IT was a sentence that would cause mass protests in the streets today, but back in the 1830s barely raised an eyebrow.

For when 17-years-old Tommy Slaughter was convicted at Worcester Assizes he was condemned to death. His crime? Setting fire to a hayrick on his employer’s farm at Hampton Lovett, near Droitwich.

When the trapdoor opened and his body dangled at the end the hangman’s rope on the morning of Friday, March 25, 1831, Tommy became the youngest man to be executed in the 108 year history of Worcester County Jail.

While the harshness of the sentence did shock a few even then, hardly anyone turned a hair at the age of the condemned man who, according to a book due to be published at the end of the year, would have been viewed as positively adult by some of the prison’s even younger inmates.

In fact the youngest to be condemned to death at Worcester was John Hawling for burglary in 1801. He was aged just 11. But he was lucky, his sentence was commuted to transportation to the colonies, probably never to see England again.

Ten years on from Slaughter’s execution, records show the jail in Castle Street held no fewer than 46 children aged 15 or younger, while even eight-year-olds were locked-up with the hardened criminals awaiting their trials at the Guildhall or Shirehall.

One such was Worcester’s William Osborne, charged with setting fire to two hayricks and a stack of beans at Astwood “in the parish of Claines”, which would be near today’s crematorium. 

He’d already spent several weeks in the jail – a terrifying prospect for an eight-year-old – during which officials, including surgeon John Woodward and governor Ben Stable, decided he had the capacity to distinguish between right and wrong and was therefore fully aware of what he was doing. Accordingly, the judge sentenced the boy to two years hard labour. 

Forty years later in marginally more enlightened times, when another eight-year old, William Young, was charged with a similar crime at Mathon, near Malvern, he was judged not guilty on account of his age and discharged. Although he had already spent several weeks behind bars.

At least, in 1896 Worcester’s youngest ever killer, Cyril Blunt, was spared the horrors of a jail sentence. The toddler was aged only three years and five months when he attacked engine driver’s daughter Florence Clarke with an axe outside her home at 12 Southfield Street, Worcester. The blows rendered little Florence, who was a few weeks younger than Cyril, blind and unconscious. A state she remained in for six weeks before dying. 

Worcester County Jail, which is now the site of the city university’s Art House, closed in 1922 and left a legacy of dealing with youth crime.

It housed another 11-year-old who had been due to hang. Thomas Cope was convicted of  housebreaking and theft at Kings Norton, but like John Hawling, his sentence was commuted.

Among the 12-year-olds behind its bars was nursemaid Fanny Brown, who had been found guilty of “feloniously and with malice aforethought killing Ann Hickton aged 18 months.”

The baby was discovered drowned in a 6ft deep cistern at Halesowen.

Then there was Thomas Jones, jailed  for housebreaking at Stock and Bradley, near Droitwich. His haul had been a few clothes, an umbrella and some cheese. Hannah Holdman was sentenced to one month’s imprisonment for stealing a gown from Webb’s store at Dudley, while William Humphries “a very little fellow for his age” according to press reports, had been sentenced to six months custody for stabbing and wounding George Hopcot with intent at the same Dudley coalpit where they worked.

Another 11-years-old Charles Wilkins, was ordered to be returned to his cell and held there for three more days for his part in the Mathon Riots in 1846.

 Among the 13-year-olds who found themselves in the Worcester prison were George Tweedy for “an unnatural crime” with a horse at Tardebigge; near Bromsgrove and Joey Need for placing a bar of wood on the railway line at Pershore.

Joey spent several weeks in jail and was then committed for a further month and afterwards confined in a reformatory for five years. 

William Winwood, who was 14, was jailed for the “wilful murder “of his mistress at Bromsgrove by adding a quantity of arsenic to her breakfast gruel and another lad of the same age, John Pardoe, got  two months’ jail and was “privately whipped” for stealing lead.

James Walters,  also 14, received fourteen years’ transportation for stealing a pair of child’s shoes from a house in Dolday, Worcester, which he later sold for 9d (41/2p).  It was his third offence.

Abel Phillips, again 14, got six months’ jail for “having feloniously stabbed William Wilson with intent” at Ombersley; and finally another 14-year-old; George Dallow, received three months’ hard labour and fifteen strokes of the rod for throwing stones at the new-fangled phenomenon that was the steam train at Worcester.

What youngsters would have got then for doing bicycle wheelies down Worcester High Street is anyone’s guess.


Information taken from  top-selling author Bob Blandford’s latest book “Worcestershire Bird”, which is due for publication at the end of the year. The slang word “bird”, is taken from bird-lime, convict-speak for time. The  detailed 500-page book tells the story of Worcester City and County jails, their inmates and their lives and crimes. More details from