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Reformatories for Convicted Girls

1857 — Inaugural Congress, National Association for the Promotion of Social Science, Birmingham, England


It is but recently that the position of convicted girls, of young female children who by their misdeeds or vicious tendencies have  separated themselves from society, has engaged public attention.
Until lately some have supposed, on the one hand, that little creatures of the softer sex’ cannot have arrived at such a pitch of wickedness as to require the intervention of the strong hand of the law, or the agency of a public institution, to curb and correct vicious propensities; while on the other hand, those whose avocations have brought them into personal contact, either within or without the prison walls, with neglected and depraved girls, have with horror beheld in them such an amount of desperate wickedness, of indescribable corruption of all that should have been good and pure in their nature, that they have despaired of doing anything effectual to reform them. Such a conviction would naturally be forced on the mind by an experience similar to that of the Rev. T. Carter, who in his speech at the conference at Birmingham, six years ago, which may regarded as the commencement of the present movement, made this statement. “Out of twenty-six females in the Liverpool Gaol, all of whom commenced as juveniles, I found that twenty-five had been in gaol on an average seven times each; the other I do not think it fair or proper to bring forward as an average example, be because she has been fifty-seven times in gaol. The average time each is known to spend in gaol is five years.”
But even within the last year the conviction has been gradually gaining ground that something ought to be done for such children, and that something can be done, for not only have the reformatories for girls, in existence at the last meeting of the National Reformatory Union, been nearly doubled in the number of inmates and the extent of their operations, but fresh institutions have sprung up, and others are in contemplation. The work is new, we are all comparatively learners in it; some of the results of actual experience may be useful to fellow-labourers, without entering into those details of management which may found well stated in the prize essays on “Work, Labour, and Rest, in Reformatories.”
All persons who have come much into actual intercourse with both boys and girls of the ‘perishing and dangerous classes’ have fully agreed with my own experience, that the girls are far the most hardened and difficult to manage. A strong concurrent testimony of this was presented to me yesterday by one of the commissioners of lunacy, who had been himself for a long course of years the manager of a large institution. The females he found infinitely more outrageous than the males ; and when excited, they used language indicating a depth and intensity of wickedness which he would not have thought the heart of a man, still less, as he said, that of a woman, could have conceived.
It is also a well-known fact that many of the boys brought before magistrates and sent to prison, and not a few of those sentenced to reformatories, have been guilty of nothing more than would have called forth only a reprimand or school punishment in lads of a higher class, such as throwing stones, playing in unlawful places, robbing-gardens and the like; whereas girls are seldom brought before a public tribunal, or handed into the custody of the gaoler, until all more lenient means of correction have been previously tried unavailingly, or unless the child’s home influences are so utterly degraded, that mercy has prompted the apparent severity. Hence we may anticipate that the girls in a reformatory will be of the very lowest class, and that the crimes with which they are charged will frequently imply a very high degree of moral depravity, such as a trained habit of picking pockets, arson, house-breaking, horse-stealing, even poisoning; young girls guilty of such crimes as these are to be found in our reformatories; while of those who have not actually committed such crimes, are the unfortunate daughters of receivers of stolen goods, of drunken and dissolute parents, young orphans of a father whose cruel usage had bereft them of a mother, and the child of one who boasted to have trained at least fifty young girls to a life of theft; these cannot be expected to have imbibed other than the most injurious influences throughout their short lives. The physical condition of young girls whose susceptible natures have grown up under such circumstances will very frequently be found to be already diseased. The experience of but three years among eighty girls has brought melancholy proofs of this; in one reformatory alone death has carried off two young girls of thirteen of organic disease, the seeds of which had been for some time latent in the constitution, and which, in the case of one, had probably been much aggravated by long previous imprisonment; two others came so worn by long neglect that they were pronounced incurable, but were happily restored to health by unremitting care; and numbers have been received with painful symptoms of scrofulous and other bad tendencies, which have gradually disappeared only by the most assiduous attention to the general health both of body and mind. The moral effects of such a spiritual education as these poor children have received will show themselves in extreme deception, excessive strength of will, morbid susceptibility of imagined wrong or unkindness, great deficiency in that reverence and modesty which are so characteristic of innocent girlhood, and occasionally, not usually, strong acquisitiveness; for with a great love of self and regardlessness of property is usually united a reckless generosity, the result of warm affections and unregulated impulse.
