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Entrance to The Grove Prison. Built in 1848, it operated as an adult prison from 1848, a borstal from 1921, and a young offenders institution from 1988.

A borstal was a type of youth detention centre in the United Kingdom, several member states of the Commonwealth and the Republic of Ireland. In India, such a detention centre is known as a borstal school.

Borstals were run by HM Prison Service and were intended to reform young offenders. The word originated from the first such institution established in 1902 near the English village of Borstal in Kent, and is sometimes used loosely to apply to other kinds of youth institutions and reformatories,[1] such as approved schools and youth detention centres. The court sentence was officially called "borstal training". Borstals were originally for offenders under 21, but in the 1930s the maximum age was increased to 23. The Criminal Justice Act 1982 abolished the borstal system in the UK, replacing borstals with youth custody centres.

In India, borstal schools are used for the imprisonment of minors. As of 31 December 2014, there were twenty functioning borstal schools in India, with a combined total capacity of 2,108 inmates.[2]


United Kingdom[edit]

HMP Portland, Dorset, former Borstal

The Gladstone Committee (1895) first proposed the concept of the borstal, wishing to separate youths from older convicts in adult prisons. It was the task of Sir Evelyn Ruggles-Brise (1857–1935), a prison commissioner, to introduce the system, and the first such institution was established at Borstal Prison in a village called Borstal, near Rochester, Kent, England, in 1902. Although originally created to be a typical prison, Borstal evolved into something new, with the name still recognised today. The redesigned prison regime focused on education rather than punishment, aiming to avoid inmates reoffending.[3]

The system was developed on a national basis and formalised in the Prevention of Crime Act 1908. The regimen in these institutions was designed to be "educational rather than punitive", but it was highly regulated, with a focus on routine, discipline and authority during the early years. Borstal institutions were originally designed to offer education, regular work and discipline, though one commentator has claimed that "more often than not they were breeding grounds for bullies and psychopaths."[4]

The Criminal Justice Act 1982 officially abolished the borstal system in the UK, introducing youth custody centres instead. As society had changed[clarification needed] the system was then already outdated especially since the late 1960s and early 1970s, with many borstals being closed and replaced with institutions called Detention Centres and, from 1972, also with Community Service Order sentences.[5]

Corporal punishment[edit]

Except in Northern Ireland, the only corporal punishment officially available in borstals was the birch for mutiny or assaulting an officer, and this could be imposed only by the visiting magistrates, subject in each case to the personal approval of the Home Secretary, just as in adult prisons.[6] Only male inmates over 18 might be so punished. This power was very rarely used – there were only seven birching cases in borstals in the 10 years to 1936.[7] This birching power was available only in England and Wales (not in Scottish borstals).[8] Caning as a more day-to-day punishment was used in the single borstal in Northern Ireland but was not authorised in Scotland or England and Wales.[9] Confusion on this matter arises perhaps because in approved schools, a quite different kind of youth institution based more on the open "boarding school" model, caning was an official punishment for young people (maximum age 19).[10]


A similar system under the name "borstal" or "borstal school" has also been introduced in several other Commonwealth countries.


In India, nine states, namely Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Kerala, Maharashtra, Punjab, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, and Telangana, have borstal schools in their respective jurisdictions. Tamil Nadu had the highest capacity, at 678 inmates (as of 2014). Himachal Pradesh and Kerala are the only states that have the capacity to lodge female inmates in two of their borstal schools. There are no borstal schools in any of the union territories.[2]


In Ireland the Criminal Justice Act, 1960 (Section 12) removed the term "borstal" from official use.[11] This was part of a policy to broaden the system from reform and training institutions to a place of detention for youths between 17 and 21 for any sentence which carried a prison term.[citation needed] The only borstal in the state was based for most of its existence in Clonmel, in County Tipperary. Founded in 1906, it finally closed in 1956, when the remaining detainees were transferred to the newly established St. Patrick's Institution in Dublin. Industrial schools performed a similar function to borstals.

