Cornton Vale: from inebriate colony to women’s gaol

Cornton Vale, Scotland’s one specialist prison for women, is closing.  You will find an interesting account of it by a former inmate here. The Scottish Government plans to replace it with a smaller specialist prison for long term women prisoners and to disperse others across the sector. I’m not qualified to judge whether this will improve prison conditions for women, or simply remove them from the spotlight by dispersing them.

CorntonValePrisonFront_1

Image from Scottish Prison Service

This decision brings to an end a long and intriguing history of deviant incarceration. Cornton Vale farm, on the banks of the Forth just outside Stirling, went on the market in the economic downturn of the 1890s. For a number of years it functioned as an inebriate colony, whose inmates included some middle class alcoholics who on graduating were usually sent by their families to run estates in the dominions, but this venture failed and the farm went back on the market.

Inspired by the training colonies associated with the German Lutheran church, the Church of Scotland bought the 34-acre estate in 1907, with a house, sheds and greenhouses, for the sum of £23,500 with the aim of training ‘habitual inebriates’ as ‘colonists or as agricultural labourers’.

Operating through its Social Work Department, the Kirk officially opened its new labour colony in September 1907, aiming for an intake of 44 men. Although it continued to accept inebriates, over time the colony increasingly recruited the unemployed; once more, its aim was primarily to remove them from Scotland, and a number duly shipped out to Canada.

The Army requisitioned the site during WW1, after which the Kirk re-opened the colony , initially training jobless ex-servicemen while negotiating with the government for funding under the Empire Settlement Act. Some thirty to forty unemployed men were still being trained annually at Cornton Vale when the Empire Settlement scheme came to an end in 1929.

The new minority Labour government continued to fund small scale training for would-be emigrants, but this ceased in 1931. The Kirk, though, supported the colony for a number of years in the hope that improving economic conditions would bring about a return to Dominions emigration, and even extended the accommodation as late as 1938.

The colony was again taken over by the government during WW2. In 1946, the Kirk leased and subsequently sold the land to the Scottish Office Prisons Department, who opened it as a Borstal for young male offenders, then later as a prison for women which was partly built by young men serving their Borstal sentence.

Cornton Vale’s story exemplifies the changing ways in which work camps for deviants of different kinds have mutated over time, and as the story of Osea Island confirms, inebriate colonies in particular tended to change as funding sources dried up. Cornton Vale, though, is the only case to my knowledge which started as an inebriate reformatory and ended up as a women’s prison.

If you’d like a more detailed portrait of Cornton Vale, the Smith Gallery and Museum in Stirling has published a booklet that I can warmly recommend (contact details here).

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