Ancestry UK

Camp Hill Borstal, Newport, Isle of Wight

What was later to become Camp Hill Borstal began life as a Male Preventive Detention Prison, used to accommodate habitual offenders. Its construction began in 1909 and it was opened by the Home Secretary, Winston Churchill in 1912, although building work was only finally completed in 1915.

In 1932, the prison was converted to a closed borstal, retaining its secure outer wall.

In 1939, an officer from the Metropolitan Police recorded a visit to Camp Hill:

As I entered the main gates of Camp Hill Borstal Institution, Isle of Wight, and saw the brightly coloured flower-beds and white stone buildings, I felt as though I was approaching the grounds of a college or school. Everything looked so fresh and clean; the paths were neat and tidy; the grass round the borders trim and green. What a healthy spot this must be, high up, overlooking the sea and surrounded by beautiful country.

Here I must explain that I was alone on this visit and was not permitted to make any notes. Any omissions must, therefore, be excused. This is a record of what I saw and of my impressions.


Seven years ago the present building was converted from a Preventive Detention Prison to a Borstal Institution. The Governor, who is responsible to the Prison Commissioners, is in charge of the Institution, and is assisted by a Deputy-Governor, Chaplain, Medical Officer, six Housemasters and six Matrons. The Housemasters have under them Assistant Housemasters, Principal Officers and Officers. The staff number about 70, and there are 360 lads. All the staff wear plain clothes; hence there is nothing in their appearance to associate them with prison warders.

I met my guide at the main gates at the appointed time, and after signing the visitors' book my visit started.


The lads in the Institution are of varying ages, the average age being 19, many are over 21, and some are even married. Their day begins at 5.45 a.m., when they are awakened and have to strip to the waist and wash in cold water before tidying their rooms and going outside for forty minutes' physical training. Breakfast, consisting of porridge or bacon, a pint (or more, if required) of tea or cocoa, and bread and margarine, is at 7 a.m. Work begins at 8 a.m., and dinner is at 12 noon. At 5 p.m. the eight hours of work have been completed and the lads have tea, followed at 6 p.m. by educational classes until 8 p.m. From then until 9 p.m. they can amuse themselves in the recreation rooms and writing rooms, or attend other classes. Bed is at 9 p.m., except for those allowed to stay up until 10 p.m.


On the left of the central quadrangle was the Cookhouse, to which we went first. This was a large room, in which were ten or a dozen lads, who, with the assistance of an officer, were preparing the midday meal. I saw the menu drawn up for the week; for every day there was a different dish, all the food being plain but wholesome.

For any of these lads who intended to earn his living as a kitchen hand there was plenty to learn. They can take a course in cookery and can qualify for a certificate from the National School of Cookery. I was told that many of them do get posts in the kitchens of first-class hotels and on board ship.


Next we went to the Roman Catholic Church, and I was indeed surprised by its large size in proportion to the other buildings, for a congregation of 400 would not have filled it. Actually there are only 9o Roman Catholics at Camp Hill. A visiting chaplain takes the services on Sunday and Thursday mornings, only the former of which is compulsory. The organ had been made by a convict about ten years ago, when the church was part of the Preventive Detention Prison.

The Protestant Church was larger than the Catholic and was the size of many a country parish church. It was draped with flags and had a font near the west door. Members of the public and families of the staff attend the services, and some sing in the choir. There is a visiting priest as well as the resident chaplain who takes services.


Of the six houses at Camp Hill, the first which I visited and the largest was St. Stephen's. I could see at a glance that the house-colour was red. The lads' stockings had a red stripe at the top, and in every room there was a tone of red either in the frieze round the wall or in the flowers on the table, while the tops of the mess-room tables were bright scarlet. Each house is run by a Housemaster, who has considerable latitude in its organization; consequently there is an individuality about each, and the rules in no two houses are the same. In St. Stephen's House the meals are served from a buffet between the mess room and the central hall. The tables in each room are numbered, and in charge of each table there is a " captain." The whole mess is also presided over by a mess captain.

These posts of responsibility are part of the training; it is only by excellent behaviour and a desire to make good that these positions are attained and held. With them go certain privileges, such as permission to stay up later at night, to write weekly letters, and to earn as much as a shilling a week.

As I walked round the house and saw the lads scrubbing here and polishing there, I wondered how many of them came from poor, dirty homes, and how many of the good habits they acquired at Camp Hill would be passed on to their homes. The buff walls were decorated with gaily coloured drawings depicting life in the Army, Navy and Air Force, places in the Empire, and other interesting topics. At the end of the hall several lads were playing billiards.

