort of male juveniles awaiting transportation in Great Yarmouth prison, Rogers examined the behaviour before and after transportation. While acknowledging that these largely repeat offenders would have had little concept of delinquency themselves, or indeed of nation – Rogers research focused on how the experience of transportation influenced their lives. This  will be achieved through utilizing criminal records which reveal circulation of information about convicts, including how their behaviour changed as they moved through the justice system, and importantly how the boys reacted to the system itself. Using the method – intimate reading – Rogers profiled individual life histories. This further allows the unpicking of identities and emotional economies by group profiling or record cohort analysis. This is done through the use of disciplinary reports from Great Yarmouth Prison, which were then nominally linked to Transportation conduct records of those sent to Van Diemen’s Land. Not employing Distance Reading, Rogers instead aims to locate the individual using discourse analysis to uncover patterns of employment, home-life and the friendship formation between offenders. Not just using these case studies, Rogers also contextualizes her cohort by investigating other sources including that of a prison visitor (Sarah Morton’s 1818-43). While Rogers heavily utilized criminal records, she points to the importance of family life and employment and friendships in order to find out about their non-criminal activity.

Stephanie Olsen (Max Planck Institute for human Development, Berlin): Dangerous boys in Britain and India, c. 1880-1914

This paper examines the many similarities between Britain and India in terms of delinquency, but at the same time points to important differences. While India was often a testing ground for polices, it was due to growing nationalistic sentiment which led to the British employing increasing moral discipline in the colony. Essentially juvenile delinquency in India was coupled with political unrest. Yet, at the same time Britain brought their own understandings of juvenile delinquency with them to India – and the result was that children bore the brunt of colonial conflict and education of the colonies. Moreover, Indian authors of child education, written in their native language, had their own agenda for child education – for the most part they wanted to build their character to build an independent nation. Nationalism influenced childhood formation in India. Importantly, Olsen points out influence is never just one way, and that while the process of separating childhood from adulthood was slower than in the west – it is evidenced.

Session 2: Delinquency and Nation building


Catherine Cox and Susannah Riorgan (UCD): “Towards a history of juvenile delinquency in Ireland”

Beginning by stressing the history of childhood in Ireland is underdeveloped, Cox pointed to the lack of source availability and the use of institutions as a solution to delinquency – while acknowledging alternatives to institutions and moral panics. Ireland being a mass of contradictions, with a differing economic history to the West – Cox stressed how difficult it was to place the history of childhood in Ireland into comparative histories. Thus the historiography of childhood in Ireland has yet to engage with transnational history. Historians in this field are still identifying sources and methods and so only tentative conclusions are made. In particular, sources are problematic – especially institutional sources which, although state funded were run by Catholic organizations. As a result many of the records under their remit have had a 100 years closure imposed on them rather than the minimum 30 years. A further issue regarding institutional history – which was also hinted at by Heather Shore’s paper – is that due to recent exposure of institutional abuse historians have been handed an agenda to investigate. This results in a concentration on recent trauma rather than a history of juvenile delinquency. This in turn leads religious administrators who have records less likely to allow access to them. With no statistics; no history of young offenders; no studies of attitudes towards juvenile delinquency; no stories of delinquent childhood experiences and an unwarranted urban concentration in the historiography of Irish childhood at this time – there is plenty to work on.

Laurence Brockliss (Oxford University): “Oxford University and Juvenile Delinquency”

Stepping in last minute for an unavoidable absence, one of the conference organizers – Professor Brockliss looked at the behaviour of Oxford University students between 1870-1960. Brookliss highlighted the class difference in dealing with juvenile behaviour. Through anecdotal stories of the “pranks” of Oxford University Brookliss stressed the importance of examining the aberrations as well as the typical cases of delinquency.