We will not now inquire what are the causes of so perverted a condition of those of God’s children whom He had formed to be the gentle and loving helpmates of the stronger sex, but we must rouse ourselves to energy and devotedness in the work before us, by the consideration that each one of these poor girls, if not at once cared for, may, in future years, diffuse around her an atmosphere of vice, luring on others to destruction, and breathing evil into the young hearts of the next generation ! We must be encouraged and supported by that divine faith in the Eternal Father of His creatures, and by that power of love in the Redeemer, which, as the inestimable departed Robertson declared, give “sanguine hopefulness of the most irreclaimable.”
The aim we must set before us in the reformation of the girls is very different from that proposed for boys. The latter are to be fitted for hard and independent work, often amidst the roughness and difficulties of a newly-settled country; or, if at home, they may be employed in field or other labour. A farm school, removed from the allurements of the city, is essential for them. But girls must be prepared for domestic life, either at service in the homes of persons in the respectable portion of society, or eventually in their own families. Emigration I believe to be usually undesirable in the case of girls; they are then removed from such salutary influences as may have guided them, and, if ill-disposed, they are even in a worse position than if they had been at home. A factory, or any place of work where many are congregated, would be always dangerous, as there is a fatal sympathy in evil, and an instinctive perception of it by the bad, which would cause these girls to be certainly sought out by the worst; and until the admirable union of the home and the factory, contemplated by Mr. W. Wood, M.P. of Pontefract, is brought into practical operation, we must aim at preparing our girls for domestic service in England. This must be kept in view in all our arrangements, and we must endeavour to make our reformatories such that Christian women may fearlessly seek for girls from them as young servants in their own families.
The problem is a difficult one, and involves apparent contrarieties. We are to bring under restraint and control those who dislike any infringement of their liberty, to reform by steady discipline those who do not yet hate their evil ways and desire to leave them to work, against their will; and at the same time to bring children and teachers into a loving harmony, to diffuse as much as possible through the establishment the influences of a home, gradually inspiring a confidence in the child that all the restraint and discipline to which she is subjected are for her real good. The legal element is absolutely necessary to bring the child to the school, and to keep her there, until such time as she is fit to leave it, when she will have begun to love it as a home. But the promptings of His love must guide the working of the school, and so develope itself that the child may be soon conscious that those around have a sympathy with her as well as for her, and that she is no longer regarded as an outcast from society.
If such discipline is steadily carried out, there will be little fear that either bad parents or children will regard the reformatory as premium on crime;’ and that the honest poor do not so regard it I have abundant proofs; the loss of liberty and of the possession of their children is regarded by them as an evil far outweighing any benefit that is offered. I have not met with more true heart sympathy in the work of rescuing these poor convicted children among any than among the working classes, who have continually shown by tangible proofs their joy that these poor young sinners were being led to repentance.
We now proceed to consider the preliminaries for the establishment of the school.
The situation of the school will be the first object of consideration. The outskirts of a city will probably be best. It must, of course, be healthful and airy, sufficiently near the country to admit of frequent walks beyond the premises, and to be removed from injurious excitement and the contamination of ill-disposed persons — sufficiently in the town to be accessible for the frequent visits of ladies authorized by the managers, whose influence may be highly beneficial to the girls, and an aid to the officials. In such a situation, attendance at a place of worship will generally be easy, and the girls may occasionally be taken, with great advantage, to those instructive and interesting exhibitions which are open to schools for the labouring classes. The inconveniences arising from a town residence will be more than counterbalanced by the real advantage gained by the girls being thus taught the restraint and propriety of demeanour necessary when we associate with others. Such, at least, is my experience, from a trial of both residences.
