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The Pages of Kenneth J Neill
THE LIFE AND WORKS OF WILLIAM BREBNER 1783 Ė 1845


When one thinks of social reformers in Scottish history, names such as David Dale and his son-in-law Robert Owen with their benevolent spinning and weaving communities, Dr. Thomas Chalmers with his poor releif and schools, or even John MacLean with his political zeal and socialist ideology spring to mind.

The fate of one section of the community has often been overlooked. That is those whose circumstances bring them into conflict with the law. In 18th century Glasgow in particular, amidst the rapidly expanding urbanisation and attendant squalor it was very easy for those on the breadline to find themselves imprisoned for very petty offences such as drunkenness or debt. Even vagrancy or lunacy was an imprisonable offence.

It was almost by chance that William Brebner came into contact with this unfortunate section of the community when he took a post as clerk at the South Prison (now demolished) in Glasgow. What motivated him to a lifetime of dedication none can tell for sure, but contemporary society owes a considerable debt of gratitude, not only for his pioneering works in prison reform but for the inspirational example of humanitarianism with which he carried out his work. Of his passing, undoubtedly he was held in the highest esteem. The Glasgow Herald of Friday 10th January 1845 reported him as being fondly addressed as Maister and that, "He was regarded not as jailer and taskmaster but as a father and friend".

For the young William Brebner, in the early years of the nineteenth century Glasgow must have been a very inspiring place. The city was rapidly expanding with a constant development of new innovation, great public works and a fashionable society were displaying a new found confidence and wealth. Trade and commerce were booming. Glasgow was well on its way to becoming the Second City of the Empire.

Unfortunately against this backdrop of prosperity there was a price to pay. In order to fuel the insatiable economic demand for labour, emigration from the highlands and Ireland was encouraged. Such rapid inflow inevitably created acute social and housing problems. The potential dangers of this unstable sector of the community was recognised by some of the more astute and philanthropic merchants who vigorously campaigned for greater public awareness towards the plight of the disadvantaged. Attempts were made to combat squalor, disease drunkenness and crime by the creation of anti-vice and temperance societies.

Campaigners such as Dale, Thom and John Aitken, later to become the cityís first Commissioner of Police set up or subscribed to charitable institutions for the poor and destitute, and although no specific records exist, it is highly likely that William Brebner took his inspiration for his lifeís work from their lead, "To the devising and carrying into execution schemes for the moral rescue and amelioration of the thousands of beings committed to his charge".

The greatest single reform to which Brebner is credited with was the setting up of the Separate System in 1825. This was a method of containment where prisoners were not permitted to come into contact or to associate with each other. There is some evidence to suggest that a form of separation had been tried out in the city in 1798. The Statistical Account for Scotland 1791-99 comments that in order to try the effects of solitary confinement and labour some buildings belonging to the city were fitted up as separate cells. "Of all the species of punishment of offenders of a certain description, solitary confinement is not only the most humane, but the best calculated to one great end of punishment, the amendment of the offender".

Brebnerís format was to make the experience of solitary confinement a positive one. This was achieved in several ways. Firstly the prisoner had lengthy and frequent contact with instructors, chaplains, medical staff and teachers in addition to a well trained staff of warders. Secondly, work was regarded as fundamental in the reformative process. All prisoners were expected to complete a full dayís constructive work for which they would receive payment. The crank and treadmill had no place in Brebnerís scheme. These were unproductive and merely forms of punishment without any recognisable ends. Thirdly, good healthcare and cleanliness was a basic requirement with an adequate although basic diet being provided. Fourthly a fair system of discipline and management was imposed to which all could respect.

What Brebner achieved was the ultimate in special units. It was a prison where each inmate was treated as an individual and was not subject to any undesirable pressures or influences. It was effectively a single prisoner prison.

Given the harsh conditions prevailing in the early Nineteenth Century, it was not surprising that for many conditions inside prison were better than those outside. For a time Brebner supported voluntary prisoners who went out to work each day but came back in the evening. Brebner did not construct his regime in order to appease anyone or to give his charges an easy life. His philosophy was that imprisonment should serve a useful purpose by training people to work, by educating them, by spiritual enlightment and by restoring their physical and mental health.

Another of Brebnerís successes was that through providing useful and meaningful labour he was able to generate a substantial revenue income, to the extent that his prison was self financing. Something that few others have achieved or even aspired to. Part of the prisonerís income was set aside for their release as a means of support on liberation.

Brebner fully understood the difficulties a prisoner faces on liberation. He was particularly concerned with the aftercare of juveniles and established a House of Refuge for those leaving prison. This was a stepping stone which was to prove highly successful. Such was his reputation that young men and women who had undergone a period of corrective treatment were in high demand with the cityís tradespeople and merchants.

Another lasting reform was in his classification of different groups of prisoners, particularly in his treatment of female prisoners who were a significant proportion of the then prison population. For the first time females were cared for by an all female staff, creating within the precincts of the North Prison (Duke Street) an all female prison. By categorising prisoners into females, juveniles and adult males he was able to devise and develop selective regimes suitable for all classes of prisoners.

In order to achieve his vision, Brebner recognised that he required dedicated professional staff. In the Sixth Report of the Inspector of Prisons it was commented that, he trained his people to a high level of competence to the point where he found himself supplying staff to manage the prisons in, "Almost every county in Scotland". Conditions of employment were improved with regular hours, annual leave, uniforms, above average wages and enhanced status from that of the turnkey to the professional custodian.

Partly through the migration of his staff and the recognition of the General Board of Prisons, Brebnerís influence was to spread throughout Scotland. He was to refuse frequent offers of promotion preferring to remain in Glasgow where he felt that he could do most good. However, by the almost universal adoption of his standards and principles the task of unification of the Prison Service was made that much easier for the General Board in the years after his death. His spirit and dedication are still qualities to which every civilised society should aspire.

William Brebner collapsed and died of a heart attack on his way to a meeting with the General Board on January 2nd 1845, no doubt on his way to lobby for even more reforms in the treatment of those in whom he placed the utmost faith.


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