Female prisons and borstals were intended to encourage respectability in women and girls. Rachel Bennett explores how one person challenged these efforts.
Following the passing of the Prevention of Crimes Act in 1908, girls aged between 16 and 21 years could be committed for Borstal training on the recommendation of the courts. In 1909, a small wing of the female convict prison at Aylesbury was set apart to commence this new experiment in containing, educating, and reforming young female offenders. Mary Size, who had previously worked as an officer in Manchester, Aylesbury, and Leeds prisons, and would eventually go on to become the Lady Superintendent at Liverpool and then the Deputy Governor of Holloway women’s prison, was appointed as the Borstal’s school-mistress in February 1912. She spoke of the initial difficulties of establishing a system to adequately contain and care for these troublesome girls. The Governor and the Deputy Governor at the time were medical men and could offer little experience in dealing with young women and girls. Size found that the fifty girls initially under her charge differed widely in terms of their social backgrounds, their physical and mental condition, and their previous education. But, she recalled one person who had posed a particular challenge to the institution – Jock.
‘Jock the Miner’
Masie was the youngest of five children. When she was three years old, her father, a coal miner, was killed in a pit accident. After his death, the family moved to Manchester but their mother struggled to make ends meet and they moved around a lot which meant that the children had very little opportunity to go to school. At the age of 17, Masie gave up her job in a mill, discarded female attire, adopted a shorter style of hair, and became Jock. Jock quickly thereafter obtained work in a mine and went on to make more money than ever before.
The ambiguity of the records relating to Jock mean that it is unclear whether Jock wanted to change their gender from a female to a male, or whether Jock saw the chance to capitalise on the greater employment opportunities available to men and boys in the early twentieth century. Similar cases of this desire to disguise as a man to gain access to male-dominated professions include that of Hannah Snell, who famously posed as a man to join the navy in the eighteenth century. However, one day Jock became ill at work and had to be taken to hospital. During the medical examination, Jock “revealed her sex to the doctor.” This information was reported to the police and Jock was arrested, charged, and convicted of masquerading in male attire. Jock was sentenced to two years of Borstal Detention, to be served in Aylesbury Borstal for girls.
In addition to upholding strict discipline, prisons and borstals for women and girls had the additional responsibility of inculcating in their inmates respectable femininity, which they were believed to have strayed from in the commission of crime. This included educating and training them in domestic skills such as mothercraft, cookery, laundry, and dress-making. In Jock’s case, the institution had to first reclaim Masie.
Upon entry into the borstal, Jock was described as a “plain and unattractive girl” who had received very little of the maternal care and affection believed to be necessary when bringing up children. Jock was regarded as something of a curiosity among the other borstal inmates – and a problem to the staff – due to “her closely cropped hair and her manly gait, mannerisms and slang.” Within prisons and borstals, it was deemed a necessary part of the training that inmates should be encouraged to take pride in their appearance. For example, women were allowed to retain and use any face powders and lip sticks they brought in with them as make-up was deemed an important part of maintaining their feminine physical appearance. They were encouraged to keep themselves and their cells clean and well-ordered – although this was often difficult in the prison setting. In addition, certain infractions of the prison rules, including the use of bad or immoral language, were deemed highly unsuitable – and thus requiring greater censure – when perpetuated by women and girls. This type of behaviour had historically been answered with admonishments, as well as with confinement in isolation and a punishment diet of bread and water.
However, during her time in the prison service, Mary Size stressed the need for a more sympathetic approach when attempting to reform the behaviour of women and girls. She believed that to humiliate or de-humanise the prisoner was to crush any self-respect – or indeed morality – they may have possessed and instead, during their time in prison, they should be encouraged and educated. Size commended Jock’s honesty and sense of humour and noted how she had taken it upon herself to offer closer educational instruction to Jock to encourage a more open dialogue about the reasons behind their imprisonment. Size allowed Jock to volunteer in the schoolroom and offered one-to-one lessons in reading and writing. She noted that, with improvements to Jock’s literacy and confidence, came more amenability to – what were deemed to be – improvements in appearance and habits.
Following release from Aylesbury, employment had been found for Jock (or more likely for Masie) in a laundry where, it was reported back to the borstal, they worked industriously. However, as Jock never again appeared before the courts, it is unclear whether the borstal had succeeded in permanently reclaiming Masie, or if Jock – “masquerading in male attire” – ever again lived and worked undetected.
For further examples of these educational efforts, see Rachel Bennett, “Slowly it became clear that the women were getting their first glimpse of what a home could really mean.” Prison, Parenting and the Teaching of Mothercraft in the Mid-Twentieth Century’, History & Policy Parenting Forum Blog, December 2017.
 Modern Records Centre, Warwick, MSS.463/EY/A10/7 ‘Prisons and Borstals: England and Wales’ (1950).
 Rachel Bennett, Catherine Cox and Hilary Marland, Disturbed Minds and Disruptive Bodies Wellcome Collection.
 Mary Size, Prisons I Have Known (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1957) p. 31.
 Jock’s case is detailed in Size, Prisons I have Known, pp. 37-39.
Image Source: Girls in a dress-making class in East Sutton Park Borstal Institution. Home Office circular ‘Prisons and Borstals: England and Wales’ (1950), Modern Records Centre, Warwick.