There is a perception that discipline in schools is not what it was and while few would call for the return of the cane and the slipper, some commentators have suggested that school teachers have been left with very few ‘weapons’ to ensure order in the classroom. Since 1987 corporal punishment in state schools has been banned; private schools followed suit in 1997, but I remember it when I was at school in the 1970s and early 80s. Teachers routinely hit boys at my grammar, one quite openly in the classroom, while a visit to headmaster would often involve a few strokes of the cane. There are lurid tales of Winston Churchill being beaten at school, an experience shared by thousands if not millions of children.
In the 1800s corporal punishment was part of everyday life. Masters beat their servants (especially younger apprentices), men hit their wives, prisoners were whipped, and members of the armed forces were flogged. So it really is no surprise that parents and school masters routinely thrashed youngsters and sent them home with welts and tear-stained faces. What is perhaps surprising is on occasion some parents actually challenged the brutality of the punishment handed down to their offspring.
In May 1886 a little lad of eight, Thomas Bryant, skipped school because his mother wanted to keep him at home. On the next day he attended as usual but as he sat waiting for his name to be called his headteacher, Mr Robert Burton, identified him being absent the previous day and called him to the front of the class. There poor Thomas was hit three times with birch rod on each upraised palm and a further three times across his back.
Once he got home his mother asked him what had happened as she was shocked to find bruises on his hands – evidence of the force of the injuries inflicted on him. When he told her she resolved to take it up with the school as her boy was not regularly truant, and she was rarely in trouble with the school board. When she got no joy at the school she formally summoned Burton for assault, and the case came before the London Police courts.
There she explained to the West Ham Police Court magistrate that the family had suffered a series of tragedies in recent years:
‘One of her children was recently burned to death while she was at work, and another was nearly drowned, and she had to keep him at home’.
The very first time this boy had returned to school the master had beaten him for being absent. The man clearly little compassion and a violent streak that suggests he was entirely unsuited to his chosen occupation.
Despite this Mts Bryant was not opposed to the use of physical chastisement if it was necessary; she had told the school master that he should punish her boys if they played truant while she was out at work. However, this did not mean she had given him license to ‘bring bruises on their hands and backs’.
There seems to have been no father at home, so perhaps he had died or abandoned them. Mrs Brant was trying to cope with childcare and keeping the family’s head above water; no easy task in the 1880s (or in any age for that matter).
In court Mr Burton, as head master at The Grove Catholic (St Francis) School in Stratford (which is still educating local boys and girls) defended himself. He argued that the punishment he had meted out to Thomas was proportionate and not excessive but the magistrate did not agree. Instead he stated that Burton had overstepped his authority and failed to provide a safe place for the children in his care. Punishment at school should be ‘judicial and deliberate’ and administered in the presence of other teachers (presumably to avoid abuse like this). Thomas’s hands were still bruised some two weeks after the incident, evidence enough that Burton had used excessive force. He fined the master 20s and costs.
Today if Burton had acted this way he would have been sacked and protected for abuse. There is no place for violence in schools, towards pupils or staff, and someone that has to resort to beating an eight year-old to establish their authority is very far from having any in my opinion.
[from The Standard, Thursday, May 27, 1886]