The last 200 years has seen a developing understanding of children who break the law and how society should deal with them. These advances created and impacted on the institution known initially as the Herts Reformatory School, near Chapmore End.
The rapid industrialisation of the country from the late 18th century led to increased numbers moving to the cities and larger towns. With no public provision of education and cramped housing, unemployed children became spent their days on the streets. The Philanthropic Society was set up in 1788 for the protection of poor children, including those involved in criminal practices.
Public concern over children forming street gangs was reflected by Charles Dickens in the popular publication of ‘Oliver Twist’ (1837). The following year Parkhurst Prison established an experimental reformatory for young offenders, providing outdoor industrial training and religious teaching, in preparation for a life in the colonies.
By the late 1840s children under the age of 14 were no longer tried in adult courts. Those found guilty required punishment but in situations away from older prisoners, where education would addressed their behaviour. The first conference on Preventative and Reformatory Schools was held in 1851. Three years later legislation provided government financial assistance and inspection for reformatory schools.
In 1857 Abel Smith of Woodhall Park, took the lead in establishing the Herts Reformatory School on land in the Rib Valley. About 50 boys (aged between 10 and 16) arrived to complete their sentence. The first boy admitted was from Hitchin, but many were from further afield; London, Cambridge, Liverpool and Shropshire.
Much of their time was spent on training in agricultural work. Outside of this, the boys had instruction in reading, writing and religious study. At a time when urban living conditions were poor for most, inmates had regular meals in clean surroundings. Medical attention and education were provided here that they may not have found outside.
However an article in the Herts Mercury on 13th September 1863 shows life in the Reformatory was not necessarily peaceful: 23 boys absconded from the Herts Reformatory having mutinied because pudding was refused them on Sunday. The boys proceeded as far as the Ware Cemetery when the Labour Master persuaded them to return by promising that they should have the pudding. They afterwards refused to enter the reformatory and armed themselves with sticks and stones. At length a strong body of police made their appearance and the boys were over powered. Arthur Samworth the ring leader was taken before the magistrate and committed to prison for three months.
By the early 20th century, following several scandals of harsh punishment at other reformatories, a new system of inspection was instigated. New ideas of care led to the 1933 Children and Young Person’s Act, which re-constituted the old reformatories as Approved Schools. The Herts Training School, as the Reformatory had become, started to receive older boys, aged between 15 and 17.
After World War Two, society’s requirements of the penal system were changing again. The Children and Young Persons Act (1969) sought to reduce the institutionalisation of the young. Training on the farm was viewed as no longer appropriate for a country with falling agricultural employment. The focus now was to train literate, reliable workers.
The responsibility for the country’s training schools transferred from the Home Office to the new Department of Health and Social Security. On a local level, control moved to Hertfordshire County Council. The School was renamed again, to Crouchfield Community Home and the majority of boys came from within the County.
The doors finally closed in 1982 and the land was sold. The Crouchfield Trust was set up with the proceeds of the sale. Its main purpose continues in the promotion of education, training and care facility provision for Hertfordshire children and young people in need.
Find out more:
Runaway Reformatory Boys. Post on the Herts Past Policing site.
Herts Training School Hostel, Ware. Post on the Hertford and Ware Herts Memories site.
The minutes, correspondence, admission and discharge registers and medical record for the school between 1857-1973 (ref. D/EHts) can be seen at Hertfordshire Archive and Local Studies. Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies.
Crouchfield: A history of the Herts Training School, 1857-1982. Dorothy Abel Smith. Able Publishing, 2008. 9781903607855.