'Naughty' Boys: The Education of
Boys at Lytton 1881-1899
by Alan Savige
Presented at a meeting of the Society 23 April 1992
To check evil at its source is more vitally important to the welfare
of a community than to counteract it when it is developed, and in
the work of prevention of crime which it has added to its original
work of reformation and which it is ably carrying out, the boys'
reformatory at Lytton claims to be one of the most valuable and
important institutions of the colony.'
This paper analyses colonial Queensland's efforts to care for neglected
and destitute boys sentenced to Reformatory school at Signal Hill,
Lytton during the last two decades of the nineteenth century.
In some respects, the relocation of the Reformatory for boys at
Lytton in 1881 commenced a new era in the boys' education. Formal
education within colonial society was expanding and the government
was compelled to plan and build to meet more comprehensively the
specific needs in educating and caring for wayward boys. The
classification of inmates into the 'neglected' and those convicted of
crime was to become permanent and received a measure of acceptance
by the general public. This categorisation was becoming the norm in
all the Australian colonies at the time.
The new surroundings led to opportunities for a greater variety of
work and leisure activity as the institution now became more accessible
to interested philanthropic members of the general public. This was
also reflected in a new relationship between the Reformatory and the
Queensland Defence Forces at Lytton — one which was arguably
convenient, but ultimately contributed to the' demise of the
Reformatory at Lytton.
Notwithstanding the new location, little had changed from when
the boys had been confined on the Hulk, Proserpine, moored in the
Brisbane River. The philosophy governing the boys' education, both
formal and informal, remained the same. So did procedures for
admissions and licensing and James Wassell, the former
Superintendent's stable and conservative administration, was
maintained for almost the entire period that the Reformatory was
located at Lytton. The government continued to adopt the same
attitudes, to rely upon the same legislation and used the same
personnel to interpret the legislation.
Plans for the new Reformatory on an enclosed two-acre site were
submitted to the Public Works' Department in March 1879. The
building was to be constructed of hardwood with weatherboard
cladding and an unhned shingle roof 'the cost being kept down as
much as possible'.^ The total cost was estimated at £ 1,180.
It was soon obvious that development had to be expedited using
one of two reformatory sites the government had reserved in 1880.
The ultimate choice was Signal Hill, the highest point in the immediate
vicinity of Lytton. The Colonial Secretary, A.H. Palmer, wanted the
boys to provide the labour under the direction of 'two competent
working carpenters who would . . . perform such portions of the
joiner work (making doors, window sashes, etc,) as the boys will not
be capable of doing.''
The government were attempting to build with a meagre and
inadequate budget. The roof was unlined and wooden roofing shingles
were used. The plans reveal that the penal concept inherited at the
time of founding the Reformatory had not been abandoned or greatly
modified. The location of the building inside the fortified stockade
atop the hill and the layout of the rooms show that security and
surveillance were of prime importance. The outer fence had been
commenced by the boys as early as 1879, after a visit to the Hulk
by the Colonial Secretary who recommended that they be put to work
to build a 'very high stockade fence'" approximately eight feet high
made of sawn hardwood to cost about £ 150. The task was too great
for the boys and it was still incomplete in June 1883.' When a
Brisbane Courier reporter visited Signal Hill in May, 1886 he described
the Reformatory as a 'sombre-looking building surrounded with a
high paling fence . . . [which] gives the idea of a prison'.* The notion
of a place of incarceration in an isolated spot was palpably real.
The building was an 176 foot long, L-shaped, single storey structure
facing south-west, overlooking the Lytton reach of the Brisbane River.
At its southernmost end there was an extension facing east. The boys
were house in two dormitories, large rooms each 71 by 19 feet. For
the first time in a decade, the boys were to sleep in beds rather than
the canvas hummocks slung in the cells on the Proserpine.^ The
external wall at the rear of the Reformatory was protected by a wide
verandah for its full length. At the northern end it was enclosed to
form a tailoring shop and at the opposite end a warder's mess-room
was created. The southern extension, 80 by 18 feet, houses the first
permanent schoolroom designed for the inmates, a dining room, store
room and kitchen. Attached to the external kitchen wall was a lean-
to divided into washhouse and laundry.** Earth closet toilets were
provided at the rear of the yard but there was no provision for washing
or bathing. Domininating the whole of the rear section was a 25 feet
high sentry tower, a concept suggested by the Colonial Secretary.' It
enclosed two solitary confinement cells and also acted as a reservoir
for water pumped from the nearby underground tank as well as watch
tower for the Q.D.F.
