Some of those sentenced to the Surrey house of correction in Brixton were barely able to see over the court dock. Criminal responsibility began at eight but establishing how old someone was was often impossible for those whose births hadn’t been recorded and for whom birthday celebrations were less important than the day to day practicalities of survival.
Henry Carroll was possibly Brixton’s youngest ever prisoner. He was estimated between five and six years of age when he appeared before magistrates at Union Hall in the summer of 1839. He had been found coming out of a house carrying sheets and a pair of boots. He was refreshingly candid about how the items had come into his possession:
“I went upstairs, and finding they wes the handiest things that I could lay hold on – I prigged them, to be sure,” he admitted.
“But what would you have done with the things if you’d escaped?” asked the magistrate.
“Why, I would have sold them to a fence, to be sure. I would have got rid on ’em any how, if the policeman had not grabbed me.”
He said his father was dead and that his mother was so fond of gin he had become his own master and that he had fallen into the company of other boys from whom he had learned all he knew about “prigging and getting rid of the swag.”
Carroll’s tender age had excited some public interest but also the compassion of the magistrate who determined to send him to the Refuge for the Destitute – a charity in Hackney which took in those discharged from prisons and aimed to change their ways by teaching them a trade But in order to qualify him for admission he had to be sent to jail. He was ordered to Brixton for three days.