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The Glamorganshire Reformatory School

later

The Neath Farm School

now

Hillside Young Offenders' Institute

Ron McConville

In 1854 the Government set up the first Reformatory Schools, going some way to not treating delinquent children to a term of imprisonment alongside   adults.  There are records that even in the early Victorian era there were children as young as twelve being hanged.   It is also on record that around 1838 some juvenile offenders were sent to Parkhurst Prison on the Isle of Wight and then transported to Australia as Freemen.

It is a fact that Charles Dickens' novel Oliver Twist written in 1837 with its arch criminal Fagin played a major part in turning the public opinion to the problems of the young offender.  Indeed, at first some of the boys in the UK were sent for a fortnight to adult prisons.  In parliament the Liberals thought this pointless but the Conservatives still thought this would act as a deterrent and be meaningful retribution.

The Neath school was opened on the 4th March 1858 with the intention of holding 50 boys.  So, here in Neath, we have one of the oldest institutions for the care, reform and curtailment of liberty of juvenile offenders in the British Isles.  The place selected for the school was 250 acres of land at Hawdref Ganol, which was described a 'wild and desolate place' above Cimla on the road to Pontrhydyfen.  One of the first problems was the fact that for many boys their first language was Welsh and so few could understand English.

At Neath the boys were expected to work six hours a day, they had religious instruction and educational classes.  The food was good and wholesome compared with the diet that some of them had been used to.  There was some discussion on the Irish Roman Catholic immigrants who had arrived in the vicinity escape the potato famine in Ireland.  Being as the nearest Roman Catholic Reformatory was in Yorkshire it was decided to keep the children in Neath and appoint a local Roman Catholic for religious duties. In 1860 the buildings were extended to include a schoolroom and   lavatories.  At this time 80 acres were under cultivation and the inmates were aged from ten to fifteen years of age.

 

As time passed it was found that the site at Hawdref Ganol was too wild and inaccessible.     A site for new accommodation was found at Ty Segur, a farm of forty acres and a seventy year lease was taken on.     A new building made of stone was erected at a cost of £4,398 and capable of holding 70 boys was opened on 12th March 1875.     The existing inmates were then transferred along with the staff.  The boys were to have separate beds and provided with sufficient wholesome food.     One of the menus shows that coffee was issued for breakfast and tea for supper.   There was no uniform as such, but plain hard-wearing clothing was issued. Neath at this time was in the grip of industrial development and in 1886 it was reported that crops were being damaged by smoke from the local works and manufactories. 

In 1902 HM Prison Rochester in the village of Borstal became the experimental juvenile prison of the reformatory type.     The name Borstal going on to become synonymous as a general term for detention centres for charged youths across the country.  It was in the year 1907 that the name was changed from the Glamorganshire Reformatory School to the Glamorgan Farm School.  Further to this, in 1933 with the advent of the Children and Young Persons Act the Glamorgan Farm School became a Home Office Approved School.  It now housed of up to 70 boys of between 14 and 17 years of age.   As well as education, the boys were now given instruction in farm work, horticulture and carpentry.  Then in 1973 the Approved School became a Community Home controlled by Glamorgan County Council.  Some of the original buildings were demolished and three separate buildings were erected housing about 20 boys in each.  The home was in the care of a Housemaster who lived on-site with his wife and family. The boys still worked on the farm and related property, but it was an end to communal living.  One of the original dormitories was turned into cells for night-time occupation of the worst offenders where they were held in a locked environment each night in the care of the Housemaster or other responsible person.

It was in the mid-1980s that a government inquiry was ongoing into Child Abuse which had started by investigating the Bryn Estyn Children's Home in Wrexham. Further allegations meant that inquiries were made of 33 other institutions under operation 'Goldfinch' that included Neath, but nothing seems to have come of such claims. 

Later the Farm School buildings were demolished and the site re-opened in 1996 as the Hillside Secure Centre for 12 to 17 year olds.   This is a purpose built facility comprising of three units; two of these house young persons whose custodial sentence varies between a week and possibly as long as a year.   The third unit is for young persons who have received a sentence between one year and life.

In the year 2002 it cost £22,000 a week to house each youngster at Hillside, although in the early 1950s it had only cost about ten shillings (50p) a week to keep a youngster in the Glamorgan Farm School.  It must be remembered, however, that the boys were in many ways self-sufficient, with a lot of the fruit and vegetables grown there being sold to the local neighbours.  Boys also worked in the kitchens, preparing and cooking food and a considerable volume of the maintenance of the buildings was also undertaken by them.   On the site the lads were taking part in running a proper working farm.    Employment in these jobs meant the added advantage that when released they could cite this valuable experience when looking for jobs.   There was, of course, no drug problem during those years and the population as a whole had respect and, in some cases, fear of authority.

