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The “New World of Children” Reconsidered: Child Abduction in Late Eighteenth- and Early Nineteenth-Century England

  • Elizabeth Foyster


This article argues that in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century England, changes in the perceived value of children, both materially and emotionally, put them in a new position of possible danger. The valorization of childhood brought new risks to children. Children were thought to be vulnerable to child abduction, or “child stealing,” as contemporaries termed it. Between 1790 and 1849, 108 cases of child abduction were tried at the Old Bailey and then recorded in its Proceedings or heard before magistrates in London's police courts and at county sessions courts and subsequently reported in newspapers. These cases, along with fictional accounts of child abduction, give insights into what were considered the most common motives for this crime. While some child abductors were motivated by poverty and saw children's clothes as economic assets that could be sold, others were driven by a desire to assume a mother role and represented stolen children as their own. Popular interest in abduction stories was sustained while contemporaries shared common fears about the loss of children and the limitations of adults to protect children from harm.



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1 The Times, 18 February 1793, 3d.

2 Plumb, J. H., “The New World of Children in Eighteenth-Century England,” Past & Present 67 (1975): 6493.

3 For a sample of more recent publications, see Cunningham, Hugh, Children and Childhood in Western Society Since 1500 (London and New York, 1995); Heywood, Colin, A History of Childhood (Oxford, 2001); Fletcher, Anthony, Growing Up in England: The Experience of Childhood, 1600–1914 (New Haven and London, 2008); Foyster, Elizabeth and Marten, James, eds., A Cultural History of Childhood and Family in the Age of Enlightenment (Oxford and New York, 2010); Bailey, Joanne, Parenting in England, 1760–1830: Emotion, Identity, and Generation (Oxford, 2012).

4 Plumb, “The New World,” 90.

5 Ibid., 91.

6 See, for example, Neuman, R. P., “Masturbation, Madness, and the Modern Concepts of Childhood and Adolescence,” Journal of Social History 8 (1974–75): 127; Stolberg, Michael, “An Unmanly Vice: Self-Pollution, Anxiety, and the Body in the Eighteenth-Century,” Social History of Medicine 13 (2000): 121; Toulalan, Sarah, “‘Unripe Bodies’: Children and Sex in Early Modern England,” in Bodies, Sex and Desire from the Renaissance to the Present, ed. Toulalan, Sarah and Fisher, Kate (London, 2011), 131–50.

7 Shoemaker, Robert B., “The Old Bailey Proceedings and the Representation of Crime and Criminal Justice in Eighteenth-Century London,” Journal of British Studies 47, no. 3 (2008): 559–80.

8 King, Peter, “Newspaper Reporting and Attitudes to Crime and Justice in Late-Eighteenth- and Early-Nineteenth-Century London,” Continuity and Change 22, no. 1 (2007): 73112; Devereaux, Simon, “From Sessions to Newspaper? Criminal Reporting, the Nature of Crime, and the London Press, 1770–1800,” London Journal 32, no. 1 (2007): 127.

9 Davis, Jennifer, “A Poor Man's System of Justice: The London Police Courts in the Second Half of the Nineteenth Century,” Historical Journal 27, no. 2 (1984): 309–35.

10 See, for example, Harlow, Mary and Laurence, Ray, “World Contexts,” in A Cultural History of Childhood and Family in Antiquity, ed. Harlow, Mary and Laurence, Ray (Oxford, 2010), 175.

11 Post, J. B., “Ravishment of Women and the Statutes of Westminster,” in Legal Records and the Historian, ed. Baker, J. H. (London, 1978), 150–64; Walker, Sue Sheridan, “Convicted Ravishers: Statutory Strictures and Actual Practice in Thirteenth- and Fourteenth-Century England,” Journal of Medieval History 13, no. 3 (1987): 237–50; Walker, Sue Sheridan, “Widow and Ward: The Feudal Law of Child Custody in Medieval England,” Feminist Studies 3, no. 3/4 (1976): 108–09; Goldberg, Jeremy, Communal Discord, Child Abduction, and Rape in the Later Middle Ages (New York and Basingstoke, 2008); Dunn, Caroline, Stolen Women in Medieval England: Rape, Abduction, and Adultery, 1100–1500 (Cambridge, 2012).

