Could outdated punishment for child offenders have its benefits today?

Thomas Guthrie
Thomas Guthrie
Have your say

THERE it sat on the back of a cart. Just a cheap bottle of hair oil, not worth very much, but to young James Watt it was probably the difference between having something to eat and going hungry again.

THERE it sat on the back of a cart. Just a cheap bottle of hair oil, not worth very much, but to young James Watt it was probably the difference between having something to eat and going hungry again.

child offenders in the mid-19th century

child offenders in the mid-19th century

A glittering prize indeed for the sticky-fingered young James, and with sleight of hand the 11-year-old scallywag reached out and nabbed it.

Maybe he was just a shade too slow, perhaps slightly too clumsy. Certainly, James’ attempt at making off with the hair lotion was unsuccessful. Soon he’d be in front of the Police Court of Edinburgh, a little boy, yet old enough in the early months of 1860 to face up to his crimes.

That stolen bottle of hair oil earned James 14 days in jail. He’d never been in trouble before yet Sheriff Hallard decided he should pay further. His punishment would be five years’ detention at an institution that would use hard work, education, the outdoors and discipline in a bid to reform his delinquent character.

Of course, today it’s unthinkable that such a harsh sentence should befall anyone who dared to steal such a piffling item. Certainly, the punishment for most wayward youngsters in this much more enlightened era – even those who commit far worse offences – is a world away from what befell young James.

Wellington school

Wellington school

He ended up at the new Wellington Farm Reformatory School near Penicuik to graft for up to eight hours a day between school lessons and religious devotion. He’d be 16 by the time he left, when his reward may well have been to find himself on board a boat to Canada to become one of thousands of “home children”, sent to the colonies to work, often to be tarred all their lives as common convicts.

Compare his fate then with the feral behaviour of a gang of children believed to be the same age, who were recently caught on CCTV causing thousands of pounds of damage at Musselburgh Athletic’s Olivebank football ground.

For an hour, eight of them used bricks, boulders and a pole to smash the toilet block. They obliterated urinals and sinks, toilet partitions were smashed and walls damaged, leaving the 78-year-old football club with a stinging £10,000 repair bill.

Sadly, the incident was not a one-off. This was the second time the club’s facilities have been vandalised in the space of a year.

Damage caused by youths at Musselburgh Athletic's ground

Damage caused by youths at Musselburgh Athletic's ground

It happened just as police announced a new antisocial behaviour initiative aimed at primary school-age offenders in three East Lothian areas which will use “diversionary” activities such as sport and music in an attempt to curb their behaviour.

Some may well wonder if a round of games and a blast of music are really going to tick the box for streetwise, cocky under-12s who luxuriate in the comfort of knowing they are too young to face legal retribution for their crimes. The question then is, what can be done to stop them?

While no-one would ever suggest a return to harsh Victorian reformatory schools, is there anything at all we can learn from how past generations approached the thorny issue of juvenile delinquency?

It was a dilemma that perplexed Edinburgh folk in the mid-19th century as they struggled to cope with groups of Fagin delinquents who fell into crime largely because dire poverty meant they often had little alternative if they wanted to survive.

For some who fell foul of the law, there was a one-way ticket out of town. Take Dennis McCourt, the original Dennis the Menace. Nine years old and the son of a Cowgate tailor, the punishment for breaking into the Orchardfield Place home of Robert Ormiston was grim even by 1831 standards.

There was no option of games and music. Caught stealing once before, the courts decided they’d had enough and he was sent, along with other thieves, vagabonds and unworthies of all ages, on a stinking, overcrowded convict ship bound for the other side of the world. “Transported,” read the legal documents relating to his case which are held at the National Archives of Scotland. “Fourteen years.”

For others, the punishment was even worse. There are harrowing records of children aged 12 being hanged for their crimes.

Dr Thomas Guthrie had studied anatomy and surgery at Edinburgh University under Dr Robert Knox, who would later become infamous for his part in the Burke and Hare murder case. He had already pioneered ragged schools which provided free education for poverty stricken youngsters. By 1859, however, he and other members of the Edinburgh Association for the Reformation of Juvenile Male Offenders had turned their sights to dealing with the problem of tackling youth crime.

Wellington Reformatory Farm School was established that year on 50 acres of land near Penicuik and it appears to have initiated a visionary and seemingly successful “joined up” approach to the problem which seems to confound today’s generation. Red brick buildings were used for the young inmates to eat, sleep and learn in. Surrounding farmland offered an opportunity to spend time outdoors cultivating crops and rearing livestock. Busy workshops were established where tradesmen taught youngsters vital skills for their release.