The boys were located in the middle of a military defensive position
that could not hide the fact that it served a double purpose in
restraining them once they were relocated on dry land and provided
easy surveillance of the Brisbane River mouth and the southern section
of Moreton Bay. In this respect the site was similar to the institution
at Mettray (France) where the architecture provided '. . . a very clear
expression of the purposes of the institution'.'" The Lytton site has
been described as follows:
The stockade fence. . .is sufficiently high to prevent their escape,
but at present it is too slight to resist musketry fire at close ranges,
and has yet to be considerably strengthened. Loopholes will be made,
and all round the exterior of the fence a ditch is to be dug, the earth
from which will be so placed as to strengthen the stockade. . .On
(sic) inspection of this spot v/ill show what a very commanding
position the enclosure on the hill possesses. . . It is probable that
a small force, say of 200 men, within the battery and stockade, could
successfully repel an enemy of more than treble that number.^
The windows, covered with sunshades," were allowed to open six
inches top and bottom and
instead of the unsightly iron bars which disfigure the windows of
most buildings where persons are forcibly kept under restraint, the
centre bars of the sashes are of cast iron instead of wood, and as
these windows are narrow, and only open such a short distance,
it would not be an easy, matter for any of the boys to get through
during the night, and if they did their plans would probably be
frustrated by their falHng into the hands of the warder on watch
Nevertheless in 1883 Wassell feared '. . . any discontented boy could
make off almost any night he wished' following an'eleven year old's
feigned illness one evening and his subsequent escape through the
window while evening school was in session.'^ However, Wassell soon
had a complete change of heart about security. Writing in 1895 he
No lad is ever locked up, nor is either of the wards, or the stockade
round the buildings . . . It is now over ten years since 1 did away
with locks, bolts, and bars, and attempts to escape are less frequent
than previously, and are confined to new arrivals. There has only
been one attempt made during the past thirty months.'^
The schooling programme, begun by Wassell and continued by John
Brown on the Hulk, was translated to Signal Hill without incident
— this time in a classroom specially set aside for teaching and evening
study. Brown continued to teach in the same vein throughout 1881
and 1882 until he requested a transfer to the St Helena school for
the gaol warders' children.'" Thus the work of the first professional
teacher at the Reformatory came to an end. Brown had displayed a
lack of enthusiasm in his work and surprisingly sought to move to
an even more isolated position. His transfer amounted to a swap with
William Mahon stationed on St. Helena. Mahon later became
dissatisfied with his pay, compared to that he receive on St. Helena,
over-indulged in alcohol and requested a transfer out of the service.
Another interesting facet of the boys' education was the
development of Music which had commenced with visiting instructors
on the Hulk and continued by Mahon who was proficient in music.
Prior to 1885 there had been a drum and fife band 'which at that
time was a very good one' but as the boys involved were discharged,
new members had not been trained and the band had 'quite
collapsed'." In June, 1886 the services of Mr J.D. Owen were secured
to give instruction for two hours each Saturday afternoon. The
fortunes of the Drum and Fife band fluctuated according to the
leadership available, yet despite its problems the band was sufficiently
highly respected to be invited to a Wellington Point function in May
Mahon's replacement was Martin McGladrigan, a twenty-five year
old single man. McGladrigan held the position as schoolmaster for
the duration of time the Reformatory was at Lytton and he was the
boys' most successful teacher up to that time.
Control of the School was transfered to the Colonial Secretary's
department in early 1885, 'in accordance with the wish of
the. . .Colonial Secretary. It is understood that the School will still
remain subject to inspection by the [D.P.I.].'''
THE NAUTICAL TRAINING PROPOSAL
Wassell, while on the Hulk, went out of his way to secure positions
for his boys as hands, cabin boys, stewards or cooks aboard ships,
whenever he saw an opportunity. After the Reformatory had been
established on Signal Hill he had other opportunities to pursue his
In November, 1884 a cabin boy, Michael Bowers, had been sent to
join the government schooner Mavis at Thursday Island. The vessel's
commander. Captain Williams, was sufficiently impressed with him
to suggest that a further four or five boys would complete the crew's
complement. Williams reasoned that if he had a good seaman gunner,
rated as a Boatswain or Gunner's Mate, on the Mavis he could leave
the instruction and drill of such boys completely in his care. In that
case he thought it would be
very advisable to man the Mavis altogether with good able bodied
boys, out of the Reformatory at Lytton, who are willing to take
to a sea life, so that in addition to her present work, she would be
utilised as a Training ship for the Colonial Navy.'*
Wilhams needed a Boatswain's Mate, three able-bodied seamen,
and a cook. It was difficult to keep men for long on Northern sea
runs as they tired of the life and alcohol was easily available to numb
their boredom. He further cautioned that the boys should not be sent
unless the requested Gunner's Mate was also sent as he recognised
that his current man was too inexperienced to be in charge of the boys.
