Our George, the child burglar

Journalist Nigel Green used Victorian mug-shots to write a book on child criminals who roamed the streets of the North-East. Now he has traced the descendants of some of those in the rogues' gallery.

AS a little girl, Alma Bell can vaguely remember visiting her grandfather. Around the end of the Second World War, she can recall him sitting by the fire in a dirty terraced house. Yet, try as she might, Alma could not recollect his face.

It had always been a deep regret that her family had no photos of George Carrington, who died when she was aged around five. And so, it was both a pleasant surprise and a shock when, 60 years later, she was finally shown a photograph of her grandfather as a little boy.

For the photograph, which dates from 1899, not only revealed his face - but also the fact that he was a criminal.

Alma, now aged 65, was deeply moved by the discovery of a secret that had been kept hidden in the family for more than a century.

The secret was revealed to her in Nigel Green's book, which published the pictures of dozens of child criminals that plagued the streets of Tyneside. He had been shown the mug-shots by retired detective Ken Banks, who worked at North Shields police station in the 1950s and rescued them from being thrown into a skip.

Nigel researched the stories behind the photos for the book, Tough Times and Grisly Crimes: A History of Crime in Northumberland and Durham. Now, through researching family trees, he has traced the descendants of some of the criminals featured in the book.

Alma is just one of a number of people who has learned about the skeletons in her family's cupboard. While she admits she was shocked by the news, she is also fascinated by what she has learned.

George, who lived in South Shields, was just nine years old when he brought shame to his family. The little boy was arrested on February 27, 1899 for burglary after he and three friends carried out a daring late-night raid on a hotel across the river in North Shields.

The boys had somehow managed to get their hands on a stolen key and got inside the Victoria Hotel, in William Street, near the town's railway station. They had stolen £1 and 15 shillings - the equivalent of around £130 in today's money - along with two bottles of whisky, a bottle of rum and a bottle of brandy.

George was joined in the dock of North Shields Police Court by his fellow thieves. They had also burgled a butcher's shop and stolen meat worth 18 shillings. George was sentenced to receive six strokes of the birch.

Sadly, the punishment did little to help him and he spent the rest of his life drifting in and out of dead-end jobs and drinking heavily. In 1910, he married Margaret Chambers, a 21-year-old miner's daughter. She too was a heavy drinker. The couple had four sons, Alex, John, Walter and George, and lived in a two-room slum in Adelaide Street, South Shields. In later years, Alex recalled how his parents would pawn the children's clothes to get money for drink.

Alex managed to escape the poverty by working at Whitburn Colliery. In 1940, he married a local girl called Alma Todd. They had three children, including a daughter called Alma.

Alma, who now lives in a smart terraced house in East Boldon, near South Shields, was amazed when - with the help of a genealogist - Nigel was able to trace her and show her the mug-shot of her grandfather.

She says: "My grandfather's life sounded very hard but I suppose life was like that in those days. George worked in the docks. I think he was a labourer. I remember stories about them having a monkey in their house, which had come off one of the ships. Apparently it used to swing from the lights.

"We never saw any photos from my dad's family. I can vaguely remember going down to the house and him sitting in front of the fire but I cannot remember his face. This is the first time I've seen what my grandfather looked like. It's ironic to think that the only reason it was taken was because he broke the law.

"I don't think he was a very nice man. My dad didn't talk much about his family. I think there was a lot of hurt."

George's wife Margaret - Alma's grandmother - died around 1963.

"She ended up in an old person's home and that was the first time I felt sorry for her," Alma says. "She was a heavy drinker and she used to take snuff. But if you read how people lived in those days, you can understand how they got like that. I was told she used to take his clothes to the pawn shop to get drink. When my mam first met my dad, he had a suit on but no shirt because his mother had pawned it.

"My father was a very straight man and he didn't drink until he had been married a few years. He was a hard man but he never lifted his hand to us."

Alex died in 1989, aged 72.

Alma, who has three daughters and four grandchildren, says: "Experiencing the past is good for young people and I hope they learn how hard it was for young George next time they just turn on the television or an electric light or the central heating."

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