‘Yesterday’s Naughty Children’ by Joan Rimmer


This is a modest book in scale, format and scope, but it is fascinating reading. I came across it by accident in a list of the late Neil Richardson’s publications. He published a multitude of shortish books cheaply on subjects relating broadly to the history of Lancashire.

Joan Rimmer, the author, was a Manager and Trustee of Red Bank School at Newton-le-Willows, which had originally been set up by the Liverpool Reformatory Association. She therefore had access to all the archives, going back to 1855 when the Association was set up.

Including the covers, which carry text, the book is 120 pages long with tightly packed text and quite a lot of illustrations. For aesthetics the book will win no prizes, but for recording a lot of information simply and cheaply (£3.50) it earns a gold star.

The Creation of Reformatories

The Youthful Offenders Act 1854 was a landmark in child care in England and Wales. Previously young offenders had been incarcerated in adult jails; now the Act granted permission for the establishment of Reformatories for children and young people. Until 1899 they still spent the first fortnight of their sentences in prison, but the Act was nonetheless a great step forward.

In Liverpool a group of worthies got together and over time established a number of schools for offenders. There was the Akbar, a former wooden battleship, which was moored a third of a mile off shore and provided nautical training for 180 boys. There were Mount Vernon Green and Toxteth Park Reformatory for girls. And there was the Farm School, which eventually changed over time into Red Bank School. Later, a group of Catholics set up a separate system for young Catholic offenders, but there were few links between the two groups of reformatories.

Joan Rimmer traces the history of each school, the types of children admitted, the physical conditions which they experienced, their activities, work and education, their leisure pursuits and behaviour, the staff and staffing problems, the finances, the governance, inspections, public attitudes…. It is all there, in fascinating detail, and it creates a vivid picture of the conditions at the time and of some of the personalities involved.

The author only makes occasional observations and judgements of her own; mostly it is for the reader to reach conclusions from the wealth of detail which Joan Rimmer provides.

What Life was Like

It is now accepted lore that reformatories were terrible institutions, but the recorded facts give a more complex picture. Their regimes were certainly very strict, but many staff clearly acted fairly and humanely in the context of the times. There were systems of rewards for children who followed the rules. The rules were clear and the morality was simple. Punishment followed rule-breaking and rewards followed compliance. The simplicity will have provided some security as children knew where they stood.

The physical conditions sound grim, but they were better than most of the homes from which the children came. In the 1850s the slums were appalling, children starved, diseases were rife because of poor drains, and there was a high death rate, especially among children. By contrast, reformatory food was simple but the children grew, they had clean living conditions, they had medical care, they had some education, and they were taught skills which enabled them to obtain work. The success rate was high – much better than that of the young offenders’ provision today.

Children learnt a wide variety of basic trades. Many of the girls did laundry-work; others made clothes, or cooked. Boys made boots, worked on the farm, or picked up the skills needed by sailors, such as making sails. When they had learnt these skills, families sometimes asked for the children’s licences to be revoked, so that they could return home and start to earn money for their families.

The book contains numerous anecdotes, often tragic. There were boys who drowned trying to abscond from the Akbar. There were frequent accidents at work where children were killed or injured. Like today’s children in care, families often failed in their responsibilities.

But there were also many festive occasions, both at the schools and in nearby communities. There were sports, brass bands, trips to the zoo, gifts from benefactors, and visits by important personages.

An interesting sidelight is the information about aftercare and in particular the emigration of young people to Canada. Some disliked it and returned to England, but there are several accounts of boys who settled, got jobs and did well, even sending money back to the reformatory to fund other lads to join them. Contact was maintained with most of the former children, and most obtained employment – the majority of the girls being in service, where they had a good reputation.

One curious omission is that there is no reference to the Akbar scandal in 1910, which led to a major inquiry, and widespread public dissatisfaction when it appeared to whitewash the episode.

Lessons for Today

For me, two lessons emerged. One is that individuals did make a difference. Quite a number of staff could not cope with the stress and resigned, became ill or were dismissed. But there were others who were towers of strength, who were seen by the children as substitute parents, and who managed their institutions humanely and effectively. Richard Hughes Atty, in particular, was Superintendent of the Farm School for thirty years; he was a force to be reckoned with, and he influenced many boys’ lives for the good.

The second is that we are now distant enough from the period covered by the book to be able to view it dispassionately. By contrast with the standard current opinion that reformatories were grim institutions, the book gives a more complex picture and shows that in many respects a good service was offered to children, opening doors for them to opportunities they would not have had if they had remained at home.

It is questionable whether services for young offenders today will look as good when evaluated a century from now. We would do well to be more humble in judging our predecessors.

Rimmer, Joan Yesterday’s Naughty Children : Training Ship, Reformatory and Farm School: A History of the Liverpool Reformatory association founded in 1855 (1986)

Neil Richardson Publications, Manchester

ISBN 0 907511 96 1

Obtainable from the Manchester and Lancashire Family History Society

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