Your ideas, comments and advice
Linda Hammond’s interesting article in the June issue discussing reformatory school records prompted me to look for records concerning my paternal grandfather. Papers found and returned to the family included a good character reference written in 1907 when Granddad left Kingswood Reformatory School in Bristol, which named him William Simpson.
Granddad was born William George Ashby Bentley. His mum left my great grandfather shortly after Granddad’s birth in 1890. Her subsequent relationship with James Simpson lasted from around 1895 to 1915, and the 1901 census shows that the whole family used the name Simpson.
Kingswood Reformatory School records are held at the Bristol Archives, and are restricted. I obtained permission to see Granddad’s records, and during my visit was shown the two pages concerning his admission on 23 October 1903 and his discharge on 11 October 1907. He was there for a “Felony” with “Bad” previous character. There was an observation “f.d.s. the sum of 9 shillings”, which I did not immediately understand. He was only 4 foot 7 inches tall although the birthdate recorded was 12 October 1888, suggesting he was 15 years old. He had been tried at Woolwich Police Court. The discharge record did follow some of his army record, noting his good character and mentioning the loss of his right arm in action on 4 September 1918.
Briefly disappointed at the lack of detail, I realised the same evening that having the dates and court details made a specific search of newspaper archives possible. I was delighted to find an article in the Kentish Independent on 23 October 1903 entitled ‘A bad lad’. This showed that he took 9s from a handbag at home and ran away. The complainant was his stepfather James Simpson.
I also realised that the date of birth given at the trial was wrong. Birth records are clear that Granddad’s actual date of birth was 12 June 1890, making him 13. Why his stepfather would try and make him appear older I can only guess. Granddad used 12 October 1888 as his birthdate for the rest of his life, presumably believing it correct.
Four years in a reformatory school for taking money at home to try and run away seems harsh, but Kingswood Reformatory School might have had advantages over home. A letter written by James Simpson to Granddad’s mother after they parted in 1915 apologises for what happened to her dear face. I suspect there may have been domestic violence at least at that stage if not before.
Granddad dropped the name Simpson and reverted to Bentley before 13 October 1908 when he joined the 2nd Hampshire regiment – still, judging by his photo, looking younger than even his actual age of 18. Janet James, by email
Editor replies: Thank you for sending this in Janet, I’m delighted that the article led to some new discoveries. What an astonishingly young-looking man your grandfather was when he signed up. It seems hard to believe that they didn’t question his age!
Janet’s grandfather William (above) received a glowing recommendation from his reformatory school (left)