J. Wallis Martin


When news ‘breaks’ that one child has killed another, it is perhaps inevitable that we are reminded of the two young boys from the north of England who abducted a child who was just a few months short of his third birthday, dragged him to a quiet place, beat him almost to death, and then murdered him. Prior to his death, the murdered child was seen crying by an adult who was concerned enough to question the boys who abducted him, but she allowed herself to be reassured that he was all right, and that the two older boys were taking care of him.

During the trial, it came to light that these two boys were born to parents who showed little regard for their welfare, and that they were born into what we now refer to as ‘the underclass’.

We ask ourselves what sort of society we have created. What causes children such as these to kill, and what can we do to turn the clock back to a time when such crimes were unheard of, yet the crime referred to above was committed in Stockport in 1861 by 8 year old Peter Barratt, and James Bradley, and the child they murdered was two and a half year old George Burgess.

Prior to the murder, George was playing on wasteland near his home. It was early afternoon when Barratt and Bradly spotted him, then started to torment him. At approximately 3 o’clock that afternoon, a woman called Whitelaw saw Barratt and Bradley with George, and asked them why he was crying. Shortly after assuring the woman that George was all right, Barratt and Bradley were seen by Emma and Frank Williams. By this time, George had been stripped naked and Barratt was dragging him towards a brook. Frank Williams then saw Bradley pull a stick from a fence and hit George over the leg. He called out to Barratt and Bradley and asked them what they were doing. They made no reply, and Williams left them to it.

The following day, the body of George Burgess was found in the brook. He had been so badly beaten, his back was a mass of bruises. He suffered concussion resulting from a severe blow to the head, but cause of death was ‘drowning by suffocation’.

When questioned by police, Barratt and Bradley confessed in such a way as to suggest that they did not understand the gravity of the crime. This led to their defence petitioning for leniency on the grounds that children as young as 8 were incapable of discerning between right and wrong. It also led to a Times Editorial dated 10th August, 1861 in which it was stated that children who kill ought not to be tried in an adult court, for ‘Children of that age cannot be held legally accountable in the same way as adults’.

Barratt and Bradley were tried in an adult court. Throughout the proceedings, they appeared more confused and bored than afraid. They certainly did not seem to comprehend the seriousness of their crime, or their situation.

At this point, it is perhaps worth mentioning that the age of criminal responsibility in England and Wales is ten years old. However, in order for a child to be tried in a juvenile court, the defence must prove that he or she didn’t understand that what they were doing was wrong.

This is almost impossible to achieve, as children do in fact know when they have done something they shouldn’t have, and will often attempt to hide the evidence of their wrongdoing. Barratt and Bradley threw away the stick that they had used to beat their victim. This was deemed to be ‘evidence’ that they knew it was wrong to kill.

In the decades following The Times editorial of 1861, various individuals and groups have attempted to persuade the judiciary that a child who kills cannot be held legally accountable in the same way as adults, and all have failed. However, until as recently as 1998, children who killed and who were aged between ten and thirteen were presumed in law to be incapable of criminal intent.

The passage of the Law and Disorder Act in 1998 removed this safeguard. Anyone over the age of ten is considered to have the same moral awareness of right and wrong as his or her elders.

During his summing up in the case of Barratt and Bradley, the Judge told the jury that they must satisfy themselves that the prisoners were capable of discerning between right and wrong. If they thought they were capable of so doing, they were then to consider whether they knew the effect of the act they were committing. If they did not, then the presumption of malice would be rebutted, and the crime reduced to manslaughter.

The jury retired, and after an absence of half an hour returned a verdict of manslaughter, and expressed a hope that the judge would send the children to a reformatory. The judge said he would most happy to accede to their recommendation and sentenced Barratt and Bradley to one month imprisonment. At the expiration of that, they were to be sent to a reformatory for five years.

Nothing appears to be known of what became of Barratt and Bradley upon their release, as it was not the custom for the media of the day to attempt to discover where they were, or what identities they might have assumed in the pursuit of a normal life.