To the average Englishman the name Borstal means only one thing. Outside Kent, he is usually surprised to learn that there is actually a village of this name, having always regarded it as a synthetic word contrived by the prison authorities. The village is, in fact, part of the City of Rochester, although it still retains many village characteristics. Of course, there is much more to the place than Her Majesty’s Borstal Institution (known officially as the ‘Rochester Borstal’), but it may be as well to clear up this aspect of the village at the outset.
At the beginning of the present century, there lived a well-known prison reformer named Sir Evelyn Ruggles-Brise. He was actually a prison governor, and, when in command of Reading Prison, his most notable ‘charge’ was Oscar Wilde. Sir Evelyn was, in addition, Lord-Lieutenant of Essex, and a visit to the churchyard of the picturesque Essex village of Finchingfield reveals a monument to him, describing him as ‘the founder of Borstal Institutions’.
Like others throughout history, he was concerned that so many young criminal offenders should be sent direct to ordinary gaols, there to become tainted by hardened ‘old-lags’ and so to become themselves really ‘hard-liners’. Sir Evelyn urged on the government of the day the idea of establishing separate ‘institutions’ for these youngsters, where an attempt might be made to reform them rather than let them drift further into crime. Eventually, the powers that be offered him the use of a former convict prison, built just outside Rochester (at Borstal, in fact) for his initial experiments. The latter was evidently regarded as a success, for in 1908 the first ‘Borstal Institution’ was established on this site, where it still serves the same purpose. In the meantime, numerous ‘Borstals’ have been set up throughout Britain, forming an integral part of the prison system. Our local Institution was thus the first of many, and the fact that it survives seems to indicate that it has been at least a partial success, in spite of its many problems. Until recent years one of these problems was the periodic escape of ‘Borstal Boys’ (now officially called ‘trainees’) and the alarms caused to the nearby civil population. One can only conclude from the quiet of later times that security has now been considerably tightened up.
Prior to the building of the original convict prison in 1870, Borstal was but a tiny community. The still-surviving primary school was also built in that year, and the parish church of St. Matthew in 1878. It was about this time that the village began to grow, and this was largely due to the coming to the neighbourhood of the cement industry. Several rows of houses of uniform pattern, erected to house the influx of labour, still exist to form the core of the village. Cement is still a major industry in the Medway valley, with the abundant supply of chalk from the surrounding hills and the particular quality of the river water. But the cement factories disappeared from Borstal itself many years ago, and the pits which had supplied the chalk have long since been filled in. Indeed, cement has gone from the East bank of the river and is now confined to the West bank from Cuxton to Snodland where it is still very much a live industry.
Reference has been made to the parish church of St. Matthew. Originally, the whole area was in the parish of St. Margaret’s, Rochester, stretching from down near Rochester Cathedral out almost to the next parish of Wouldham, and St. Matthew’s, Borstal, was a ‘branch’ church in St. Margaret’s parish. Then, in 1905, a separate parish of St. Matthew’s was carved out of St. Margaret’s, and St. Matthew’s became the centre of a new extensive parish, with a considerable – and still growing – population. With its squat tower and one bell, it does not present a very impressive exterior. But one internal feature attracts a surprising number of visitors. And here I cannot do better than quote from Arthur Mee’s ‘Kent’ (in his ‘King’s England’ series) – “BORSTAL. A few houses and a modern church on the slope of the hills that rise from the Medway as it flows past Rochester, it has given the world an idea and a story. The idea is that boys who get into trouble are not essentially evil and are not to be treated as criminals. The story is The Story of the Seven Lamps”. This story was originally told, rather romantically, in one of the books of Donald Maxwell, the local man who brought them here from Damascus (‘Unknown Kent’). Suffice it to say here that these Seven Lamps of Damascus have hung in the sanctuary of St. Matthew’s since 1920, each one surmounted by a cross and incorporating in its design the Moslem crescent (intriguing, this, in a Christian church!).
Below the church, the Medway widens at a point that has always been known locally as ‘Safety Bay’. This is, in its own special way, an historic point, for less than a mile away there stands a factory on the East shore, which was occupied until 1948 by those aviation pioneers, the brothers Short, and here, for many years, they produced flying boats, with ‘class’ names that have gone down into history – ‘Sunderland’ and ‘Empire’ being perhaps the best remembered. For take off and landing, these great aircraft took advantage of the wide stretch of water (at high tide) at Safety Bay. Eventually, their growth in size ruled this out and Short Brothers Ltd. left Rochester for Belfast (1948), but some of the craftsmen who helped to produce the flying boats still live in the Borstal neighbourhood. Since then, this stretch of water has taken on another role, for in 1963 the giant Medway Bridge was opened, spanning the river here and carrying the new M2 motorway. Fortunately for Borstal, it crosses through the parish at the end of the built-up area, and beyond it remains mainly farm land, all the way to the 14th century church of the neighboring parish, Wouldham.
In common with so much of North Kent, Borstal is a very hilly place, and on one of its peaks stands a group of buildings deserving a special mention, and known locally as, simply, Foords. Here are some of the most handsome almshouses in this part of the country, and they result from a legacy of Thomas Hellyar Foord, a Mayor of Rochester in the 1880s. Their outward design, on three sides of a grass quadrangle, is matched in taste by their interiors, and the group is crowned by a green domed clock tower above the very attractive Hall. Although it has not yet become a recognised ‘tourist attraction’, this hall is worth a visit for its handsome wall paintings, which depict scenes in the history of Rochester, with some of its historic visitors. Notable among those are King Charles II and Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell. The latter was MP for Rochester and the foremost English admiral of his time. He lost his life with his three thousand men when their five ships, returning from wars with the French, were wrecked on the Isles of Scilly in 1704. An unmarked block of granite on the island of St. Mary’s shows where he was washed ashore, and a monument in Westminster Abbey indicates his final resting place. The concluding painting is an admirable conception in showing the newly-completed Foords (opened in 1926) and the principal craftsmen who worked on it.
Foords stands by a handsome road that was laid down in 1908, to become the local route for the trams until their demise in 1931. It takes its name from the wide expanse of fields on the other side – Priestfields. We are reminded by this name that, until the Reformation, Rochester Cathedral was a monastic foundation and, like the Rochester Bridge Wardens, held much of the land around here. Borstal’s parish boundary runs through these fields, and Borstal itself, though officially a part of the City of Rochester, still contrives to maintain its identity as a village, whose roots, along with neighbouring Nashenden, go back into the distant past.