Locating the Irish borstal boy in the General Prisons Board Correspondence[1]

 One of the dominant concerns for prison reformers in Ireland and indeed Britain from the time of the visits of John Howard in the 1770s was the continued detention of children and young people in prisons. This unease continued and accelerated into the nineteenth-century with the age of Elizabeth Fry. Although Fry came to be associated with the plight of women in prison her early reform interests focussed on children. The mid-nineteenth-century famine placed enormous pressure on the family structure in Ireland and a consequence of this was a high number children in prison. In 1853 for example, in excess of 12,000 children were detained in Irish prisons.[2] In 1854 the newly established Directors of Convict Prisons acknowledged the need for ‘the erection of a juvenile penal reformatory prison’. Such an institution would, they declared, ‘enable us, by a judicious use of the deterrent and reformatory agents we shall have at our disposal, to obtain results which will be satisfactory to the community at large’. The directors further pointed out that the prison system currently had ‘several boys’ as young as twelve or thirteen years undergoing sentences of four years penal servitude for stealing potatoes, among other minor offences.[3] The establishment of reformatory schools in 1858 and industrial schools a decade later served to alleviate, although not fully eliminate, these problems.

The well-known Irish prison administrator and reformer Sir Walter Crofton became the first chairman of the GPB in November 1877. The board effectively replaced any existing bureaucratic entities of the penal system and centralised all Irish prisons under its control, from its headquarters at Dublin Castle. It was here that the vast wealth of archival material that now informs the greater part of our knowledge of the prison system between 1877 and 1928 was collated. The board was given responsibility for thirty-eight local prisons and ninety-five bridewells. Thirty-three of those prisons were county gaols and five were located in cities or boroughs. [4] One of the immediate tasks for Crofton and his board members was to investigate the ongoing need for the retention of such a high number of prisons. While they decided, as an interim measure to maintain the status quo the board did downgrade the status of eleven regional gaols across the north-west, north-east and the midlands.[5] The writing was clearly on the wall for a considerable downsizing of the Irish penal system. In 1878, which was effectively the first full year of GPB control of the system, 50,435 men and women were detained in Irish local prisons.[6] This number is probably inflated both by the number of debtors and a high number of repeat offenders.

By the end of the nineteenth century the impact of the GPB administration on the penal system was clear. The number of prisons was reduced from thirty-eight in 1877 to twenty-five in 1899. Two of these institutions, Mountjoy and Maryborough were convict prisons. Seventeen were deemed ‘larger’ prisons and six were ‘smaller’.[7] This reduction in the number of institutions put the country’s prison network on a well-established path to centralisation as the board sought to identify efficiencies and reduce staff numbers.

The establishment of a Departmental Committee on Prisons, chaired by future Home Secretary Herbert Gladstone, which was charged with investigating every aspect of the penal system led to a report with recommendations. The most significant of these was the establishment of a penal reformatory for ‘juvenile-adult’ male offenders, aged between sixteen and twenty-one. In 1901, six years after the Gladstone report was issued, the penal reformatory experiment began at a small local prison outside the village of Borstal in Kent. Five years later, in May 1906, the idea which was still in the experimental stage was extended to Ireland where a borstal institution was opened in Clonmel in south Tipperary. With brief interruptions for civil war and world war the institution remained in the town for the next five decades.

The correspondence of the GPB is a much under-used resource for the study of the history of the Irish penal system and those it punished. The material encompasses the period from the foundation of the GPB in 1877 until the end of British administration and is held at the National Archives of Ireland. Much has been written about the many institutions of detention that prevailed in Ireland during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and those that were part the process of punishing criminals have been well-analysed.[8] The

The annual reports of the General Prisons Board are an invaluable qualitative and quantitative source for the Irish prison system between 1877 and 1928. The reports can be found at the National Library of Ireland or on the House of Commons Parliamentary Papers database.

richness of the material includes documents as diverse as inmate discipline procedures, dietary provisions, letters to and from home, education, health and religious matters, prison construction, inspection reports, internal GPB investigations, instructions to warders and release plans. There are many other miscellaneous documents that speak to the day-to-day workings of a busy penal institution.