Williams considered the Mate tactless, and this was believed to be
an additional consideration in the loss of crew. Wassell favoured the
proposal and requested an indication of interest from the boys. Of
the seventy-seven inmates, forty volunteered, out of whom he 'selected
five (5) good strong lads who would in a short time be almost as useful
as men'.'^ The Superintendent saw one of his cherished dreams come
within his grasp and enthusiastically took up the proposal.
Other nautical training schemes, on the Chichester on the Thames,
and on the Vernon and the Sobraon in Sydney, had conducted exercises
on board ship in the atmosphere of naval disciphne and
terminology.^" The only thing the Lytton boys had in common with
such trainees was physical fitness and a willingness to participate.
None of those selected had been inmates on the Proserpine and, with
the exception of the possible boating exercise on the Brisbane River
and the annual outing to one of the islands in Moreton Bay, they had
probably never been on board a vessel prior to their selection. Wassell's
enthusiasm, the needs of the government and economics had clouded
the planning. The scheme was doomed to failure.
The initial five boys chosen commenced service at Thursday Island
on 18 December 1884.^' Captain Williams soon found that the boys
were not as physically strong as he expected. The scheme might still
have succeeded had it not been for a most unfortunate episode which
took place shortly after the boys arrived. Leaving Thursday Island
on 12 January 1885 and making a short stop in Somerset Harbour,
the boys got their first real taste of heavy weather when hit by a 'terrific
squall from N.W which besides nearly capsizing us, split the topsail'.
The following day they took shelter in the lee of Poll Island in 'very
squally with thick rain' and next morning made for Murray Island.
Williams mistook the lee and weather coral patches, in the absence
of markers, and the Mavis was soon broached on the reef. Jettisoning
twenty-five tons of ballast and cables in conjunction with the rising
tide enabled the crew to get the vessel inside the reef where it was
beached and supported by coconut trees. From January 24 until late
February, the boys were stranded on the island while repairs were made
and they waited for suitable conditions to refloat the vessel. Wilhams,
somewhat dispirited, concluded that he had '. . . made a mistake in
getting so many of them. . .they are too much for us'. He lamented
that three of them were 'not much use as they are seasick most of
the time & do not shew much adaptability for the life and I should
like to return them to Lytton again.'^^
A more serious consequence of the experiment was the threat by
the crew of the Mavis to walk off following the introduction of the
boys. They recognised the implicit threat to their livelihood and made
their feelings very clear. The experiment in the north lasted less than
a year and was effectively ended within two months of its inception.
The boys were returned south.
Despite this failure a picture emerges of Wassell energetically placing
individual boys on government vessels. The number of boys who
found their way from the Reformatory into service on government
coastal and naval vessels in the late 1880s and 1890s would appear
to have been small. That they were encouraged to do so was both
attributable to Wassell's own efforts, as well as that of the government
who saw in it an opportunity to 'make men' of the boys and make
money for the government. Apparently the idea had not been totally
abandoned in the 1890s as Article 21 of an abortive 1894 State
Children Bill stated that 'Reformatories for boys may, if and when
deemed expedient, be established on training ships'.^' Two years later
the Acting Naval Commandant of the Q.D.F., Walton Drake, in late
1896 advocated the introduction of a naval training vessel to
accommodate up to 200 boys aged between ten and fifteen years of
age over a three year period.^"
WORK PROGRAMME AND RELATIONS WITH THE Q.D.F.
Following the move to Signal Hill the Reformatory and the Q.D.F.
became strange bed-fellows in their semi-isolated position at the mouth
of the Brisbane River. The 1880s saw increased activity in
strengthening Brisbane's defences against the threat of foreign attack
and this activity was centred on the river mouth. The Q.D.F. strategy
was centred on Fort Lytton just to the North of the Lytton jetty. It
was designed to repel enemy advances up the river. About a mile to
the east. Signal Hill's redoubt was designed to repel any land force
attack on the Fort.^' The Reformatory was ideally placed to enable
the boys to participate in the maintenance and building of these
estabhshments and even while still on the Hulk they had helped clear
land and carried out prehminary work on these sites, including work
on the stockade fence.^*
Apart from preparation of the Defence Force sites, each Easter,
Lytton hosted extensive exercises and manoeuvres involving militia
volunteers from throughout the Colony. The boys found themselves
at the centre of this activity which must have made for some
excitement. In 1883 they quarried and carted 200 yards of blue metal
for the Fort; broke thirty-three yards of blue metal for the contractor
at the Fort and sank twenty-five holes for the Stockade fence. The
following year they fenced twenty-eight rods of Fort Paddock and
formed fifteen chains of road outside the Fort. They had also carted
and filled 100,000 cartridges for the Defence Forces. On other
occasions they were employed cutting wood for the encampment and
cleaning the guns at the Fort — a task specifically requested of the
Reformatory by Colonel Scratchley, and performed each Monday.^'
The boys had also been requested to cut the grass at Fort Lytton
and did this until 1891 when Wassell concluded that the number of
Army men present meant the boys 'saw and heard a great deal not
good for them and became possessed of tobacco which they brought
to the Reformatory almost daily'. ^* They resumed cutting early in
1892 when only two Defence personnel were present. Such work for
the Q.D.F., including cleaning the parade, occupied up to one quarter
of the Reformatory inmates at any one time in 1883.
