Formation of reformatories and industrial schools

I would like to begin by summarising an overview of parts of a report into the historical background of reformatories and industrial schools in Britain and Ireland. The report laid out by *experts was requested by the commission to inquire into child institutional abuse (CICA), which was set up to deal with allegations of child abuse in Irish reformatories and industrial schools. Prominent survivors had raised their voices to tell Ireland and the world of the secretive systemic inter-generational abuse that occurred behind closed reformatory and industrial school doors. They demanded to be heard. Hence the instigation of the CICA by the then taoiseach, Bertie Ahern’s Fianna Fáil-led government. The Commission was thus established on 23 May, 2000, pursuant to the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse Act 2000 and given three primary functions:

▪   to hear evidence of abuse from persons who allege they suffered abuse in childhood, in institutions, during the period from 1940 or earlier, to the present day;

▪   to conduct an inquiry into abuse of children in institutions during that period and, where satisfied that abuse occurred, to determine the causes, nature, circumstances and extent of such abuse; and

▪   to prepare and publish reports on the results of the inquiry and on its recommendations in relation to dealing with the effects of such abuse.

My deep interest in the historical aspects of reformatories and industrial schools stems from a very personal perspective, as I was a product of Goldenbridge industrial school, Dublin. I also attended the CICA to give evidence of very harrowing times spent at Goldenbridge in the mid-fifties and late sixties. It touches my very core learning about the history. I also find it therapeutic, as it brings home to me the memories that need to be faced up to, and the reality that conceivably 170,000 lives were not that disparate to mine.

In order to find out why child slave labour of every inconceivable kind occurred in reformatories and industrial schools, I needed to go all the way back to the roots of how reformatories and industrial schools were first formed – most specifically apropos to Ireland. I needed to discover how those who ran the institutions came to be so doing. I needed to know why it was that so many children came to be together in these institutions.

As Ophelia Benson pointed out in a discussion with me:

I think they needed to understand what they thought their moral principles were and how they reconciled that with the way they treated helpless children. The discrepancy we all keep talking about and being amazed at? They’re churchy, so they’re Good – that’s what we’re told, that’s what we’re supposed to think. So how did they understand “Good”? And how did that harmonise with being so incredibly Bad toward helpless children?

I think the religious sought to reconcile their moral principles that were grounded by the code of Catholicism: Sexual morality thinking that dated back to medieval times. Beating the daylights out of children because parents went astray probably justified the cruelty towards children. The dirt had to be beaten out of children. Clergy routinely warned believers that children conceived on holy days would be born leprous, epileptic, diabolically possessed, blind, or crippled.

Starvation was also a big problem in the reformatories and industrial schools. Is it any wonder when one considers that in medieval times penalties of 20 to 40 days of strict fasting on bread and water were imposed on transgressors who strayed from the beaten track? The reformatories and industrial schools religious management were still abiding in antediluvian times and making children suffer (by proxy) for the transgression of the parents.

I would like to take readers on an historical reformatories and industrial schools journey. Roots of every kind are important – even the tangled ones. In order to let go of a painful past, it’s necessary to try to figure out its root cause. I know this is true in my case, anyway. So many survivors, throughout their lives, have disassociated from the lives they experienced in their respective institutions. They also discovered in recent years when coming together at reunions, or when meeting each other at various survivor centres, that their past institutional lives came back to haunt them. They clashed with each other. I have personal knowledge of this happening. It was also painful being on the receiving end of this perceived rejection. Some survivors just simply cannot be around other survivors because of triggers of the past emanating from their beings. Period! The fear and anguish of the horrors they lived on a daily basis as child inmates are locked in their brains and hauntingly mirrored back when they meet survivors. I now refuse to let go of that loveless; pitiless; isolated; godforsaken miserable past, because of having hidden away from it for so long. I want to get to the bottom of the pain. I want to look deep and dare to thread into the miasma of my deepest pain and hopefully be somewhat wiser for looking back. I don’t mean being in a time warp, or being stuck in a rut. I do feel that by learning all about the history of reformatories and industrial schools it can become a cathartic healing experience.


According to the *experts report, the Act of the Relief of the Poor of 1598 in Britain and Ireland saw appointments in every parish of ‘overseers of the poor’ whose duty amongst others was to work with children whose parent/s were not considered fit to maintain. 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 by the parish. It was envisaged, too, that workhouses were to be built, financed either by voluntary contribution, or if these were not forthcoming, by official grants. The needs far outweighed both voluntary contributions and official grants. By the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, in both Britain and Ireland populations grew so much that the parish failed to be a practical component for relief management. Impoverished children perambulated the countryside or streets rummaging for food and purloining for a livelihood. In Ireland, the Famine (1845-1849) made an unsatisfactory situation extensively worse, leading to the abjuration of children by parents. The Poor Relief (Ireland) Act, 1838 was the response Ireland looked to on an official level to sort out the great social problem. Workhouses were established 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 waifs’ were still living untamed in the towns. Families were inevitably separated when they went to the workhouses. However, children had access to the parent/s once a week. It was the workhouse rule. The children were seen as risk factors, given that they had to mix with adult down-and-outs. No education facilities were available to the children. There was a dreadful stigma attached to workhouses, they were seen as the lowest of the low. Officials toyed with the idea of making direct payments or essentials available to those in the workhouses, so that they could live independently, alas, it became frowned upon when it was thoroughly considered that those who were not in need… could possibly take advantage of the ‘outdoor relief’ system. After all the charities were specifically set up for those who were completely dependent on them, and who suffered the ignominy of having to live in dire substandard overcrowded conditions. There were also other individual charities and do-gooders who attempted to lessen the plight of children by collecting and bringing them into orphanages. Think ‘ragged schools’. The brainchild, behind these schools being developed was by John Pounds, a shoemaker in 1818. He began teaching poor children without charging fees.

