To Build Bravely -Toc H & the Borstal Boys

By Steve Smith

I recently read a biography of Alexander Paterson, written by one Harry Potter (How his life must have been dramatically changed when J.K. Rowling found success). Regular readers of my blog will know how Paterson was a good friend of Barclay Baron, a prime-mover in the Oxford Boys’ Club, and one of the key figures in the early days of Toc H. His involvement with the Movement may well have been greater if he hadn’t been so wrapped up in his main passion which was prison reform, in particular for young people. Unlike many reformers, Paterson chose not to attack the system from the outside but to improve it from within. As Prison Commissioner he set about making dramatic changes to prisons particularly building on the nascent Borstal system started by his predecessor Evelyn Ruggles-Brise. Paterson believed passionately that criminals were a product of their environment and that throwing young people into the rough and ready prisons hanging over from the Victorian age, pretty much guaranteed they would be fated to a life of crime. Instead, he wanted to treat young offenders fairly and give them every opportunity to improve their lot.

Alec Paterson (holding dog) on holiday in the Lake District. Barclay Baron is behind him.

In 1928 the three existing borstals were not enough. Besides, Paterson wanted something a little different; he wanted an Open Borstal where the lads were not locked in but remained there through self-discipline. At first Paterson was told that if he wanted to build a new borstal then he would have to find a sponsor to put up the money but then the Chancellor of the Exchequer – a certain Winston Churchill – stepped in and agreed to fund the project. A site was identified at Lowdham Grange in Nottinghamshire and plans made. There was a twist! The buildings were to be erected by the borstal lads themselves and a team of offenders and their staff from Feltham borstal were to get the project started. Furthermore, to get in underway, the team would walk from the existing borstal at Feltham in Middlesex to the new site at Lowdham Grange. And it was this march that makes this a Toc H story, for as well as the obvious connection with Paterson himself, Toc H were to provide the overnight accommodation and entertainment for the party along its route.

Paterson personally interviewed the nine staff to accompany the lads on the march. They were to be led by William Wigan Llewellin. Bill Llewellin was a former Deputy at Feltham and was to be the Governor at the new borstal. He, like Paterson, Baron, and others in Toc H had spent time as student helping at the Boys Clubs in Bermondsey. Llewellin kept a diary which helps us track the march.

The overnight stops along the route

On 4th May 1930, the nine staff (plus a support lorry and driver) accompanied by 43 lads began their march of 162 miles. There was little publicity – the service had had its fingers burned by the press in the past – though inevitably it began to pick up some media momentum as it progressed. Reports vary on the number of staff on the walk but this may be because some individuals joined the march for certain periods only. Paterson and several others walked the first leg on day one for instance, and Harold Richard Scott of the Home Office came aboard at Nottingham for the last legs. He worked with Paterson and jumped at the chance to join the march when asked. As well as Llewellin the team included Herbert Hewitt Holmes (Senior Officer), Charles Trevellick Cape (Housemaster, who later succeeded Llewellin as Governor), Harold J Taylor (Assistant Housemaster, also a later Governor and, from 1957, Director of the Borstal Institutes), Stanley Gilbert Smithson (officer, later Principal PO at Lewes prison), A T Perry (Officer), C Burns (Officer), J H Marsden (Officer), Thomas William Henry Quick (Hospital Officer), and E Young (Driver),

On Saturday 3rd May 1930, Paterson spoke to all the staff individually and wished them luck for the journey. The following day a group photo was taken and a service was held in Feltham Chapel before the party headed out of the borstal by the North Gate accompanied by an escort of Feltham lads for the first few miles.

They stopped in a field for lunch and Paterson passed round his cigarettes as the lads would not be issued theirs until the evening. They had a post-prandial game of football before continuing. The first day’s march was not taxing and they walked just 12 miles all day, though one lad (Rowley) dropped out and another (Chadwick) strained a knee and had to ride in the lorry.  At the end of the day’s walking they arrived at Rochester Parish Hall in Harrow where the local Toc H branch hosted them. One lad, who kept his own diary, said the feast awaiting them in the hall was “a sight for the blind”. Toc H had laid on quite a buffet. The same lad would later say “Toc H are brothers to all and friends to all no matter to what social class they belong”. Some went to church whilst others had a walk around Harrow with members of Toc H. Later there was a singsong until 11pm after which they settled down to sleep or, in the case of our young lad, “to ponder over the kindness of Toc H”.

