Hooligan, vandal or just plain bored?

Before we look at what youngsters were getting up to during the 1940s let’s consider some of terminology that we are so familiar with today – words that we tend to associate with young people…


Origin late 19th century, first found in British newspaper police-court reports in the summer of 1898, almost certainly from the variant form of the Irish surname Houlihan, which figured as a characteristic comic Irish name in music hall songs and newspapers of the 1880s and ’90s.

Oxford English Dictionary

What about ‘vandal’? Well, that goes way back to the fourth or fifth century…


A member of a Germanic people who ravaged Gaul, Spain, Rome and North Africa and more recently (since mid 17th century) a person who deliberately destroys or damages public or private property.

Oxford English Dictonary

In their original form neither term seems to refer exclusively to young people and yet in recent times both words have become synonymous with teenage or youth culture. And what of the word ‘teenager’?

Although it may seem strange to us now, the term ‘teenage’ is a relatively new concept. Again, looking at the definition provided by the Oxford English Dictionary, we discover that it only became commonplace to use such a word during the twentieth century.

Perhaps it’s not surprising when some scholars argue that childhood itself was a concept ‘invented’ in Western society during the 18th century. Until then they suggest that children were merely ‘little adults’ without any acknowledgement that they had specific needs. This would be reinforced if we looked back at Dickens’ portrayal of children from poor families who were sent out to work from an early age, many working sixteen hours a day in coal mines, sweeping chimneys, or in factories, all under the harshest of conditions. Legislation that saw compulsory education for children aged five to ten wasn’t passed until 1880. Roll forward to post-war Britain of the 1940s and it was only then that the school leaving age was raised from fourteen to fifteen.

And so by the middle of the 20th century we have children as a distinct group, with legislation that applies solely to them. And then, with increasing influence from the US, we are aware of ‘teenagers’ as a sector of society who are no longer children, but not yet adults ready to enter the workplace. As a significant group they are now influenced heavily by their peers, rather than their parents. And as we enter the 1950s they become consumers in their own right, being in prime position to soak up the burgeoning world of music, fashion, even cars.

In Britain in the late 1940s the concept of ‘teen-age’ was still something to be remarked on. In 1949 a newspaper article reports that ‘270 teen-agers form their own youth club‘. An unusual enough event to create a headline. The term ‘teen-age’ was still looking awkward.

But what of youth crime and vandalism? In a London newspaper, dated April 1948, we can find this report:

…’Glass had now been replaced in all the bomb-damaged windows of the church, with the exception of those at the west end {…} but he regretted to report that already hooligans had thrown stones through the new glass of the great window…

Fulham Chronicle, 9 April 1948

Again, in 1949, another local newspaper report tells of ‘hooliganism in the cemetery’. It seems that both ‘vandalism’ and ‘hooliganism’ were attributed to the youths in society, with a rise in juvenile crime creating problems for the justice system.

Evidence shows that during the First World War there was an increased incidence of juvenile crime, an increase that was repeated during the Second World War. Fathers were off fighting and mothers were struggling to cope with the restrictions on family life that the war years imposed. It is not surprising then that family members who were no longer children and yet not old enough to fight would find themselves with a strange kind of freedom. There would have been little by way of ‘leisure activities’ leaving teenagers free to hang around the streets, with little by way of parental supervision and little or no money. Children (aged between three and thirteen) were evacuated from the towns and cities under threat of severe bombing, but what of youngsters too old to be evacuated but too young to join up. Recognised now as a ‘difficult age’ perhaps it’s no surprise that ‘teen-agers’ attempted to fill their time with less constructive activities – such as hooliganism. What else could they do?

Mrs Carter enjoys Sunday lunch with her evacuated children Michael and Angela during a day trip to their foster home in Hayward’s Heath in 1940.

In 1947 a national survey of boys aged sixteen to twenty found that nearly quarter of them spent their spare time doing ‘Nothing’. But when National Service was introduced in 1949, applying to males aged eighteen or over, there was little or no discussion that it might help reduce delinquency.

Discussion over deterrents, by way of punishment, gave way to calls for a greater examination of social inequalities. By 1948 punishment by birching was abolished, although it continued on the Channel Islands as a punishment for teenage boys until the mid-1960s and in the Isle of Man until 1976. What does it say about the real or perceived behaviour of teenage boys for such a punishment to be specifically handed out to them?

There is a lot to unpick. Why was it that anti-social behaviour appeared to be more prevalent among young people and who or what was to blame? The judicial system, parents, peers, educators, or society as a whole? I hope to explore this more in a future post.

Published by Isabella Muir

Isabella is passionate about exploring family life from the 1930s through to the 1960s and beyond. She has published six Sussex Crime mystery novels set during the 1960s and 1970s, a standalone novel dealing with the child migrant policy of the 1950s and 60s, several novellas set during the Second World War, and two short story collections. All available in paperback from your local bookshops, or online as ebooks. Her novels are also available as audiobooks, and have been translated into Italian.

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