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Scottish Review

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Huntly Castle
A Review of the Health of Borstal Boys


Dr Ruth Munro, M.B.E.
1972

It is just twenty-six years since Castle Huntly became an Open Borstal Institution to take suitable boys from the main Institution at Polmont. It was quite an experiment, as it was the first Open Borstal in Scotland, no one knew what type of boy would benefit in an Open Borstal, and I was the first woman medical officer to Borstal boys.

We started with fifteen boys, among whom there were some highly skilled cat burglars and pickpockets and these boys found the freedom of an Open Borstal suited their talents. They shinned up drainpipes, and raided the officers’ rooms. At night they slid down drainpipes and went out housebreaking. They stole the butcher’s wallet while he was delivering meat at the kitchens. One even stole the Governor’s wrist-watch.

At intervals more boys were transferred from Polmont until there were about thirty. Among these were some of the gangster type, and they also enjoyed the liberty of an Open Borstal. They were insubordinate; they defied the officers; they bullied the little boys and were guilty of some horrible acts of cruelty to animals.

But there was also a steady intake of weakly little boys, the products of parental neglect — underfed, underweight and undersized, while many showed the results of untreated illnesses in childhood. These boys thrived in the open-air life with nourishing meals; all put on weight; some grew two or three inches in height; they became rosy and sunburnt. Their teeth, tonsils, eyes, ears and other maladies were treated; with games and PT their chests expanded; and on liberation all these boys showed a noticeable improvement in health.

During the second year I had a short conversation with Dr. Inch, at the end of which he asked if I had any suggestions to make — for the moment my mind was blank; then with a sudden inspiration I said "yes"! "You are sending us the wrong kind of boy. Here there are practically sanatorium conditions and those young toughs don’t need them — send us the weakly delicate boys and we will do what we can for their health."

Dr. Inch took this suggestion seriously, and after consultations and discussions it was decided that we should take the "Bruisables" — boys who on account of physical or nervous disability were at a disadvantage in Borstal Institutions but not mental defectives or boys with severe psychiatric disorders.

Consequently for many years every boy in the Castle had something amiss, malnutrition and old rickets were common, and many were still suffering from the affects of inadequately treated childish illnesses — pneumonia and emphysema, bronchioctasis from whooping cough; corneal opacities from measles; rheumatic fever and mitral stenosis, acute and chronic otitis medis. There were also a good many diabetics, and cases of bone and joint tuberculosis with an occasional pulmonary tuberculosis, and a few cases of venereal disease. Enuresis was common. In addition they had almost every variety of minor trouble, from alopecia to ingrowing toenails.

As the years went by the pattern of these disabilities began to change. The health service was started a year after the Castle opened, though it took a long time for its benefits to show in the boys’ health. But not every child was registered with his own doctor and childish illnesses were increasingly well treated. Antibiotics have made pneumonia and rheumatic fever less dangerous and mitral stenosis are very rare. Immunisation against infectious diseases has put an end to their sequelse, so bronchioctasis and corneal opacities are no longer seen. Otitis media and enureses still occur, but much less frequently. School meals and milk have lessened malnutrition and it is no longer a rarity to see a perfect set of teeth.

But neglect at home still goes on. Malnutrition is still too common. School doctors and dentists notify parents that their children’s tonsils, eyes, ears and teeth require attention, but are ignored. Children are left to play in danger spots, like demolition areas, and there is a big increase in the number of old fractures many inadequately treated and some quite untreated. Recently there have been a good many head injuries and fractured skulls. These are usually attributed to "a car crash" but sometimes "I fell off a wall". To me falls occurred while running away from the police — several of these head injuries have led to epilepsy.

A very regrettable cause of injury is violence among boys. It is nearly ten years since I first saw the scar of a stab wound; since then there have been a good many. Fortunately most wounds were superficial, but some had penetrated lungs and abdominal viscera.

There have been no deaths at the Castle, but two boys were granted compassionate liberations on account of fatal disease. One had leukaemia and the other a sarcoma of the thigh with secondaries in the lungs. Both boys had a short time at home before the inevitable end.

I think that the great problem of the future will be drug taking. For twenty-five years we have been free of this evil, but last year two boys admitted to having tried drugs, and recently an addict confessed to drug taking for four or five years. But the desire for something "with a kick" has been present all the time as I discovered in an unusual way. In the fifth winter, when the matron was absent through illness, there was an epidemic of pyelitis, amounting to twenty-six cases out of fifty boys. The pyelitis was always right sided with **tenderness, ** and dysuna and also**. Two boys with symptoms of appendicitis and were submitted to hospital. The first case had a badly inflamed appendix removed and soon recovered. The second boys appendix was normal but was also removed. A few days later the resident of the ward said "we know that boy has pyelitis, but there is no pus in the urine. He should have a heavy deposit of pus but the urine is clear". This made me think that it indicated a chemical "irritant" rather than a bacterial, so I started an enquiry at the Castle. There, I was assured that there was nothing harmful within the boys reach but the epedemic went on till matron returned to duty.

In her presence I exclaimed that I wished I knew what the boys were taking, and she replied, "I can tell you, it’s Brasso", she had overheard some of the senior boys telling the newcomers what a grand time they had had at New Year, putting Brasso in their lemonade. Consequently Brasso and all cleaning materials were kept under lock and key out of the boys’ reach, while Matron and I devised a course of treatment — a week in bed on an adequate but monotonous milk diet, followed by a week of sitting up for short periods in the Sick Bay on a very light diet. This soon put an end to the epidemic. Five years later there was another outbreak of pyelitis in which Brasso as the cause was eliminated — it took some time to trace the cause to floor polish. From time to time there have been a few similar cases, but bed and milk diet were efficient preventatives, until five years ago, when there was another epidemic of pyelitis — we never discovered the causal irritant, which may have been a different one, as there was more ileo-colitis and six cases of acute appendicitis in five weeks.

If boys are prepared to drink horrible concoctions and to risk acute illness and operation for the sake of "getting a kick", they will be easy victims of the insidious lure of drugs.

During these twenty-six years there have been 1,619 boys admitted, all naughty boys, some very naughty boys, and with an exceptionally high rate of morbidity for boys of their age-group of 17 to 21 years. The daily supervision of their health has fallen on the two matrons with whom I have worked, Miss Jones and Mrs Robertson. They have carried out all the treatments, poured out medicines, done the dressings, made out-patient appointments and seen to it that the appointments were kept. They have been in close touch with the boys, won their confidence and brought many troubles to light. Without their daily care the improvement of the boys’ health would not have been achieved. As a result the great majority of the boys are liberated with far better health than they had on admission.


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