Joe begins a three part series looking at how childrenwere treated in the
‘Good Old Days’

The 1908 Children’s Act which went through Parliament established Juvenile Courts and tackled Infant Life Protection which meant foster parents now had to be registered and were not allowed to insure the children thereby discouraging the practice of ‘baby farming.’
Professor Symmer’s evidence in court cases at Belfast always made for harrowing reading.  He specialised in cruelty cases sometimes where wilful neglect was obvious.  When he outlined the extent of some of the injuries children endured most of the court and gallery reeled in horror.


Not only were children exposed to cruelty in their own homes or on the streets themselves.  Some instances of exceptional cruelty have been recorded in the workhouse or other ‘official’ institutions where children should have been better cared for. In one instance the ‘cruelty man’ (NSPCC Inspector) was called in and the Board of Guardians heard how a three year old child had been mercilessly whipped by a housemaster at the Workhouse. 


Incidents such as these were thankfully rare but on other occasions sustained and systematic cruelty ended with the tragic death of the young victim.  In one such case a man was executed at Belfast Prison in August 1909.  The man had been found guilty of beating his young four year old daughter to death in  their house at North Belfast.  The NSPCC sent a letter to the press at the time in an attempt to stir both the public and official conscience.  It is sad to think that perhaps that young girl would have been freed from such abuse if only neighbours had intervened.
The letter reads as follows:-
Sir - The curtain having fallen upon the final scene on the sad tragedy of little Annie Thompson’s death, will you grant me space for a brief reference to it?  On Friday, the 12th March, the day on which was terminated the child’s miserable existence, an anonymous letter which lies before me as I write, was received at this office.  In the letter the writer details the sufferings of the child for the period of “two months”.   and asks the society to interfere.  The opening sentence, of the letter runs thus:-
I was to drop you a note last week.  Now “last week” meant at least six days before, probably longer.  If the intention expressed by the writer had been carried out, it is possible Annie Thompson would be alive today, and Richard Justin also.  The history of the case as revealed in the court shows only too clearly that if an officer of the society had visited “last week” he would have found ample grounds for the society proceeding at once to have the child removed to "a place of safety”.  It is inconceivable why any person seeing an innocent child suffering as Annie Thompson did, and knowing that the National Society existed to protect such a child, should delay even for one hour in giving information which would have brought immediate relief to the little sufferer.  It is an unspeakably sad reflection that Annie Thompson might have been saved, but she is dead.  She will not, however, suffered and died in vain if the memory of her cruel sufferings and terrible death be the means of impressing upon every individual member of the community the duty and responsibility of co-operating with the society in preventing the wrongs of helpless children by making it known to it without delay the case of any child who is not being fairly dealt with.  The names of persons giving information are kept strictly private, and a personal call at this office, a telephone message, or a letter will receive immediate attention.
- Yours faithfully,
Hon. Secretary
Belfast Branch N.S.P.C.C.


There were many other children brutally murdered on our streets or in our homes since then but thankfully there are now laws to help reduce such crimes.  The main law was the first Act of Parliament for the prevention of Cruelty to Children. The Bill which became known as the ‘Children’s Charter’, made it possible for the police to arrest anyone ill-treating a child and for them to enter a home if there was reasonable suspicion that a child was in danger.  It also laid down guidelines about the employment of children and outlawed begging in the street.


Cruelty to children has for a long time been one of the most repulsive of crimes which have featured prominently in every society throughout the world.  It is by no means becoming any less so.  On top of this it has not only been the requisite of men to be cruel to children, many women have carved a name for themselves in the history books for their evil actions against innocent children.
From 1900 until the law was changed in 1922  around 17 women were sentenced to death for infanticide throughout Ireland.  The 1922 Infanticide Act meant that women who killed their new born babies were no longer subject to capital punishment.  Doctors and psychiatrists have identified one well documented motive for such crimes as puerperal mania otherwise known as post natal depression or baby blues.  Not every case can be classified thus however.


Child Murder



Cruelty can take many forms be it physical, mental or sexual.  One of the most bizarre cases ever found in the North was that of the young child who was kept locked in a hen house at Broclough, Crossgar, County Down.  The child’s mother pleaded guilty to neglect after she was brought before the court at Downpatrick in November 1956.


