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
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
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
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
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.