12 See, for example, Jones, Audrey and Ashby, Abby, The Shrigley Abduction: A Tale of Anguish, Deceit and Violation of the Domestic Hearth (Stroud, 2003).

13 Sarah Toulalan, “‘Is he a licentious lewd Sort of a Person?’ Constructing the Child Rapist Before Paedophilia,” (forthcoming in Journal of the History of Sexuality); I am very grateful to the author for allowing me to read this article prior to its publication.

14 Martin, Martin, A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland (London, 1716), 117–18; Marwick, Ernest W., The Folklore of Orkney and Shetland (London, 1975), 49, 83; Ross, Anne, The Folklore of the Scottish Highlands (London, 1976), 94; Darwin, Tess, The Scots Herbal: The Plant Lore of Scotland (Edinburgh, 1996), 128, 164, 176; Griffiths, Trevor and Morton, Graeme, “Introduction: Structures of Everyday Life in Scotland, 1800 to 1900,” in A History of Everyday Life in Scotland, 1800 to 1900, ed. Griffiths, Trevor and Morton, Graeme (Edinburgh, 2010), 13.

15 Wareing, John, “Preventive and Punitive Regulation in Seventeenth-Century Social Policy: Conflicts of Interest and the Failure to Make ‘stealing and transporting Children, and other Persons’ a Felony, 1645–73,” Social History 27, no. 3 (2002): 288308; Colley, Linda, Captives: Britain, Empire and the World, 1600–1850 (London, 2002); Morgan, Gwenda and Rushton, Peter, Eighteenth-Century Criminal Transportation: The Formation of the Criminal Atlantic (Basingstoke, 2004), 1112; Brewer, Holly, By Birth or Consent: Children, Law and the Anglo-American Revolution in Authority (Chapel Hill, 2005), 273–74; Mintz, Steven, Huck's Raft: A History of American Childhood (Cambridge, MA, 2004), 32; Ekirch, A. Roger, Birthright: The True Story That Inspired Kidnapped (New York, 2010).

16 The Times,12 July 1824, 5c; 26 July 1824, 3d; 6 September 1824, 2e; 27 September 1824, 3c; 25 March 1825, 3a.

17 King, Peter, “Newspaper Reporting, Prosecution Practice and Perceptions of Urban Crime: The Colchester Crime Wave of 1765,” Continuity and Change 2, no. 3 (1987): 423; see also Davis, J., “The London Garrotting Panic of 1862: A Moral Panic and the Creation of a Criminal Class in Mid-Victorian England,” in Crime and the Law: The Social History of Crime in Western Europe Since 1500, ed. Gatrell, V. A. C., Lenham, B., and Parker, G. (London, 1980).

18 The Times, 18 May 1814, 3b; Wareing, “Preventive and Punitive Regulation,” 288–89.

19 Some research on child abduction has been published using records from other geographical places and historical periods. See, for example, Fass, Paula S., Kidnapped: Child Abduction in America (Cambridge, MA, 1997); Farge, Arlette and Revel, Jacques, The Rules of Rebellion: Child Abductions in Paris in 1750, trans. Miéville, Claudia (Cambridge, 1991), also published under the title, The Vanishing Children of Paris: Rumor and Politics before the French Revolution (Cambridge, MA, 1991). The article by Macraild, Donald M. and Neal, Frank, “Child-Stripping in the Victorian City,” Urban History 39, no. 3 (2012): 431–52, was published while this article was in press. As its title indicates, it is limited to nineteenth-century abduction cases that involved the theft of children's clothes.

