World Archives Project: West Yorkshire Reformatory School Records

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by Marcela Popovicova

Among our latest releases of materials from West Yorkshire Archive Service is a collection of Reformatory School records (1856-1914). I had an opportunity to explore this collection as it was being keyed and enjoyed the keying experience enormously.

These fascinating records come from a number of institutions including Calder Farm Reformatory School, East Moor Community School and Shadwell Children’s centre; centres of reform that were established across West Yorkshire in the 18th Century. Young boys and sometimes girls were sent to these ‘schools’ as punishment for their offences, with the aim of learning new skills to help them later on in life - such as farming, carpentry, gardening and housework.

The level of detail captured within the original images of these reformatory school records is amazing. Not only we are presented with a huge amount of biographical detail about each boy or girl including their name, age, place of birth and name and addresses of their parents, but we are also given insight into the circumstances of their offence, their educational background, trade they have been following and their physical description. Some records even come with original signatures!

Most vital collections such as Census, BMD or parish records would offer us names, dates and some details of family relations, but what makes this collection stand out is the opportunity to piece together the whole life of a young person.

The types of offences committed by these children varies. I came across quite a few pertaining to use of bad language or being caught “wandering”, but most relate to stealing items (e.g. newspapers, a jar of marmalade, a tablecloth, a watch, some tobacco, etc.). These items were then sold, with the money used for buying food or clothes for their younger siblings. The punishment for robbery in those days was quite strict and more often than not resulted in being placed for 21 days at the House of Correction followed by five years at the Reformatory school.

When Sam Simms (born 1874) was asked why he stole blankets from his mother, the answer was that he intended to sell the items and use the money to go to Doncaster Races. He was discharged after five years in September 1893 and enlisted as a Private in the Leeds & Yorkshire Regiment, Halifax. Similar reasoning was offered by Robert Robson (born 1876) after he stole a pair of boots – he simply wanted to go to the theatre. George Atkinson (born 1874) stole an umbrella, and used the money to buy some food for himself.

Robert Colley (born 1877), was admitted in the Calder farm reformatory school in 1891 for stealing a scarf. Twenty years later he can be found in the 1911 Census living with his wife and three young children in Sheffield (where he was born), his occupation listed as a mortar grinder.

Julyfeatureimage.png Image reproduced with courtesy of West Yorkshire Archive Service and

This amazing and touching collection sheds light on the social aspects of the lives of many people’s ancestors and is also accompanied by photographs of the young people taken on the day of their admission or during work. This collection is available to search due to your contributions. Thank you!

Other collections that are being released at the same time as the West Yorkshire, Reformatory School that you helped key are:

West Yorkshire, England, Prison Records, 1801-1914
West Yorkshire, England, Militia, 1779-1826