By Dr Ashley Borrett
The interwar years have often been depicted as a period of transformation, where earlier attitudes to criminality and the treatment of offenders, which placed retaliation and retribution at the heart of criminal justice, were being replaced by more enlightened and humanitarian ideals.
Rehabilitation and reform became the watchwords of change as criminals began to be seen as ‘individuals to be pitied, cared for and, if possible, reclaimed’. A range of measures and initiatives aimed at ‘saving’ rather than simply punishing criminals were introduced, with a maturing social work system and an attempted professionalisation of the probation service. Moreover, prison was no longer seen as the only, or even most desirable, option for dealing with offenders. In fact, the overall prison population halved during this period.
It could be argued that these changes in attitudes were most noticeable with juvenile offenders. Many believed that, through positive intervention, vulnerable youngsters could be saved, reclaimed and ushered away from a life of crime.
Separate courts for juveniles, which aimed to provide a less oppressive environment for offenders, had been introduced in the early years of the twentieth century, and by 1933, the Children and Young Persons Act was laying down the principle that the welfare of the young offender was a key consideration of justice for juveniles.
The local police forces, the courts and the press in Hull all recognised the power of reform and rehabilitation in the fight against crime in the region. Punitive responses to offending were now seen merely to stigmatise those appearing before the courts, thus affecting his or her life chances after sentencing.
Probation was often preferred to incarceration in dealing with youth crime. Figures for Hull show that probation was used in around 44% of cases involving children under the age of 16 in this period, compared to around 6% in Coventry and 1.5% in Southampton.
The Hull Prison chaplain believed that young offenders should not be sent to prison at all, advocating probation as a more suitable form of treatment. And local judges and magistrates seemed happy to apply this approach when sentencing juveniles in their courts.
For example, a 14-year-old errand boy from Hull, who ‘treated himself to a joy-ride’ in his employer’s car, causing a considerable amount of damage to the vehicle in the process, escaped with a probation order. So too did the three young lads who made the front page of the Hull Daily Mail in April 1937 after admitting to taking 13 cars in one month in Hull.
As well as probation, Borstal reformatories, which were introduced in 1902, were seen as an effective alternative to adult prisons. As early as 1906, borstal had allegedly helped young offenders when introduced to the justice system in Hull, with many former inmates finding employment with one of the local ship owners on release. By 1925, the governor of Hull Prison believed that borstal had regularly met its primary objective of transforming potential recidivists into law-abiding citizens.
Central to the ideological debates around progressive forms of punishment for young offenders was the increasing notion of the barbarity of physical chastisement. There was little evidence to support the view that birching, for instance, acted as a deterrent to youth offenders and had, to a certain degree, been discredited as a solution to preventing the criminal activities of the young by the 1920s.
There were calls locally for birch to be abolished and replaced with punishments that educated or trained youngsters to help steer them away from life of crime.
But it would be fair to say that at times the abolition of corporal punishment and some other progressive forms of punishment at times received a lukewarm response locally. Hardening attitudes may in part have been down to the increasing crime rates among the young during this period. In the 1930s, the number of persons proceeded against in the juvenile courts in England and Wales rose significantly, reaching around 53,000 in 1938 – from 24,000 in 1929.
Delinquency had become a ‘grave problem’ for Hull, according to Councillor D. C. Lister, Chairman of the Hull Education Committee, which if continued at the present rate would mean the city would need ‘special courts and paid people to devote their time to the question’. By 1939, juvenile crime accounted for almost 40% of the total offences recorded in Hull.
It wasn’t just rising crime figures that were the problem in Hull. The alleged increase in gang-related crime and associated violence became one of the greatest areas of concern for the police and the local authorities. In November 1937, the Hull Daily Mail presented its ‘revelations of gangster terrorism’ to readers, detailing the recent spate of assaults at a number of city dance halls, committed by a ‘gang of young hooligans’.
Aside from these incidents, it was, on the whole, ‘gang crime’ in the very loosest sense. Hull wasn’t subjected to the violent street gangs that could be found in cities like Glasgow or Sheffield in the interwar years. It was more often just young people committing petty offences.
