IELTS Academic Reading Practice Test 3 – Text 3


The following text is from The British Library.

You should spend about 20 minutes on Questions 27-40, which are based on reading text 3.

Juvenile Crime in the 19th Century

Novels such as Oliver Twist have made Victorian child-thieves familiar to us, but to what extent did juvenile crime actually, exist in the 19th century? Drawing on contemporary accounts and printed ephemera, Dr Matthew White uncovers the facts behind the fiction. The success of Oliver Twist owes much to the biting satire and keen social observations contained within its pages. The misery of workhouses, the morally corrosive effects of poverty and the degradation of life in Victorian slums all received Dickens’s close attention. The novel’s prominent theme though is criminality, witnessed most vividly in the activities of Fagin’s gang of nimble-fingered child-thieves. But how realistic was Dickens’s portrayal of criminality among Victorian boys and girls?

Although youth crime had been a concern since the 1700s, a decline in formal apprenticeships and the disruptive effects of industrialisation on family life after 1800 did much to create fears among the general public about the activities of criminal gangs of boys and girls in London and elsewhere.

Sensational stories of crime and violence filled the pages of the popular press after 1800 with details of juvenile crime appearing in newspapers, broadsides and pamphlets. The activities of so-called ‘lads-men’ were regularly reported. These were criminal bosses who supposedly trained young boys to steal and then later sold the stolen goods they received from them. Thomas Duggin, for example, was an infamous ‘thief-trainer’ who worked in London’s notorious St Giles slum in 1817, and as late as 1855 The Times newspaper reported the activities of Charles King, a man who ran a gang of professional pick-pockets. Among King’s gang was a 13-year-old boy named John Reeves, who stole over £100 worth of property in one week alone. Similarly, Isaac ‘Ikey’ Solomon was a well-known receiver of stolen goods in the 1810s and 1820s who was arrested several times, and on one occasion escaped from custody. Solomon gained notoriety for being a trainer of young thieves and was for some time (incorrectly) considered to be the inspiration behind Dickens’s character of Fagin owing to his similar Jewish heritage.

‘Flash-houses’ also received regular attention from the police during the first half of the century. These were pubs or lodging houses where stolen property was ‘fenced’, and was considered by the police and magistrates to be ‘nurseries of crime’. One report in 1817 described flash-houses as containing ‘distinct parties or gangs’ of young boys, while later in 1837 a police witness recalled how one lodging house in London had ‘20 boys and ten girls under the age of 16’ living together, most of whom were ‘encouraged in picking pockets’ by their ‘captain’.

Evidence from the courts and newspaper articles during the first half of the 19th century suggests that juvenile crime was indeed a genuine problem. Dr Valerie Watters reported that the picking of pockets was especially troublesome, particularly the theft of silk handkerchiefs, which had a relatively high resale value and could thus be easily sold. Field Lane in London for example (the setting of Fagin’s den in Oliver Twist) was the home to several notorious receivers of stolen goods, where it was believed more than 5,000 handkerchiefs were handled each week. Often these were hung on poles outside the shops for sale to passers-by, many of whom went there to buy back their own stolen property.

Crowded places such as fairs, marketplaces and public executions were particularly profitable for young thieves. In 1824, for example, a 15-year-old boy, Joseph Mee, was charged with picking pockets at a public execution taking place at the Old Bailey; a youth described by the magistrate as a ‘hardened and unconcerned’ offender. At Greenwich Fair in 1835 13-year-old Robert Spencer was caught by a policeman drawing a handkerchief from the pocket of a gentleman in the crowd, while later in 1840 another constable stated in court how he witnessed 11-year-old Martin Gavan and another boy ‘try several pockets’ before stealing a gentleman’s handkerchief among a crowd that had gathered around a traffic accident.

Around three in every four petty thefts of personal property recorded in the county of Middlesex in the first quarter of the 19th century were committed by people under 25 years old, the vast majority of whom were teenagers or younger boys. Between 1830 and 1860, over half of all defendants tried at the Old Bailey for picking pockets were younger than 20 years of age.

London Labour and the London Poor Mayhew described life in the capital’s ‘low-lodging houses’, where he found several young boys engaged in daily petty thefts, including one who recounted how he was regularly drunk at the age of 10. Mayhew also described the activities of ‘Mudlarks’: boys and girls aged between eight and 15, who plundered goods from barges moored on the River Thames. However, historians have debated the true extent of juvenile crime in the 19th century. Changes in the way that children could be prosecuted after 1847, more sophisticated ways of gathering statistics and an over-emphasis on child criminality by moral reformers may have contributed to an exaggeration of an assumed increase in ‘juvenile delinquency’.

