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Chapter 2 — History of Industrial schools and reformatories

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An early nineteenth-century social problem


The earliest provision in Britain and Ireland for destitute children is to be found in the Act for the Relief of the Poor of 1598. It provided for the appointment in every parish of ‘overseers of the poor’ with, among other specific duties, those of ‘setting to work the children of all such whose parents shall not be thought able to keep and maintain their children’. In 1771, legislation was enacted, under which overseers were appointed to arrange for the maintenance and education of orphaned or deserted children out of money raised by the parish. It was envisaged, too, that work-houses were to be built, financed either by voluntary contribution or, if these were not forthcoming, by official grants. In fact, neither was available on anything like the scale necessary to meet the need. By the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, in both Ireland and Britain, the rapid growth of populations meant that the parish ceased to be a viable unit for the administration of relief. Destitute children roamed the countryside or streets, foraging for food and pilfering for a livelihood. In Ireland, the Famine (1845–1849) made a bad situation immeasurably worse, leading to the desertion of children by parents.


On an official level, the response to this significant social problem was the Poor Relief (Ireland) Act, 1838. This established or confirmed a system of workhouses throughout the country, under the central authority of the Irish Poor Law Commissioners (replaced in 1872 by the Local Government Board for Ireland). By 1853, 77,000 children below 15 years of age (one third of them orphans), which was 6.5% of the age cohort, were living in workhouses, while an unknown number of ‘street urchins’ were still living wild in the towns.


One of the workhouse system rules was that families were forced to split, with children seeing their parents only once a week. Moreover, in the workhouses, the children had to mix with all types of adult paupers and vagrants, giving rise to the real possibility of abuse. No effective education was provided. In addition, the stigma attached to workhouses meant that they were perceived as providing charity for ‘the shameless, the idle and the shiftless’.


It might have been thought that an alternative policy to the workhouse could have been tried, namely to make direct contributions of money or necessities to those in need (a policy then generally known as ‘outdoor relief’), since this would allow the poor families involved to be assisted outside the workhouse system. However, this was unpopular in official quarters, because of the danger that it would be taken advantage of by persons who in fact had their own resources on which to draw. It was partly to reduce the chance of this that workhouses had been established: for the orthodox thinking was that charity should be extended only to those who were prepared to accept the harshest and most overcrowded of conditions.


Apart from these official efforts, charitable organisations and individual philanthropists also attempted to alleviate the problem by gathering some of these children into orphanages, charity schools, ‘ragged schools’2 – all institutions depending on voluntary contributions and, often, on voluntary labour.


However, neither workhouses nor voluntary efforts were equal to the scale of the problem, and it came to be accepted that something more was required. In the first half of the nineteenth century in Britain and in Ireland, there were several commissions and committees to investigate both the broad subject of poverty3 and the particular needs of poor children. The industrial school system was proposed as a solution. This idea was based on a Continental model and, by the 1850s, Germany, Switzerland and Scandinavia had nearly a hundred institutions for criminal and destitute juveniles, whose achievements were well known in Ireland and Britain. The thrust of the education provided in these schools, some of which were called ‘Farm Schools’, was in favour of practical training, which would equip the children for employment, rather than academic learning. This approach fitted in well with the Victorian idea of utilitarian progress, and also helped to provide skills to fuel the Industrial Revolution. The motivation for these reforms has also been variously attributed to the desire to help the needy, or the need to control those whom the authorities viewed as a threat to the existing order.

Legislation and establishment


This Continental model was put into legislative effect and was implemented in Britain, in the 1850s.4 In Ireland a little later, the reformatory system was established by the Reformatory Schools (Ireland) Act, 1858. A decade later, the industrial schools came too, this time by way of a Private Member’s Bill introduced by The O’Connor Don,5 which became law as the Industrial Schools (Ireland) Act, 1868. The reformatories were for those guilty of offences; and industrial schools for those neglected, orphaned or abandoned; in other words, not for criminal children, but those potentially exposed to crime. This dichotomy was in line with a fairly well-established distinction between a penal school for youthful offenders and a ‘ragged school’ for the poor or vagrant.


