Quinn (2004) states that Tamworth had been built in 1881 as a colonial prison for adults. He writes that when it was proclaimed in 1948, it was unusual in that other corrective institutions were named as 'schools' or 'shelters', as required by legislation: 'Its very name, "The Institution for Boys, Tamworth" was clearly meant to confirm the notion that its purpose was that of punishment and deterrence' (p.244).
Quinn writes that the Tamworth institution:
'had accommodation for twenty boys, held in individual cells, and the institution was surrounded by a 5.5m wall. Absconding was virtually impossible … The routine was described as being 'similar to meticulous naval standards'. It was a very tough life, arguably more harsh than in an adult gaol. Inmates worked on making sennet mats and brushware. They are allowed only one hour per day recreation, during which talking was permitted. At other times silence was enforced. 'Punctilious observance' to rules was demanded, and all tasks were performed at the double, with boys quick-marching and not permitted to look right or left. Instructions to staff as to the management of inmates described a system characterised by punishment of the slightest infringement of rules and 'permanent observation' (pp.244-245).
Former inmates of the Institution for Boys have reported, in news stories and autobiographies, that they received dehumanising treatment such as solitary confinement, food deprivation, beatings by staff and isolation from fellow inmates. Notorious criminals, including Neddy Smith and George Freeman, described Tamworth as the worst of the institutions they experienced.
In December 2011 Geoff Thompson of the Australian Broadcasting Commission's Investigations Unit reported that more than 35 violent deaths in Australia had been linked to men who attended Tamworth, and fifteen of those deaths led to convictions for either murder or manslaughter. The ABC interviewed six former inmates who, while they did not go on to commit serious offences, all agreed that time spent at the boys' home in Tamworth could turn someone into a killer. These former inmates described Tamworth as a 'concentration camp', 'Alcatraz' and comparable to 'a prisoner of war camp during WWII.
The ABC reported that inmates were not allowed to speak to each other or look at each other, and slept alone in brick-walled cells which were freezing in winter and oppressively hot in summer. They had steel buckets for toilets and the only light came through an iron-barred hole. Alleged punishments included beatings, food deprivation, isolation, pushing heavy sandstone blocks across the floor and inmates being forced to walk around with cardboard boxes on their heads.
The ABC cross-matched information from the Department of Family and Community Services and identified a number of inmates of Tamworth who became infamous killers. One was Sydney underworld figure Arthur 'Neddy' Smith who was charged with eight murders but only convicted of involvement in two. He wrote about the institution in his autobiography:
'Tamworth boys' home was a real concentration camp. They treated the young boys like animals, with daily bashings and starvation … I've been to the notorious Grafton Jail twice for a period of more than four years all told: I was systematically bashed daily, flogged into unconsciousness several times but, believe me, that was nothing compared with the treatment I got at Tamworth.'
The alleged Sydney crime boss, the late George Freeman, who was dramatised in the Underbelly TV series, was there in 1952 and wrote that his introduction to the place was being king-hit by an official:
'When it came to psychological pressure on young minds, I think the Tamworth boys' home was probably the toughest, most damaging institution I ever saw the inside of … They could break kids in there. They would torture your mind with the pressure. It was mindless discipline, unproductive and cruel … I don't know anyone who came out of Tamworth in those days who didn't go on with a life of crime. It was them or us. It had to be to survive. All Tamworth did was ingrain the bitterness. They created the ultimate finishing school for crims.'
For the full ABC report and interviews with former inmates please refer to the published resources listed below.
The institution was renamed Endeavour House in 1976, to reduce some of the stigma associated with delinquent youths. The Department of Community Services even recorded in its 1978 Annual Report that the South Australian Royal Commission into the Administration of the Juvenile Courts Act assessed Endeavour House as:
'… a successful experiment in resident/staff relationships, [that] gave the appearance of openness and normality, despite the very high brick wall.'
However Endeavour House remained a maximum security detention centre for young male offenders aged between 15 and 18 years. After a spate of suicides in the late 1980s Endeavour House was closed. The facility is, once more, an adult jail.
In 2012 a research project was underway through Bond University to trace the effects of the institutionalised routine of Tamworth Institution for Boys on juvenile males, who did not have criminal records and gather historical information.
04 June 2020
Cite this: https://www.findandconnect.gov.au/guide/nsw/NE00412
First published by the Find & Connect Web Resource Project for the Commonwealth of Australia, 2011
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