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Questioning the Rhetoric of British Borstal Reform in the 1930s

Tebbutt, Melanie ORCID logoORCID: https://orcid.org/0000-0002-8376-8175 (2019) Questioning the Rhetoric of British Borstal Reform in the 1930s. Historical Journal. ISSN 0018-246X

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In 1938, the Reverend Digby Bliss Kittermaster, who became chaplain at Rochester Borstal after retiring as a housemaster at Harrow public school, started a diary in which he recorded everyday interactions with inmates and staff. The reputation of the borstal system was at its height in the 1930s due to Alexander Paterson’s reforms, based on the structures and character-building ethos of British public schools. Young people’s voices were rarely heard in this progressive discourse of borstal reform and Kittermaster is unusual for articulating them, recording what he heard, teasing out the contradictions of Paterson’s reforming aspirations and the reality of humiliation and intimidation that borstal boys often experienced. Kittermaster’s public school background made him well-placed to question the rhetoric of the public school reform model. His complex personal perspective suggests how humane emphasis on individual potential was subverted at Rochester by coercive structures of traditional prison improvement. Kittermaster’s growing frustration at his own powerlessness supports a more nuanced interpretation of how the borstal system has usually been depicted in the Paterson era of reform, especially in relation to damaging mental and emotional costs to inmates and staff, which have been largely neglected in the scholarship of borstal in the 1930s.

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