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True stories of Victorian villains

Lights, camera, action! Timeline Films was on location in Inveraray Jail to shoot an exciting new programme that will teach schoolchildren what life was like for young Scottish offenders in Victorian times. The programme was made for BBC Schools and tells the true stories of four young people who ended up in Scottish jails in the 1870s.

Whipping table Inveraray Jail

Whipping was introduced as an alternative to sending boys to jail.

As the stories are based on real characters, the Timeline team were able to ensure factual accuracy and authenticity. They started their research in the Nationals Archives of Scotland where photos of  prisoners of the past are held. This provided the team with a fascinating window into the world of 19th-century juveniles in jail, as Timelines’s Production Assistant Hannah Farrell explains: ‘The Victorians introduced the practice of photographing prisoners as a means of identification. Because child prisoners were treated the same as their adult counterparts at the beginning of the Victorian period, they were photographed too. We picked four and found out everything we could about them. It’s incredible how much information we managed to uncover as we followed their journey from trial to release.’

The stories of the four children are as interesting as they are varied. The first child spent two weeks in jail and one year at reformatory school for setting fire to his school, the second was sentenced to nine months in jail for repeated housebreaking, the third was locked up for a week followed by six months at reformatory school for forging letters, while the fourth, the only girl, spent ten days behind bars and then five years at reformatory school for stealing jewellery.

Inveraray Jail was the perfect location to shoot a number of scenes. The action ranged from children being tried in dramatic courtroom scenes right through to a depiction of their time in a jail cell and even being punished on a whipping table.  ‘There are so few totally authentic buildings like Inveraray Jail,’ says Hannah. ‘Filming here helped us to present an accurate picture and create a genuine atmosphere, while the very real surroundings meant our child actors could get into character quickly. On top of that we had access to all these great original props such as the crank wheel.’

Hanna as a prisoner getting her photograph taken for identification.

But it wasn’t just the building that helped to create the authentic feel sought by Hannah and her colleagues.  Inveraray Jail staff played a vital role too. ‘Their input was invaluable, from supplying costumes to offering fascinating facts about the lives of child prisoners,’ says Hannah. What’s more, you’ll see the jail’s own professional actors, Hanna Nixon and Rob Irons, giving some great performances. Look out for Rob delivering punishment to one child and Hanna making sure another is taught to read and write.

So did Hanna and Rob find the cameras disconcerting? After all, they normally spend their day interacting with visitors not film crews. Not at all as it seems. ‘We”ve recently had a number of film crews,’ says Hanna. ‘We just treat the camera lens like a visitor.”

‘Victorian Villains: True Stories’ will be aired in March (watch this space for time and date). Following this it will be available for download as four short films.


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Inveraray Jail, Argyll, Scotland, PA32 8TX