In the United Kingdom, a borstal was a specific kind of youth prison, run by the Prison Service and intended to reform seriously delinquent young people. The word is sometimes used, incorrectly, to apply to other kinds of youth institution or reformatory, such as Approved Schools and Detention Centres. The court sentence was officially called "borstal training". Borstals were originally for offenders under 21, but in the 1930s the age was increased to under 23.


The Gladstone Committee (1895) proposed the concept, 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 in north Kent, England in 1902. The system was developed on a national basis and formalised in the Prevention of Crime Act 1908.

The regime in these institutions was designed to be "educational rather than punitive", but it was highly regulated, with a focus on routine, discipline and authority. However, contrary to popular myth, this discipline was not achieved by corporal punishment. Except in Northern Ireland, the only corporal punishment officially available in Borstal 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. Only male inmates over 18 might be so punished. This power was very rarely used -- there were only 7 birching cases in borstals in the 10 years to 1936. The birching was delivered to the inmate's bare buttocks - privately, not in front of other inmates - with a maximum of 24 strokes. In practice, most of these birchings were administered at the special Borstal Wing of Wandsworth Prison in London, which was reserved for youths who had "failed to make satisfactory progress after release on licence from another Institution and have been recalled, by revocation of their licence, to undergo a further period of discipline". This birching power was available only in England and Wales (not in Scottish borstals). Caning as a more day-to-day punishment was used in the single borstal in Northern Ireland but was not authorised in England, Scotland or Wales. 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 a frequent official punishment for boys (maximum age 19). Borstal institutions were 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. Some uncorroborated anecdotal evidence exists of unofficial brutality, both by staff towards the inmates and between inmates -- though possibly no more than is the case for the prison system as a whole.

The Criminal Justice Act 1982 abolished the borstal system in the UK, introducing youth custody centres instead.

A similar system under the name "borstal" had also been introduced in several other states of the British Empire and Commonwealth, including Ireland. In the Republic of Ireland the Criminal Justice Act, 1960 (Section 12) removed the term from usage. This was part of a policy to broaden the system from usage as reform and training institutions to a place of detention for youths between 17 and 21 for any sentence which carried a prison term.

Borstal in the arts


  • Irish writer Brendan Behan wrote of his experiences in the English borstal system in his 1958 autobiography Borstal Boy.
  • In his 1959 short story, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, (included in the book of the same name) Alan Sillitoe wrote about a boy's time in a Borstal for robbing a bakery.
  • Belinda Jones' "Divas Las Vegas" briefly mentions borstal.
  • Doris Lessing refers to a borstal in her novel The Fifth Child.


  • The Faces song "Borstal Boys" was on their 1973 album Ooh La La.
  • Sham 69 released a 1978 single called "Borstal Breakout".
  • Oxymoron released the song "Borstal" in 1995 on their album Fuck The Nineties: Here's Our Noize.
  • Squeeze, in their song "Vicky Verky" (from their 1980 album Argybargy), sing: "He went off to Borstal/ He said he that was forced to/ Rob the flats of hi-fis."
  • The sample from the Wagon Christ song "Bend Over" mentions Borstal.
  • British DJ Duke Dumont released "Feltham (the Borstal Beat)" on his EP "The Dominion Dubs"; the song contains at the introduction a young man talking in detail about how he was caught beating a man half to death, and how he ended up doing time in Feltham.
  • Richard Thompson's song "I Can't Wake Up To Save My Life" contains the line "Like Borstal boys coming home to Dad

Film and television

  • The film The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, directed by Tony Richardson and starring Tom Courtenay, was set in a borstal. Released in 1962, the film was based on a book of the same name by Alan Sillitoe.
  • In 1979 a film about the borstal system was made, called Scum, following on from a 1977 television play of the same name, which portrayed the borstal system as corrupt and brutal.
  • As an example of how the term "borstal" has come to be used loosely in a more general sense to describe any kind of penal institution, there is a BBC television series called Dog Borstal, about badly behaved dogs.
  • In BBC series Little Britain, Vicky Pollard was sent to a borstal for her shoplifting offences and proceeded to get in trouble for fighting another girl.
  • In the BBC series Fawlty Towers, Sybil constantly tells Basil, "This is a hotel -- not a borstal."
  • In the British comedy sitcom, 'Gimme Gimme Gimme', Linda La Hughes is constantly talking about being in a borstal.

Sources and references

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