After an early morning stroll around Harrow churchyard – including visiting Byron’s grave – Toc H provided breakfast and after a photo with Toc H (I wonder if that still exists?) the party left Harrow at 9.30am on Monday 5th May.

The day’s walking – they averaged 3-4 miles per hour and rested for 5 minutes each hour – took them to St Albans where they arrived about 4.30pm. They stayed at 6th Abbey Troop Scout Hut (Abbey Hill House) where Toc H again led the entertainment. There was a tour of the Abbey and town and afterwards, back at the hut, a sword dance by the Scouts, the Toc H Ceremony of Light followed by a sing-song and closing with the Toc H prayer.

On Tuesday they left St Albans a little late (10.15am) due to mishap with lorry but still arrived at their next stop, Dunstable, at 4.15pm. They seemed quite regimented with their schedules. This time they stayed at the Wesleyan Church Institute but their hosts were again the local Toc H. Amongst the entertainment laid on were piano, banjo, and ‘bone-clapper’ solos. Musical Chairs and other games completed the evening.

The 7th May walk was a longer stretch, some 17 miles to Newport Pagnell. They passed Woburn Abbey Zoo along the way and could see animals over the fences. Their stay at Newport Pagnell was not organised by Toc H who could offer no branch in the area, so it was organised by an unnamed gentleman. Although our diarist lad was grateful to the man, he did say that Toc H’s friendship was much missed.

Another long walk of 18 miles took them from Newport Pagnell to Northampton where they were joined by Harold Scott for the rest of the journey. They had a swim in the public baths followed by tea at the Valentine’s Café. The group then retired to the Toc H rooms for a sing-song and entertainment from a conjurer, a jazz band, and a ventriloquist. They also managed to squeeze a game of football in. They spent the night at the Hull memorial Buildings thanks to the generosity of the Revd Trevor Lewis, vicar of All Saints.

The next day, after breakfast at Valentine’s, they set off for Market Harborough. They were rewarded with the second swim of the march and the usual sing-song with a ‘warm-hearted’ Toc H branch at the Infant’s school in Coventry Road where they spent the night. Breakfast was again provided by Toc H the following morning before they set out on the next leg.

Marching through Leicester

On the 10th May, Paterson and his wife joined them about 11am and dished out bananas. They arrived at their next port of call, Leicester, around 5pm and were entertained by Toc H at Granby Hall. A swim was once again a highlight of the overnight stop.

The following day was Sunday so there was to be no walking. Instead, the lads and their officers would spend the day as guests of Leicester Toc H. After various church parties they toured the city. There was a visit and talk by local dignitaries. In the evening some of the boys visited the Toc H Mark and later there was more Toc H entertainment. Sadly this was to be the last as at their penultimate stop at Broughton Lodge, they slept in a dance hall with the proprietors feeding them. Alec Paterson was again with them.

Then on the Tuesday 13th May they left Broughton along the Fosse to Lowdham where a huge reception of locals and the Bishop of Southwell awaited them. Preparations by an advance party included tents and a bath-house with hot water. The boys would live in the tents until they had built the first huts and then the permanent buildings. Llewellin lived in a tent until the boys were properly housed (and whilst he remained governor, he always ate the same food as his ‘lads’)

Work on the 350-acre site began almost immediately with local tradesmen supporting the lads. A Foundation Stone for the main buildings was laid on the 28th July 1930 and the new, open borstal was on its way. The march had entered prison service folklore and the Borstal lads were now part of the Toc H family.

Arriving Lowdham Grange

What is clear is that the time spent with Toc H on the march deeply affected some of the boys. For perhaps the first time in their lives they felt the hand of brotherly friendship on their shoulders. The relationship with Toc H and the Grange didn’t end with the march though.  Nottingham and Carlton branches were soon to visit and in the case of Carlton it would begin a relationship that lasted well into the 1960s. In the winter around eight members of the branch would come to the Grange one evening a week and teach subjects such as First Aid, Engineering, Gardening, Embroidery, and Shoe-repairing. They also held a discussion circle. Later a branch was formed in Lowdham village and they – along with Carlton – would spend weekends living with the boys just to let them have contact with ‘ordinary’ people. One Carlton member would meet lads at Nottingham train station when they were released to ensure they got on the correct train.   