In popular culture[edit]




  • In the fourth episode of the first series of the show Fawlty Towers, titled "The Hotel Inspectors", the main character, Basil Fawlty, is chastised by his wife, Sybil, for his harsh treatment of their guests. She tells him, "This is a hotel, not a borstal." Basil later ingratiatingly repeats the line to a guest whom he believes to be a hotel inspector.
  • A ninth series episode of the BBC television show Father Brown, titled "The Wayward Girls" and first broadcast in January 2022, was set in a borstal.[12]
  • In the first series, 6th episode, of Downton Abbey, Lady Sybil Crawley asks her father's permission to be driven to Ripon to attend a Borstal committee meeting ("I've missed the last two"), but instead she has the chauffeur, Branson, drop her at the location where the by-election vote count is being announced. She is injured in a brawl; Branson and her father's cousin Matthew rescue her.
  • Dog Borstal is the title of a British television series in which dog trainers address challenging behaviour by dogs.


  • The British rock band Faces recorded a song (written by Rod Stewart, Ronnie Wood, and Ian McLagan) called "Borstal Boys" on their final studio album Ooh La La.
  • The British punk rock band Sham 69 had a top 40 hit single with a song called "Borstal Breakout" in 1977.
  • The British rock band Humble Pie recorded a song called "30 Days in the Hole" that included the lyric "Some seeds and dust, and you got Borstal."
  • The British ska/rock band Madness based their song "Land of Hope and Glory" from the album One Step Beyond... on one of their members' time in a borstal for petty theft.
  • The British singer-songwriter Richard Thompson included a song called "I Can't Wake Up to Save My Life" on his 1994 album Mirror Blue, which included the lines "Things I done make my dreams turn bad, like borstal boys coming home to Dad", an image similar to "chickens coming home to roost".
  • The German punk band Oxymoron released a track titled "Borstal" on their 1995 album "Fuck The Nineties...Here's Our Noize".
  • The British synthpop band Bronski Beat featured a mince pie-eating competition in Borstal with lead singer Jimmy Somerville winning the contest in the music video[13] of the cover song "It Ain't Necessarily So" from the album The Age of Consent.
  • The Borstal is a punk rock band from Jakarta, Indonesia.
  • Borstal is a heavy hardcore band from London, with Brujeria and Knuckledust members (including lead singer, Pelbu).
  • Borstal is a song by British hip hop group Monster Florence
  • The British rock band Squeeze included a song called "Vicky Verky" on their 1980 album Argybargy, which included the lines "Well he went off to Borstal, He said that he was forced to, Rob the flats of Hi Fis, 'Cause she was ill and she would cry".[14]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Bradwall Reformatory School (1855–1920)", a local history site. ([1])
  2. ^ a b "Capacity and Population of Inmates in Borstal Schools at the end of 2014" (PDF). National Crime Records Bureau. Archived from the original (PDF) on 27 August 2016. Retrieved 26 July 2016.
  3. ^ "Borstal Prison". The Institutional History Society. 11 March 2021. Retrieved 27 November 2023.
  4. ^ Bernard O'Mahoney, The A–Z of Law and Disorder, July 2006.
  5. ^ Jenniffer Turner (2016). The Brison Boundary. Palgrave Studies in Prison and Penology. p. 80. ISBN 9781137532428. Retrieved 31 July 2016.
  6. ^ Report of the Departmental Committee on Corporal Punishment (the "Cadogan Report"), Cmnd. 5684, Home Office, 1938, p. 123.
  7. ^ Cadogan, p. 122.
  8. ^ Cadogan, p. 123.
  9. ^ Nial Osborough, Borstal in Ireland: Custodial provision for the young adult offender 1906–1974, Institute of Public Administration, Dublin, 1975. ISBN 0-902173-66-9
  10. ^ Report of a Committee to Review Punishments in Prisons, Borstal Institutions, Approved Schools and Remand Homes (the "Franklin Report"), Cmnd. 8429, Home Office, 1951.
  11. ^ "CRIMINAL JUSTICE ACT, 1960". Office of the Houses of the Oireachtas. Retrieved 21 February 2013.
  12. ^ [user-generated source]
  13. ^ music video
  14. ^ "Squeeze – Vicky Verky".

External links[edit]