Juvenile Trials belongs to a tradition of books that taught children to be good citizens and to behave ‘properly’. The book tells of a tutor and governess who attempt to improve the moral conduct of their pupils by putting them on trial for their juvenile misdemeanours, and getting them to act as judge and jury to each other. The children’s ‘crimes’ include trespassing on a farmer’s land, stealing apples from an orchard and squabbling over a basket of sweetmeats. Both boys and girls are tried by their peers in this way, and the scheme is such a success that after five trials the court can be dissolved, since the children have all learnt to live harmoniously together.
The frontispiece shows a rather forbidding-looking court scene, and the title page highlights the importance of learning how to live correctly from an early age, since children grow up ‘as they first are fashion’d’. The witnesses are helpfully given names such as ‘Telltruth’ and ‘Trusty’ to underline their characters. The author is said to be ‘Master Tommy Littleton, Secretary to the Court’.
The actual author, Richard Johnson, was a prolific writer of children’s books, most of which were published by John Newbery and his successors. Richardson wrote under a variety of pseudonyms, and his involvement in at least 50 books included writing, compiling, abridging and translating. He was the first writer to produce an English text of the Arabian Nights for children, circa 1791.
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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.