Reformatory and industrial school beginnings

Even still all these charitable organisations put together could not dampen the seriousness of the social problem that was gaining rampant impetus. So in the first half of the nineteenth century committees and commissions were set up to investigate the wider need of child poverty. This was when the industrial school system was first thought of as a way of alleviating the problem. It was to be based on a ‘Continental model’. By the 1850s, Germany, Switzerland and Scandinavia had already approximately one hundred of these industrial schools. Some were called ‘Farm Schools’. The ethos of them was to provide practical training, as opposed to academic learning. This of course suited very well the Victorian ideas of utilitarian progress. Besides, the skills learned would fuel the Industrial Revolution. There would be a two-pronged approach to helping, 1) the children most in need would be provided for and 2) those seen as a threat to society could be controlled. The Continental model was legislated into British law in 1850. For those found guilty of offences. In Ireland a little later reformatories were established.

Reformatory Schools (Ireland) Act, 1858 A decade later: IndustrialSchools (Ireland) 1868. For those neglected, orphaned or abandoned. In other words not for criminal children, but those exposed to potential 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.

A number of charities which had already been in existence took advantage of the, 1858 and 1868 Acts and applied to the government for certificates to act as reformatories and industrial schools. These were for children committed through the courts. Those who were granted certificates could avail of public funds for the upkeep of children. For decades in the aftermath new buildings sprung up, and although reformatories were in existence for a decade longer, industrial schools soon overtook them in both number and inmates. In the seven years after 1858 10 reformatories (five for females) were certified. By the end of the century only seven of the ten original reformatories existed. Some were re-certified as industrial schools. By 1922 only five remained (of which was a reformatory in Northern Ireland) The reformatory school population, which was nearly 800 just after the passing of the 1858 Act, fell to 300 in 1882 and 150 in 1900. In 1875 – on the other hand – there were 50 industrial schools. Even reaching to a total of 71 schools. 56 schools for Catholics and five for Protestant) that were in the 26 counties. At its height, in 1898 the population of industrial schools was 7,998 inmates, compared to 6,000 children in the same year in the miserable workhouses. In 1882 committal entries to Industrial schools were made under the category of begging. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century British social reformers such as Charles Booth and Sebohm Rowntree began questioning and analysing the causes of poverty. They became cognisant of the fact that children were impressionable individuals that were open to all sorts of child abuse. Thus came about change in legislation that was replaced by the Children Act, 1908, popularly known as the Children’s Charter. Though inappreciable, important meaningful changes were made that created a unified structure of law that was applicable to both Britain and Ireland. The Children Act, 1908 covered a lot of topics, for example, the prevention of cruelty to children, protection of infant life, and provision for juvenile offence. The most significant provisioning of the Act was in Part IV, which provided for the constitutional basic for reformatories and industrial schools. It continued that way for susceptible children until its amendment by the Child Care Act, 1991, which became fully operational in 1996. The 1991 Act replaced the Children Act, 2001, which became law in July 2001. Section 44 of the Children Act 1908 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’.

*This historical overview has drawn extensively on the research provided to the Commission by Professor David Gwynn Morgan, Dr Eoin O’Sullivan; Professor Se ́amus O’Cinne ́ide; Dr Moira Maguire (who along with Professor O’Cinne ́ide 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).

I was prompted to find out about the historicity of reformatories and industrial schools because of first wanting to know the raison d’être behind why so many inmates of these institutions in the past were utterly bereft of any knowledge of their own history. So many lives have been irreversibly damaged because of having been incarcerated into a very cruel system.  I wanted to explore the historical roots of the institutions that in turn deprived generations of children of their own natural genealogical roots. There are countless adult survivors to this very day desperately trying to discover their roots, as they without fail were told as child inmates in their respective institutions that their mothers had either abandoned them or were dead, or were worthless beings not worth knowing. Loss of siblings! Loss of mothers! Loss of extended relatives was the price child inmates paid for crimes they either never committed, or, if they did, were so hideously minor to be incarcerated for years. The crimes comprised of mitching from school; robbing orchards or being impertinent. Some children also paid the price because their mothers were not deemed fit enough by the ‘cruelty men’ (euphemistically referred to by all) (ISPCC) to look after the children. The mothers could have been in relationships with men who weren’t the biological fathers. Roots are important to children and adults. So many lives were irreversibly damaged as a consequence of having been incarcerated into a very cruel system. Families were broken up, with many never recovering from the childhood separation that was foisted upon them by an uncaring society, who thought very little of the needs of children. They thought the solution was to set up reformatories and industrial schools. However, the commission to inquire into child abuse and the subsequent Ryan report immensely disproved their worth. They were still in existence in Ireland until the seventies, yet Britain had dispensed with them in 1933.

Related: Industrial Schools – RTÉ

March 19, 2013

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