“Unemployment, bad company and harmful amusements led to delinquency and crime”
The first full study of the borstal system – from its establishment in 1902 to its abolition in 1982 – is under way at Leeds Beckett University. Dr Heather Shore (left), who is leading the project, explains more
Who was sent to borstal? From 1908, all offenders aged 16–21 who were sentenced to prison would be subject to the borstal system. Its principal architect was the prison commissioner Sir Evelyn RugglesBrise, who envisaged the system as “a halfway house between the prison and the reformatory”. Why has the borstal system been overlooked by historians? The history of borstal is a surprisingly neglected area of academic study, partly because many of the institutional and inmate records were closed for much of the 20th century. Because it is now more than 30 years since the borstal system was abolished, records are becoming increasingly accessible. This project will draw on inmate records from the early system, and oral histories and autobiographical materials for the later period, to explore the inmate experience. What do you want to find out? One of the areas we hope to examine is the success of the early borstal system, as well as its relationship with other forms of youth custody, such as reformatory schools, set up from 1854 for offenders under 16. I’m also keen to find out why the quality of the system reportedly declined between the postwar period and the abolition of the system. What was life like in borstal? The experiences of borstal inmates is a key part of our research. The interwar period presented borstal as a tough but fair system in which delinquent young people were remade into model citizens. In terms of the institution’s ideological basis, reform was inherently part of the experience. However, as in the case of the reformatory schools for younger offenders, there was a characteristic tension: how much should borstal youths be in custody to be reformed, and how much to be punished?
The system underwent significant development in the 1920s under the stewardship of Alexander Paterson, who believed unemployment, bad company and harmful amusements were some of the factors that led to delinquency and crime. He advocated ‘moral training’ and established the house system, which was aimed at fostering team spirit among the boys, as well as providing opportunities for individual achievement. Our research will look at the relative success or failure of
Inmates line up in a borstal c1912