Borstal Institutions

In the second half of the 19th century, there were major developments on how young offenders were dealt with. For those up to the age of sixteen, the new Reformatory system provided an alternative to prison, with Industrial Schools performing a similar role for those viewed as in danger of becoming criminals or whose wayward behaviour needed a corrective environment.

In 1895, a report on the prison system by the Gladstone Committee proposed that a special type of institution be created to deal with offenders aged from 16 to 21. An experimental scheme was set up at Bedford in 1899, and then extended in 1901 using part of the convict prison at Borstal in Kent. The young inmates were kept apart from the adult prisoners and given a routine which included physical exercise, school lessons, work training, strict discipline and follow-up supervision after their discharge.

The formal adoption of the borstal system came in the 1908 Prevention of Crime Act. Borstal sentences were for between two and three years, with release on licence being possible for those considered to have made sufficient progress. A second borstal institution was established at Feltham in 1910 (in the premises of the former Middlesex Industrial School), and another at Portland in 1921, with one for girls being set up at Aylesbury prison in 1909. Some existing prisons implemented a 'modified borstal' system, providing accommodation and treatment for those serving short sentences.

Borstal Institution, Borstal, c.1910. © Peter Higginbotham

Borstal Institution (detail), Borstal, c.1910. © Peter Higginbotham

Borstal Institution, Borstal, 1920s. © Peter Higginbotham

The object of the borstal system was the all-round development of character and capacities — moral, mental, physical and vocational — with particular emphasis on the development of and self-control through trust increasing with progress. Conditions in borstals were intended to be as unlike those of a prison as was compatible with compulsory detention.

As well as the strict discipline, physical exercise, etc., borstals provided training in skills such as cookery and needlework, with the aim of helping inmates earn their own livelihood after release. Cookery proved particularly popular and by the 1930s borstals were offering six-month-long training courses in 'simple cookery', leading to an examination by the Universal Cookery and Food Association. A course was also offered in 'nautical cooking' — presumably aimed at young men — with a 'bread-bakery and yeast-goods' class replacing it in 1953.

A significant development took place in 1930 with the opening of a new 'open' borstal at Lowdham Grange, near Nottingham. A group of forty boys marched the 132 miles there from Feltham, initially living in tents and huts while they built their own institution, which lacked the usual walls or barbed wire perimeter.

Lowdham Grange Borstal Institution, 1940s. © Peter Higginbotham

Lowdham Grange Borstal Institution, 1940s. © Peter Higginbotham

Aylesbury Borstal Institution for Girls, 1940s. © Peter Higginbotham

Usk Borstal Camp, 1940s. © Peter Higginbotham

In 1983, borstals were rebranded as Youth Custody Centres, then from 1988 became known as Young Offender Institutions, after merging with the former Youth Detention Centres which were abolished as a separate form of establishment.


  • Fox, Lionel W The English Prison and Borstal Systems (1952, Routledge & Kegan Paul)