The borstal system technically ceased to be an experiment when it was given legislative standing both in Ireland and Britain under the Prevention of Crime Act 1908. It is important to remember that all of the inmates of Clonmel borstal were criminally convicted offenders and all were detained by a court. The institution was not intended for first offenders but for those who already held several convictions and were in danger of becoming habitual criminals. Inexplicably, this guideline was frequently ignored by the Irish criminal justice system and so Clonmel did indeed become a place of detention for many, sometimes naïve first offenders. Between 1906 and 1921 around 600 boys were detained in Clonmel, the majority emerging from the cities of Dublin and Belfast. Their backgrounds varied considerably although most shared common traits of poor education, poverty and a lack of social control. Among the more dramatic aspects of the life of the boys as revealed in the GPB correspondence were the many disciplinary procedures. Each step in the borstal’s response to a misdemeanour of either a trivial or serious nature was documented by memorandum or letter, ensuring the chain of events was recorded and can be revealed to historians today. Apart from giving a sense of the lives and behaviour of the borstal population, this material also demonstrates that they had no recourse to appeal and so the system could be open to accusations of colluding against boys who may have been targeted for whatever reason.

George F. was sixteen years old when he was convicted at Clonmel Quarter Sessions in January 1912 of stealing cattle. He was sentenced to three years in Clonmel borstal. The prison register describes George as a labourer whose next-of-kin was his father.[9] A deeper examination of prison records reveals that at sixteen, George was already known to Clonmel police for eight years. While the local Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) described him as ‘sober’, he was fired from several jobs in the town because of ‘suspected dishonesty’. He was removed from his most recent job because he was deemed lazy and had ‘pilfering habits’. According to the police, he was ‘almost’ caught stealing the collection from a local chapel but because he had been previously suspected of this, he was under surveillance. Despite all of this, the conviction in January 1912 was George’s first and in contravention of the ‘no first-offenders’ policy of the system, he was indeed sent to borstal for the maximum period.[10] This analysis of George F. does of course raise a question over his relationship with the police. While bad behaviour or a vendetta on their part cannot be alleged, the fact that they monitored him for eight years effectively waiting for a slip-up must not be ignored. The question must be asked, therefore, as to whether there was any provocation of George on their part. Was there any direct interaction between both parties? Did George start out as a legitimate target for investigation?

Clonmel RIC described George’s father as being a man ‘of bad character who exercises not care or supervision over prisoner’. They even claim that he would be glad to know his son committed theft provided he was not caught. ‘His associates’, it was claimed were ‘corner-boys and loafers of a bad type’. George was convicted of stealing cattle along with another boy, Michael L. On 4 December 1911 they stole three bullocks and travelled overnight to Thurles where they sold them at the fair for thirty pounds, although they were worth fifty. They returned to Clonmel and after spending some of the money they hid the remainder before it was recovered and they were apprehended.[11]

This map of Clonmel prison (circa. 1910) generated for the purposes of conversion to a borstal institution is one of the thousands of random primary source found within the GPB Correspondence.

George’s institutional experience apparently started well but eventually began to mirror that of his ‘outside’ life. On 11 November 1912, Warder O’Neill of Clonmel borstal was making a routine inspection of inmates and found George ‘sitting on the floor with a piece of coin yarn wound loosely around his neck and tied on to the window bar’. The warder described it as ‘a bogus attempt to commit suicide’.[12] Warder O’Neill notified the governor who in turn summoned the medical officer. Dr. O’Brien concurred with the warder’s opinion and stated that he believed the boy was ‘shamming’. He recommended George be restrained.[13] Four days later a visiting justice investigated and ‘proved’ a charge against the inmate and ‘awarded’ him seven days number one punishment diet and close confinement. He believed ‘from the answers of the inmate he had no intention of doing himself bodily harm’.[14] Such incidents were not uncommon and probably somewhat inevitable in an institution such as Clonmel borstal which was something of a melting-pot of different characters, temperaments and ordered chaos.

While Irish institutions for the detention of young people, whether penal or otherwise, do not have a good reputation for caring for or protecting their inmates, one incident from March 1912 challenges that representation of Clonmel borstal. The incident began with an undated latter purporting to be from sixteen farmers in different districts of County Cavan. The core of the letter declared;

We protest and strongly advise you to send no more of your Jail Robbers to this county of County Cavan. The next you send is to be murdered by night or day. This county lived without Jail Robbers a long time and can do so. Yet you have sent three already we warn you to send no more no matter how many applicants you get we warn you again and again in case you send another there is not one you have already sent but will be murdered and drowned so take warning in time and save murder.[15]

