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Olden Life

Regulars | By Oliver Bennett

What was Borstal?

‘Well, now I’m over the wall, I’m nearly ’ome.’ ‘Borstal Breakout’, of course, by punk band Sham 69. At least some of this 1978 smasher’s power came from the bellowed word ‘borstal’, glottal stops and all. Would ‘Approved School Breakout’ have worked? Unlikely, m’lud. Such was the invocatory power of the word ‘borstal’, the name for a young person’s prison. The idea that became borstal was birthed after the 1895 Gladstone Committee on prisons, which proposed that young convicts should be in a separate category to adults. By 1902, the first youth nick was established, called Borstal Prison after its location, Borstal, in Kent. The word became generic, as the concept went national and then international: India still has many ‘Borstal Schools’. Thus did the name of a suburb of Rochester become a word whose phonetic fierceness made the genteel shudder and double-lock their doors. The idea wasn’t as brutal...

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