Ancestry UK

Huntercombe Borstal, Nuffield, Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire

During the Second World War, a large residence known as Huntercombe Place, in the parish of Nuffield, near Nettlebed, Henley-on-Thames, was requisitioned by the government and an internment camp was established in its grounds. In 1946, the site became a Borstal Institution.

In 1966, when the governor was Mr. Roland Attrill, a newspaper article reported on the operation of the establishment.

The aim of Huntercombe. or indeed any Borstal is not to break someone. It is to re-educate the person to plan and use his life well and to he responsible for himself. Burden This means treating each person as an individual. Said Mr. Attrill, "We are lucky here as the numbers are small." The present number is 137.

The burden really falls upon the staff for 'it is men and not buildings who will change the hearts and ways of these misguided lads', said the late Sir Alexander Paterson.

"The staff-boy ratio here is high", said Mr. Attrill. There is a staff of over 50. which includes 23 disciplinary officers. six civilian instructors. three assistant governors and a deputy governor, as well as visiting clergy, doctors and a psychologist.

The new boys always arrive on the first Thursday in the month (about 1pm). From the start great emphasis is laid on what the Governor calls "the cultivation of meaningful relationships" gaining a person's confidence.

The first month is an intensive induction period. They spend their working time cleaning floors and such like: evenings at lectures, bed at 8.30 p.m.. They never leave the security area. During this time they are the subject of a series of tests. These establish literacy and aptitude and help the staff make their own assessments. The I.Q. at Huntercombe ranges from 62-137. At the moment 15 per cent have a reading age of less than ten.

Huntercombe is the first Borstal in this country to experiment with an interesting test pioneered in California. Newcomers are given a series of 93 statements like "Everyone naturally loves his parents because they are his parents" — to which they have to say 'true' or 'false'. Only 48 of these statements are correct. 23 are fakes which show he is trying to make himself appear bad. 22 are fakes which show he is trying to appear good.

"Most of the Borstals adopt a house system. That is they attach the lads when they arrive to a particular house and they do not move during the currency of their training". said Mr. Attrill. This system reflects some of Borstal's early principles and the influence of boarding schools.

Huntercombe no longer follows this. "When a fellow arrives he is put in a training section (there are three). and he sticks to that section. regardless of where he has moved his location in the building." said Mr. Attrill.

There is still a quaint reminder of old thinking: Several of the doors and rooms have names and the coats of arms of Cambridge colleges.

The rectangular shape of the wartime prisoner of war camp has come in very useful. Because the boys during their time at Huntercombe move clockwise round the block as they are promoted in grade, they can check their progress by their position in the building — also in their ties. When they enter it is red. Juniors wear blue, seniors green and those ready for discharge, brown. No time is fixed for a person to graduate from being a junior to a senior. "When they do, they are required to sign a contract. It gives them an idea of the responsibility." said Mr. Attrill.

The main privilege of being a senior is watching late television (till 10 p.m.) with permission. The block has two television rooms, and television is one of the most prized entertainments (on Saturdays and Sundays special supper times are made to suit the programmes). Juniors watch TV at weekends only; seniors may view for a short period every evening.

Seniors do have other privileges. like making visits to Oxford, including projects with International Voluntary Service Organisation, or being able to use Turner's Court swimming pool. They can be specially selected tor Outward Bound courses. Only a senior can work on the small farm which has some 1.300 chickens and 20 pigs). If a person shows an interest in a particular job, like building, then he is given the opportunity to develop it; for instance, caterers work in the kitchen.

Education is left to evening classes. two hours each night. A third of this is gym. Civilian teachers are employed and can teach up to GCE standard, though few boys actually take it. Huntercombe has no lack of audio and visual aids in teaching, with tape-recorders, projectors and slides; just being reorganised is a library of over 3,000 books. Westerns and sports hooks are popular, but each boy is required to read a biography as part of a "project".

"They freely admit that they wouldn't read the same amount outside," said Mr. R. T. Neale, the tutor organiser.

The boys are allowed to write two letters a week. The seniors are specially concerned with applying for jobs. and replies from prospective employers are always pinned up in their rooms.

The first real contact any of the boys will have with the outside world is when. as seniors, they are allowed home on leave for five days. This can come any time from seven months to over a year. "It is a chance to meet their After Care Officer. to settle their relations with their parents and to go and have interviews for jobs," said Mr. At trill.

While at Huntercombe, the boys are encouraged to think about their future relationship with the police. "I once said to a lad who was going home. why don't you go down to the police station for a chat about it?" "What to the Cop Shop?" he replied as though it was like spitting in church: but he went," said the Governor.

The next move after home-leave is for the boy to be considered for discharge. If this is agreed, he is put into the discharge section, which has the only two dormitories. Here they are allowed greater freedom, have a wireless and use their own alarm clock in the mornings. Their doors are left unlocked at night.

The temptation to abscond is ever present especially when so many work outside the security area and the thick woods all around. "We have no perimeter fence." said the Governor. In 1965 there were 60 absconds from Huntercombe: throughout the country there were 1,176. In fact, this is often the only time when local residents hear of Borstals.

Though not isolated, Borstal life is artificial and the real testing time is when a boy is released. Release is always at 7am. However cold the morning, Huntercombe hopes that the boy has not been left entirely on his own. Many keep in contact with friends they have made on the staff, by letter, by telephone and return visits. Huntercombe is not a "home from home." nor is it intended to be. but the whole staff endeavour to make it the stepping-stone to a better and more fruitful life for some of the 5,600 boys and girls at present carrying out a sentence of borstal training.

In 1988, the site was redesignated as a Young Offender Institution. In 2010, the establishment became a "Category C" prison for up to 400 adult males.


Note: many repositories impose a closure period of up to 100 years for records identifying individuals. Before travelling a long distance, always check that the records you want to consult will be available.


  • Prison Oracle - resources those involved in present-day UK prisons.
  • GOV.UK - UK Government's information on sentencing, probation and support for families.