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.

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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).

Osea Island: workfare camp, inebriate retreat

Helen Rogers, a socio-cultural historian who studies working class writing among other things, runs the fabulous website on working class autobiographies called Writing Lives. The other day she tweeted a link to a post about the life of May Owen, a Londoner born in 1896, whose father was an alcoholic.

May writes that: ‘I can remember Charrington the Brewers son forming a club for alcoholics my father was one of thirty sent to a small island off the Thanet coast Osea Island. No drink, his wage given to my mother and he had to help build a sea wall.’

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Osea Island – image from Wikipedia

Helen’s Tweet asked whether Osea was one of my ‘work camps’. The short answer is yes: it was indeed one of the many work camps that were opened in Britain for marginal and stigmatised groups. Osea hosted a labour colony for unemployed Londoners, which became a colony for habitual inebriates, as the island’s owner was a leading temperance campaigner and social reformer.

Frederick Charrington might seem an unexpected adherent of temperance. Son of a London brewing dynasty, Charrington reportedly sold his shares in the family business after seeing a drunk man punch his wife. He promoted the Ragged School movement, supported striking Jewish tailors, and helped open a temperance assembly hall on the Mile End Road.

Charrington bought the island in 1903,with a view to turning it into an inebriate retreat. Initially, he opened a small colony for inebriate women. This proved a failure, and in 1904 he invited the London local authorities to use it for poor relief.Supported by the Lord Mayor’s fund, unemployed male heads of household were sent in the following winter to live on the island, where they laid roads, leveled land, and built sea walls while living in wooden huts.

Further groups were sent in the following year, under the auspices of the Central (Unemployed) Body for London. At full capacity, the dormitories held 80 bunks, but William Beveridge estimated that  there were usually around 70 men in residence.

A number of interested visitors came to view the colony, including Beveridge, who  noted that the unemployed residents were supplied with boots on loan, and had to bring one change of clothing. They had to be accustomed to heavy labour, and were inspected for infections and cleanliness before entering the colony. The colony rules, he reported, were simple:

(a) Prompt obedience to orders;

(b) Sobriety;

(c) Observance of appointed hours

Rules or not, three of the first group of 25 men rapidly scurried off to the mainland, where they apparently caused a disturbance in the pubs of Malden.

After 1905, and using the infrastructure built by the unemployed Londoners, Charrington then opened a temperance holiday village on the island. According to the Little Book of Essex, the locals smuggled alcohol out to the island, and ferried thirsty holiday-makers to Malden.

Charrington’s holiday settlement continued until the Great War, when the Admiralty commandeered the island for use as a motor boat harbour. In 1934, the Rural Community Council of Essex opened a ‘reconditioning camp’ on the Island to help unemployed men improve their fitness and readiness for work.

Since the 1940s, its main claim to fame is as a splendid habitat for bird life. Strangely, though, the great house on Osea briefly returned to its earlier role at the start of the present century, when it was opened as a retreat for wealthy addicts – including, most famously, Amy Winehouse. That venture also failed, and the island is now marketed as a luxury holiday destination.

May is wrong about one thing: Osea is off the Essex coast, and not Thanet. Essex was a popular location for labour colonies, situated close enough to London to simplify transport but far enough to cause trainees to think twice about running away. There was also plentiful land, much of it economically marginal so that it therefore presented abundant opportunities for reclamation work.