Reformatories for wayward boys

Vernon and Sobraon

living with common prostitute & associating with bad characters …
… is unfortunate in having bad parent. Should turn out well with proper treatment

The Entrance books for the Nautical School ships Vernon and Sobraon provide a remarkable insight into the lives of the wayward and neglected youths taken into the Industrial School system of the late 19th Century.

James William Smith clearly came from a poor and somewhat dysfunctional family, and was described as ‘bad’ by the Police. However, the official on the ship who interviewed him and recorded his particulars on arrival saw some promise, and ventured that he ‘might turn out well with proper treatment’.
In addition to the wealth of personal information recorded, we are fortunate in also having a photograph of James William Smith, looking directly at the camera with a relatively untroubled expression. Photographs have survived for most adult prisoners from 1871 onwards, but images of young people in child welfare institutions are rare.
About the reform schools
From the mid-1860s, the government set up ‘nautical school ships’ as reformatories for wayward or neglected boys. On board these ships, the boys were given nautical and industrial training and instruction, elementary schooling and ‘moral training’. One of the key aims was to provide sufficient training to give the boys an opportunity to obtain meaningful employment after they left the ship.
The first of these ships was the ‘Vernon’, which was succeeded by the ‘Sobraon’ in 1892. This system lasted until 1911, by which time all the remaining boys had been discharged, apprenticed, or sent to land-based institutions.

Source: NRS 3902 Nautical School Ship Sobraon;  Entrance books, 1897-1911. Entry for James William Smith. [8/1747, p.51], Reel 2888


Name James William Smith

Whereas James William Smith a child under the age of 16 has been proved to be living under the following conditions: at Bourke living with common prostitute & associating with bad characters
Bench and date of committal Bourke Bench 29th November 1897
Name, date and place of birth, and religion James William Smith date of Birth not known states just 14 year old Born Sydney Roman Catholic
Nature of evidence as to foregoing Statement made by boy himself
Education School attended Neither read nor write
Character: State if previously before a Bench of Magistrates. How many times Nature of offence How dealt with. Police report as to antecedents, companions etc. Bad according to the Police. Not known. If ever before bench before boy says not Police state mother was a Prostitute when living in Bourke Lad was always a bad one companions similarly situated
State if he has been an inmate of any orphanage, asylum, reformatory, or any institution, or in any way under State control No
Circumstances leading to child being sent to Industrial School Living with prostitutes and associating with bad characters
Parent’s names in full: occupation: earnings. Number of children. Have any been inmates of any institution? Mother is Mary McGaulty address not known lad states his brother was on the Sobraon & two sisters in Randwick Asylum.
Full particulars as to parents’ general character as known to Police. Police to state if boy has been arrested on present occasion by parents’ desire or independently The mother was a lose character Father stated to be dead Boy arrested by Police independently
Precis of evidence, dwelling more particularly upon any important features in connection with the case The lad lives in Bourke District and visits Bourke frequently & stays a month or two at a time. during his stay he sleeps in empty houses & sheds. He also stays with common prostitutes Chinamen & Afghanis sleeping in the same house He roams the streets with other bad characters. He is summoned to attend the Police Court tomorrow (Nov 30 1897 for throwing stones in street
Name of Committing Magistrate J M Douglas JP
H G Rayner JP
Boy’s Statement
I was sent here for being with bad company in Bourke: was living at a place the name of Mrs Beerson. Father left my mother & she is living with another man name J McCauley was never up before Never went to school before. Used to go out to the shearing sheds as a rouseabout know one boy Sed Fenwick from Bourke
Skin & clothes dirty & ragged. No marks or scars Boy seems an intelligent hard working chap (is unfortunate in having bad parent. Should turn out well with proper treatment
Hand writing on arrival James Smith
Hand writing on departure
Height 5ft 2 ¼ in5ft 2 ½
Chest 29 ins29 ½
Weight 99 ½ lbs103 ¾
[Photograph] Remarks

After the Sobraon – James William Smith

…The boy as conducted him self since he as being in my imployment..

Additional records about Sobraon boys are patchy and incomplete, but some papers survive which seem to confirm the prediction that James William Smith might ‘turn out well’. After a period of training and instruction, James appears to have been apprenticed at some time during 1898 to Mark Coulston, a farmer living near Parkes. There was some uncertainty about James’s age, and the authorities obtained a birth certificate, which gave his year of birth as 1881. This meant that he was due to turn 18 in December 1899, and would thus be free from his apprenticeship.

Things were looking up. His employer seems to have been happy with him, and indicates that James might come to Sydney to see his parents. Unlike some of the ‘tales from the Archives’, this one may have had a happier ending.

Source: NRS 3903 Nautical School Ship Sobraon; Correspondence and documents relating to committals, 1898-1903. Papers re James William Smith – Letter from employer, November 1899, (extracted from p.51 of Entrance book)


25 Nov
Brue Plains Station
Mr Mason Sir
i received your letter of the 9 ist (instant)
i see by thos papers James William
Smith will be 18 years of age
on the 18 of next month the boy
(h)as conducted himself since he (h)as
being [sic] in my imployment [sic]
i have told Smith he will be
free this next month i think he
is inclined to com to Sydney
to see his parents i thought Smith
rather big boy for (h)is age i must
see about getting another boy if
he is goint [sic] to leave hear
I Remain Yours Truelly
Mark Coulston

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