For example, in 1934, six boys and one girl, aged between nine and 12 years old, were charged with stealing cigarettes, chocolate biscuits, several bottles of water and a half-crown. In June 1937, eight children aged between 12 and 16 appeared before the juvenile court after being caught playing cricket in the street. And in August 1937, 20 juveniles appeared before the courts accused of damaging three properties in the city.
Some of the offences would now be deemed anti-social or nuisance behaviour rather than criminal – anything from rowdy youths congregating in city squares and making excessive noise to groups of children playing sports in the streets.
But people still believed that something had to be done to stem the tide of growing criminality among the young. And it is not surprising that many blamed the introduction of more lenient punishments for the increasing number of offenders appearing before the local courts.
Probation officers, social workers and other officials charged with dealing with juvenile delinquents were accused of having too much ‘humanity’ about them, displaying a ‘sloppy sentimentality’ that was doing great harm to society by failing to deal effectively with the youth crime problem.
One form of punishment that remained central to the ideological debates around the best ways to deal with the rise in youth crime was the birch. The Hull Daily Mail was is no doubt that in some cases it acts as a deterrent and induces a young prisoner to follow the ‘straight and narrow path’.
‘It is all very well pleading that physical punishment will sour the boys for life’, declared the Hull Daily Mail in August 1939. ‘There must be some consideration paid to decent law-abiding people desirous of getting on with their business.’
The local police, magistrates and other officials also added their voices to the debates. For many of them, birching was seen as a ‘welcome alternative punishment’ when other forms of treatment, no doubt the more progressive types, had failed in their objectives.
A warning had been issued in February 1934 at the Hull Juvenile Police Court, which was dealing with increasing numbers of juvenile offenders. ‘The Juvenile Bench have power to order six strokes of the birch rod, and in future, when a bad case comes before them, they are going to exercise that power.’ The magistrates clerk claimed that ‘when the birch rod was regularly used in bad cases 15 years ago, we had far less juvenile crime.’
At the annual meeting of the Hull, East Riding and North Lincolnshire Discharged Prisoners’ Aid Society in 1934, the governor of Hull Prison, Captain E. D. Roberts, called for local Hull justices to revive the use of the birch for errant boys.
The Chief Constable of Hull Police, Mr T. Howden, also saw the re-introduction of the birch as a necessary step in the fight against delinquency, exemplified by the number of cases appearing before the local juvenile courts. ‘We see the same old faces coming back here week after week. Something must be done about it. The present treatment seems to have no effect.’
Hull port chaplain, Reverend Frederic Matthews, believed that the birch, if administered properly in the presence of both the parents and magistrate, was the ‘best means of creating respect for law and order in the minds of young people’.
So it comes as no real surprise that Hull revived the birch in 1935 following a 12 years’ absence – the unlucky recipient was a 13-year-old boy who had been caught stealing three cartons of cheese from a local shop. More cases followed, such as the 12-year-old boy received six strokes after he was caught stealing a shilling from another boy.
It seems that sustained levels of anxiety about juvenile crime in Hull often precipitated calls for more punitive forms of punishment for the young offender. At the time, these forms of punishment, such as the birch, were seen as an antidote to the prevailing liberal and lenient attitudes that many people believed were failing society.
Their continued use in places like Hull may serve to challenge generalisations about the progressive characteristics of punishment during the interwar period, offering a more nuanced depiction of reactions to crime and criminality in the early decades of the twentieth century.
Key primary sources used for this article include the Hull Daily Mail, which is available to view at The British Newspaper Archive, and the Hull Times and archival material held at Hull History Centre and East Riding of Yorkshire Archives. To find out more, download the Hull and East Riding Source Guide.
 D. Garland, Punishment and welfare: a history of penal strategies (Aldershot: Gower Publishing Company Limited, 1985), 27.
 D. Wilson, Pain and retribution: a short history of British prisons, 1066 to present (London: Reaktion Books, 2014), 89.
 G. Rose, The struggle for penal reform (London: Stevens and Sons Limited, 1961), 143-144.