27th July 1878. Nature or Nurture.

The 1847 Juvenile Offences Act resulted in those under 14 being tried summarily before two magistrates, thus removing them from the higher courts.(1)

The period 1854-7  was to see a series of Reformatory Industrial School Acts, replacing prison with these juvenile institutions.

In the 19th century Whitwick in Leicestershire saw an influx of many Irish Catholics and in 1835 the settlement nearby of Trappist Cistercian Monks. In 1848  the community became St. Bernard’s Abbey, the first to be built since the Reformation.

Laborare est Orare 1862 John Rogers Herbert 1810-1890 Purchased 1971 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T01455

Laborare est Orare 1862 John Rogers Herbert 1810-1890 Purchased 1971 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T01455

In 1856 the original buildings were converted to become Mount St. Bernard’s Catholic Reformatory, known locally as the ‘Bad Lads’ Home’, an Agricultural Colony, on the premise that Laborare and Orare (labour and prayer) would transform the lads into useful citizens.

The delinquent lads were given recreation, a comfortable environment, well fed (for the times), but were expected to do productive work and attend church three times on Sunday.

However there was persistent trouble and in 1863 a riot and attempted break by 180 resulted from boys being told to desist from smoking. The constable sent in response was nearly beaten to death and Fr. Roberts explained his lack of support by saying it, ‘was not his creed to fight’.

The trouble was debated in parliament and talk of brutal punishment of inmates came out. The monks realised that they couldn’t cope and handed control to lay management, which was no better.

One serious outbreak happened Today a Sunday in 1878 when again the boys’ rioted and after attacking the guards with knives and bludgeons, stole the keys of the building. Sixty escaped to Loughborough, where a telegram was received by the police advising them of the escape: 43 were captured.

After further troubles the institution was closed in 1881 and the boys were transferred to an old naval ship HMS Clarence as a reform training establishment, which the inmates burned down so the St Bernard’s Reformatory was re- opened briefly in 1884.(2)

The Clarence burns in 1884

The Clarence burns in 1884. Courtesy P. Higginbotham. mersey-training-ship-memorial-trust.com.

In the north-west the delinquents of Manchester and Liverpool had been sent to training ships since 1857 when the Liverpool Branch of the Mercantile Marine Service Association on the River Mersey was instituted as reform ships under Fr. Nugent.

The Royal Navy had lent The Akbar for Protestants, and HMS Clarence to the Liverpool Catholic Reform Society which after the 1884 fire was succeeded by another of the same name a 120 gun, first-rate, which again was set on fire in July 1899. Not surprisingly Catholic Reform Training Ships now became shore-bound.

It would be wrong to suggest that all boys in these reformatories ‘went to the bad’ as no doubt most would eventually serve their country in war and those from training ships, a career in the Royal Navy.


(1) The age was raised to 16 in 1850.

(2) The 84 gun 2nd Rate Clarence (the 2nd of its name) was launched in 1827.




Pembroke Royal Docks and the Old Mersey Times 7.1.1839 re HMS Clarence.

Indefatigable and Conway and delinquents at Bernards Abbey.

Victorian children in trouble with the law/Nat Archives.

The painting by J Rogers Herbert, Laborare et Orare, shows Mount St Bernard’s with a spire from Pugin’s design, though the spire was not built.


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About colindunkerley

My name is Colin Dunkerley who having spent two years in the Royal Army Pay Corps ploughed many a barren industrial furrow until drawn to the 'chalk-face' as a teacher, now retired. I have spent the last 15 years researching all aspects of life in Britain since Roman times.

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