The case was brought to light after three schoolboys noticed some strange activity at one of two hen houses at Halfpenny’s field at Crossgar.  One boy, Desmond Bannon who later gave evidence about his discovery explained how when passing one of the hen houses he heard someone walking about inside.  He went over for a closer look and after checking the door, which he found locked, went to look in through the window.  The windows were covered on the inside by old sacks but as he was there someone lifted the covering and peered out.  “I saw either a wee boy or a wee girl with long hair,” he stated.  “I could see down to its waist and it had no clothes on, as far as I could see.  I asked what its name was, and got no answer.  I asked again but got no reply.”  The boys evidence continued with more startling claims.  He told the police that during the school holidays he went up to the hen houses again.  This time he was accompanied by his friend.  He said that once again the door was locked but when he knocked at the window the young child lifted up the sacking and put its  hands up to the netting wire on the window.  The children told how they next visited the hen house on two other occasions each time with more friends and on each occasion they saw the child, it was locked in the hen house.  On the last occasion, which was about one month before the child was rescued, one of the boys, Sean McMullan told of knocking on the window.  They could hear something shuffling inside then, before very long, someone came to the window and tried to lift up the bag which was covering it.


The NSPCC and the police were notified of events at the farm and the child was named as Kevin Halfpenny, a seven-year old boy.  He was immediately taken to the Nazareth Lodge Children’s Home.  While here he was examined by doctors who were horrified to find that he only weighed two stone.  His height was a mere 30 inches high and it was claimed that he was suffering from rickets for at least five years due to continual denial of sunlight.


The boys mother, Mrs Margaret Halfpenny, was arrested and charged with ill-treating and neglecting the boy in a manner to cause unnecessary suffering or injury to his health.  When she appeared in court NSPCC Inspector Alex Mahood gave evidence of examining the boy at Nazareth Lodge where he looked pale and thin.  His arm and leg joints were swollen and his shin bones were concave in shape.  Both legs were folded up beneath his buttocks while he was in a sitting position.  The boy could only stand without assistance for half a minute and then he fell down on his semi-contracted legs.  The child’s mother was allowed bail of £100 with one surety of £100.  Meanwhile the child was given all the treatment necessary at the Children’s Home.
When the case came to trial Mrs Halfpenny pleaded guilty to a charge of wilful neglect.  She was also arraigned on a charge of wilful ill-treatment to which she pleaded not guilty and the Crown entered a nolle prosequi on the charge.  Judge Hanna explained that had not the Lower Court refused the submission by Halfpenny’s defence to prevent publicity in the case the public would have been unaware of all the details of the case.


Her defence maintained that the building in which the child had been kept was more of an outhouse than a hen house even though Mrs Halfpenny referred to it as a hen house in her own statement.  Mrs Halfpenny also claimed that the child was not locked in that place except whenever she was going shopping at Downpatrick.  Her own life was described to the court as being one of hardship and suffering.  Her husband had died after they had been six years married and she was left with three daughters and two sons whom she had to rear single handed.  The medical evidence however proved that the child had been suffering from rickets for a long time and Judge Hanna commented that, for four years, the child was kept for at least some periods in this outhouse where there were bags placed over the windows which kept out the light.  It was said that the condition rickets was caused due to both a lack of sunlight and a diet without Vitamin D.  Basil Kelly who led the woman’s defence deposed that Mrs Halfpenny had no other place to leave her child only in this outhouse.  At that time, he said, “some of the children were out working and some were at home.  Those at home were at school every day. Mrs Halfpenny was faced with the problem therefore of finding a safe place to leave the child while she went about her work. This was the safest place for a disabled or subnormal child where there was no fire, stairs and chairs about.”

Judge Hanna sentencing Mrs Halfpenny said, “I cannot hide from myself that, while this might have been a clean and healthy place to keep a child from time to time if some attention had been paid to it, I cannot lose sight of the fact that the windows were covered by bags.  Medical evidence here is that one of the things your child lacked was sunlight.  You deprived him of something God gave him.  You deprived him of something the State was prepared to give for nothing - medical advice and attention.”
He also commented on the difference she had made between that child and her other children.  “Perhaps you were ashamed of the child.  If you were it seems a sad thing that you should try to penalise the child.”
Commenting on the disgust that the public have for anyone who would victimise innocent children he said,  “If I am a judge of public opinion in this country, any penalty I impose upon you will be nothing like the punishment and hatred of the people you will come in contact with once you are free.” 
After pleading guilty to a lesser charge and having  asked for the mercy of the court the judge declared that the course of the defence case meant that the penalty would have to be greatly reduced.  As for showing mercy he said, “I do not know whether you are entitled to demand mercy.  Perhaps, who knows, there may be some Divine providence who will provide it for you - a mercy I could never provide.”  Mrs Halfpenny was sent to jail for nine months.



Thank You

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