Working Class Youth and Moral Panic

Last Updated: 26 Mar 2023
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Why has the nineteenth century been associated with ‘a persistent panic over working class youth’? The events of the nineteenth century have often been described as turning points throughout Europe, the subsequent revolutions of the major powers of Europe led to significant change in the countries involved, additionally industrial revolutions and urbanization led to greater city populations. The question about youth firstly must be defined in a manor easily understood. How persistent the panic was is important in addition to this what panic was there.

From the latter part of the 19th century these issues can be discussed with greater authority, and effects drawn more conclusively. ‘Moral panic’ is considered being a concern for the threat of social order or values as Stanley Cohen and Jock Young have emphasised. The context is vital during this period as British output doubled twice in the 19th century between 1830-1852 and 1852-80 which fundamentally changed Britain in a number of ways, before the revolution its estimated ? of the population lived in rural parts.

Working longer for less in factories and higher living costs in an increasing urban country left many with very little. The relentless path that factory owners were able to take due to the government’s laissez-faire attitude led to another social change the breakdown of family life, safety was not an issue only profit, women and children worked hard and for little income. It is also argued that England was the world’s first urban nation, and urbanization meant that the majority of people lived in urban areas according to the consensus of 1861, an inevitable factor in a growing power.

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The aspects that caused panic- and/or ‘moral panic’- are also an important aspect as well as what led to the reactions of politicians and how the public reacted to youth, which could often be a product of journalism at the time. It should also be explained there was no distinct youth pre 1850’s, children entered adult life as soon as possible working in the various industries. And now there was a growing consciousness of not only the working class but of a ‘youth culture’ one which was ultimately conscious of itself.

With this change in society and as problems occurred newspapers took advantage to emphasise story lines which, arguably in turn would lead to moral panic to some degree. And as Eileen Janes Yeo explains that some of these ideas were ‘manufactured’ in the light of politicians creating these problems for them themselves to solve through social reform, creating further panic over the youth of tomorrow. An example of this can be seen by the mugging of an MP in 1862 or Garrotting as they were coined, held a small proportion of crimes but a press campaign resulted from this".

Garrotte robberies was tiny, the press created sensations out of minor incidents. Parliament responded with ferocious legislation providing for offenders to be flogged as well as imprisoned.

Later Clive Emsley explains ‘Violence, especially violence with a sexual frisson, sold newspapers. But violent crime in the form of murder and street robbery never figured significantly in the statistics or in the courts. ’This therefore verifies the effects that the press had on panic within a social context to some extent. On the other hand Andrew Davies argues differently agreeing with Humphries point of view in his writings ‘I would strongly endorse Humphries' assertion that violent youth gangs were not an invention of the late Victorian press.

It should also be noted that to a degree many Victorian English thought that the Irish or more specifically the poor Irish were responsible for a large proportion of crime in some areas such as Lancashire. With the substantial increase in Irish immigration during the early Victorian period, the host society's widespread belief in the innate criminality of the Irish-and, more particularly, of the Irish poor-formed an integral component of the negative side of the Irish stereotype.

The Dublin weekly newspaper added in 1868 "Nowhere in England can our countrymen consider themselves safe from English mob violence," The press therefore had a degree of influence on the panic throughout England regardless of whether they overstated events or exaggerated them, which is not to say this was the case in these separate examples.

As hand in hand they make the situation worse and can spread panic. There were on the other hand reasons for concern and panic within Britain during this time. There were considered to be many Scuttlers and such like which were not recorded during the time and as James Bent describes in his criminal life: reminiscences of forty-two years as a police officer.

In the early 1890s, staff at the Manchester Royal Infirmary informed the police that "scarcely a day passed" Without the admission of someone who ad been injured in a scuttling affray this shows to a large degree that the presence of the police was either needed or attributed to events occurring and therefore persistent panic could be justified to some degree. In addition to this pick pocketing is considered a skill and thus meant training, which opens a new area of debate. The orphans that were taken in had to work for their lodging and this could be the case with picking pockets.

This argues that most youths were pushed into crime due to poverty and unbearable backgrounds. Such was the need for the Ragged schools to bring those who did not have a chance at education for the varying reasons that hindered children in the 19th century. The Metropolitan police force is an important factor in scaling the panic of 19th century England as a centralized force that had more responsibility and imposed increasing numbers of laws is an obvious sign of control regardless of whether it was needed or not.

