By Dr Heather Shore, Leeds Beckett University

This article was previously published on the Our Criminal Past website on 7/8/14

In the current commemoration marking the outbreak of World War One, homage has been paid to the millions of combatants who lost their lives during the conflict. Amongst the men who served were a sizeable amount of men and youths, whom up to the outbreak of war had been in penal institutions. Indeed, for some contemporaries services in the armed forces was a positive outcome. As Clive Emsley has observed, ‘There were those who believed that the young tearaway was, potentially, the ideal soldier in the making’ (1). Details of some of these boys can be found in the National Archives at Kew. The records of the Borstal Association, After-Care Association contain personal files for a number of former-Borstal boys in the period leading up to the Great War (2). I looked at these records many years ago and now seems the right moment to revisit them. My memory of the records is particularly strong as I was asked to consult them in small room to the side of the counter, presumably because they were deemed sensitive (the only other time I’ve been asked to go into this room was when I had ordered a set of CRIM records in which a bullet had survived amongst the evidence!). The Borstal records made me weep. Possibly this is not something an historian should admit, but the sheer toll of death amongst this first generation of Borstal boys moved me quite profoundly. The first Borstal had been founded in Kent in 1902, when a part of Borstal Convict Prison was set-aside for a special class of youths who had received sentences of at least six months imprisonment (3). The system would be formalised by the Prevention of Crime Act in 1908, and from the start the provision of after-care was regarded as essential. This emphasis on reform was not without its critics; ambivalence conveyed by an editorial in The Times, entitled ‘Children and Crime’, published in December 1907 (4).

Nevertheless the After-Care Association assiduously followed up the first generation of Borstal boys. The earliest Home Office case-files date from 1908 and include the records of the 100 or so boys who entered Borstal in the years leading up to the First World War. Almost all of these boys went to the front, and almost all of these boys died at the front, or subsequently of injuries sustained in combat. A deliberate policy of releasing young prisoners to serve in the war had been instituted early on in the conflict. In 1915, the Home Secretary Sir John Simon, in response to questions from the Commons, answered:

In the Borstal Institutions of Great Britain, where youths are received under sentences of one to three years, steps have been taken since the beginning of the War to release for enlistment selected prisoners who had profited by the training of the Institution, which includes drill and gymnastics, and who appeared likely to make good soldiers. The result of the experiment has been most satisfactory; a large number have been released and have enlisted, and in the great majority of cases good reports have been received of the conduct of the lads in the fighting services both at home and abroad (5)

In the Report of the Prison Commissioners for 1916, it was noted, ‘Since the outbreak of war, about 1,000 ex-Borstal lads are known to have joined the Forces. Two have been awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal, 91 have received non-commissioned rank, while notification of death has been received in 37 cases. Including charges of desertion and minor offences, only 96 have been reported upon unsatisfactorily. As regards the 201 lads discharged direct to the Army form Borstal Institutions this year, only 7 have provided unsatisfactory; the remainder, 96 per cent., are doing well’ (6). How many boys actually went to war from the early Borstals, and how many died, I have yet to confirm. In his book, Boy Soldiers of the Great War, Richard Van Emden noted that by March 1915, of the 336 boys released from Borstal institutions, 150 were in the forces, and some 600 former borstal boys were known to be serving overall (7) By 1914, there was only one other Borstal, which was Feltham in south-west London; although there were what were known as ‘modified Borstal systems’ within some adult prisons. Feltham Borstal was closed due to low numbers in February 1916, presumably because of the declining male crime rate during the war, and the fact that youths were being diverted into the forces (8). The Prison Commission Report for 1918 noted that in 1917 to 1918, ‘385 lads were discharged to the care of the Borstal Association…of these, 329 were enlisted on release’ (9) Military historian Van Emden is one of the few researchers to touch on the Borstal soldiers. Most historians have tended to focus on the development of the system from the interwar period, and particularly on the involvement of the renowned youth worker and reformer, Alexander Paterson (the exceptions are Victor Bailey and Conor Reidy who has worked extensively on the Irish Borstal system). This early period has been subject to little scrutiny, and the policy of releasing the boys to military service, even less.