In Ireland, the initial result of the 1858 and 1868 Acts was that a number of existing voluntary schools and homes applied for and were granted certificates as reformatories or industrial schools. These were for the reception of children committed by the courts, and they became eligible for grants from public funds for the maintenance of such children. The next few decades brought extensive new buildings and institutions. Although reformatory schools were established first, industrial schools soon surpassed them, both in numbers of schools and of pupils. In the seven years after 1858, 10 reformatories (five for females) were certified. By the end of the century, only seven of the 10 original reformatories survived, some of the former reformatories having been re-certified as industrial schools; and, by 1922, only five remained (one of which was a reformatory for boys in Northern Ireland). The reformatory school population, which was nearly 800 immediately after the passing of the 1858 Act, fell to 300 in 1882, and to 150 in 1900.


On the other hand, however, by 1875, there were 50 industrial schools, and the highest number of industrial schools was reached in 1898, when there were a total of 71 schools, of which 61 (56 schools for Catholics and five for Protestants) were in the 26 counties. At its height, in 1898 the population in the industrial schools was 7,998 residents, compared with the 6,000 children in the same year in the considerably less salubrious conditions of the workhouses. Moreover, in the late nineteenth century, social and economic conditions in Ireland were such that many children had to be refused places in the schools. In 1882, over 70% of committal entries to industrial schools were made under the category of begging.6


The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were eras when social reformers began to notice children as individuals susceptible to neglect and ill-treatment. In Edwardian England, reformers like Charles Booth and Sebohm Rowntree were attempting to quantify poverty, analysing its causes and characteristics. One consequence of this thinking was that all the nineteenth-century legislation in this field7 was replaced by the Children Act, 1908, popularly known as the Children’s Charter. While making relatively slight substantive amendments,8 this Act applied a unified system of law to both types of schools in Britain and in Ireland. The Children Act, 1908 dealt with a number of topics, among them the prevention of cruelty to children, protection of infant life, and provision for juvenile offence. However, its most important provisions were in Part IV, which provided the constitutional basis for reformatories and industrial schools. It continued to be the primary legislation for vulnerable children in Ireland until it was amended by the Child Care Act, 1991 which was not fully operational until 1996. The 1991 Act was replaced by the Children Act, 2001 which was signed into law in July 2001.


The 1908 Act was one of a trio of measures introduced by the Home Secretary, Herbert Gladstone, and justly regarded as a late flowering of Victorian reformism. The other two measures were the Probation of Offenders Act, 1907 and the Prevention of Crime Act, 1908, which established borstals. Another reform in a slightly earlier period was that the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) was first established in 1875 in the United States, and then in Britain in 1884, and in Ireland in 1889.


It may be worth quoting from section 44 of the Children Act, 1908 since this is the closest the legislation comes to what later generations would call a mission statement for the schools. This section states: The expression “industrial school” means a school for the industrial training of children, in which children are lodged, clothed and fed, as well as taught.


The definition of a ‘reformatory school’ is defined in the same terms by section 44 of the 1908 Act, but, with the substitution of ‘youthful offenders’ for ‘children’.

Policies underlying the School system


Until the legislation establishing the schools, the law seldom intervened in the affairs of a family. The new legislation, however, gave Magistrates’ Courts (the pre-Independence equivalent of the District Court) jurisdiction to intervene in the interest of the child, usually of the poorer class, to protect their physical or moral wellbeing. Doing so meant a major interference with the family and parental rights.


Barnes9 states that, as originally conceived, industrial schools had two objectives: the first being to provide appropriate skills and training to enable children ‘to be capable of supporting themselves by honest labour’; the other being to reform the child’s character. To achieve these ends, it was considered necessary that ‘the links between child and home [be] ruthlessly cut’, on the basis that the home was a bad influence. For this reason, committal was generally imposed for the maximum period, correspondence between the children and families was vetted, and parental visits were allowed only at the discretion of the Manager.

