“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

BBC History Magazine - - History Now / News - Heather Shore is reader at Leeds Beck­ett Uni­ver­sity and leader of the Borstal Lives re­search project

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

Pater­son’s model.

In­mates line up in a borstal c1912

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