The Courts Youth Steering Group

The Courts will become an enterprise hub in Bristol for young people and creative businesses, where we learn and share expertise. 

We aim to make this space positive, creative, and inspiring. To keep young people at the heart of the decision making, we have a youth steering group, who will make decisions for the space.

They are creating art, managing events, learning more about the history of the building to bring the space to life and make decisions on how we can make this a valuable space for young people and creatives.  


Before the mid-1800s, children faced the same punishments as adults and were tried in the same courts. Sometimes their age was taken into account, but there wasn’t a separate system of youth justice or custodial institutions just for young people.

From the 1840s, laws were passed so that more young people under 14 (and under 16 from 1850) could be tried at magistrates courts – like ours. This meant their cases were dealt with more quickly and offenders didn’t face the most severe punishments. 

In the 1850s, campaigners like Bristol’s Mary Carpenter, secured state support for Reformatory schools. Young offenders could be sent to a Reformatory instead of prison, but they still had to serve two weeks at a prison before entry to the school (this provision continued until 1893). Reformatories operated somewhere between a prison and a school. They offered training and education to young people, but as we’ve seen from some of the escapees from Red Lodge, the school regimes could be strict and punitive and resisted by the young people! Bristol had some of the first Reformatory schools: Red Lodge for girls founded in 1854, and Kingswood Reformatory for Boys (established in 1852, boys only from 1854) which is now one of CYN’s other sites! We know that young people from our courts were sent to these Reformatories.

Before the Probation of Offenders Act 1907, we know that Bristol Magistrates Court used ‘court missionaries’ as a kind of probation officer to supervise young offenders in the community, and that the court made every attempt to separate children’s cases from adult cases by hearing them first.

Separate juvenile courts were established in 1908.

The Formidable training ship (1869-1906)

Archive research by student Ellie Purdy, with some context by Rose Wallis

The Formidable was an old Navy ship opened as an industrial school specialising in nautical training. Industrial schools were established from the 1850s. Whereas Reformatory Schools (like Kingswood or the Red Lodge) were for convicted juvenile offenders, and required them to spend two weeks in prison before entering the schools, industrial schools were for younger offenders considered less serious but considered in need of intervention to stop them falling to a life of crime. Young people sent to industrial schools by the courts did not have to spend anytime in prison beforehand.

From the 1860s, young people under the age of 14 could be sent to an Industrial school for begging, being found wandering and homeless, for associating with known thieves, or whose parents could not control them. Young people under 12 could also be sent to an Industrial school as an alternative to prison.

Young men were sent to the Formidable from the Bristol Magistrates’ court on charges including ‘wandering’, ‘having no visible means’ of support, truancy. Ellie is conducting more research to find out why boys were sent to the Formidable, what life was like for them, and what they did after their time on the training ship.


(All from the Bristol Mercury)

3 March 1880,

‘Popularity of the Formidable’

Apparently James Dickens was getting himself into trouble to be able to go to the Industrial School (perhaps for the opportunities?) But as a repeat offender he was instead sentenced to 14 days imprisonment and 5 years at Kingswood Reformatory.

4 May 1880, boy sent to Kingswood (his older brother was already on the Formidable)

11 Jan 1895,

‘Child Beggars’

This case shows the intersection of poverty, ‘crime’ (or rather begging) and the courts as both a source of punishment and welfare.

17 Jan 1895,

'Footballers Fined'

Apparently a frequent offence for which young people were fined!

Written by R. Wallis Nov 2021


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