There were, however, signs of growing friction between the two
estabhshments. Wassell found it impossible to get access to water from
the Q.D.F. when the Reformatory's supply ran out in 1888; the sergeant
in charge was absent and the windmill had been locked. On the other
hand the presence of over 100 boys of varying ages and ingenuity
might well explain the placing of locks on Q.D.F. equipment. In any
case it had become increasingly clear that the Defence forces wanted
the Reformatory removed from Signal Hill along with the Telegraph
Station. Plans for greater fortification could not be accomplished
while a boys' Reformatory was located in the middle of the redoubt.
In 1892 Commandant French of Land Defence Forces noted '. . .the
removal of existing buildings becomes necessary' and the fortification
of the hill which had been recommended ten years earlier by General
Jervois and Major General Scratchley had not been completed. French
commented '. . .the question still keeps dragging along, little progress
being made' and 'there seems to be no reasonable cause for further
delay'.^' Three years later it was still there:
Each succeeding year the Commandants have urged the necessity
of completing the Lytton Defences by the removal of the
Reformatory for boys, and placing the redoubt, which is the key
of the position in a proper state of defence. I venture to suggest
that the removal of the Reformatory would be advantageous to the
boys, if they were transfered to a spot where they could be trained
in agricultural pursuits, in a more bracing climate.^"
The specific references to 'climate' and 'agriculture' lead one to
think that the comment was either highly speculative or the Darling
Downs site was already a possibility in the minds of some.
The Q.D.F, besides providing specific work experience for the boys
outside the Reformatory workshop, also provided general interest for
the boys. A good example of this was the Defence Force's decision
to assign a non-commissioned officer from the Fort to instruct the
Officers and inmates 'in the new physical drill' after the close of an
Easter encampment.'' Despite some clash of purposes the two
instrumentalities continued to function side by side until 1899.
Woodcutting, clearing land, cutting saplings, building the stockade
wall, and quarrying metal for the make-shift roads were common tasks
for the boys, but as the Armed Forces invested more in the defences
of the area so the demands to remove the Reformatory grew. It was
finally moved in 1899, all private land in the township was resumed,
and the area declared a defence zone, which in turn became
Commonwealth land in 1901.^'
The boys were also employed in the mundane duties of running
the tailoring shop which had been established on an end of the
verandah. In 1883 eight out of seventy four boys were constantly
employed making 1,427 mail bags of assorted sizes for the G.P.O. and
in 1884 over 2,500 bags were produced. Tents were made under
contract to the Colonial Storekeeper and profits from the tailor's shop
earned approximately £50 and £28 respectively in 1883 and 1884.'^
It was reported in The Brisbane Courier in 1886 that 'much more
tailoring and tent-making work could be done by the boys if there
was a demand for it'.* The 1883 Report also revealed that one boy
was employed as a pupil-teacher, two were employed as cooks, four
as mess boys and two others drove and looked after the horses.
The Bulimba Divisional Board also employed the boys, quarrying
eighty yards of blue metal for the lower Lytton road in 1883 although
the government thought the price negotiated by the Reformatory too
cheap. A further 100 yards of metal were quarried and broken for
the Board the following year and the boys cleared mangroves to allow
the laying of cable to the Pile Lighthouse. The Colonial Secretary,
Sir Thomas Mcllwraith, instructed that the boys should further quarry
and break metal for the lower Lytton road in 1885."
Ahhough apparently not a part of the organised work programme,
Wassell encouraged each interested boy to cultivate a small plot of
vegetable garden in the playground. 'Some of the plots give evidence
of great care; they seem almost over-burdened by the number and
luxuriance of the plants which the enterprising proprietors have
crowded into them'.* The philosophy of training the boys involved
keeping them constantly employed at physically-tiring manual labour.