To modern eyes, the treatment of juvenile criminals in the 19th century appears particularly savage. After 1800 children between the ages of seven and 14 were considered incapable of forming criminal intentions, but could nevertheless be found guilty where this was proven beyond doubt. In theory, children convicted of serious felonies, therefore, faced the full penalty of the law: namely sentences of imprisonment, transportation and death.

Historian Martin Jones said, ‘In reality, death sentences bestowed on children were almost always commuted to lesser sentences on the grounds of leniency’. Of the 103 children aged 14 or under who were sentenced to death at the Old Bailey between 1801 and 1836, not one was executed. Typically, when two 13-year-olds and a 12-year-old were convicted of a burglary in 1821, they were ‘recommended to mercy on account of their youth’: a phrase that was regularly recorded by the courts. The last execution of a juvenile in England was probably that of John ‘Any Bird’ Bell, at Maidstone in Kent in 1831: a 14-year-old who committed a cold-blooded murder of a 12-year-old boy during a bungled robbery. His sentence by this time was already considered exceptional.

Death sentences for girls and boys under 16 years of age were in practice usually commuted to transportation. By the 1830s, each year around 5,000 prisoners, some of whom were as young as 10, were carried by ship to penal colonies in Australia, to serve sentences of seven or 14 years (and occasionally life). Once safely arrived, the convicts were set to work on public projects (such as building harbours or prisons) or were otherwise given manual tasks as servants to private employers, all of which (it was hoped) would help reform the offenders. Transportation was finally abolished in 1857 following concerns about the deterrent effect of the sentence on would-be criminals.

Questions 27-30

Choose the correct letter, A, B, C or D.

Write the correct letter in boxes 27-30 on your answer sheet.

27. What does the writer state about juvenile crime in the 19th century in the first paragraph?

A. Poverty caused young people to commit crimes. 

B. Many children were sold to workhouses.

C. The children were often in gangs.

D. That the novel Oliver Twist by Dickens gives us an insight.

28. What are we told about the punishments for juvenile crimes?

A. Children under the age of 15 were given light sentences.

B. The laws did not affect children younger than 8.

C. Young offenders received the same sentences as adults with the same punishments for heinous crimes.

D. Many children were allowed to complete their sentence in a workhouse.

29. The writer refers to death sentences and transportation in order to

A. Show the serious way in which all crimes were dealt with in the 19th century.

B. Relay the facts of available punishments for juveniles.

C. Explain which crimes would receive those punishments.

D. Justify the need for such serious punishments.

30. In the sixth paragraph, we are told that

A. Serious crimes were committed regularly.

B. Pickpockets were rife.

C. Young offenders worked in gangs and shared profits.

D. Many youths were held accountable for their actions.

Questions 31-35

Look at the following opinions and the list of people below.

Match each opinion with the correct person, A, B, C or D.

Write the correct letter, A, B, C or D, in boxes 31-35 on your answer sheet.

NB You may use any letter more than once.

31. Stealing from people was easy for children with small hands, particularly smaller luxury items 

32. Children were often given shorter more lenient sentences.

33. The most problematic crime was stealing from pockets.

34. Wanted to find out the truth about youth crimes in the 19th Century.

35. Regular minor thefts were performed daily by young boys.

List of People

A. Dr Matthew White

B. Mayhew

C. Martin Jones

D. Dr Valerie Watters

Questions 36-39

Complete the summary using the lists of words, A-H below.

Write the correct letter, A-H, in boxes 36-39 on your answer sheet.

Juvenile Crime In The 19th Century

According to Dr Matthew White, there have been varied accounts of juvenile crime in the 19th century, with vivid accounts coming from the novels of 36. ……………………………. In truth, many youths were recruited into 37. …………………………. and trained to perform variously skilled robberies on unsuspecting victims. Pickpockets often stole 38. ………………………………….. which were easy to sell on for a high price. The consequences for crimes in the 19th century varied but were known to be severe, including 39. ………………………………. and even death. 

List of words >>

A. imprisonment

B. pockets

C. Dickens

D. items

E. gangs

F. Fagin

G. handkerchiefs

H. transportation

Question 40

Choose the correct letter, A, B, C or D.

Write the correct letter in box 40 on your answer sheet.

40. The writer’s purpose in writing the article is to

A. illustrate how the judiciary system worked in the 19th Century.

B. criticise the treatment of convicted children.

C. explain the various crimes and punishments of young people beginning from around the 1700’s.

D. promote the advantages of the youth justice system from that time.

If you need help to answer these questions with extra practice please read the posts below >>

Answers >>

Questions 27-30

27 – D

28 – C

29 – A

30 – B

Questions 31-35

A – 34

B – 35

C – 32

D – 33

Questions 36-39

36 – C

37 – E

38 – G

39 – H

Question 40


Part One of Academic Reading Test 3

Part Three of Academic Reading Test 3

Academic Reading Band Scores

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