Residential Care – The Early Years

Following the publication of Mary Carpenter’s seminal book on “children of the perishing and dangerous classes” and the passing of the Youthful Offenders Act of 1854, Britain saw a plethora of Reformatory Schools spring up across the country. When a similar Act was passed in 1857 in respect of children found destitute or wandering, a system of Industrial Schools – intended for Carpenter’s “perishing” rather than her “dangerous” classes – was also created. By 1858 there were over fifty Reformatory and Industrial Schools in existence in Britain but while some of these, like Carpenter’s Kingswood and Red House, were run on enlightened regimes, others were much more pragmatic and oppressive in their approach.

Fed on a diet of undiluted Samuel Smiles and Thomas Carlyle, the Victorian view was that work was a virtue and that, in children, such habits had to be established early and developed through their formative years. In a society where there was no formal schooling – unless you were rich enough to pay for it – people were loath to provide education for those who simply did not deserve it – in other words the poor or the criminal classes.

While the more enlightened members of society saw the creation of Reformatory Schools as a positive, even essential, move there was a constantly recurring theme both in Parliament and the national press in the years leading up to 1870, namely that it was only by committing a crime that a working class child could gain access to free education and some form of industrial training. This quickly became more than an intellectual debate; there was a real fear, right across the country and in most sections of middle and upper class society, of offering an offender those advantages that were denied to his or her honest counterpart. (1)

Education and Trade Training

Consequently, education was given a low priority in the Reformatory and Industrial Schools. The ability of an establishment to run cheaply was considered hugely desirable and, as a result, there was a tendency for manual work to be carried out at the expense of education and social skills. Even in Mary Carpenter’s Red Lodge only three hours a day were given to academic learning. The rest of the time was allocated to needlework, household duties, laundry and knitting.

Schools quickly began to specialise. Some became farm schools, others nautical training schools providing sailors for the Merchant Marine and fishing fleets. In many Reformatories the style and nature of the manual work on which children were engaged was actually harmful to their health. Brick making and paper salvage were two of the most common activities that saw many youngsters consigned to an early grave. The nautical training schools – usually located on old wooden battleships in wind-swept estuaries – had an even higher death rate.

It didn’t matter. Children had to be taught a trade, educated for their station in life, certainly not above it. No wonder the self-satisfied Victorian gentleman could sing in church about “The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate.” Everything was fine as long as they realised, “God ordered their estate.” If a few children died, what did it matter? As Charles Dickens had Scrooge say, “Let them die and decrease the surplus population.”

Keeping Costs Down

In the early days of the system staffing was given very low priority. Staff came without training or experience, often without even the aptitude to help youngsters who were in trouble. Many of the new Reformatories quickly degenerated into establishments where the regime was almost as restrictive and repressive as the penal system that had been the main weapon for dealing with juvenile crime before 1854.

In an attempt to minimise costs, buildings were often inadequate and the clothing and food provided were of dire quality. Managers soon realised that a child who was older and experienced in the particular industry in which the school specialised was a valuable commodity. So it paid to hold onto such youngsters for as long as possible. The concept of releasing inmates on licence was, although enshrined in legislation, largely ignored. Only very rarely was someone released from his or her Reformatory School before their full five years of detention had expired.

Improving the System

And yet, it was a start. The more enlightened schools were able to provide positive assistance for troubled youngsters and anything was better than the “academies of crime” that they had encountered in the penal system. Yes, it needed honing, needed refining, but by the time Forster’s Education Act of 1870 made elementary education compulsory a system, of sorts, was in place.

With the passing of the 1870 Act a subtle but significant shift began to appear in public opinion. Ideas such as “economic man” and “rational man” had begun to focus the attention of educationalists and criminologists onto the concept of individual behaviour. The old idea of shipping out problem children – to Reformatories, to Industrial Schools and even to the Colonies where, it had been believed, they could establish a better life – began to come under increasingly critical observation. The system remained voluntary and this was a major fault in any development or progress. As late as 1898, “Schools were more or less isolated units, each working out its own salvation. There was no real continuous effort.” (2)

Scandal and Change

The need for the Reformatory and Industrial Schools to earn money took on critical proportions in the early years of the Twentieth Century and this led to increasingly bitter criticism from Home Office Inspectors. It was only a matter of time before the schools, which had become little more than self-perpetuating bureaucracies, more interested in their own survival than in helping troubled youngsters, came to the attention of the British public.

The Akbar Affair of 1910 provided exactly the impetus that was needed. Horatio Bottomley’s “John Bull” – the original “gutter” press outlet – seized on the fearful punishments inflicted on boys at the Akbar Nautical Training School on the Mersey and made the subsequent enquiry a national scandal.

A Departmental Committee was called and, although the Great War delayed their effect, its recommendations were thorough and wide-reaching. Increased control by the Home Office, dual inspection by the Home Office and by the Board of Education and an appeal for Local Authorities to involve themselves more fully in the running of the schools were the three major recommendations. Interestingly, the schools welcomed the proposals – the first sign that they were prepared to at least try to climb out of the abyss into which they had sunk so willingly.

Just as Mary Carpenter had become the most influential personality in the early days of the Reformatory School movement, so now did Arthur Norris, Chief Inspector at the Home Office. Under his dynamic leadership nearly forty schools were closed and in 1922 alone admissions fell from 6602 to 1831. (3) This was a deliberate ploy by Norris, enabling him to dispense with those establishments he and his Inspectors deemed less than satisfactory. What remained was a streamlined and efficient service where only those youngsters who really needed the help of a Reformatory ever entered its doors. By the end of the 1920s the Reformatory School system was more effective and efficient than at any other time in its history.

Achieving Approval

The Children and Young Persons Acts of 1932 and 1933 finally codified the various changes that had been outlined in 1913 and which, in most cases, had already been introduced. By the terms of these Acts, Juvenile Courts and Remand Homes were set up and the distinctions between Reformatory and Industrial Schools were abolished. Such schools would, in future, be known as Approved Schools. Significantly, the Home Office assumed full responsibility for such schools, including financial control and the right to enforce admissions.

It had taken over eighty years but the embryo system envisaged and created by Mary Carpenter had come to fruition. The system was still far from perfect, perpetuating for another 35 years the segregation of delinquent children and the stigma of criminality, but childcare had gone through its storming, forming and norming processes – now it was time to start performing!


  1. Julius Carlebach “Caring for Children in Trouble” (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1970)
  2. Anon, article in “The Approved School Gazette” (March 1942)
  3. John Hurt “Outside the Mainstream” (Batsford, 1988)

Leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.