  1. This historical overview has drawn extensively on the research provided to the Commission by Professor David Gwynn Morgan, Dr Eoin O’Sullivan; Professor Séamus O’Cinnéide; Dr Moira Maguire (who along with Professor O’Cinnéide compiled reports to the Sisters of Mercy); Professor Dermot Keogh (who wrote a report for the Presentation Brothers on Greenmount) and Ms Sheila Lunney (who wrote an MA thesis entitled Institutional Solution to a Social Problem: Industrial Schools in Ireland and the Sisters of Mercy 1869 to 1950).
  2. The idea of ‘ragged schools’ was developed in 1818 by John Pounds, a shoemaker. He began teaching poor children without charging fees.
  3. For example, Royal Commission (Nassau, 1832) to review the working of the Act for the Relief of the Poor, 1601 in England (1832); Royal Commission for Ireland under Archbishop Whately of Dublin (1833–36) to inquire into the conditions of the poor and to ameliorate them; others according to Caul 12, in 1804, 1819, 1823 and 1830. Mary Carpenter’s seminal work, Reformatory Schools for the children of the perishing and dangerous classes and for juvenile offenders (1851) was among the causes of the Commission of Inquiry into Criminal and Destitute Children [HC 1852–53], before which Mary Carpenter was the principal witness.
  4. In Britain, the schools were established by way of the Reformatory Schools (Youthful Offenders) Act, 1857 and the Industrial Schools Act, 1854, though the latter applied only to Scotland. The legislation was consolidated in 1866.
  5. A liberal Catholic described by Cardinal Cullen as ‘the only good man’ in Parliament; and a member of the House of Commons Select Committee of 1861, which studied the problems of educating the destitute. Neilson Hancock, a statistician and social campaigner, was able to show that, although the juvenile crime rate in Ireland was half that of Britain, this proportion was reversed with regard to vagrants under 16 years of age; for Ireland had almost double the British rate of juvenile vagrants. These statistics provided The O’Connor Don with the intellectual ammunition to argue his case for the extension of industrial schools to Ireland.
  6. The Aberdare Commission of Enquiry into Reformatory and Industrial Schools 1884, which dealt with the British and Irish systems separately, warmly endorsed the schools. Partly as a result of this, there was a considerable expansion in industrial schools in the 1880s and 1890s. See Jane Barnes, Irish Industrial Schools, 1868–1908 (Irish Academic Press, 1989), p 64. The Cussen Report 1934–1936 credits the early spread of the schools to a speech by the Lord High Chancellor of Ireland, Lord O’Hagan, to the Statistical and Social Inquiry Society of Ireland (of which he was president), in which he drew attention to the advantages to the social order which would follow on the establishment of the industrial schools: JSSIS Part XXXIX, 1870, 225.
  7. By 1908, for Ireland alone, the legislation comprised: the Industrial Schools Act, 1868, the Industrial Schools Acts Amendment Act 1880, the Industrial Schools (Ireland) Act, 1885 and the Industrial School Acts Amendment Act, 1894, and the Reformatory Schools (lreland) Act, 1858. Other minor amending Acts were passed in 1893, 1899 and 1901. The 1908 Act substituted the Chief Secretary for Ireland in place of the Home Secretary.
  8. However, there were two significant improvements in the Act which never received a fair trial in Ireland: day industrial schools, and release on licence. Questioning the advantages of institutional life and perceiving the value of keeping a child in a family environment (unless this was wholly evil) in the late nineteenth century, the Philanthropic Reform Association proposed the establishment of day industrial schools: Jane Barnes, Irish Industrial Schools, 1868–1908 (Irish Academic Press 1989), pp 85–86.
  9. Jane Barnes, Irish Industrial Schools, 1868–1908 (Irish Academic Press, 1989), pp 85–86.
  10. Bríd Fahey Bates, The Institute of Charity: Rosminians, Their Irish Story 1860–2003 (Dublin: Ashfield Publishing Press, 2003), pp 68–69.
  11. The Children Act, 1908, ss 73–75. In the nineteenth century, most of the recurring expense fell on central government [the Treasury paid 5s/week for each child]. Local authorities’ contribution ranged from 1 shilling to 2/6. Voluntary contributions were very small. The result was that, for example, in 1880: the contributions were as follows: treasury (£68,000); local authorities (£23,000); other sources (parental contributions, voluntary subscriptions and industrial profits): £16,000.
  12. Barnes, p 50.
  13. Bríd Fahey Bates, p 72.
  14. Bríd Fahey Bates, p 71.
  15. Bríd Fahey Bates, p 79.
  16. Taken from: The Parish of Clonguish: Its People and its Culture (December 2005), p 15.
  17. Séamus Ó Cinnéide and Moira Maguire, The Industrial Schools Over A Hundred Years: A Monograph, p 20
  18. This was a Commission established by the British Parliament to examine industrial and technical training in all schools throughout the UK. It reported in 1884.
  19. Séamus Ó Cinnéide and Moira Maguire, p 19.
  20. Séamus Ó Cinnéide and Moira Maguire, p 19, p 20.
  21. Séamus Ó Cinnéide and Moira Maguire, p 20.
  22. Séamus Ó Cinnéide and Moira Maguire, p 21.
  23. Séamus Ó Cinnéide and Moira Maguire, p 21.