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Spare the Rod

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Jacob Middleton finds that, far from being a relic of a cruel Victorian past, corporal punishment became more frequent and institutionalised in 20th-century England.

Whom to punish? by the Victorian artist John MorganThe history of corporal punishment is important, both in itself and in what it tells us about progress and reform. In the early part of 1890 a teachers’ newspaper, The Schoolmistress, complained that its urban readers were under the constant threat of violence. It noted that the ‘rough language and violence heaped on teachers in some of the low and rough neighbourhoods of London and other large towns can hardly be imagined by those who have not witnessed it’. The image that the paper put forward was of a school system in a state of siege, with teachers fearing that they could be attacked at any time by the parents of their pupils. Though the lurid descriptions that appeared in The Schoolmistress were undoubtedly exaggerated for dramatic effect, they reflected a very real problem that afflicted schools at the time, which was a severe and ongoing hostility between parents and teachers.

The underlying issue in these conflicts was school discipline. By 1890 many parents were objecting to what they saw as the cruel and arbitrary use of corporal punishment then endemic within the school system. Children were not only caned but also subjected to many other forms of physical punishment, from being struck across the knuckles with slates, to receiving blows to the head with metal classroom pointers. In one case the disciplinary regime of a particular school involved a teacher stalking round the classroom, threatening children with a large knife. Parents generally thought that such forms of behaviour were inappropriate and that their children should be protected from such treatment.

Any sense of outrage felt by parents was reinforced by the fact that most of the punishment that occurred in schools was unlawful. While common law in Britain held that head teachers enjoyed the right to punish children, based on the delegated authority of the parent, classroom teachers did not possess the same disciplinary powers. Yet they regularly inflicted corporal punishment on pupils, despite the threat of violence from parents or the prosecutions for assault which became an occupational hazard for teachers in the late Victorian era.

The common perception of Victorian schools is that they were primitive and brutal institutions in which children were subjected to violent discipline. Though there is a certain amount of truth in this, it fails to acknowledge the general unpopularity of corporal punishment among parents as well as pupils. Even in the 19th century this type of punishment was seen as an archaic and outmoded disciplinary tool. The negative image was supported by popular literature, such as Charles Dickens’ novel Nicholas Nickleby (1838) and by real-life events, including the infamous Eastbourne Manslaughter of 1860 in which a school boy was beaten to death by his teacher. By this date opposition to corporal punishment was at its height and it was generally believed that the demise of the practice was fast approaching.

Yet the use of corporal punishment persisted. Teachers felt it had value as a disciplinary tool, believing that it was a quick and simple means by which order could be imposed on a class. Meanwhile many politicians and judges educated at public schools saw corporal punishment as a normal and natural part of childhood and had little sympathy with the objections of parents. Collectively their efforts helped to preserve its use as an educational tool and to institutionalise it as a standard disciplinary measure within schools. From the early 1890s onwards a number of administrative and legal measures were brought into effect that protected the rights of those teachers who wished to strike children. Classroom teachers were permitted to use corporal punishment and the rights of head teachers to inflict punishment were extended considerably. By the time of the First World War the parental protests against disciplinary excesses had been suppressed and corporal punishment was established as a normal and expected form of discipline. The practice was only banned in British state schools in 1987.

From a 21st-century viewpoint we are prone to projecting a narrative of gradual reform on the past, in which we move away from the barbarism of earlier eras to the enlightenment of the present. However the history of corporal punishment is a reminder that reform is not a simple and linear process and that an opposition to violent excess is not a new phenomenon. 

A final word should be given to the liberal educationalist W.F. Collier, who in 1872 noted a disparity in the reform movements of the period. He observed that while corporal punishment was being phased out of the judicial system, it was being retained and tolerated within schools. ‘Do we wish some future generation to call ours a barbarous age,’ asked Collier, ‘and call us their barbarian ancestors, who flogged our children though we abolished flogging amongst ourselves?’

Jacob Middleton is currently working on a history of school discipline



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