Recollections from the 1950s

I was old enough (in those days) at fourteen to leave school and so in 1950 I secured employment at the Glamorgan Farm School as a Junior Clerk.  Ironically, I was the same age as the boys that had been sent there by the Courts; (I would leave in in 1953 to do my National Service in the Royal Air Force.  All young men at that time went into the forces at eighteen, except in the case of those in apprenticeships or going on to university, who were deferred).

In charge of the Farm School office was Mr Euros Morris, a man I came to respect very much, as he had administrative know how and was certainly on top of his job.  I learned a lot from him in the four years I was there.     He was aircrew in Bomber Command which had the highest death rate in our armed forces, so must have had a tough war.  He was very fair but tough when it was required, I believe he held the respect of staff and boys alike.

A decade or so later I met Mr Enoch Davies, who had been  Deputy Headmaster, he told me that the re-offending rate in the early fifties was an incredible five percent.  Those re- offending inmates ended up in Borstal or indeed prison.      He said he did not know the re offending rate now, but it was very high.     The cost of running the place had also escalated enormously and was now in the hundreds of pounds a week.

As previously stated the boys were all engaged in working in the various employment opportunities at the school.    Mr Headman the teacher was tasked with bringing numeracy and literary standards to a higher level, especially in those with limited educational qualities.  This did not apply to one inmate, a boy of seventeen who had a brilliant IQ level of around 165, but who for some reason was a confirmed Fascist.  He made the national newspaper headlines some years later when he stole an RAF Meteor jet aeroplane and flew it to Scotland, where he crashed into a mountainside and killed himself.

Of those who ran the various departments I remember the following in particular;

Mr Mervyn Chesterfield was our horticultural guru.   The fruit and vegetables he and his lads produced for the kitchen and for sale to the locals were of the highest quality.   There were also about five hives on site to assist with fertilisation of the crops and which also provided some honey.  Apparently Mr Chesterfield was employed in the Farm School for many years after the 1950s.

Mr Tom Griffiths was in charge of building repairs, woodwork and painting.  It is reputed that there was a clamp-down on inmates doing this work, since there was objection from some of the trade unions.  What is true, however, is that boys leaving and looking for employment had some knowledge of these trades. Mr Griffiths was very good at badminton, when I played him; he smashed me every time in the gymnasium.

The farm was some distance from the main buildings, so I only went over there occasionally.  As stated earlier it was a fully functional mixed arable and animal farm where boys would certainly have learned a lot about the various farming methods.  Of course, farming methods and practices have changed radically since the 50s and very little manual labour is required today, the machine age arrived with a vengeance. Our fields seem deserted all the time – even of wildlife.  A trick played on the new boys on the farm was to “go up to the office and get the keys to the Dutch Barn.” Even if they had been given some keys they would have had a hard time finding the door for this particular open farm building with a curved roof set over a steel, timber, or concrete frame without walls, used for storing hay.

School visit to Glamorgan Couny Council with Rev. W Degwel Thomas (Chairman) 1952

One of the House masters was Neath rugby player, Elvet Jones who was, therefore, well known in the town and later became the Deputy Headmaster.

 

Some years after I had left the forces and became self-employed, I noticed an advertisement for a position as a Housemaster. I applied, was welcomed by the Headmaster and accepted by the Glamorgan County Council but turned down by the Home Office who rejected me since I had failed the scholarship and that anyway they considered that a Graduate was required for the position.  In retrospect it was just as well, people and times were changing.  There was a certain empathy with these offenders, they were there to be punished, but the idea of reform was there also.  It is only too likely that later staff showed just as much care and compassion, but with a far more difficult job. 

There was a female cook who was in charge of the lads sent to work in the kitchen, the boys and staff were provided with victuals from here and as I remember the food was just fine.  The kitchen received milk, eggs, meat and some vegetables from the farm; whilst the Horticultural Department provided the fruit and salad crops. 

The household management of the school was the duty of the matron who was in charge of bedding, cleaning and clothing the boys.  Of course, there were no cleaners and the boys were made to keep the dormitories and rooms spick and span.

In the sporting world the school occasionally played local teams in football and cricket. There was one outstanding athlete who was good at all sports but who excelled the long jump where he was very close to the Olympic record.  I have never heard anything more of him, what a loss to the world of sport.

