Memoirs of a Training School Lad

By David Murphy

Date Posted: Sunday, 22 June 2008

David Murphy was brought up in a military family. He trained and has worked as a heating engineer in the United Kingdom and for many years in the Middle East. He has served in the Territorial Army. David speaks French and Arabic and he is an excellent cook. He lives in Torquay. In this humorous and moving personal account of his stay in a large residential training school in the 1960s, David describes an institution which is efficiently run but without care or love. Perhaps he did not want it that way. His view is that the residents felt certain they were there to learn a lesson and to serve their time.

Memoirs of a Training School Lad


Some background information

I was one of thirteen sons of serving soldiers who lived in married quarters in a garrison in Berkshire. We all went to the local juvenile court in September 1966 charged with a large number of offences of housebreaking. I had 28 offences against me and I am sure the police added a few that we didn’t commit in order to clear their books.

I remember being taken around in a police car to point out the houses I had entered as were all the other boys. The result was that one lad got a conditional discharge, nine got probation and myself, Mick Winston and Don Anthony (not their real names, by the way), got “3 years or until your 19th birthday, whichever is the shorter”. I haven’t seen or heard of Mick for about 40 years but I hear of Don occasionally who is the managing director of a large organisation.

As Mick and Don were catholics they went a different route through the justice system.I was initially sent to an assessment centre in Bristol where it was decided that I should go to a training school situated in the southeast of England. Training Schools, sometimes called reformatories and sometimes industrial schools were first formed in mid-Victorian times by large philanthropic societies like Dr. Barnardos in order to save children whose poverty forced them to roam the streets of big cities committing petty felonies in order to help their families put food on the table. By the time I became a resident of a training school they had become ‘approved schools’. This meant the Home Office formally ‘approved’ them to sort out the likes of me.They were not exactly prisons but places where young people of about or above the school leaving age who were either deprived or delinquent or both could be given training which would enable them to return to society as useful and happy young citizens.


At the training school

At the age of 16 years in October 1966 I arrived at the Hertfordshire Training School.It was a bit of an adventure for me, and one that in a way I didn’t want to miss. At the age of 10 I had been put on a train in Dorset where my father was posted at the time and sent to the Duke of York’s Military school in Kent to try for a place there. I was quite excited about going there but being a military run establishment it filled the vacancies alphabetically and all the places were full up before they reached M, so it was back to Dorset for me. After this my Dad was posted to the Middle East and so I spent two years there.

I digress. On arrival at the training school I was issued with the uniform. The rules were explained and I was shown to my bedspace.The next morning I was assigned to the engineering workshop. My first job was making meat hooks for the RAF. My initial thoughts were that the place was very well run. The engineering shop had contracts with outside firms ; the building section maintained all the on site buildings ; there was a farm and we had our own fire station.

On my second evening a fellow resident, a sawn off runt of a guy, introduced himself as the daddy of the block I lived in. I stopped laughing when his large mates turned up behind him. I never had any trouble with him or anybody else, having found out how the system worked it was a matter of getting out in the shortest time possible.

After a month I got a job on the farm and myself and a fellow inmate got the task of looking after the chicken sheds. The routine was unchanging. We fed the battery hens, walked up and down with a hopper dispensing disinfecting powder, cleaned out the shit, pushed a button, and a scraper dragged it all to one end. We shovelled it all into barrows and tipped it on a large pile outside. We collected the eggs, graded and packed them for collection. We soon discovered that we could make a little money on the side by selling eggs to delivery drivers.

I stayed on the farm for about 8 months until I was called to the Head’s office along with 11 others. We were all a bit confused as none of us had done anything wrong. Shortly after entering the office we were told that we would be going to the hostel in the nearby town. Great news. Living in the hostel meant we would be provided with proper jobs and could go out 6 nights a week. I worked in a factor which made children’s bicycles and soon found myself a girlfriend and at the end of the three months I was released and sent back into the community. In all I suppose I spent about a year at the training school.


Other things about the training school

> The working uniform was a green corduroy jacket and khaki trousers. I can’t remember about the shirts. For Saturday town leave and home leave we had a suit to wear which made us obvious to the inhabitants of the local town.


Getting Out.

On arrival everybody had to start building up marks in a ‘bank’. These marks were for work and conduct. Once you’d reached your target, you were allowed to go out to the local town. If you didn’t do anything wrong it would normally take three months to reach the target, but by doing overtime at work and creeping to staff by doing chores in the blocks where we lived we could reach our bank target in one month. I worked and crept !


Town Leave.

While I stayed at the school town leave was usually between 2pm and 5pm on a Saturday afternoon and we were given 7/6d (37.5p) to spend. There was a young lady, who down by the river, would relieve up to 20 lads of 2/6d a time in quick succession. My mate and I in the chicken shed worked out that if we delayed the egg collection we could go on town leave between 4pm and 7pm and so spend longer with the young lady. This turned out not to be such a smart move;as the young lady had usually had enough and gone home.Thinking about it now that might have been for the better.


Home Leave.

Home leave was possible about every eight weeks if the parents contributed towards the cost of the train fare. My first home leave coincided with the first leave of Mick and Don and so out of boredom which existed a lot on army camps, we broke into the NAAFI canteen my mother worked in. I had a job to keep a straight face at breakfast on the Sunday morning when she was telling the rest of the family about how someone had broken into the NAAFI. I never had home leave at the same time as the other two again, so the career criminal in me never emerged.



“Going down the gym” was the phrase you didn’t want to hear. The culprit would be handed a pair of bloodstained shorts to wear and told to stand at one end of the gym in a touch your toes position while the PE teacher would run from the other end to administer each stroke of the cane. The punishment was usually administered to absconders.


Sexual abuse .

My only experience was, on a couple of occasions, going to the toilet and seeing one of the boys performing oral sex on a member of staff. There were rumours that a wife of one of the staff who acted as a nurse in the sick bay had a penchant for young lads. I never had to see the nurse so as far as I’m concerned that’s what they were, rumours.


Looking back

I enjoyed my time at the training school. It got me away from my physically abusive father and taught me that crime was a mug’s game even if it doesn’t seem to be so these days though. A lot of the guys were Londoners and it was obvious from the way they spoke that the next stop was Borstal and then prison. Often people try to persuade me that I got into trouble because of my tough upbringing. It would be easy for me to escape down that route. Yes, my father was strict and even by the standards of the day perhaps too strict, but one thing I did learn from him was to accept responsibility for things I had done wrong. At the end of the day it was not my father who got expelled from the Grammar School. It was me. I was the one in our family who broke into houses. Nobody else did.