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Australia - Concept

Reformatory (1850s - 1960s)

Glossary Term and Type of 'care'

A reformatory is an institution for 'criminal' children, later known as juvenile offenders. The lines between 'neglected' and 'criminal' children were often blurred.


Juvenile offenders in the new colony of Victoria were originally the responsibility of the Penal and Gaols Department. Male offenders were once housed in the hulk Deborah.

An early reformatory in Melbourne was run by the Immigrants' Aid Society, from around 1860. In 1864, with the passage of the Neglected and Criminal Children's Act, juvenile offenders came under the umbrella of the new Department of Industrial and Reformatory Schools. At this time, it was reported that 463 children were transferred from the care of the Immigrants' Aid Society (which also ran a school for neglected children).

Technically, a reformatory was an institution for 'criminal' children and an industrial school was to provide training to 'neglected' children, however the lines were often blurred, as the name of Victoria's first child welfare legislation, 'The Neglected and Criminal Children's Act 1864' makes clear. (The distinction between 'neglected' and 'offending' children was expressed more starkly in the Neglected and Criminal Children's Amendment Act 1874 which stated that 'immoral or depraved' children could be sent to a reformatory school.)

An editorial from the Age in 1890 demonstrates the continuing conflation of the terms 'neglected' and 'criminal', and reveals the popular fears behind the reformatory as an institution:

so long as we have factors to reckon with as the death, the destitution, or the profligacy of parents, we shall always have children living in an atmosphere of crime and neglect, and, if left to themselves, growing up inevitably to swell the ranks of the depraved classes. It is therefore a matter of first importance to the whole community that this supply of criminals should be cut off at its very source.

The reformatory for boys, known as the Sir Harry Smith was first situated on a former prison hulk, the HM Success. (The Department also had an industrial school on a ship, the Nelson.)

However, the ship reformatory was found by the Victorian government to be an unsuccessful model and in the early 1870s, the Department set out to find a suitable building for the boys.

The Reformatory moved to the grounds of Pentridge Prison in 1873, and then in 1879 to the former site of an industrial school for girls in Ballarat.

In an 1891 report, the Secretary of the Department of Neglected Children, George Guillaume, lamented that under the 1864 laws, 'the only door to the Reformatory was through the prison'. Under the system, a juvenile offender's term in a reformatory school had to be added onto whatever sentence they received in court for their offence. Guillaume stated that in practice, however, children were only 'sentenced' to a few hours' detention in a lock-up before their transfer to a reformatory. (This was abolished in the 1887 legislation, the incarceration of children having been strongly criticised in the 1871 Royal Commission).

The Superintendent's Report from 1884 stated that with each new admission to the reformatory, the boy's case and circumstances were taken into account, and if appropriate, his transfer to an industrial school for boarding-out was sought. 'Every precaution is taken to separate criminal from non-criminal from the beginning'.

From 1887, there was separate legislation for 'neglected' children and 'offenders' in Victoria, with the passage of the Neglected Children's Act and Juvenile Offenders' Act.

Researcher David McCallum has pointed out that, under the 1890 Crimes Act, 'neglected' children could be transferred from foster care into the reformatory, for an indefinite period at the discretion of the Minister. From 1900, these provisions also applied to indigenous children. The Aborigines Board had the power to transfer 'all suitable Aboriginal children, whether orphans or otherwise' to be 'managed' by the Department of Reformatory Schools. Thus, only on the basis of negative reports from their guardians, children in foster care, or employed 'in service' could be transferred to a reformatory until they reached the age of 18.

The Department of Reformatory Schools was abolished in 1954 and the 'care' of juvenile offenders became the responsibility of the Children's Welfare Department.

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Prepared by: Cate O'Neill