100 years under lock and key in Polmont

Polmont YOI has been trying to  put youngsters back on the right path for 100 years
Polmont YOI has been trying to put youngsters back on the right path for 100 years
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Polmont YOI will mark a century of service on Friday.

The original building on the site was the Blairlodge Academy Boarding School for Boys founded in 1843 by Church of Scotland Minister Robert Cunningham, who had been the headmaster of George Watson’s College in Edinburgh.

The school, which copied the English public school system, attracted the sons of Scotland’s wealthiest families. It flourished under the dynamic and innovative leadership of headmaster J. Cooke-Gray who took over in 1874 and by 1900 was the largest fee-paying school of its kind in Scotland.

The 300 boys learned the classics, sports and science. Pupils who left Blairlodge traditionally entered the privileged world of the Colonial Service, went to Oxford or Cambridge or were recruited into the commercial world of investment banking.

After Cooke-Gray died in 1902, Blairlodge faced increasing financial difficulties, but it was the outbreak of an infectious disease, probably measles, in 1908 which forced it to close.

Three years later the abandoned buildings were bought by the Prison Commissioners and in December, 1911, reopened as Scotland’s first borstal. None of the original buildings still stand.

The Prevention of Crime Act of 1908 dictated that the regime in borstal was to be “educational rather than punitive”, but it was highly regulated with the emphasis on routine, discipline and authority. The minimum sentence for borstal training was one year. Shorter sentences were completed in prison.

One year after opening Mr McKinnon Wood, the Secretary of State for Scotland, was asked in the House of Commons for information on the “progress of the borstal experiment at Blairlodge.” He told Mr Frederick White MP: “The total number of boys sentenced under Part 1 of the Act has been, to date, 101, all of whom are still under borstal treatment. I am informed that the conduct and progress of those in the institution has been good.”

Many young men from the borstal joined the armed forces during the Great War, released on licence to serve and supervised by the Army, Navy or Merchant Navy. Almost all returned to the services after their sentences were completed.

Polmont Borstal taught its young men a variety of trades. In 1921 a local bootmaker volunteered to show some how to make shoes. Kenneth McKenzie, who later became a prison officer, gave up his free time to help the boys learn a valuable skill.

With a £5 budget from the Prison Service he started a shoe making class in the evenings. Until then, almost all inmates had been locked up at teatime until breakfast. McKenzie put on exhibitions and sales of work to keep the class going.

Other officers ran sports activities including football, cricket, gymnastics and boxing. Civilian instructors were also brought in to teach the boys skills including bricklaying, welding and textile manufacture. In 1938 the question of how much they were paid was raised in the House of Commons and Mr Mathers who made the inquiry was told by the Secretary of State for Scotland: “The civilian instructor appointed on a temporary basis to give instruction in electric welding to suitable lads for approximately seven hours daily receives a pay of £6 a week plus the cost of a season ticket from Glasgow where he lives.”

The inmates were employed constructing staff houses and painting and decorating them and the borstal itself. This continued into the 1970s when inmates helped build the prison at Cornton Vale in Stirling.

Major investment was constantly required to ensure the borstal remained fit for purpose. The growing prison population resulted in the almost constant upgrading or replacement of facilities and although the borstal system was replaced in 1983 by the concept of the Young Offenders Institution, the required rebuild of Polmont as Scotland’s national holding facility for young offenders aged between 16 and 21 was not finished until last year.

As well as modern accommodation wings, Polmont Prison boasts an administration suite, visit rooms, state of the art gate entry systems, a health care centre, gymnasium and Blair House specifically for 16 to 17-year-olds.

If you have memories of Polmont YOI you would like to share with readers, e-mail editorial@falkirkherald.co.uk