HE was just 12 and cruelly sent in tears to an uncertain future.

A registered letter containing three half sovereigns, wrapped in flannel, had gone missing after being posted by Hertfordshire widow Elizabeth Cosser to her daughter in the hamlet of Alderholt in the New Forest.

Accordingly the matter was placed in the hands of the Post Office investigators who traced the package to London, thence to Salisbury and finally to Fordingbridge.

It had last seen on the desk of the sub-postmaster awaiting collection by the travelling messenger. Naturally, all the staff were questioned but exonerated.

But where could it have gone?

Certainly no one suspected young Richard Verge, a very little boy and the son of a widow who lived nearby. He regularly came into the office in the habit of fetching mail for a gentleman and was readily discounted.

That is, until a month later when police learnt he had changed a half-sovereign, a fair amount for a lad and in his impecunious circumstances. Sgt Simkins went to question him at the local British School and Verge explained his mother had given it to him to change.

However Simkins was not satisfied with the answer and subsequently asked him to come to the police station to be questioned by a Post Office official.

Fearing the consequences, Verge asked Simkins: "What will they do to me if I told you everything about it?"

Simkins told him he did not know, whereupon the youngster said he had taken the letter on the day of the Fordingbridge fair and opened it in an outhouse at the bottom of his mother's garden. He then spent 8s at the fair and hid the remainder in a hole at the outhouse.

At the sergeant's request, he accompanied him to the outhouse where the outstanding money was recovered.

Verge then went to the police station where he confessed to the official who took his statement down on paper, warning him that it might be used against him if the matter went to court.

Indeed it was, as Verge found himself appearing before Mr Justice Lush at Hampshire Assizes on November 30, 1870.

Verge said nothing in defence but the judge refused to accept his guilty plea on the basis that a child under 14 might not have been able to form the intention to steal and placed the matter in the hands of the jury.

"Such a question would not be asked in a the case of a person above 14, and it will be for you to decide whether at the time he took the letter, he knew what he was doing was wrong."

Jurors confirmed he was aware of the implications but backed the conviction with a plea for mercy.

The law was then indeed harsh and merciless.

Though the judge told him he had not considered sending him to prison for a long time, he would nonetheless spent a fortnight behind bars before being sent to a reformatory for three years to be better educated and looked after.

Hearing the sentence, Verge burst into tears, pleading with the judge: "Please, sir, can I see my mother?"

The judge consented, telling the dock officers: "By all means, let him see his mother."