In the latter years Wassell described the aim of employment as 'more
with a view to make them industrious than for profit', but he pointed
out that besides the paid contracts they boys had saved the institution
a great deal through collecting firewood, making their own clothes,
and cooking their own food.^" Their clothing consisted of a uniform
which included short trousers and a cap. In winter a considerable
amount of flannel was worn to supplement the basic dress.*
Little thought was given to training in skilled trades, which were
considered not only expensive to introduce and maintain, but also
unnecessary by some conservative administrators in the nineteenth
century. Manual labour, on the other hand, was considered a
particularly suitable station in life for the boys. It was felt important
only to '. . .teach them habits of obedience and industry, which would
enable them to earn an honest living after their discharge'.^'
HEALTH AND WELFARE
Despite the emphasis on manual labour the boys' health remained
remarkably good. The death of one boy in 1885 through typhoid fever
was only the second in the history of the Reformatory. In 1893 there
was an exceptionally severe outbreak of measles with more than forty
boys were confined to bed at one time. Apart from this outbreak there
were the usual cases of influenza and unforseen sudden death but,
nevertheless, the mortality rate was much lower in comparison to the
Diamantina Orphanage. In fact the 'Hospital' room contained only
a bed, which apparently was occupied rarely.'*
The food was 'plain, but good in quality and hberal in quantity'
while the preparation area was said to be 'a spacious room, very clean
and airy' but water for ablutions was 'not nearly so abundant as it
ought to be in such an institution. Strict economy has to be practised
with regard to its use, which in such a place is an economy of the
Moving the Reformatory onto land made it accessible to the public.
Various Christian groups in Brisbane often presented programmes at
the Reformatory.'' Official records contain numerous requests for
the government steamer to transport and return such groups from
the city to Lytton. The Builders' and Contractors Association invited
them annually to attend a picnic at the nearby Aquarium.^^ Wassell
also organised outings for the inmates, drawing on a 'Recreation Fund'
he established with contributions from interested members of the
public. He used the government vessel Otter to go to locations such
as Dunwich (North Stradbroke Island) or Peel Island for picnics and
on some Saturdays they played cricket in the afternoons.''
Most of these social events were limited to a half or full day on
a weekend. The Protestant boys received Divine Service each Sunday
while the Catholic boys were taught the catechism. This ritual was
punctuated by periodic visits from the Church of England and
Catholic clergy. Typical of these visits was that of the Reverend J.
Macpherson of the Dunwich and St. Helena Mission who spent a
weekend at the Reformatory in November, 1888 and preached the
Sunday morning Divine Service in the schoolroom. He no doubt
considered his address entitled 'The Displeasure of God Against Sin'
suitable for the occasion, which also attracted some young people
from the district.""
Another innovation in the mid-1880s was the commencement of
a ladies' visiting committee and a Sunday-school. Both measures
originated with Lady Musgrave, the wife of the Governor and, together
with other church group interests, reflect on a charitable evangelical
movement still functioning strongly in Brisbane."'
LICENSING AND ADMISSION POLICY
The system enacted in the 1865 Act remained the basis for the placing
of boys in licensed service throughout the two decades the
Reformatory was at Signal Hill. As soon as a boy demonstrated trust
and common sense he was eligible for license and Wassell deliberately
placed boys at a distance from their original surroundings. It generally
took less than twelve months before a boy was eligible and Wassell
claimed many were ready inside six months confinement and
considered 'nothing is gained by detaining lads in an Institution for
Wassell trusted his own assessment of a boy and it was typical of
the man to recommend that 'placing him out now may possibly give
him a better start in life than he would obtain if after serving his
sentence, he returned [home]'."' He had strong views on the role of
parents of Reformatory boys, commenting that:
the greatest hindrance to the success of many a lad is his parents.
I believe much good would be done by depriving unworthy parents
of all control over their children.
nothing would be such a blow to the usefulness of this insdtution
as to allow parents with influence to decide what is to be done with
Wassell was discriminating in his placement of boys and refused
requests from publicans and was supported by the government. In
1883 he informed the Colonial Secretary of such a request to which
the Under Secretary suggested the Hotelier be informed 'there are no
boys available'. On occasions boys returned to the Reformatory
claiming to have been ill-treated and preferring to remain at Lytton."'
The licensing system was exploited both by the government, which
saw an opportunity to save money and 'educate' the boys in low-skilled
work, and by a public anxious to obtain relatively cheap labour. Some
upper middle class citizens obtained as many as five boys and it was
noted when Samuel Griffith applied for a boy in 1883 that he had
previously had two boys 'both of whom turned out well'."*
Occasionally attempts were made to license younger boys (under
twelve years) while Wassell, on the other hand, 'found from experience
that lads verging on manhood do not do well under license'."'
Throughout the 1880s and 1890s the Reformatory at Lytton was
the only government institution for boys other than the Diamantina
Orphanage. The dichotomy of the 1870s continued with boys who
were 'neglected' in terms of the Act associated with those who had
committed more vicious acts."* There was, however, a steady change
in the proportion of each group.