Inmates were encouraged to work in morale-building teams. They learned carpentry and boot-making and soon the school became self sufficient, selling on farm produce of cereals, turnips and potatoes, and supplying torn up rags to the Edinburgh paper mills.

Interestingly, given government plans to financially hit parents of truants by cutting child benefit, families of some Wellington Farm boys were encouraged to pay their child’s way – up to 2s 6d a week – an incentive, perhaps, to keep a tighter parental rein on youngsters in the future.

It was, of course, tough and challenging, yet school superintendent Mr Craster told delighted city councillors in 1861 that it appeared to work, explaining that boys at one point considered “thoroughly vicious” had later turned out to be “acting in a most satisfactory manner”.

There is little on record to hint at the hardships the boys probably faced. Reformatory schools elsewhere eventually became known as places of terrible physical and sexual abuse but, according to the 1891 Annals of Penicuik, Wellington Farm was a massive success. “It has from small beginnings grown to be a large and beneficial agency,” it reports, “not only for the eradication of habits of vice, but for training its inmates in handicrafts which fit them for a useful and successful career in after-life.

“In the 30 years of its existence nearly 900 lads have passed through. While not a few of them, by industry and good conduct, occupy important appointments at home, many others, owing to the wise provision made by the directors for emigration, have attained to positions of comfort and influence in other lands.”

Naturally, a return to those days hardly provides a solution to today’s problems but, agrees John Scott, a leading QC and chair of the Howard League for Penal Reform, there may be some merit in Wellington’s approach to dealing with wayward youngsters.

“We don’t want to go back 150 years just for the bad ideas, but we can borrow some of the good ones,” he says. “If you take the Wellington idea and try to provide opportunities to allow people to push themselves away from getting into trouble, then that would be a brilliant approach.

“The original Wellington school was not a bad idea.”

A problem with many of today’s initiatives aimed at younger children, he adds, is a lack of financial stability and a piecemeal approach across areas. “Part of the problem is there’s not really a ‘joined up’ approach. There are some fantastic individual projects that co-ordinate social work, education, police and the reporter to the Children’s Panel which are aimed at teaching youngsters that their behaviour is not a sensible way to start out so early in their lives.

“It’s not a question of marching them to the police station or to courts but about acting quickly to deflect them. The problem is trying to get a willingness to spend money on things that do not immediately show results.”

He adds that acting while children are still quite young has benefits. “The general idea of early intervention is the right way to proceed, but it has risks. It’s one thing to identify kids who are likely to go on to be future offenders, but if you don’t make sure you provide opportunities, support and education, it’s no better than branding them.

“You can do all the work you like with youngsters, but not necessarily do much with the environment at home.”

Eventually, probation was introduced as an alternative and the Wellington Farm Reformatory School was taken over by the local authority. It still exists, run by Edinburgh City Council to provide care and education on a day and residential basis for a small group of 13 to 17-year-olds with social, emotional and behavioural needs.

A council spokesman says: “The school equips young people with the necessary skills to sustain a college, training or work placement. There are a range of care packages that are offered all year round based on the needs of the pupil in consultation with parents, carers and young people.”

According to Professor Susan McVie of Edinburgh Law School, today’s school offers a good blend of education, social skills training and even parenting advice to children who have not had particularly good parenting experiences.

“Schools like Wellington work hard to reintegrate young people back into their communities, while providing the skills – both social and educational – to make a better life for themselves,” she says.

“The only problem is that the educational component ends at 16 and many young people do not reach their full potential because there is little opportunity to complete the studies which they are often just beginning to enjoy and make achievements in for the first time in their lives.”

Of course, she has no appetite for a return to an age when children as young as 11 found themselves facing years in a reformatory school.

“I very much hope that lessons have been learned from the poor practice within reformatory schools of the past,” she adds.

“We must make sure that children are not entered into residential institutions unnecessarily, and that everything possible should be done to retain them within their own homes, schools and communities wherever possible.”


GIRLS who fell foul of the law would have their own establishment at Dalry House, Loanhead. Known as The Edinburgh Girls’ Reformatory and House of Refuge for Female Delinquents, it opened in November 1861 – replacing an earlier facility at Boroughmuir – and had facilities to house 40 girls.

Like the Wellington Farm boys, the reformatory school girls were taught to read, write and count and expected to learn domestic skills aimed at equipping them for life after school including sewing, laundry work, knitting and cooking.

Efforts were made to find employment for inmates as their time at school came to an end, often in domestic service. Some were given help in emigrating to Canada.

It was bought by the Church of Scotland in 1924 and used as a home for girls before becoming an eventide home. Most recently it was known as Mayburn House, a home for the elderly.