20 Hence in England the transition from children being economically valuable to “useless,” which Viviana A. Zelizer charts in nineteenth-century America, had yet to take place. See Zelizer, Viviana A., Pricing the Priceless Child: The Changing Social Value of Children (New York, 1985).

21 The Times, 20 November 1818, 3d.

22 See, for example, Whitehall Evening Post, 8025, 19 April 1798.

23 The Times, 6 February 1835, 4c.

24 See, for example, Old Bailey Proceedings (hereafter OBP), consulted at, 17 June 1818, Bridget Mahoney, t18180617-76, which listed the clothes of a female child, down to her socks.

25 OBP, 9 July 1838, Ann Burgess, t18380709-1659.

26 Defoe, Daniel, The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders (London, 1722), 201–02.

27 The Times, 1 September 1808, 3d; see also, The Times, 2 October 1820, 3e.

28 OBP, 17 July 1674, Mall Floyd, t16740717-16.

29 World, 880, 31 October 1789.

30 Charles Dickens, Dombey and Son (October 1846–April 1848), chap. 6.

31 The best historical analysis of female property crime and its prosecution is found in the work of Peter King. See, for example, King, Peter, Crime, Justice and Discretion in England, 1740–1820 (Oxford, 2000), 196207; Beverly Lemire examined the relationship between consumerism and crime in The Theft of Clothes and Popular Consumerism in Early Modern England,” Journal of Social History 24, no. 2 (1990), 258, 260, where she noted, but did not comment upon, the stripping of children for their clothes.

32 The Times, 30 October 1802, 3b.

33 OBP, 17 July 1674, Mall Floyd, t16740717-16.

34 OBP, 5 April 1815, Eliza Scott, t18150405-89; for further examples, see OBP, 2 December 1824, Sarah Lafoy, t18241202-159, and OBP, 1 July 1844, t18440701-1858; for context, see also Hitchcock, T., “Festering Wounds and Pregnant Women: Beggars and Their Bodies in Eighteenth-Century London,” in A Cultural History of the Human Body in the Enlightenment (1650–1800), ed. Reeves, Carol (Oxford, 2010).

35 Penny Sunday Times and Peoples' Police Gazette, 14 March 1841, 1.

36 The Times, 5 February 1835, 3f.

37 The Times, 13 September 1817, 3c.

38 OBP, 5 April 1847, Mary Garrod, t184705-1039.

39 The Times, 25 August 1817, 3d; The Times, 26 September 1817, 3e; OBP, 17 September 1817, Eliza Cobb, t18170917-109; for a similar example, see The Times, 29 July 1817, 3e.

40 The Times, 17 September 1802, 3b; The Times, 7 December 1802, 3c.

41 Bristol Quarter Session Records, Examinations and Correspondence Concerning the Stealing of the Child of Reuben Bond, JQS/P/346, (January–February 1816), Bristol Record Office; for the single case of child abduction that has also been found in the Middlesex Sessions Papers, see, MJ/SP/1697/01/031, London Metropolitan Archive.

42 The Times, 29 January 1822, 3a.

43 OBP, 15 January 1700, John Smith, t17000115-26.

44 The Times, 8 December 1827, 3e.

45 OBP, 4 September 1834, Henry Wingall, t18340904-122.

46 OBP, 24 November 1834, Thomas Burridge and Edward Shipley, t18341124-122a.

47 For child abandonment, see, for example, Boswell, John, The Kindness of Strangers: The Abandonment of Children in Western Europe from Late Antiquity to the Renaissance (London, 1988); Levene, Alysa, Childcare, Health and Mortality at the London Foundling Hospital, 1741–1800: “Left to the mercy of the world” (Manchester, 2007).

48 The Times, 1 October 1824, 3c.

49 As cited in Yeo, E. J., “The Creation of ‘Motherhood’ and Women's Responses in Britain and France, 1750–1914,” Women's History Review 8, no. 2 (1999): 202.