Typical of the 'neglected' majority group of inmates at Signal Hill
was the case of an eight year old boy who was seen taking bread from
a hotel and who joined his brother as an inmate for seven years. His
father was 'seldom or ever sober,. . .keeps two women, one his wife
and has a family by both. . .in the centre of prostitution. . .a
thoroughly immoral man [whose] associates and companions are of
the lowest and criminal class . . .'"'
The institution had been established initially as the Reformatory
— part of a two-tiered system of both Reformatory and Industrial
schools — and designed to cater for those who had committed serious
breaches of the law. By 1886 this had been modified and the
'neglected' class exceeded the number of 'criminal' inmates. Thus,
by default the Reformatory carried out both preventative and reform
The Brisbane Courier which had earlier commented unfavourably,
by 1886 took a more compliant attitude and attributed to Wassell a
greater concern for the behaviour of the 'neglected', whom he often
considered more intractable than the 'criminal'.* There was less
confusion in the minds of both the public and the government about
the perceived roles of the orphanages and the Reformatory compared
with earlier times, although the Bench still occasionally misplaced
children as in the case of a four year old, 'a mere baby' whom Wassell
sought to transfer to the Diamantina Orphanage.'" Some former
inmates of the Orphanage who were 'not doing well' in service, were
sent to Lytton." Parents occasionally misunderstood the gravity of
sending a child before the Magistrate with a view to frightening them.
Typical of this situation was a father who confessed in 1893:
1, on impulse of the moment took him to Mr Pinnock with the
intention of having him cautioned but the P.M. advised me to have
him sent to Lytton and I was told by a clerk at the Police Court
that I could at any time take him home again on making an
application. . . .'^
Magistrate Pinnock, who reportedly considered the current
generation growing up in Brisbane to be the worst in the world, may
have been eager to commence remedying the situation." Once a boy
was sentenced by the Bench it was not possible to reverse the decision.
When it was desirable to have a boy transfered to an orphanage on
the basis of his youthfulness or religion (Roman Catholic), the
Colonial Secretary suggested that a license be drawn up for the boy
to serve a member of the respective clergy. In 1887 James Wassell's
wife Rebecca cared for two boys aged four and six and a half in their
own private residence rather than in the Reformatory. Wassell sought
to have them transfered to St Vincent's Orphanage, Nudgee.'"
Legislation prevented the Reformatory from formally licensing any
boy into service before he was twelve years of age, but the Diamantina
Orphanage had earlier sent boys as young as nine into service."
THE TRANSFER FROM SIGNAL HILL
By the late 1890s the Signal Hill site was under serious threat by the
Defence Forces and plans were in hand for the transfer of the
Reformatory to another rural environment, unencumbered by defence
needs. It was to the west that the government looked and decided to
relocate the institution at Westbrook, beyond Toowoomba on the
It was also the close of an era marked by the retirement of James
Wassell as Superintendent after twenty nine years service. During this
time there was little trenchant criticism of his work even though it
brought him into constant contact with individuals from every level
of society. He spoke freely after considering the merits of each
situation. He opened his own home to young boys, and allowed any
former inmate of good character who was out of work to 'find a home
here, till such time as suitable employment can be found for him'.
This genuine concern motivated him to:
endeavour to obtain his confidence by showing an interest in his
welfare — 1 question him as to his antecedents, his parents, and
his home. I explain he is not sent here for punishment but to give
him a chance to redeem his character, and 1 promise to send him
into a situation, as soon as he proves himself deserving, and a
suitable one can be obtained.'*
This concern, while it was his duty, may have been misconstrued
by some as arrogance, as when in later years at the reformatory he
affirmed 'I am actuated solely by what I conscientiously believe will
prove the best for each individual case: I allow nothing else to
influence me. To this and the knowledge I have gained in the over
22 years I have had charge of boys I attribute the great amount of
success this institution has achieved.'" Privately, Wassell was said to
believe that 'half of the boys should not have been sent there at least,
for their first offence'." If this is correct, it would explain his
attempts to get younger boys separated from the older ones and to
have boys licensed as quickly as possible. It further highlighted the
duality of the class of inmate in the Reformatory system which had
come to be accepted by many members of the public in the late 1880s
It was Wassell's self-assuredness that prepared him to cogently argue
his case before the government when he felt an injustice had been
done to either a boy or himself. His tactful argument for an increase
in his allowances due to 'semi-official entertaining' clearly shows how
astute and articulate he was. He had always kept a close eye on his
personal finances and in 1888 he argued:
1 feel certain there is no officer in the whole of the Queensland
Government Service who has to spend such a large percentage of
his salary . . .nor do I think it would have so long continued in
my case had not a feeling of dehcacy hitherto prevented me from
writing on the subject, a feeling, which circumstances has at last
compelled me to overcome.