It could be considered to be a reactionary attribute to what was happening whether it was to take precautions or act against the facing problems of youth culture. Increases in police forces in cities can also be drawn from the panic of Gang violence and scuttling. Philip Gooderson certainly argues the case, as for example the Salsford police increasing the force by around 30 in the years 1890-1. The various factory acts of the 19th century could also play a part in delinquency as it meant that less and less children were working therefore would either be in education or on the streets.

It should also be considered that children had been taken advantage within industries for a long time and the possible effect this had on youth, the 19th century finally saw a slow and gradual intervention in this through various social reforms with such acts as the chimney sweeps act of 1840, which finally began to be enforced unlike previous reforms which were often ignored, as well as the numerous factory acts which allowed better conditions for children and women and age restrictions.

The various institutions that were created during the 19th century are an obvious sign of ‘moral panic’ and clearly show one reason why the 19th century has often be concerned with youth. Schools such as the Ragged schools in 1844, Reformatories in 1854 and finally in 1857 Industrial schools, each of which were to their own as such and have varying ideals.

However there are conflicting views upon how delinquents should have been treated, and there are a number of private voluntary additions that drove for a varying unishments opposed to prison, such as, Mary Carpenter, Sydney Turner and Mathew Davenport Hill whom helped in different ways to establish delinquency and aid such effects, this also argues the case for ‘moral panic’ as there were now debates on what was best for delinquents in form of punishments and education.

Additionally the social welfare and acts of the 1850’s as well as the education act of 1876 introduced a number of industrial schools and further developments within truant schools. There was a network of 208 schools: 43 reformatories, 132 industrial schools, 21 day industrials schools and 12 truant schools  Heather Shore comments that.

The juvenile offender was not, then, an invention of the nineteenth century. However, it is clear that in this period a reconceptualisation of youth crime, and various developments in social policy, as well as the activities of certain individuals, resulted in a new language of youthful delinquency.

Juvenile delinquency reiterated throughout the nineteenth and twentieth century’s, even today there is a concern for today and tomorrow’s youth as ideals are lost through different generations, not to mention the rise in knife and dangerous weapon crimes. Gang violence and criminality are still high today in London and other major cities with a similar average age of criminality ‘the average age of a teenager arrested for murder in 2008 (18. 1 years) was four months older than the average age of a teenage murder arrestee in 1960 (17.  years)  despite there being ‘moral panic’ for youth culture during the 19th century it’s not strictly persistent just to 19th century, as it is still of concern today.

During the 18th and 19th century children worked for up to 18 hours a day, little or no education was offered as a result right and wrong was not always apparent and this is a contributing factor to delinquency and persistent panic in the 19th century, as modernity took hold of Britain and more liberal and welfare ideas were debated which stemmed concern for youth which had not been fully understood or considered in previous century’s.


  1. Davies, Andrew youth gangs, masculinity and violence in late Victorian Manchester and Salford, Journal of Social History, Vol. 32, No. 2. (Winter, 1998), pp. 349-369
  2. Emsley, Clive Crime and the Victorians Last updated 2011-02-17 http://www. bbc. co. uk/history/british/victorians/crime_01. shtml 02/02/12
  3. Males, Mike A. Criminals and violent offenders getting older and older… not “younger” 03/12/2010 http://www. cjcj. org/post/juvenile/justice/criminals/and/violent/offenders/getting/older/and/older/not/younger Accessed 02/03/2012
  4. Clive Emsley http://www. bbc. co. uk/history/british/victorians/crime_01. shtml
  5. http://www. bbc. co. uk/history/british/victorians/crime_01. html
  6. Andrew Davies youth gangs, masculinity and violence in late Victorian Manchester and Salford p. 4
  7. Roger Swift Heroes or Villains? : The Irish, Crime, and Disorder in Victorian England
  8. Youth gangs, masculinity and violence in late Victorian Manchester and Salford, p. 5
  9. Heather Shore, The idea of juvenile crime in 19th century England, History Today, June 200 p. 7
  10. http://www. cjcj. org/post/juvenile/justice/criminals/and/violent/offenders/getting/older/and/older/not/younger

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Working Class Youth and Moral Panic. (2017, May 06). Retrieved from

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