These boys include Richard Whall (10). Richard was convicted at the Essex Quarter Sessions in July 1912 at the age of 17, having stolen a bicycle. He had held down a job as an errand boy for a while, but had left his job after falling out with his father, whom the records state, ‘was always swearing at him’. He had also helped his father with his boot-shining business. He received a three year sentence in borstal, where the Chaplain described him as ‘quite a nice lad, but not robust, especially in character’. During his time in the prison he seems to have knuckled down, and he was discharged into the care of his father in early March 1915. A week later the borstal agent, Mr. McKenna (of Borstal after-care system) received a letter from Richard stating that he would prefer to join the army, and he had enlisted in the Essex Regiment, he thanked Mr. McKenna for his help, and wrote that he hoped that he approved of his actions. During 1915, Mr. McKenna kept in touch with William, receiving a letter from him in May, which noted that he’d ‘not touched a drop of drink since he’d been in the army’. The Borstal aftercare wrote to William ‘for news’ in late May, July and August, when they received news from his parents that he’d been killed in action. A newspaper cutting from the Essex County Standard, with a picture of William in his uniform, is clipped to the file, and tells us that William was killed at Gallipoli on the 5th August. He was aged twenty. Van Emden tells a similar story in his book. Thomas Clarke from Wolverhampton, had been convicted of theft, but released under license into the Army, ‘being walked to the recruitment office by borstal staff’. He went to France after fourteen weeks training, aged just seventeen. Unfortunately Thomas absconded from his regiment, the 1st Royal Berkshires, in April 1916 when they were ordered to proceed up the line. He was court-martialled and sentenced to death, but his sentence was commuted, since it was thought he was too young to be shot’ (11).

There is nothing that haven’t heard before in the stories of youths such as Richard Whall and Thomas Clarke, in the wave of testimonies that are being revisited and remembered in this anniversary year. Nevertheless the sacrifice of the Borstal boys remains a little known story of the Great War that deserves to be remembered. And it should be said that the war service of these boys, and indeed of other prisoners who enlisted, did go completely unrecognised. Thus the 1916 Prison Commission commented on the testimony they had received from the authorities (such as the Borstal Association) who had kept in touch with ex-prisoners serving in the Forces, ‘Recruited as they are, from all classes of prisoners, the man fresh from penal servitude, the lad from a Borstal Institutions, the petty thief, and the habitual drunkard – their country’s call has touched a fibre in the heart of many whose lives hitherto had been shown to be irresponsive to all other calls and motives to honest living and good conduct’. The Report went on to quote from the Visiting Committee of Bristol Prison, which had a Modified Borstal System, ‘If one fact stands out more clearly than another as a lesson of the War, it is the magnificent material of which the working-class of this country is composed’ (12).


  1. C. Emsley (2013), Soldier, Sailor, Beggarman, Thief: Crime and the British Armed Services since 1914 (OUP), p. 36.
  2. TNA HO247, 1905-1977.
  3. L. Radzinowicz and R. Hood (1986), The Emergence of Penal Policy in Victorian and Edwardian England, vol. 5, A History of Criminal Law and its Administration from 1750 (Stevens & Sons), p. 384.
  4. The Times, 10 December 1907, p. 9.
  5. HC Deb 28 June 1915 vol 72 cc1465-6
  6. 1916 [Cd. 8342] Report of the Commissioners of Prisons and the directors of convict prisons, with appendices., pp. 14-15.
  7. R. Van Emden (2005), Boy Soldiers of the Great War (Headline Book Publishing), p. 138.
  8. The Times, 19 February 1916, p. 5.
  9. 1918 [Cd. 9174] Report of the Commissioners of Prisons and the directors of convict prisons, with appendices, p. 17.
  10. TNA: HO247/71, Case-file, Richard Whall.
  11. Van Emden, Boy Soldiers, pp. 139-40.
  12. 1916 [Cd. 8342] Report of the Commissioners of Prisons and the directors of convict prisons, with appendices., pp. 13-14.

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