Wassell explained that the expense amounted to not less than 8%
of his pay and showed that it was unavoidable 'without placing [him]
in an unenviable position.' He pointed out that 'in all walks of life
employers recognise their liability for reasonable expenses incurred
by their subordinates in the carrying out of their duties'.'*
The government sought Wassell's advice in 1894 on the State
Children Bill which was designed to bring all State orphans, destitute
and neglected children under one complex piece of legislation." This
bill, while indicative of the desire for change in the State education
of orphans, destitute and neglected children, never proceeded beyond
an advanced draft. It was another case of a progressive organisational
measure being dropped without suitable government explanation.
Wassell retired in 1899, an event possibly accelerated by the
impending upheaval of the move to Westbrook and the death in 1898
of his wife Rebecca who had worked alongside him throughout his
stay. He retired to a property at New Farm and ended his days in 1926
with his unmarried daughters, Edith and Bertha, at Wynnum
(approximately two and a half kilometres from Signal Hill).
Unwittingly, a fitting elegy for Wassell had been written in the
Brisbane Courier in 1886:
Such work as this reformatory shows can only be carried out as
a labour of love. Hard and fast rules, however excellent cannot cope
with the various exigencies of such an undertaking. It requires great
judgment combined with experience to know when to insist and
when to relax the ordinary rules and regulations. The institution
has worked its way gradually, feeling its way at every step: no rash
experiments are tried, but as the need arises consequent upon
extended growth it is supplied.*
Ironically, when Wassell died in 1926 no mention was made in the
Courier's obituary to his twenty-eight years of service at the
Reformatory. It rather chose to point out that after 1899 he gave his
time to 'alleviating the sufferings of the unfortunate'.*"
Throughout the two decades under review the government only
twice — in 1883 and 1884 — published an annual report. For the rest
of the time the public had to rely on MP's questioning of the estimates
or general questions in the Parliament.
The new buildings had been a progressive step, but they also failed
to address the fundamental need for diversified trade and agricultural
training. Instead the Reformatory was located in a convenient position
to provide cheap labour for the Q.D.F. and local government
enterprises. The subsequent relocation of the Reformatory to
Westbrook, the framing of a comprehensive Bill to amalgamate the
administration of all classes of State Children, the demise of
institutionalised orphanage care — all indicated that the 1890s were
a period in which the winds of change were stirring, even if they were
not yet blowing a gale.
1. Brisbane Courier 20 May 1886.
2. Colonial Architect to Under Secretary for Public Works 19 March 1879
COL/A274, 1879/1161, QSA.
3. Colonial Architect to Under Secretary for Public Works 3 March 1880,
1880/1049 (top-numbered WOR/A202 1881/1196, QSA).
4. Colonial Architect (Stanley) to Under Secretary for Public Works 11 October
1879, 1879/5481 (top-numbered WOR/A202, 1881/1196, QSA).
5. J. Wassell to Under Colonial Secretary [hereinafter UCS] 12 June 1883,
COL/A364 1883/3382, QSA.
6. A Visit to the Reformatory at Lytton, Brisbane Courier 20 May 1886.
7. P. Prideaux, "An account of the Lytton Defences and the Reformatory,
March 1881", n.d., unpublished typescript, Publicity Department, Ampol
8. Plans showing the proposed removal of the Reformatory, WOR/A474
1901/290 No.3, QSA.
9. Colonial Architect (Stanley) to Under Secretary for Public Works 21
December 1880, top-numbered WOR/A202 1881/1196, QSA.
10. J. Ramsland, The Agricultural Colony at Mettray, Melbourne Studies in
Education 1987-88, Melbourne, Latrobe University Press 1988 p65.
11. Callaghan & Company, quotation for timber, n.d., 1880/1356 (top-numbered
WOR/A202 1881/1196, QSA).
12. J. Wassell to UCS 26 February 1883, COL/A354, 1883/982, QSA.
13. J. Wassell to UCS 16 September 1895, 1895/11349, COL/A796, QSA.
14. Anderson to UCS 14 December 1882, COL/A250 1882/6304, QSA.
15. Wassell to UCS 8 May 1886, COL/A465, 1886/3754, QSA.
16. COL/B35, 1895/4938, Entry Reformatories, 27 April 1895, QSA.
17. Anderson to UCS 4 March 1885, COL/A417, 1885/1532, QSA.
18. WiUiams to Colonial Secretary 5 November 1884, top-numbered COL/A435,
19. Wassell to UCS 22 November 1884, top-numbered COL/A435, 1885/6489.
20. J. Ramsland, Children of the Backlanes, Sydney, UNSW Press, 1986,
21. Wassell to Colonial Secretary 31 August 1885, COL/A435, 1885/6489, QSA.
22. Williams to Colonial Secretary 23 February 1885, COL/A417, 1885/1844,
23. State Children Bill of 1895, top-numbered COL/A797, 1895/11349, QSA.
24. W. Drake to Chief Secretary 15 December 1896, HOM/A4, 1896/16762,
25. G.P. Parker, 'Lytton and Fort Lytton', typescript August 1983, Brisbane
Public Relations Department, Ampol Petroleum, Brisbane.