The Housemasters are responsible for discipline and organization in their houses. As each house forms a small independent unit, there is established in the lads' minds the spirit of team work and the sense of competition with other houses. The evening classes are taken by Housemasters and officers on such subjects as wireless, photography and botany. I remember seeing in the passage outside the lecture rooms a model of a steam engine, a thing of interest to all young people.

One house had a green parrot in a cage; presumably the house "mascot." I did not ask if it also had " been in trouble," but I did notice that anyone who put his fingers too near the bars of the cage soon would be!

The rooms where the lads sleep are built on two floors around a hollow rectangle which forms the hall. They are about the size of a Metropolitan Police Section House cubicle, and have distempered walls. Although each room had the general appearance of a cell, some had photographs on the wall and nearly all had a few personal belongings, which seemed to add to the comfort of the room.


The Reading and Recreation Room was most comfortable, and had the appearance of a club room. There were writing tables decorated with bright flowers, pictures all round the panelled walls, a wireless set, shelves full of books, and on the mantelpiece cups and trophies which had been won in inter-house competitions.

The Assistant Housemaster's and Matron's rooms lead off this room. The Matron spends an hour each evening with the lads, discussing things with them and giving them help and advice. The lads have this leisure hour as an alternative to evening classes. It struck me that considerable latitude was given to them as to what they might do in both work and leisure hours.


The Hospital was perhaps the most impressive of all the buildings which I saw, and I am glad to say there was only one patient. The Medical Officer met us and showed us every room : there was the common ward, two or three private rooms, a small modern operating theatre, dispensary, sterilizing room and the Medical Officer's consulting room. I have never seen a building so spotlessly clean and shining. The floors and furniture made me think of the advertisements for Mansion Polish!

All the lads are medically and psychologically examined before being sent to an institution, and again medically after they arrive.

Occasionally a lad has spent as long as two years in hospital, one in particular with a diseased bone.


The lads have some choice in the workroom into which they go, and it is generally arranged for them to do work to which they are accustomed.

The officer-in-charge instructs them and supervises their work in class. He has to pick out two lads each week in his class who, in his judgment, have worked hardest and conducted themselves best to receive the coveted shilling. With a class of ten or twelve, with perhaps six lads all working well, it is a delicate matter to choose, week by week, the two best.


I noticed that every lad was at a different job. They all seemed intent on their work. Looking at the boots they were wearing, I noticed that they were not polished but only "dubbined." Once a week or more often, if necessary, the lads have to "dubbin" their boots. The officer- in-charge told me how difficult it is to get the lads to look after their boots properly. The average life of a pair of boots is eleven months, but it may be less if the wearer is on outdoor work in wet weather. A new type of boot, with Uskide sole (made at Parkhurst Prison), is being issued to all Borstal Institutions. Boots must not be worn indoors, and for this reason a boot-and-shoe rack is provided at the entrance to each house.


The Carpenters' Shop was another busy place, where fourteen lads were hard at work making all manner of wooden things, from gateposts, cut from solid tree-trunks, to salt-boxes for the Army. I examined one of the latter, one of an order for 250; it was so skilfully done that one might have credited it to the work of an experienced carpenter. The lad who made it told me that he really wanted to be an artist!

This shop is supervised only by a civilian carpenter, who instructs the lads. He has to estimate from the talent at his disposal how many hours it will take him to carry out each order. As his class is continually changing, and the most experienced pupils are always leaving, it is no easy matter to estimate and get the work completed within the time stipulated. The question of cost and output is important, for Borstal work must not be put on the market at prices which might undercut private enterprise.

The lads often try and get into the carpenter's shop from other departments and from outside land work, thinking that it is "easy," but soon they find their mistake and want to move on. As in other shops, the lads soon get tired of doing the same job over and over again, and are for ever asking for fresh work.


In this room there were a dozen lads sewing and repairing Institution uniform, underclothes, socks, etc. One was making blue overalls for the G.P.O., and another canvas fenders for naval launches.


The Gymnasium is a large glass-roofed building with a raised platform at one end, which is used for concerts, etc. Classes in gymnastics are given every day, some of the lads becoming quite skilful.

Boxing is also part of the curriculum, and some very enjoyable evenings are spent in boxing competitions. A few days before my visit a successful display had been given in Newport, the nearest town. In an institution of this kind the "ring" is an excellent safety valve for those endowed with quick tempers or nursing a grudge. Housemasters soon notice any friction between the lads, and, unknown to the latter, the "ring" is made the meeting place for the fractious parties. After a bout or two the quarrel is decisively ended.