50 The best critique of the “separate spheres” ideal remains Vickery, A., “Golden Age to Separate Spheres? A Review of the Categories and Chronology of English Women's History,” Historical Journal 36, no. 2 (1993): 383414.

51 Berry, Helen and Foyster, Elizabeth, “Childless Men in Early Modern England,” in The Family in Early Modern England, ed. Berry, Helen and Foyster, Elizabeth (Cambridge, 2007), 181–82.

52 The Times, 28 November 1811, 3c; 30 November 1811; 3 December 1811, 3a; 9 December 1811, 3e; 4 January 1812, 3e; 7 January 1812, 3d; Birkett, Lord, ed., The New Newgate Calendar (London, 1960), 4851; Harriet Magnis was also known as Charlotte Magnay. Magistrates were consulted in cases of marriage breakdown, but in the early nineteenth century they had no legal powers to grant divorce. See Foyster, Elizabeth, Marital Violence: An English Family History, 1660–1857 (Cambridge, 2005), 2125.

53 The Times, 4 September 1819, 3d; 24 September 1819, 3f; 25 September 1819, 3c; 27 September 1819, 3f; OBP, 15 September 1819, Mary Ridding, t18190915-138.

54 OBP, 8 September 1831, Mary Murch, t18310908-185; a petition on behalf of Mary, pleading for clemency following her sentencing to seven years' transportation, was submitted to the Home Office, see HO 17/46/90, The National Archives.

55 OBP, 23 October 1837, Ann Frances Bennett, t18371023-2278.

56 OBP, 7 April 1845, Margaret Doolan, t18450407-940.

57 The Times, 4 September 1819, 3d.

58 OBP, 21 October 1844, Amelia Smith and Eleanor Stanton, t18441021-2578a.

59 Bristol Quarter Session Records, Examinations and Correspondence Concerning the Stealing of the Child of Reuben Bond, JQS/P/346, 6 January 1816, Bristol Records Office.

60 The Times, 28 September 1808, 3d.

61 The Times, 18 June 1817. Harriet was also called Margaret; her case was heard in the Old Bailey; see OBP, 2 July 1817, Harriet Molyneux Hamilton, t18170702-58.

62 Bailey, Parenting in England, chap. 1, esp. 37–39.

63 The Times, 24 August 1802, 2c; The Times, 9 September 1807, 3d; The Times, 28 September 1808, 3d; The Times, 9 June 1817, 3a.

64 OBP, 21 October 1844, Amelia Smith and Eleanor Stanton, t18441021-2578a.

65 Sun, 2437, 14 July 1800.

66 His story has similarities with that of Eunice Williams, the child of Puritan minister John Williams, who was abducted by native Indians in 1704 and who became so absorbed in Indian culture that she married a Mohawk and resisted rescue attempts. See Demos, John, The Unredeemed Captive: A Family Story from Early America (London, 1996).

67 Behrendt, Stephen C., Royal Mourning and Regency Culture: Elegies and Memorials of Princess Charlotte (Basingstoke, 1997).

68 The Times, 5 February 1835, 2e.

69 The Times, 27 September 1819, 3f.

70 OBP, 2 July 1817, Harriet Molyneux Hamilton, t18170702-58.

71 The Times, 29 July 1817, 3e.

72 The Times, 29 May 1819, 3b.

73 Perry, Ruth, “Colonizing the Breast: Sexuality and Maternity in Eighteenth-Century England,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 2, no. 2 (1991): 204–34.

74 The Times, 9 September 1807, 3d.

75 The Times, 20 September 1824, 2d.

76 Fass, Kidnapped, 146.

77 The Times, 4 September 1819, 3d; The Times, 25 September 1819, 3c; P. T. d'Orbán has grouped modern-day child abductors into different types according to motive, and the description of Mary Ridding fits well with those in the “comforting offenses” category; see Child Stealing: A Typology of Female Offenders,” British Journal of Criminology 16, no. 3 (1976): 275–81.