The main deterrent to undesirable behaviour such as bullying etcetera was based on a system of trust and privileges which were to be gained or lost dependent upon a boy's behaviour.  Boys would go into town on various forays on their own and as far as I can remember this privilege was never abused.  Once a month there was a whist drive in the dining room where inmates and locals turned up to play cards. 

I have since learned that in the late 1960s Mr Morris and his wife started a dancing class teaching the rudiments of the waltz, quickstep and foxtrot.  This proved to be an outstanding success when one of the staff, who played in a band organised dances in the dining room; the result being that many of the local girls turned up.

The Acona Dance Band - 1960s

Every year the whole school decamped for a week to the St Athan Boys' Village and as a member of staff I was included.  I still remember that the Post Horn Gallop was played over the public address system as a call for breakfast.  Later, I believe, they went to the School Camp at Ogmore by Sea.

Those boys who had homes to go to and were to be trusted were allowed leave for a week at Christmas.  This was the ultimate privilege and I am pleased to say that they all returned safely every New Year.  For those who did not have homes to go to, whose homes were unsuitable and the most incorrigible stayed behind where they had Christmas presents and a turkey dinner with all the trimmings.  A few were invited to spend the evening with some of the staff in their homes.  Towards the end of their sentences there were further periods of short leave granted. 

Corporal punishment was allowed but only for a very serious infringement of the rules.    I only remember it being administered on three occasions whilst I worked there.   Everything was done by the book, the cane was of a particular weight and not frayed, trousers were worn and it really was six heavy strokes.     The punishment was witnessed and the Punishment Book was kept for Home Office Inspectors.  The punishment was not witnessed by the other boys, but they certainly knew of the event.  It made an impact on behaviour for some time. During the time that I was there the building had two cells in the tower, but as far as I know they had not been used for many decades.

There were a few who absconded over the years.  One I remember was a lad who was away for a few weeks in the summer, living off the land.    However, he decided to come back and was picked up on the farm.  A major problem was his wellies; they had not been taken off and now could not be removed as they had become 'glued' to his feet.  The answer was to place him into a hot bath wellies and all until the hot water did its job.

Some years ago I saw on a television news programme prisoners held in Cuba by the Americans who were manacled hand and foot which reminded me of the time when Mr Morris had to go to London to pick up an absconder who had ended up in Court for a further misdemeanour.  Mr Morris did not need manacles; he took nail scissors - cut the boot laces, cut all the buttons on his coppish (flies), trouser braces removed and shirt and coat buttons removed.    The absconder shuffled back to Neath quite safely but disconsolately.

One of the things that many people in Neath remember is the line of boys snaking their way down to town on a Sunday morning.  When there they would be split up to attend service in their particular place of worship, be it Anglican, Romam Catholic or Chapel.

The records that I was employed to file were kept in a small room which I found a fascinating place and I was the only person who ever entered there. The room contained the details of inmates, their crimes and the sentences imposed going back to the 1800s.  Some of this information was so interesting and informative.  I remember in particular one entry about a boy who came to Neath from Cornwall by train in the 1860s (it was not many years before this that the passenger railway had first reached Neath). Another entry was about a cow that was found dead with its legs in the air on the top field.  That same night there was tragic loss of life in Pontrhydyfen and Melyncryddan.  No doubt a German bomber on a run and heading straight for the refinery at Llandarcy had dropped his payload early.  I believe that the refinery escaped damage that night. 

In retrospect it really was an interesting period of my life, seeing a system that appeared to work very well. Undoubtedly there were hiccups and the system failed some youngsters, but as a reforming as well as a punishing system it had some successes.  Today the system at Hillside operates in a very different dynamic largely brought about by the problems that have arisen out of what we term as the 'drug culture'. 

It was not until I looked into the history of the Farm School that I uncovered the news about the boys petitioning about the Resignation of the Headmaster. This report is dated 1949 and being closed for 75 years will not be released until 2025.  Although I joined the staff in February 1950, I had never heard anything about this affair.  Perhaps as a 14 year old it was all above my head. I wonder what this record contains that led to a 75 year ban being applied.

The following appreciation of Mr Euros Morris, the school secretary appeared in the local newspaper;

Acknowledgements/Sources

Public Records Office - Kew

West Glamorgan Archive Service - Swansea

Mrs Diane Paulette (nee Morris) - for her invaluable corrections and suggestions.

Ron McConville - October 2019

 

 

   

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