Bill Llewellin himself became a dedicated member of Toc H in 1932 and was later on Central Council. When he moved to run the new North Sea Camp in 1935 the Stafford group helped get things started. A second march – from Stafford to North Sea Camp near Freiston on the Lincolnshire coast – was organised and Toc H branches at Uttoxeter, Derby, Nottingham, Bingham (Carlton branch), Grantham, Sleaford, and Boston handled the overnight stops. This time there were just 15 lads and six officers (Including Bill Llewellin) who left Stafford on the 23rd May. Once again, their goal was to build the new camp themselves but now on marshland reclaimed from the sea. The routine was similar; for instance, on Thursday May 30th they arrived in Boston and had a meal provided by Toc H at St James’ Hall (assisted by the St James’ Kitchen Committee). They then went swimming in the public baths and retired to St James’ Parish Room for entertainment including a whist drive and supper where they were joined by Paterson and Scott, now chairman of the Prison Commission. Boston Toc H retained an ongoing relationship with the camp.

The Borstal Association set up a scheme where newly released lads were put under the wing of Toc H members. This worked well because not all those released from Borstal felt confident enough to become fully-fledged members of Toc H, though several did. This sort of paternalistic relationship of Toc H to potential or actual young offenders would be extended. By the late 1940s, Borstal allowed its lads five days home leave during their sentences.  Llewellin, now on the Central Council, suggested a Toc H member might act as ‘home’ where the lad’s own home was not suitable.

Toc H remained working with Borstals for many decades. One even produced furniture for the Toc H activity centre at Port Penrhyn; others sent lads to join summer projects.

There was still another march to come as well. In 1980, with the 50th anniversary of the original walk looming, eight branches were asked to re-enact the walk to raise money for the Stoke Mandeville Hospital Spinal Unit Building Appeal. The walkers this time would be sponsored and this time they would be from Lowdham Grange. On Friday 2nd May 1980 they drove down to Feltham where they spent the night in the gym. The next day they set out for the Chalfonts and the first day of their walk. Along the way they were again looked after by many Toc H folk and even visited the headquarters at Wendover. At 2.30pm on Sunday 11th May they arrived back at the Grange to a rapturous crowd. They swapped commemorative plaques with Toc H and the Bishop of Southwell led a service of rededication. In all the lads and their officers would raise over £2000 for the Spinal Injuries Unit.

And so finally, what of the key players in this drama?

Alec Paterson remained dedicated to the prison service travelling the world to study penology. He reluctantly retired through poor health at the end of 1946, was knighted the following year but died very shortly afterwards.

Bill Llewellin visited West Africa for Toc H in the early fifties to meet branches and study the Leper colonies. He died in November 1961.

Harold Richard Scott went on to become Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police where, amongst several notable achievements, he introduced the Police Cadet training scheme to get young people involved in the force.

A documentary, Those Who dare, was made by the BBC in 1955. It was about the Borstal Institute but focussed very much on the original march. My initial research suggests it survives but I’m not yet able to track down where it is held. It doesn’t appear to have been repeated after its initial broadcast nor has it ever seen a commercial release.

Borstals were eventually replaced through the seventies and eighties and are now Young Offenders Institutes. Lowdham Grange was bulldozed in 1997 to make way for a prison and North Sea Camp was converted to a Category D prison for adults.

But Alec Paterson’s dream and the role played in it by Toc H is lodged firmly in the folklore of the prison service. It remains a stunning example of how one man’s faith in some of society’s most stigmatised and rejected young people enabled many to go on and live valuable and worthy lives. 


I am very grateful to the research and assistance of Jeremy Lodge in compiling this article

Further Reading

Lowdham Grange. Borstal! by Jeremy Lodge

Alexander Paterson: Prison Reformer by Harry Potter

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