The house should be so arranged as to have great security, and not present temptations to abscond, while at the same time it should have no prison aspect about it, and by its comfort, neatness, and convenience without luxury, awaken in the children the feeling of a home, and make them proudly call it “our home.” It will not be inconsistent with this that there should be secure cells, where a child may be placed for a time in perfect seclusion, entirely out of reach of communication with others, and without the possibility of annoying by noise or violence. Children, especially girls, of this class, are subject to most violent paroxysms of passion, almost amounting to frenzy. Though a settled good tone in a school will render such fits extremely rare, yet the knowledge that such power of restraint exists in the house, without summoning police aid, greatly aids in supplying to the child an almost insensible motive to check them in herself. All the household appliances should be as much as possible similar to those in an ordinary house, that the girls may not be accustomed to machinery and conveniences which they will not meet with in common life.
The government of the school is, of course, a matter of vital importance. It is well known in the history of reformatories that those have been most successful where ostensibly or really one individual has been the mainspring of the whole; indeed, this is practically found to be the case in institutions of other kinds, and scope must in all cases be given for such action where an individual is found who can exert it. Still a government, both external and internal, must be provided. It is evident that women should be the managers of a girls’ school, though they may require to be sustained by the power and business habits of men, especially in the relation which these institutions bear to the Government. The actual working which I have witnessed for a quarter of a century of a united committee of gentlemen and ladies, with a sub-committee of the former for business details, and one of the latter for domestic management, would lead me to advise it strongly; but where this cannot be done, everything which they can do should be left to the lady managers; it is probable that experience will teach them to do everything which is really necessary under ordinary circumstances, having a gentlemen’s committee to refer to in difficulties. The nature of the external government must, of course, depend on the peculiar circumstances of each school, but it must at all times be in perfect harmony, both as respects itself and its relation to the internal management. A unity of will and of action must, exist in the whole government of the school, and be evident to the scholars, or the most serious evils will follow. Now, it will not be often found that women practically well fitted to carry out the educational training and the domestic arrangements of the establishment, — that ordinary matrons or schoolmistresses, however excellent in their own department, will be able also to regulate the whole household so as to be sufficient in themselves under an ordinary committee. It will, therefore, be highly important, either that a lady capable of understanding and developing the principles and intentions of the managers should reside in the school, and exercise a general superintendence over it, or that one should live so near as to be at all times accessible, and regulate the daily working of the school, sustaining, when necessary, the authority of the resident teacher, and having free power of action in emergencies.
Such superintendence is especially needful in the regulation of punishments. Though these will, of course, at times be necessary in all reformatories, yet the frequency of their occurrence may be almost regarded as a test of the condition of the school, and of the efficiency of the officials. While a strict discipline is firmly maintained, the guiding principles must be love and duty, not the fear of punishment. Increased experience and close observation convinces me only more strongly than before that, though external obedience may be obtained by the latter, a real change of heart and of motives of action can only be effected through the steady action of the former. Inexperienced or inefficient teachers will always be tempted to rely on punishment as a ready means of obtaining apparent order. The superintendent, who should be fully acquainted with the individual circumstances and character of each girl, must as closely watch all cases in which it is employed as a physician in a hospital the effects of medical treatment.
With respect to the general principles of internal management, I cannot better express my views than in the statement of them made at the meeting of the National Reformatory Union last year: —
‘1st. The physical condition of these girls will generally be found very unsatisfactory; and it is well known that the moral state is much influenced by the physical. All sanitary regulations for ventilation, regular and sufficient personal ablutions, suitable temperature, &c., should be strictly attended to. The advantage of agricultural labour not being procurable, walks beyond the premises, as well as out-door play, should be regularly taken by the girls, and as much bodily exercise as possible should be devised for them in their daily industrial work, as an exercise of their physical energies. The food should be sufficient, and of a more nourishing description than is allowed in most pauper schools. On this point considerable stress has been laid by medical men of high scientific experience. These children have been accustomed to a stimulating life, to feasting and fasting, and to various exciting aliments. Unless the system is properly sustained under the change, it will sink.