78 OBP, 4 April 1842, Mary Ann Dunn, t18420404-1381.

79 The Times, 10 August 1826, 3b.

80 The Times, 27 September 1831, 4c.

81 Paley, Ruth, ed., Justice in Eighteenth-Century Hackney: The Justicing Notebook of Henry Norris and the Hackney Petty Sessions Book (London, 1991), 1112.

82 The Times, 20 November 1818, 3d.

83 OBP, 4 September 1834, Henry Wingall, t18340904-122; clothes were often offered to boys who were abducted to be sweeps. See also The Times, 8 December 1827, 3e; OBP, 24 November 1834, Thomas Burridge and Edward Shipley, t18341124-122a.

84 OBP, 23 October 1837, Ann Frances Bennett, t18371023-2278.

85 The Times, 5 November 1817, 3d–e.

86 The Times, 30 October 1823, 2d.

87 OBP, 3 July 1828, George Aspinshaw, t18280703-168.

88 OBP, 25 October 1815, Elizabeth Ashfield, t18151025-98.

89 OBP, 12 September 1821, Ellen M'Carty, t18210912-141.

90 OBP, 23 October 1837, Ann Frances Bennett, t18371023-2278; OBP, 5 February 1844, Elizabeth Mary Jones, t18440205-807.

91 OBP, 8 September 1831, Elizabeth Gurnett, t18310908-27; OBP, 4 September 1834, Henry Wingall, t18340904-122.

92 The Times, 5 November 1817, 3d.

93 OBP, 1 July 1844, Emily Lewis, t18440701-1858.

94 OBP, 26 May 1819, Charles Rennett, t18190526-41.

95 The Times, 13 September 1817, 3c.

96 OBP, 2 July 1817, Harriet Molyneux Hamilton, t18170702-58; The Times, 20 November 1818, 3d.

97 The Times, 1 October 1824, 3c.

98 The Times, 21 October 1823, 3c; The Times, 23 October 1823, 3c.

99 OBP, 12 September 1798, t17980912-46; for the reticence of reporting sexual assault and rape cases, see also Clive Emsley, Tim Hitchcock, and Robert Shoemaker, “The Value of the Proceedings as a Historical Source,”; Gammon, Julie, “‘A Denial of Innocence’: Female Juvenile Victims of Rape and the English Legal System in the Eighteenth Century,” in Childhood in Question: Children, Parents and the State, ed. Fletcher, Anthony and Hussey, Stephen (Manchester, 1999), 76.

100 Case numbers were derived from consulting the Proceedings at; for comparison with cases for child rape heard in other courts, see Clark, Anna, Women's Silence, Men's Violence: Sexual Assault in England, 1770–1845 (London, 1987), 98.

101 Jackson, Louise A., Child Sexual Abuse in Victorian England (London, 2000), chap. 1.

102 Toulalan, Sarah, “Child Sexual Abuse in Late Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century London: Rape, Sexual Assault and the Denial of Agency,” in Children and Childhood in Industrial England: Diversity and Agency, 1650–1900, ed. Goose, Nigel and Honeyman, Katrina (Aldershot, 2011).

103 OBP, 14 September 1814, Sarah Simmonds, t18140914-145.

104 Birkett, New Newgate Calendar, 49.

105 The Times, 25 September 1819, 3c.

106 For young carers of children, see, for example, The Times, 6 January 1815, 3d, and OBP, 28 October 1830, Mary Smith, t18301028-151; for doubts about the reliability of child testimony, see, for example, OBP, 12 September 1821, Mary Ford, t18210912-114, and The Times, 12 July 1826, 3c.

107 OBP, 24 April 1805, Mary Stanyon, t18050424-26.

108 Bessett, Mrs., The Lost Child, A Tale of London Streets, And Other Stories, In Words of Two Syllables (London, 1854), 6, 10.

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