Sports Ground.—The lack of adequate playing fields is a handicap. One wonders why it is not possible to make a football pitch on the ground which is now used as a nursery garden. However, there are inter-house competitions for sports, and, judging from the prizes in St. Stephen's House, I should think that they are the best athletes.


A large percentage of the boys work on the ground surrounding the administrative buildings. When I went to the highest point behind the main block of buildings, I could see acres of reclaimed forest land now cultivated and producing vegetables and flowers in profusion. Beyond this, and divided only by a high concrete wall, stretched the forest as far as the eye could see.


Defaulters are normally dealt with by Housemasters. The usual punishments are the curtailment of privileges or a plainer diet. "Bread and water" diet for three days can be given for a more serious offence, but that would only be by order of the Governor, who conducts all cases not dealt with by the Housemaster.

Corporal punishment is never given without the consent of a magistrate, and has, in fact, only been given in Borstals twice during the last ten years. The recent Committee has recommended its abolition in Borstal Institutions.

There have been lately a number of escapes and attempts at escapes. It is usual to send for a Justice of the Peace to deal with the offender when caught. The Police are not at once informed, for the first steps to find the missing boy are taken by officers of the Institution. It is only when their initial efforts have not been successful that the Police are informed. Generally the reason for the escape is a desire for thrills and adventure. Often the lad returns after a day or so when the excitement has passed and when food is not so easy to obtain.


I must have looked a little amazed when I saw a boat lying up on this high ground like a fish out of water. " That is what the lads use on the Medina River when they go to camp in June," I was told. The houses take it in turns to send a selection of their number for a week's camp every year. They sleep under canvas, and I gathered that they enjoy "camp" more than anything else in the year.

As we returned to the quadrangle I saw a full-sized bell tent erected on the grass. I was told that the Institution is so full that four of the lads have to sleep out. This naturally is a privilege, and is reserved for the four senior lads who are about to leave.


In another corner was a small aviary, in which the birds were being fed by one or two lads. Although, like their warders, their liberty was restricted, they were singing merrily and seemed to enjoy the pleasant surroundings.

To see these strong, healthy lads working, I thought what a chance was being given to them to become clean-living, industrious citizens. To be living in these healthy surroundings, with objects of interest on all sides, must leave a marked impression; and to the many who come from large industrial towns, London and Liverpool especially, the open-air life must in itself be a tonic.

Many of them have been convicted for taking and driving away motor-cars without permission, and so they are sent to the Isle of Wight, for there the chance of escape and the opportunity for a similar escapade is more remote than elsewhere.


Before I went to see the Governor, Mr. R. F. Owens, I noticed a showcase outside his room full of things made by the lads at Camp Hill, ranging from children's toys and dolls to model ships, wool-craft and woodwork, as attractive as any seen in the big London stores.

It was good to see these things at the end of my visit. I was even more impressed that I had had a glimpse of a place which was doing really useful work, and which could show results. On the other hand. I wondered what effect this school-like existence would have on the lads should they get into trouble again. Would they despise prison, or fear it more or less than others who had not been to Borstal?

I then had an opportunity of thanking the Governor for allowing me the privilege of a visit. We went on to discuss juvenile crime and the reaction of the Borstal system on the lads' minds.

So ended an hour and a half in the "works" of this scheme of reforming youthful delinquents. I then saw more clearly how specialized is the work of the Borstal Authorities, and into what fields of thought, science and ethics a student of the subject must delve.

In conclusion, I cannot too greatly emphasize what, after all, is the principal idea behind the whole system of training, i.e., the individual study of each of his lads by the Housemaster, and, in varying degrees, by other members of the staff. For this reason great care is taken in selecting the personnel for Borstal Institutions. They must be not only useful administrators and organizers, but keen students of, and, indeed, lovers of, youth, especially adolescent youth, with all its vagaries and its "ups and downs."

No account of Borstal is complete without some reference to the Borstal Association, which receives the lads on discharge, administers their licences, finds them work, and generally helps them in the difficult task of facing the world again after their spell of seclusion.

During the Second World War, the site was taken over to house adult convicts during before reverting to borstal use in 1946.

As noted in the 1939 report above, escapes or attempted escapes were frequent. In October 1950, during a period od considerble unrest at the borstal, twelve inmates escaped in a period of about ten days. An escape by a group of five was thought to be an attempt to spy out the land for a mass breakaway. The unrest among the boy was said to be due to their fear of being sent to the mainland, as on the island they enjoyed comparative freedom and many amenities.

By 1957, Camp Hill had become a closed prison for corrective training prisoners and for selected prisoners of the ordinary class.

In the 1960s, it became became a Category C prison. It ceased operation in 2013 when the last of the prisoners were moved out.


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.