‘2nd. The young girl is to be placed, as far as possible, in the same kind of position as children in a well-ordered family in the working classes. She has been accustomed to be independent of authority, and to do only what is right in her own eyes. She must now feel under steady, regular restraint, administered with a firm, equal, but loving hand. Her irregular impulses must be curbed. She must insensibly, but steadily, be made to feel that it is necessary for her to submit to the will of others, and especially to be obedient to duty. The regular training of the school-room will greatly contribute to this, and all those nameless arrangements and manœuvres to preserve order and discipline, which are found so valuable in good British and National Schools.
‘3rd. Children in this class have hitherto felt themselves in a state of antagonism with society, and totally unconnected with the virtuous portion of it. The matrons, chaplains, and even governors of the gaols they came from, have usually been the only persons whom these children have been ever able to call their friends, and are often most gratefully remembered by them. They must, as far as possible, be brought to feel themselves a part of society, regarded by it with no unkind feeling, but rather, having been outcasts, welcomed into it with Christian love, and entering into it as far as their own conduct renders this possible. Nothing in their dress or appearance should mark them out as a separate caste; as far as it is found safe and expedient, they should be enabled to associate with others; and, under judicious restrictions, persons of virtuous character and loving spirit should be encouraged to visit the school, and have intercourse with them.
‘4th. The affections must be cultivated as much as possible in a healthy direction. The love of their families must not be repressed, and the natural ties must be cherished as far as can be done without evil influence being exerted over them. The school must be made a home, and a happy one; but the children must be led to feel that the possibility of this depends on their own forbearance and kindness towards each other. Mutual dependence must be cultivated; as in actual society, they must be made to feel that all must often suffer through the misconduct of one, while the good conduct of every individual is a benefit to the whole number, to the school in general. They will then learn to feel it a duty and a pleasure to help each other in difficulty, and to be watchful over each other’s conduct, from no censorious feeling, but from a simple regard to each other’s benefit, and to do what is right.
‘5th. The activity and love of amusement natural to childhood should be cultivated in an innocent and healthy manner. These cannot be repressed without great moral injury; but they may be turned to good account, and made the medium of conveying most valuable lessons on the rights of others and the nature of property, or even of imparting useful knowledge. The children should be allowed to possess little toys and articles treasured by childhood, which they may be permitted to purchase with earnings awarded them for work done. The valuable exhibitions now open to ordinary schools may be allowed to them occasionally, especially as a reward for good conduct. The Dioramas and Zoological Gardens may open their minds, and give a stimulus to the advancement of knowledge more than any other lessons.
‘6th. All rewards and punishments should be, as much as possible, the natural consequences of actions. Deceit or dishonesty will occasion an amount of distrust and watchfulness, which a judicious teacher may render a very severe punishment to a child. The employment of bad language, and the indulgence of a quarrelsome disposition, will require separation from the society of others as a necessary consequence. All punishments should be administered with the greatest caution and impartiality, and should be evidently prompted by a desire to do good to the offender; the sympathy of the school, and even of the culprit, will thus be enlisted with the teacher. There should be no bribery to do right, nor deterring by fear only from doing wrong; a desire of improvement and love of duty should be cherished for themselves. Hence, artificial stimulants to good conduct, especially such as excite a desire to excel others, should be especially avoided in these schools; they foster many bad passions. The children should rather be stimulated to surpass themselves; this will be greatly aided by a regular and impartial record of conduct, which should be frequently reviewed.
‘7th. As much freedom should be given as is compatible with the good order of the establishment. Those who prove themselves deserving of confidence may have situations of trust given them, and may be sent on errands beyond the premises. It is only in proportion as there is liberty, that security can be felt in the child’s real improvement.
‘8th. The intellectual powers should be steadily trained, though not superficially excited. It is only by giving the mind wholesome nourishment, that it can be prevented from preying on garbage. Many are chary of intellectual instruction in these schools, as if they were doing a wrong to the working classes by imparting knowledge to these. We are conferring a boon on them, by reforming in the best way we can those who, if neglected, may do them an irreparable moral injury.