26. Brisbane Courier 15 April 1881. The Western Flat below Signal Hill was
described as having been cleared by the boys.
27. Report of the Superintendent of the Reformatory for Boys at Lytton for
the years 1883 and 1884, Journals of the Legislative Council 1884 and 1885;
Wassell to UCS 24 March 1885, COL/A417, 1885/1998, QSA.
28. Wassell to UCS 10 February 1892 COL/A751, 1892/1715, QSA.
29. Commandant French to Colonial Secretary 22 April 1890, COL/A613,
30. ER Drury, Report of the Commandant for 1895, 23 August 1895, top-
numbered HOM/A7, 1897/3947, QSA.
31. Under Colonial Secretary to Superintendent, Reformatory, Lytton 21 May
1890, COL/G57, 1890/1872, QSA.
32. Report of the Superintendent of the Reformatory for Boys at Lytton for
the years 1883, 1884, Journals of the Legislative Council 1884 and 1885.
33. as above and Wassell to UCS 9 July 1885, COL/A430, 1885/5014, QSA.
34. Wassell to UCS 16 September 1895, top-numbered COL/A796, 1895/11349,
35. as for 32, report for 1883.
36. as for 32, report for 1884; Medical Officer, Brisbane to the Under Secretary,
II October 1893, top-numbered COL/A751, 1893/12152; and Wassell,
telegram to UCS 23 October 1893, COL/A751, 1893/12423, QSA; as for 6.
37. e.g. Bulimba United Presbyterian Church to Under Colonial Secretary 6
Decmeber 1887, COL/A529, 1887/9428, QSA.
38. Invitation first issued in 1886; Wassell to Under Colonial Secretary 7 October
1890, COL/A632, 1890/10527, QSA.
39. Wassell to UCS 31 December 1888 COL/A568, 1888/11067 and
letters/telegrams 28 September 1886, COL/A483 1886/7523; 24 December
1887, COL/A530, 1887/10216; 31 December 1888, COL/A568, 1888/11067,
40. as for 32, report for 1884; Brisbane Courier 27 November 1888 p5.
41. as for 32, report for 1884.
42. Wassell to UCS, 16 September 1895, top-numbered COL/A796 1895/11349,
43. Wassell to UCS 13 May 1882, COL/A336, 1882/2654, QSA.
44. Wassell to UCS 16 Septebmer 1895, top-numbered COL/A796, 1895/11349,
45. Wassell to UCS 2 August 1883, COL/A366, 1883/3965, QSA.
46. Wassell to Colonial Secretary, top-numbered COL/A613, 1890/3936, QSA;
refers to Captain Ackerley of Riverview; Wassell to UCS 24 February 1883,
COL/A355, 1883/1198, QSA.
47. Wassell to UCS 7 March 1887, COL/A492, 1887/1960, QSA; mentions a
boy aged 18.
48. Wassell to UCS 3 August 1882, COL/A342, 1882/4183, QSA. (A boy aged
14 sentenced to death for rape was a Reformatory inmate for three years.)
49. Police Magistrate, Brisbane to UCS 4 December 1883, COL/A375,
50. Wassell to UCS 26 February 1883, COL/A354, 1883/983, QSA.
51. Wassell to UCS 16 March 1887, COL/A494, 1887/2277, QSA.
52. J. McGee to Colonial Secretary, 6 October 1893, COL/A751, 1893/11872,
53. A. Mortimer to Home Secretary, nd. 1897/10005 top-numbered HOM/A9,
54. Wassell to UCS 19 December 1887, COL/A529, 1887/10076, QSA.
55. Wassell to UCS 7 January 1882, COL/A330, 1882/116, QSA.
56. Wassell to UCS 16 September 1895, top-numbered COL/A796, 1895/11349,
57. Wassell to UCS 11 July 1893, top-numbered COL/A792 1895/4878, QSA.
58. Wassell to UCS 21 November 1888, COL/A566, 1888/10154, QSA.
59. The 31 page Bill is included in the same letter file as a report of Wassc'l
to the Colonial Secretary, top-numbered COL/A796, 1895/11349, QSA.
60. Brisbane Courier 14 January 1926 p.6.