There were three broad reasons to steal a child in the Regency. The first was to rob it of its clothes, and then leave the naked child somewhere where it could be found. The second, much less common than the first, was for a grief stricken family to take a child in exchange for a child that had died. The third was to steal a child for criminal reasons- for abuse, for sale on to a chimney sweep or similar child based trade, or as an accessory for a beggar in order to elicit more money through pity.
Until 1814, only stealing a child’s clothes was a crime. High quality children’s clothes had a solid second hand resale value and could be sold with no questions asked. Most children were stolen from outside their house; a smaller number were stolen from prams; some were taken as they were doing errands for their parents.
If there was a traditional form of child abduction, it went something like this: this is from January 1810:
Most children were near their home when abducted. The main method of decoy was to offer them a treat (money, sweets, or fruit) and then take the child was far enough from home to commit the robbery with ease. On most occasions, all clothes would be taken and child left with nothing. Occasionally they were abandoned somewhere dangerous such as underneath a bridge at the mercy of the tide, but most of the time they were left in a place that would allow them to be found, but not that quickly. The child was stripped naked; the rug might have been a concession to the fact that it was the middle of winter, rugs are a common reference in the newspapers when kidnapped children were found.
The vast majority of child stealing was done by women, who were more likely to gain the trust of the child quickly. Ana King, age 19 described her method:
The mob opted for instant justice here, although they need not have worried too much. There were witnesses that saw the clothes being stolen. Ana King, like another robber in the newspaper Frances Dunkerley, ‘ a strong and stout young women’ was found guilty and was transported to Australia. In Frances’s case, the crime was of stealing a child’s frock worth a shilling.
Child abduction was not a crime until 1814. If you were in possession of a child which you had no rights to, then that was not in itself a crime. Theft of property had to be proved and, if that could not be done, then the accused went free. If nobody had witnessed the theft, then the only way to convict is on the evidence of the second hand clothes dealer, who may have kept some records and may have known the person who was fencing the clothes- but these people were very rare.
The mob often got involved in child stealing cases, providing instant justice to the robber, knowing that it was far from certain that the courts would do it.Throwing them into a stinking pond, ditch or cesspit seemed to be favourite. Some child robbers were found guilty, but discharged, as was William Yeats in Oxford in 1814- the only man I found in my research.
The most famous child stealing case was that of Thomas Dellow. The story is told very well by Naomi Clifford .
On 18 November, three-year-old Thomas Dellow was stolen from his parents’ green-grocers shop St. Martins Lane, Upper Thames Street. A kindly lady had come in and bought some apples, one of which she gave to him. She asked the boy’s sister to direct her to a pastry shop where she would buy a treat for them. Their mother, being distracted with customers, did not object. At the pastry shop the woman promptly took up the boy and disappeared with him.
The distraught parents found him three months later in Gosport, Hampshire When the women, Harriet Magnes, was questioned in London about the events, her story was that she had found the boy in London and taken it home; her husband having said that she would love her more if she presented him with a boy, a request that he took literally. She claimed to have given birth to the child when her husband was at sea.
When their infamy spread through Gosport and Portsmouth, Mr Magnes became so embarrassed with the fuss that-the newspaper reported – he asked the magistrates for a divorce from his wife, which seemed eminently unreasonable, as his unrealistic expectations caused the problem in the first place.
Harriet had looked after the children moderately well- the newspaper reported a bit sniffily that their house was as clean and comfortable as you could expect from an artisan. No crime had been committed, despite the anguish of the child’s parents, made worse by the fact that Thomas did not recognise them when they were reunited.
This changed in 1814, when stealing a child less than ten years was made a felony, punishable with seven years transportation. The act exempted any actions by fathers who wished to remove their legitimate or illegitimate children from their mothers. They were still allowed to do this by any means necessary-this new law was deliberately written to avoid giving any new rights to women.
New, severe punishments started to appear in 1815 when the new Act was enforced. In January, Sarah Stone was convicted for abducting a child of the poor women Catherine Kremer, who used her child to ‘ excite compassion’ as she begged in St Paul’s churchyard. Despite her wretched condition, Catherine spent weeks looking for her child and finally tracked her down to a ship that was just leaving the country. In reality, it was Sarah Stone who left the country on her own. She was sentenced to transportation to Botany Bay on 28 January 1815. On the same day, two twelve year old boys , Jones and Tidley, were given the same punishment for stealing handkerchiefs. They were in an organised gang of twenty or so boys, which in the eyes of the besieged property owners made it a far worse crime than theft by individuals.
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