This threatening letter sparked a line of communications that has thankfully survived in the correspondence and could give some insight into wider impressions of discharged borstal boys were it not for the fact that it was almost certainly proved to be just the work of one person. Once he received this letter, Governor Connor at Clonmel passed it to the GPB in Dublin Castle along with the names of four inmates currently working on licence with farmers in Cavan. The board quickly produced a document following up on the progress and status of those inmates. The RIC County Inspector in Cavan was asked to investigate and found that an issue arose around one licensee, William C., who was ‘taken away’ from his employer, a Mr. P. Rogers (not a signatory of the original letter). William left ‘owing to some disappointment with his master’ and was placed in the employment of another farmer, Mr. F. McKiernan. The RIC was asked to make some ‘discreet’ inquiries as to the nature of William’s departure from Rogers and to obtain a sample of the latter’s handwriting.[16] Almost a fortnight later the RIC County Inspector’s office replied with their findings. William left Roger’s employment because he alleged ill-treatment, mainly by Mrs. Rogers; he also claimed he was insufficiently fed. The local sergeant was familiar with Rogers’ handwriting and confirmed it was not his but that the letter was almost certainly dictated by him. Efforts were being made to obtain a specimen of his wife’s handwriting. Rogers and his wife were apparently displeased that William left their farm and house but the sergeant detected no ill-feeling towards discharged borstal boys anywhere else in his jurisdiction.[17] This appeared to be the conclusion of this matter although it is not known if any prosecution was brought against Rogers. Both the GPB and Governor John Connor were satisfied that as long as William was resettled and crucially there was no ill-will in the area towards discharged inmates, the matter could rest.

As this examination of Clonmel borstal has shown, the documents are random, some have undoubtedly not survived and the archive itself is disorganised. This latter point is not a reflection on the way it is archived but rather on the way in which the material was originally generated and pieced together by the GPB. These are perhaps the only faults in an archive that illuminates the lives of ordinary Irish prisoners in detention in ways scarcely possible otherwise. Apart from testimonies or books written by more learned and high-profile prisoners during the period there are few other ways to hear the voice of the prisoner than to seek out his or her personal words which survive in a very random way in this correspondence. This voice can be in the form of a letter home, written evidence to an internal hearing on a disciplinary matter or in the case of several borstal boys, a letter from the front during the Great War, reminiscing of their days in Clonmel. Any future histories of the Irish prison system or one of its institutions between 1877 and 1921 will be all the weaker for not taking account of the raw but powerful contents of the GPB correspondence.

Tips for Researching the GPB Correspondence

  1. For specific instructions on accessing material it is very important to consult the archivist on duty at the National Archives of Ireland. Do not try to make your first approach alone as it is a bit complicated.
  2. Allow plenty of time – it is cumbersome and sometime you will draw blanks (in my experience not to the same extent as with the CSORP) – but do be patient because this collection does yield results.
  3. This may seem a bit obvious but it is important to very carefully record the reference numbers for files you wish to consult again – perhaps keep the white slip returned from NAI staff when handing back the file. Once you hand back a file where you do not record the reference number it is extremely cumbersome to locate that same file again.

[1] This is an abridged version of an article that appeared in the journal Irish Archives, 20 (2013), 47-54.

[2] Thirty-second report of the Inspectors General of Prisons, HCPP 1854 xxxii. 197, p. xv.

[3] First Report of the Directors of Convict Prisons, HCPP 1855, p. 14.

[4] General Prisons Board (GPB), First report, 1878-9, p. 5.

[5] GPB, First report, p. 6.

[6] GPB, First report, p. 14.

[7] GPB, Twenty-second report, p. 35.

[8] Among the works that have examined the lives of inmates in Irish prisons are Tim Carey, Mountjoy: the story of a prison (Cork, 2000); Inside: Ireland’s women’s prisons, past and present (Dublin, 2011); Brian Henry, Dublin hanged: crime, law enforcement and punishment in late eighteenth-century Dublin (Dublin, 1994); Conor Reidy, Ireland’s ‘moral hospital’: the Irish borstal system, 1906-1956 (Dublin, 2009); Niamh O’Sullivan, Every dark hour: a history of Kilmainham jail (Dublin, 2007).

[9] GPB, Clonmel prison and borstal institution: Register of Inmates 1902-1928 (hereafter GPB, Register of Inmates).

[10] District Inspector O’Shea to Dobbin, 22 Dec. 1911 (NAI, GPB, CR, GPB/9495/1912).

[11] District Inspector O’Shea to Dobbin, 22 Dec. 1911 (NAI, GPB, CR, GPB/9495/1912.

[12] Warder Neill to Dobbin, 12 Nov. 1911 (NAI, GPB, CR, GPB/9495/1912).

[13] Dr. O’Brien to Dobbin, 12 Nov. 1911 (NAI, GPB, CR, GPB/9495/1912).

[14] James Cahill to Dobbin, 15 Nov. 1911 (NAI, GPB, CR, GPB/9495/1912).

[15] Farmers of Cavan to Governor, Apr-May 1912 (NAI, GPB, CR, GPB/3001/1912).

[16] GPB to Cavan County Inspector, 2 Apr. 1912 (NAI, GPB, CR, GPB/3001/1912).

[17] Taylour to GPB, 15 Apr. 1912 (NAI, GPB, CR, GPB/3001/1912).