I often joke, but with pride, state, that I was born in a ‘Workhouse’. The Barony Hospital in Nantwich used to be the ‘Workhouse’. Ha bloody ha! It’s not really funny is it? But quite ironic that in April 1967 I left the workhouse with my mother to begin my life with her and my father, brother and sister at the borstal. Officially known as an ‘Approved School’. It was a borstal basically. A youth prison! My parents were ‘House Parents’. It was run by Roman Catholic brothers. Oh yes here we go……. I am fully aware of the horror stories of abuse in such establishments, but it doesn’t apply to them all.
I am proudly a practising Catholic from what in my openly biased view, a fantastic Roman Catholic family. My formative years obviously were painted and not tainted by Catholicism. I lived in a Catholic borstal so was surrounded by brothers, monks, priests, whatever you want to call them.
Sadly I have few memories of those early years. But happily my clever little brain and it’s wonderful little cognitive processes have gifted me with some very precious recollections.
Borstal! Really, seriously naughty boys were allowed to play with me. I remember these boys holding my hand as I wobbled a bit on the lawns. These were naughty boys. Did I see that? No! I saw kind lads who had been taught by my mother, and trusted by her to take me for a little walk. I remember faces stooping down to me asking if I was alright. I recall the smiles, the laughs, the kindness, the gentleness. I was far too young to know what these boys had done to disgrace society to the extent they had to be sent away to borstals around the country.
I have since talked to my parents about these experiences. My mother tells me how they coochied-coohed me at breakfast time when I was in my high chair. She tells me how these naughty boys asked constantly who and when they could take little Rhiannon out to play. It’s an absolute credit to my parents that they allowed this trust to these boys. It’s a credit to these boys too!
The majority of these boys had committed some nasty crimes. But tragically being sent to this particular borstal was a blessing, in more ways than one, for them. In those days, the late sixties, early seventies, life was different. Smacking children was ok, a clip round the ear ‘ole did no harm. I wonder if it did? You know what, every person I speak to in my own generation tells me they had ‘A clout’ at some point and they further recall; “It never did me no harm”.
My father had to deal with some big and very rough lads. If they got out of hand he dealt with them. Yet they all respected him. They told him their problems. He listened and he guided them. They loved him. How do I know that? Well I know from living in a borstal that children thrive on discipline. I know that children thrive on consistency. I know that children thrive on clear boundaries. I know that children thrive on play, real play, in the woods, imagining kind of play, not computer games to shut us up and keep us quiet. I know that even the most naughtiest of children thrive on trust! How do I know that? I played with them! I did these things; with naughty boys. With young criminals!
My mother spent hours washing those boys hair and she single handedly cleared that borstal of head lice! When those boys returned from their weekends at home, they rushed to her to have a hair wash. They loved her, she fed them, she taught them how to lay tables, how to eat properly, how to feed me! She taught them to read and write. She taught them ‘sums’. She was a mother to them all.
I loved my formative years in the borstal. So much so that I was actually ill when my father got another job and we had to move away. I didn’t want to move. I was poorly for some time.
The media publicise so many horror stories about those years and particularly the Catholic Church. It’s not fair because there have been grown men who have thanked my parents for that life they had. Grateful for the family they were part of. I too am grateful to my parents. What guts did it take to bring up three children in a borstal? What courage to expose us to that at such a young age? What love to expose those ‘naughty’ boys to us. What faith to allow those naughty boys to take a four-year old out to play?
It could be argued my memories are tainted, not only by age but by what I’ve been ‘filled in’ by my parents. But I would fiercely dispute that. I know what I saw. I know what I felt. It is because of this background that I feel discipline, yes discipline along with love and guidance is the way forward for our youth today.
Let’s not send them all off to a borstal, but let’s look at all the possibilities for our troubled young folk. Lets look at not condemning them or their families but perhaps giving all concerned a break to show other ways. America have a tradition of Summer Camp. Could we pluck up the courage to install something similar to not only give troubled families, indeed all families, a break and collectively show our children other pathways? Would this be considered a ‘Nanny State’? We all rely on the state one way or another, so why not utilise the state?
In my experience and from my youthful observations, some aspects of the borstal, the borstal in its finest form, have something still to offer. Not as a punishment, but as an enlightenment.