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ST MARY’S AGRICULTURAL COLONY

(THE REFORMATORY)

 

A photo of St Mary's Agricultural Colony

The Colony as it is generally known, was opened in 1856 by Abbot Burder of Mount St. Bernard Abbey. For many years there had been a national concern about the amount of juvenile crime and the ways of treating young offenders. The accepted practice was to treat children in the same way as adult offenders and punishment was a jail sentence though this meant incarceration with hardened criminals. As the focus shifted to the need to reform offenders, especially young people, the Catholic community in England felt that it had a duty to provide for Catholic youth with the hope that a loving discipline, instruction in the faith and their removal from bad influences would help the boys to embark on a new life.

The Colony was housed in the old monastic buildings which had been made redundant after the monks moved into the new Pugin designed monastery in 1844 and it soon became one of the largest in the country, often accommodating up to 300 boys at a time. They were between the ages of 10 and 16 and were committed to the Reformatory for a period of up to 5 years.

As with any initiative, the Colony proved difficult to manage, not only because of the nature of the boys but staffing problems and the dual role of Abbot Burder as Manager but also Father of his community resulted in friction in both places. Government inspections, initially very favourable, soon became critical until the monks and the Catholic hierarchy agreed in 1858 that the management should pass into other hands. The Reformatory continued until 1881 when its certificate was withdrawn and the boys were dispersed.

While in the Colony, the boys were taught and engaged in a number of trades; farming, livestock management, carpentry, shoe making etc and some of the more trustworthy boys were hired out as labour to the neighbouring farms. These positive aspects are not as well recalled as are the riots which took place when the boys caused havoc in the Colony as well as in the surrounding districts. Local police were involved and after one such riot, questions were asked in Parliament about the discipline in the Reformatory and there were calls for it to be closed.

It is inevitable that in any large community, deaths will occur and over the period of the Colony’s existence some 40 deaths occurred. One boy committed suicide and the story of this was familiar to local people but nothing was known of the others until 2005 when a search of the Leicestershire Registrars records provided death certificates for all those who died at the Reformatory.

Initially records of the Reformatory years were scanty but more continue to come to light and these provide a compelling picture of the type of boy committed, his background and the manner in which he left the Reformatory.

For a fuller story see The Reformatory at Mount St Bernard Abbey 1856-1881 by Maureen Havers available from Mount St. Bernard Abbey shop.

 

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