‘9th. After the preceding remarks, it is hardly necessary to say that every effort must be made to infuse a good moral tone into the school. It will certainly exist if the preceding principles are well carried out. When a new comer or a badly disposed child finds the feeling of the school in harmony with obedience, order, and duty, and that public opinion, which is strongest when it proceeds from equals, is in opposition to everything wrong, the work of the teacher will be incalculably lightened.
’10th. The will of each individual child must be enlisted in her own reformation, and she must be made to feel that without this, the efforts of her teachers will be useless. Such confidence must be awakened in the minds of the children towards their teachers as to lead them willingly to submit to all the regulations for order, neatness, and regularity, which are an important part of their training, and to yield themselves implicitly to their guidance. From this the child must be taught to feel obedience to the Divine Will to be the highest happiness, and to desire to obey that will.’
The disposal of the girls after leaving the school is a subject which will increasingly require attention, and needs some remark. Domestic service has been spoken of as the best position for girls, unless, which will seldom occur, the home is suitable for her reception. If the school has become what it is hoped that all reformatories will be eventually, there will be little difficulty in finding good situations for well-trained girls who have become trustworthy; and if these are in the immediate neighbourhood, the school influence will be continued, to the great advantage of the mistress, as well as of the girl. The girls who are at service near the school may thus keep up their attachment to it, and esteem it a privilege to be permitted to join the Sunday afternoon instruction, and occasionally to be associated in other particular gatherings; such intercourse, under careful regulation, has also a beneficial influence on the school. It is another advantage of placing the girl at service near the school that she can then be sent first on trial, under license, as permitted by a clause in the recent Act, and received back at the school, if not suitable. But the sudden transition from the regular discipline and necessary restraint of a school to the freedom of a family is dangerous; for the true character of a girl is often concealed or curbed while under restraint. The plan has been, therefore, adopted during the last six months at the Lodge, of renting a small house adjoining the school, where a few older girls are placed who have already gained a good character, and who are here under little more control than would be exercised by a judicious mistress in a well-regulated household. The plan has hitherto answered the end proposed, and has been an excellent test of the fitness of girls to go out into the world; two have already left, who have proved themselves worthy of confidence. The house door is no longer locked; the girls are frequently sent out alone on errands, even to pay bills to the amount of many pounds. They execute the washing and laundry-work of the household without any superintendence, and bake, not only for themselves, but for the school; one is even left at home to take charge of the house and the two young children of the matron, while she and the other girls attend worship. This confidence has never in one instance been abused, and a similar plan would probably be always useful in reformatories. But whatever course is adopted with respect to the destination of girls on leaving the school, the parties who send them there in the first place should not be allowed to forget the moral, if not the legal, responsibility they are under to make some provision for them on leaving it. The work of a reformatory will be often thrown away if suitable arrangements are not made for the child on leaving it.
The narrow limits of this paper forbid my entering on other topics, or more fully developing the views here offered. Yet, before concluding, I would urge on the women of England who have not already any close domestic ties involving prior duties, to do what they can personally in this work. The distant sufferings of our countrymen have roused to noble and devoted labour, and women have learnt what they can do, and what they are permitted to do. Let not the cry of the children’ in this humbler, but not less important, sphere be heard in vain. The regeneration of these young girls, whose doom is sealed unless the hand of mercy rescues them, is surely a work which demands the devotion of the highest energies and talents — the consecration of a life. Let not the unremitting, self-denying efforts of “Sisters of Charity’ abroad, of devoted Catholic women at home, any longer cast reproach on English women and Protestants; let us emulate each other in works of Christian love. A noble sphere is here offered, more worthy of the refined, and loving, and true of our sex than the allurements of the world; and the most precious rewards must follow the joy which is shared by the angels in heaven over each and rescued child — the beloved voice of the Saviour, “Inasmuch as you have done it unto one of the least of these little ones, ye have done it unto Me.”



Source: Transactions of the National Association for the Promotion of Social Science 1857, Inaugural Addresses and Select Papers (London: John W. Parker and Sons) 1858, pp. 338-346.