Session 3: Delinquency and National Identity


Nazan Cicek (Ankara): “Juvenile Justice All Turca: Perception and Treatment of juvenile Delinquency in the Turkish Republic (1923-2005)”

Cicek’s paper highlighted how in Turkey, offending children lost the privileges of childhood. She achieved this by pointing to several acts. Firstly, both the 1949 and 1957 Acts, which were passed in Turkey for the protection of children, excluded that of children who offended. While the 2005 Act did include juvenile criminals within its remit, it did so with exceptions. Cicek concluded that, despite Turkey wishing to “Westernize”, they only half-heartedly accepted western values of childhood – which is shown by how they found various avenues for exceptions to protecting offending juveniles. Regardless of Westernized legislation, Turkish society’s conception of childhood justice asks for more room to deal with children in the “Turkish way”. Namely, Turkey’s idealized childhood is broken when they commit offences – thus they lose their rights to childhood.


Kate Bradley (Kent): “Making Sense of Delinquency in the Post-War Welfare State: England and Wale, 1945-1970”

Working on the period 1945 to 1965, ethical considerations are very much at the forefront of Bradley’s work. As a result Bradley is not always able to investigate the juveniles of interest directly, but is able to look at other agents involved. This includes the political discourses and elites who are involved in shaping polices and ideas. Increasing juvenile delinquency was seen in this time as a symbol of the fall in colonial powers and the rise of America – which was seen as being a foreign and morally dubious culture. Contemporaries blamed the rise of modernity and capitalism – of which America was an emblem – for juvenile delinquency. When comparing contemporaries feared that juveniles from England and Wales could consume different values when parents were not watching, whereas communist children could not – which led to better behaviour. This paper clearly demonstrates the different cultural understandings of children and their delinquency.

Session 4: Reconstructing the Lives of Juvenile Delinquents

Training ships on the River Mersey i 1904. Picture credit: Liverpool picturebook.com

Training ships on the River Mersey in 1904. Picture credit: Liverpool picturebook.com

Both Shore and Alker have been working on the Aftercare Project which is shortly coming to an end. Essentially the project utilized a sample of 500 juveniles who were either in reform or industrial schools, and created cradle-to-grave life-grids. While not all were juvenile offenders, they were overwhelmingly boys. And those who were offenders were petty ones – being convicted for wandering, truancy and/or larceny. The project looked at four institutions in total from the nineteenth and twentieth century, in order to assess the long-term impacts they had.

(For further information see https://societycentral.ac.uk/2015/04/21/young-criminal-lives-what-can-history-tell-us/ )

Heather Shore (Leeds Beckett University): Beyond Bad Girls and Artful Dodgers? Revisiting young Criminal Lives from 1850

Shore pointed out that the strength in such a relatively large scale digital project was that they were able to systematically research juvenile delinquents. This avoids concentration on the remarkable juvenile offender who inevitably feature in the records more than those who committed less crimes. Through mass digitization of histories by data linkage, quantification of large data sets can be systematically produced. Shore also stressed the importance of contextualization of the institutions within which juveniles were placed – without which individual offenders could never be fully understood. A nuanced view of how children viewed such institutions is needed – because while there are negative institutional associations – there are offenders who had positive relationships with institutions. Though large scale analysis will take place, the positive and negative perspectives will be anecdotal. They hope through this research to be able to have some measure of how the reformatories and industrial schools effected the working class youths who filled them.

Zoe Alker (University of Liverpool): “Young Criminal Lives: Life Courses and Life Chances from 1850”

Alker’s paper concentrated on the digital methods utilized to unlock life-histories. Alker acknowledges that their cohort is relatively small, but that the institutions being used are typical of state provision for both offenders and those believed vulnerable to offending. Moreover, a control group, sourced from the siblings of those placed in industrial or reformatory schools, will be used. It is hoped that on completion of this study they will be able to assess the success of ‘child-savers’ efforts. Life-grids will allow for a holistic approach, along with the use of both civil and criminal records. This will allow for a full and rich history of boys and institutions, as well as causes of offending and prosecution practices. Though still underway, they have already found that while such institutes did provide a protective effect for juveniles by providing them with suitable skills for the employment market, they also imposed a glass-ceiling, as well as the harmful effects of official bias and problems with re-integration after institutionalization. Being primarily a study of people, the basis of this research is that these juveniles are seen as more than just the sum of their convictions.