‘Beyond the control of his parents’: juvenile crime, punishment and reform in West Yorkshire, 1856-1914

The main building of the Leeds Reformatory School for Boys, in Adel, Leeds, 2008. © Peter Higginbotham, reproduced with his kind permission

The “problem” of juvenile crime and fears surrounding juvenile delinquency are issues which are extremely relevant in today’s society. However, these types of fears and concerns have a long history. My PhD research focuses on how juvenile offenders were dealt with from the mid-nineteenth to the early twentieth century, and is centred on the institutions which were developed and regulated in order to combat this issue; reformatory and industrial schools.

The study of the history of juvenile crime and criminality is not an underdeveloped area, yet there are very few academic studies relating to the reformatory and industrial schools; despite these institutions playing a key role in how young offenders experienced the criminal justice system in the second half of the nineteenth century. Further to this, the implementation of reformatory and industrial schools illustrate broader changes to attitudes in society in relation to juvenile crime and punishment, as well as childhood itself.

The regulation of the reformatory and industrial schools was formalised through a series of acts; the Youthful Offenders Act and the Reformatory Schools Act of 1854, the Industrial Schools Act and its various amendments of the 1850s and 1860s. The introduction of this legislation demonstrates how attitudes towards juvenile crime and punishment were shifting on a national level, with a much greater emphasis now being placed on reform and rehabilitation. However, as the reformatory and industrial schools were ultimately still voluntary institutions – regulated through legislation and inspected by central government bodies, but run on a voluntary basis – the way each institution was physically run and managed could vary greatly across the country.

It was because of this that I decided to undertake a regional study of reformatory and industrial schools. My research project focuses on the West Yorkshire area, and uses three schools as case studies; The Leeds Reformatory School (Adel), The Leeds Industrial School (Shadwell) and Calder Farm Reformatory School (Mirfield). Besides the fact that the records of these schools have not yet been used in academic study, making this an original research project, I want to explore how these institutions, due to their voluntary nature, reflect regional attitudes towards juvenile crime, punishment and reform. In addition to this, I feel that the reformatory and industrial schools of West Yorkshire are a key aspect of the area’s heritage and identity, an aspect which has hitherto gone unrecognised.

Criminal Heritage

Interest in criminal heritage has enjoyed a growth in popularity in recent years, illustrated through a rise in projects such as prison photography and the digitisation of National Archive Home Office Records, which can now be found on commercial genealogical sites. My thesis places itself squarely within this investigation of criminal heritage, through the use of a regional case study which focuses on local institutions, and will uncover a part of West Yorkshire’s criminal heritage which has previously gone unrecognised. Aside from the actual writing of the thesis itself, I aim to promote this heritage through alternative means. As part of my research degree, I intend to collaborate with the West Yorkshire Archive Service to help them develop public engagement with these records. I would like to focus on the experience of individual boys who passed through the reformatory and industrial school systems, as I feel that their stories are a key element of both the heritage of West Yorkshire and, more broadly, the criminal heritage of England. Further to this, I plan to work with local schools and museums to develop history resources related to this criminal heritage. I strongly believe that the completion of my PhD should not just revolve around the formal writing of a thesis; and aim to increase public engagement with and awareness of this aspect of the criminal heritage of West Yorkshire through a variety of approaches.


I graduated from Leeds Beckett University in 2015 with a BA (Hons) in History, for which I was awarded the Dean’s Prize for Outstanding Student Achievement in History. I stayed on at Leeds Beckett and completed my MA in Social History in 2016. My experience at undergraduate and postgraduate level helped to develop my research interests in the history of crime and criminality, and I began my PhD, funded by the AHRC Heritage Consortium, in October 2016, and I remain based at Leeds Beckett.