Borstals put boys on straight and narrow

RECENTLY a newspaper printed a collection of photographs of Borstal boys engaged in a systematic education at the former remedial institutions.

It reminded me of Gaynes Hall Borstal with a catchment area in the Fens, Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire.

I recall to mind an occasion when I joined bell ringers at Great Staughton church.

Seated on a bench were two boys wearing brown uniforms. I discreetly asked who they were and was told they were Borstal boys learning the art of campanology.

Two women entered the bell tower and promptly the boys stood to attention and buttoned their jackets. I was very impressed.

I asked the Borstal instructor in charge of them if they would give a talk at March and this was duly arranged. What I learned astounded me.

Gaynes Hall practised strict discipline and anyone getting into trouble could expect meaningful punishment. The staff themselves, usually ex-army personnel, were highly disciplined and made sure that instructions were carried out to the last letter, or else.

Education being more consistent then, most of the boys could read and write and the few that lacked these skills had to learn how it was done.

Latent talents were encouraged and the inmates had to learn the alphabet. They learned the skills of woodwork, metalwork and bricklaying and degrees of engineering.

Boys even helped in the fields and took part in a strict regime of physical education. Good manners and respect were instilled into them.

Amazingly, Gaynes Hall Borstal even had an old boys’ association and former inmates, some professional businessmen and proprietors retained links with the Borstal and visited it from time to time giving talks to the boys on how to get on in life. A few years at Great Staughton worked and offenders seldom re-offended.

Borstals should never have been discontinued. They caught young people about to enter into a life of crime, taught them all the rudiments of essential knowledge with self discipline in all orders of society. As an interested visitor to Gaynes Hall, I learned a lot. The institution set up young offenders for life and most never regretted it.