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The former Reformatory School for Boys in Brampford Speke

The former Boys' Reformatory School in Brampford Speke

© Richard J. Brine


The Devon and Exeter reformatory School was set up in 1855 to take 30 boys. It was supported by public subscription and a Government allowance of 5 shillings per week for each boy and was one of the first attempts in the UK to remove young boys from contact with adult criminals in the hope that they could be saved from a life of crime by the practice of honest, hard work.


Of course, the building shown above did not then look as it does today but it was, basically, an ordinary gentleman's residence - the kind of place where many country people would find work either in the garden or looking after horses or  doing carpentry or labouring work.


By all accounts, this school was well-run. There was a Superintendent and a farm bailiff who both  lived in with their families. The Superintendent's wife was appointed to be the Matron. By the end of the 19th century, a schoolmaster was also officially appointed and a schoolroom set up. The boys were employed in farm work and working in the large garden of the house. When Mr and Mrs Harris retired in 1893, they had been at the school for over 40 years and had done well to create what was for some boys, the only "home" they ever knew.


All boys were sentenced to a period in Exeter's adult prison which included solitary confinement, at least one whipping and working at hard and pointless adult punishments like turning the crank or stone-breaking or turning on the treadmill,  the idea being that a taste of what might lie ahead if they persisted in their criminal careers.


The following are the records of just a few of the boys the school tried to help. Try to imagine their feelings when they stepped out of the cart which brought them and looked around them. at the peaceful rural scenery.


The view from the school towards the river Exe

The view from the school over the river Exe

© Richard J. Brine

Thomas Watkins
"Thomas was aged 10 on entry at the school and was sent here because although this was his first conviction, it was for indecent assault.. He had served one month's adult imprisonment when he came to the school on 2 November 1878 with a sentence of five years to serve at the school. His mother, Elizabeth Watkins, lived in Torquay and took in washing, but his father had deserted them. He worked his time out and was eventually discharged into the care of  his uncle who promised to find him a job and keep an eye on him."
Henry Heath
"Sentenced to 21 days in the adult prison followed by 3 years at the school. He was already 14 when he arrived 27 January 1879. His offence?  Well, he stole 2 pairs of men's stockings from a shop. He was an orphan whose relatives had completely disowned him. He served most of his sentence but was discharged 28 January 1882, having found work. "
John Battershill
"John's third conviction was for stealing books (which he could not read) from a shop doorway for which he was sentenced to 10 days imprisonment and a further five years at the school.  He was 13½ at entry and must have done well there because after four years he was licensed to join the Royal Navy on a 22 year contract which was followed by his receipt of a naval pension."
Samuel Hambling
"His record states "alias Kelly". He was 11 on entry. His mother had remarried after his father's death and new husband Robert Kelly wanted his stepson to take his name. Samuel's conviction was for stealing apples from an orchard in Kingsbridge. Both parents stated that "he was a bad character" but the local shoemaker took pity on Samuel and undertook to apprentice him to the trade if released into his care which happened on 28 October 1882. The 1911 census shows him living in Plymouth with his wife but sadly, no children of their own."


The success of these early reform schools lay in two areas. The first was the ability of the institution's  Honorary Secretary. In the case of this school it was Samuel Dyer Knott Esq. who had been a trustee of the local Lovelace Charity which included the education of boys among its concerns. When he died in 1899, he had spent many years of his life raising money for the Brampford Reformatory and taking an active interest in the welfare and progress of the boys. The Honorary Secretary was the link between the school and the Government funding so very little happened that Samuel Dyer Knott did not know about.


The second was the influence of those who staffed the home. The very fact that Mr and Mrs Harris stayed there for over 40 years shows how beneficial their influence was. They accompanied the boys to church every Sunday and influenced the moral tone of the school. It is quite clear that they allowed the boys time to play as other children played because of the  tragedy which took place in the summer of 1892.


As can be seen in the photo above, the river Exe flows along the lower boundary of the school site. Over the years,  boys had "rearranged" the river bed in some spots to produce pools where the water was deep enough for the boys to jump in when swimming was permitted. On 9 July 1892, the boys were allowed to go for a swim after school - in those days, there being no notion of adult supervision.  The inquest revealed that there was much horseplay around one of the deep pools and then everyone became aware that seventeen- year old Fred Hockaday was missing - no-one seemed to know what had happened to  him and a verdict of "drowned while bathing" was recorded.  Fred had been sentenced to five years at the school for stealing stage jewellery to the value of £3 from a dressing room at Exeter's Theatre Royal in 1889.  His funeral took place on  13 July 1892.


In 1899, Samuel Dyer Knott died and in 1900 the school was expanded to take some 55 boys and moved to Whipton, a suburb of Exeter, which then still had enough farm land to justify calling the school The Devon and Exeter Reformatory Farm School for Boys.  A new Superintendent and head schoolmaster, Mr. J. R. Shepherd was appointed with Mrs Shepherd becoming the matron and to assist her with the increased responsibilities a Miss V. Sinclair became Assistant matron. A new departure was the appointment of an evening schoolmaster Mr. R. Pike  and a labour master (replacing the previous farm bailiff)  and drill instructor, Mr. W. H. Newberry, completed the staff.  The Approved School at Whipton  ceased to exist in 1955.



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