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Thursday, 17 October, 2002, 07:55 GMT 08:55 UK
'Borstal changed my life'
Ron 40 years ago
That was then: Ron shortly before he went to borstal
The first borstal opened 100 years ago this week, establishing a method of dealing with troubled boys that lasted much of the past century. Here, Ron Lovelock recalls how he came to spend two years in borstal in the 1960s.

I left home at the age of 15 as I needed to work to help my three younger brothers. Dad worked away a lot and we never got on with our stepmother.

So I went to London. I couldn't read or write, so I conned my way into an office job.

Ron in 2002
And as he is today, a respectable 58-year-old
But trying to live on 4 a week was just impossible - so I started stealing from the place. They got me to buy National Insurance stamps, which was stupid because I kept the money.

Eventually I got caught and was sent to borstal - Redditch in Worcester. It was probably the best thing that happened to me in my life.

Everyone in there was the same as me - bad kids, but not terrible kids. In the end they either went the wrong way because of the place, or like me they went the right way.

Borstal was hard but one of the screws took an interest in me and taught me to read and write. The other boys took the mick out of me about it, but I stood up for myself and carried on doing what I wanted to do.

Borstals in the UK
First set up at Borstal Prison, Kent, in Oct 1902
Housed delinquent boys aged 16-21
Offered education, regular work and discipline
Abolished by 1982 Criminal Justice Act
It was no bed of roses, don't get me wrong. The first day I went in there, they stole my dinner and I had to fight back.

I think I fought all the way through borstal. A game that we HAD to play was called 'murder ball' - same as rugby but no rules. To get the ball - and you had to get it - you were allowed to punch and kick your opponents. Black eyes and split lips were the norm.

Strict routine

Every day was virtually the same. At 6am we had to get up and run two miles, and if we were two minutes over the time they set, we got no breakfast.

Exercise played its part in the routine
Meals were pretty basic. Breakfast was usually porridge, bread and jam. We never got bacon and eggs, nothing like that; they just fed us to fill us up.

We cleaned the dorms, then they split us up and gave us jobs to do. Mine was bricklaying. We'd stand out in the rain for hours sometimes, laying bricks. Some days we had lessons or gym classes. We never got visitors.

In the evening, those who had enough points for good behaviour were allowed downstairs. We'd play table tennis, darts or cards, or talk to each other. There were stacks of books, but those weren't much good until I learned to read.

Young offenders' unit
... as it does at today's young offenders' units
We slept in small dormitories, with six to eight boys in each room. We used to get up to all sorts together, climbing out at night and hiding in the grounds.

There was a lake with an old tank at the bottom, and loads of bullets and shells. We used to dive in to get the bullets out. We'd polish them up, drill a hole to knock out the stuff - we didn't realise the danger - and hang them around our necks. I got beaten up a few times by the screws for having those bullets.

'Bring back borstals'

When I left borstal, the freedom sent me a bit potty. Having been regimented in every way - a time to eat, a time to sleep - I got rid of every clock in the house.

Young offenders
Ron turned his life around; others may give up hope
Two years later I slipped up again, and did a short stint in prison. I knocked around with some pretty dangerous people, realised that I had a chance of being that and chose not to be. And that was it - I got my life straightened out.

Today my borstal is a young offenders' prison. I went back several years ago - nothing had changed, except in my day it was much more of a boot camp.

It seems stupid to have gotten rid of borstals - I think the country misses that sort of place. Kids can't be mollycoddled by the do-gooders of today; it doesn't do them any good. They have to learn discipline. And if they don't learn to fend for themselves, they've had it.

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See also:

15 Oct 02 | England
15 Oct 02 | England
09 Mar 01 | Archive
12 May 02 | UK
23 Aug 01 | UK
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