Youth crime and anti-social behaviour are nothing new - in fact, Barnet once played a pioneering role in rehabilitating Victorian street urchins. IAN LLOYD explains how one man's dream became a reality

Lieutenant-Colonel William Gillum was lucky to survive the Crimean War. It was fortunate, for thousands of children living on the streets of England between 1860 and 1938, that he did.

During the siege of Sebastopol in 1855, Lt Col Gillum lost his leg and thought he was going to die. He was forced to retire from the Army, but was so grateful to be alive that he decided to dedicate his life to helping homeless children.

Earlier in the century, novelist Charles Dickens had helped to raise concern about the urban poor with his description of London street urchins in Oliver Twist.

Barnet and District History Society says Dickens almost certainly visited Barnet Union Workhouse, on the site of the present Barnet Hospital, before he wrote the book in 1837. If so, it would have been the inspiration for the famous scene in which the famished young Oliver asks for 'more'.

Lt Col Gillum was a wealthy man with links to the Christian Socialists, who believed such children could be saved from a life of crime through education. So in 1860, after marrying the sister of a headmaster and buying a farmhouse in the borough, he set up Barnet's first and only industrial school. Located in Burlington Rise, East Barnet, behind St Mary's Church, it became known as Church Farm School.

Dr Gillian Gear, secretary of Barnet and District History Society, has been researching the industrial schools, which were established to train boys in trades like repairing shoes, farming and tailoring, for around 30 years.

"Lt Col Gillum married a woman whose brother was running a school like this in central London, so he was moving in the right sort of circles," she says.

He also had links with the Pre-Raphaelites, including the painter Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones and the designer William Morris, who advocated moral and truthful art. The architect and Pre-Raphaelite Philip Webb designed Trevor Park, Lt Col Gillum's now-demolished home in Church Hill Park, East Barnet, and he was also engaged to build the school, which still stands today.

"These sort of schools were run under the Home Office but were independent," explains Dr Gear. "The idea was that they would provide training and education for children so that they would not become criminals.

"Lots of them were street children - kids living by their wits in cities like Manchester and Liverpool."

The school, which was home to 100 boys at any one time, was based on a farm and had pigs, sheep, chickens and cows. The boys would deliver milk and fire wood to nearby houses. Many of them learnt trades at the school and went on to set up businesses in the borough.

"They were committed to the school through the magistrates court. Some of them did quite well when they left at the age of 15," says Dr Gear.

"Some stayed and were found jobs locally and there are still some families in the borough that still have connections with the school. Some went to countries like Canada or Australia and some joined the Army. On the whole, they went into trades rather than professions.

"The schools were very strict and very full. Every minute of the day was kept pretty well busy.

"They had singing lessons, played chess and some boys played the piano. St Mary's Church next door was extended to cope with the capacity for those children to go to church and a lot of them sang in the choir."

Church Farm became an approved school under the Approved Schools Act in 1933, when industrial schools were merged with reformatory schools for boys who had been released from prison. The building eventually closed in 1938, with the school moving to Godstone, in Surrey.

Church Farm swimming pool, used as an open air pool by boys at the industrial school, was covered 31 years ago and is still used by nearby schoolchildren today.

The site of the school is now known as Oak Hill Campus and is affiliated to Mill Hill County High School in Worcester Crescent, Mill Hill. The campus caters for students with emotional and behavioural difficulties and was opened in 2000, when the Barnet Council-run Church Farm Special School closed.

Dr Gear will be talking to London & North Middlesex Family History Society on Thursday, April 15, at 8pm, at Lyonsdown Hall, Lyonsdown Road, New Barnet. Admission for non-members is £1. For more information call 020 8364 9596.