IT was the Hampshire Winter Assizes of 1875 and Charles Axtell stood alone, just eleven, so small that his head was at the same level as the bar in the dock.

He faced the serious charge of arson with intent to injure, yet such was the appalling failings of the Victorian criminal just system he had no barrister or legal representation.

It so troubled Mr Justice Bramwell that strongly spoke out against the anomaly.

Advocating Government intervention, he commented: "I have serious misgivings whether there ought not to be a provision of funds for defending prisoners as well as prosecuting them."

But on conviction, he did not shrink from ordering the direst physical punishment of the time - twenty strokes with a birch rod.

"And good smart ones, mind, that you will remember before you get into a scrape like this again."

Only a month earlier, the youngster had set fire to the outhouse of John Mills who resided in the small parish of South Stoneham outside Southampton.

The blaze was spotted by his wife who had been sitting in the back room and had seen the youth who lived next door peering through their hedge.

She told the local bobby Pc Bugden of her observation but Axtell immediately protested his innocence.

"I didn't set it on fire, Mr Bugden. I saw Mr Curtis's boy standing there and set the place on fire."

The pair immediately went straight to Curtis's home whose son also denied responsibility.

"I wasn't in his company," he insisted.

Bugden intuitively knew who to believe and told Axtell he was taking him to the police station fur further questioning, and on the way, with his conscience troubling him, Axtell finally came clean.

"I'll tell you the truth. I set fire to the woodshed," he confessed, explaining how he had clambered over a bank into a nearby meadow and set fire to furze after being given matches by a girl.

Jurors heard Bugden then went to her home but her parents extraordinarily refused to let her appear before magistrates and consequently she was not prosecuted.

The judge was infuriated, scolding the officer: "You should have had a warrant to bring her."

With no one to represent the juvenile, it was left to the concerned judge to ask him: "Do you want to say anything to the jury who are trying you?"

"Yes, sir," he replied. "I'll never do it any more," which extraordinarily provoked laughter in court.

Though clearly ill at ease about the lack of representation, the judge proceeded, directing jurors over the law and reminding them: "The expression he used was very much saying 'I did it.' If you are satisfied that he set fire to the shed and knew what he was doing was what he ought not to do, even though he was only eleven years old, it is your duty to convict him."

And convict him they did within minutes.

The judge then expressed his anger that Axtell had been kept on remand for a month since the fire, rebuking the prosecutor: "Why didn't they take the recognisance of his father to produce him here? It's quite unintelligible. I suppose there was no fear of the child running away?"

But before he could reply, the judge turned to Axtell to mete out his sentence.

"You and other boys must be taught not to do these mischievous acts and the best thing I can do for you is to order which the magistrates might have ordered and which your father might have given you. You must got to prison for a week and receive 20 strokes with a birch rod, good smart ones, mind that you will remember before you get into a scrape like this again."