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Was Your Ancestor in a Reformatory School?

Updated: Oct 3, 2022

Our ancestors had a very different attitude to juvenile crime. In Scotland, until 1932 the age of criminal responsibility was just 7. In the mid 1800s, children over the age of 7 who committed crimes were sent to adult prisons to serve their sentences. By around 1850, several social commentators had come round to the idea that locking up small children with hardened criminals probably wasn't such a great idea, and the idea of the Reformatory School was born.

Scotland had 13 Reformatory Schools in the 19th century to deal with child criminals. Most of these were closed in the 20th century as ideas about dealing with juvenile changed, but two - Rossie in Montrose and Kibble in Paisley - remain open today as secure residential care for young people with a range of needs.

If you browse a census and find that your ancestor is listed as an inmate in a reformatory school, or read a newspaper report about someone remanded to reformatory, is it worth chasing down the records? Reformatory schools operated independently, and all kept their own records. Not all records have survived, but the records for Wellington Farm Reformatory in Midlothian are in Edinburgh City Archives, the Inverness records are in Highland Archives, and Rossie and Kibble retain their own records.

The records which do survive are the admissions registers - the large ledgers in which clerks wrote the details of all children who entered the Reformatory. These record a huge amount of information of genealogical value - name, address, age, date of crime, name and occupation of father - and even information about number of siblings or parental income. Coupled with standard records of birth, marriage and death, census or newspaper reports, it's possible to build up a good picture of family circumstances.

Here's a case study to illustrate the point - the story of young Robert MILLAR, from Paisley.

Robert MILLAR and his parents, Samuel MILLAR and Agnes GUTHRIE, all give their places of birth as Paisley. Robert’s parents were married on 30 October 1842 in Paisley, and Robert was born there around 1850, although a record of his birth could not be located.

Robert was only 5 months old when his mother, Agnes, made her first application to Paisley Burgh for Poor Relief on 17 May 1850. Agnes states that her “husband deserted on the 13th inst”, and that she has three children to look after: Samuel, aged 7, John, aged 5, and 5-month-old Robert. The statement also recorded that Agnes first became “chargeable”, or claimed poor relief in 1844, and had been chargeable “often since”.

The following year, the family were recorded on the 1851 census. Samuel was listed back with his wife and children, and the family were living at 36 Stock Street in Paisley. Both parents were employed in the textile industry, with Samuel listed as a Hand Loom Weaver, and his wife Agnes as a weaver’s winder. Neither of the older children are at school or listed as scholars.

In January 1852 it was Samuel who made the next poor relief application, stating that his wife was unwell. By June of the same year Samuel had been sent to prison for 7 days for theft, and Agnes went back to the authorities for a further relief payment. This pattern continued for the next few years, with both Agnes and Samuel making further applications in 1853, 1856 and 1857 for parochial relief.

On 1 April 1857, Robert MILLAR’S older brother John was sentenced to 3 years in Kibble Reformatory after being caught stealing shoes. The situation for the family got dramatically worse for Robert’s family in September 1857, when he would have been about 7.5 years old. The Poor Law records state:

This woman deserted by her husband who however has been coming and visiting her occasionally, bore this morning 2 girls, one at 3, and the other at 6 o’clock and she herself died at 12 o’clock noon, leaving her two infants, her sons Samuel 14 and Robert 7 years.

On 15 March 1860, Robert MILLAR was admitted to the Kibble Reformatory, after being sentenced to 14 days in prison and 4 years in Reformatory for stealing tobacco. Although the register states his age as 8, he was actually 10 at the time. As his occupation is given as “tobacco boy”, the obvious assumption is that he perhaps stole from his employer. The admission register also contains scathing comments about his father Samuel, stating “Father drunkard, very useless”. These two facts paint a vivid picture of what life was probably like for 10-year-old Robert, without his mother, out working in a tobacco factory, and with a “drunken and useless” father at home. Robert MILLAR appears on the 1861 census as an “Inmate Under Detention” at Kibble Reformatory, listed by his initials RM only. The following year, Samuel MILLAR died in Paisley.

After exactly 4 years in Reformatory, Robert MILLAR was discharged on 15 March 1864. As both his parents were deceased, the register states his trade on discharge as “Navy”, but this does not appear to have been a long-lived career, if a career at all, as when Robert married Isabella HARKNESS in Paisley in 1870, he gave his occupation as “dyer journeyman”. At the time of the 1871 census Robert MILLAR was visiting the household of another, older Robert MILLAR in Liverpool, presumably a paternal relative. Robert remained in England at the time of the 1881 census, and was listed at 2 Alexander Street in Leicester, with his wife Isabella and four children, working as a garment dyer. He also appears on the 1891, 1901 and 1911 censuses for Paisley, giving his occupation each time as a woollen dyer. Robert died in Paisley in March 1923 at the age of 72. There is no evidence of any further brushes with the law after his stay in Kibble Reformatory during his teenage years.

The census records give the bare bones of the story. But the information in the admissions register that Robert's father was "drunken and useless" says far more than a census return ever could. So, if you suspect that a relative was in a Reformatory, is this something worth digging into? Almost definitely, and I'd be delighted to help you do it.

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