Behaviour - When fights were 'clean, healthy fun'

6th December 2013 at 00:00
Research reveals historical attitudes to playground violence

In the modern safety-conscious age, fighting in the playground is regarded as one of the worst sins a student can commit. But a new academic paper has shown that teachers in Britain once looked upon playground fights as "clean, healthy fun" and black eyes went unremarked upon in class.

Education historian Jacob Middleton has revealed that playground violence is far from a modern development. In fact, in the 19th and early 20th centuries it was considered as important a part of schooling as learning to read and write.

And becoming the "cock of the school" - the student who won the most playground fights - was the ultimate accolade for any ambitious schoolboy, he says.

"At the beginning of the 21st century, a fist fight is generally seen as an undesirable form of violence," Mr Middleton, of Birkbeck, University of London, writes in the Journal of British Studies. "This has not, however, always been the case."

In fact, the schoolyard fight was a normal and everyday occurrence: an expected break-time activity. This was where "formation of character goes on even more decisively than in the schoolroom", school commissioners wrote in the 1860s.

Or, as an early 20th-century Yorkshire schoolboy reminisced: "Clogs were our chief weapons when we really got down to business, and a kick on the shin from an iron-shod wooden clog is a bitter check to pugnacity."

These fights, however, were rarely random outbreaks of aggression. Instead, they were governed by a clear set of rules. For example, the deliberate use of weapons was often considered an unpardonable breach of schoolyard chivalry. One schoolboy recalls a fight in which one boy struck another in the groin. The offender was ostracised by his peers.

And the fight itself was a means of establishing and confirming a clear school hierarchy. At the top of this scale was the "cock of the school", who could beat any other boy.

"Every boy who came to a school had to recognise the cock as his 'superior', or else he would be expected to fight," Mr Middleton says in the paper.

Picking a fight was, in fact, a way to make friends. If you won, your opponent would see you as a useful ally; if you lost, he would offer to stick up for you in future. By contrast, those who preferred not to fight often faced accusations of cowardice: a more unpleasant alternative to being beaten up, according to one schoolboy from London's East End.

(Accounts do exist of girls taking part in these fights, too, Mr Middleton says. When one 19th-century London schoolboy picked a fight with a girl, under the impression that it would be an easy victory, he received a clear demonstration to the contrary.)

From the 1890s onwards, schoolboy novels promoted a belief that fighting was a reasonable, manly and courageous response to certain circumstances. Working-class boys, meanwhile, often venerated local boxing champions.

The influence of imperial and world wars also trickled down to the playground. This inspired games such as Britons and Boers, described by one participant as "a primitive pastime, which consisted of chasing the Boers and lamming them with belts when they were caught". Many First World War-era games involved beating up schoolboy "Germans".

The reality, however, rarely lived up to these idealised versions. "Before I even got in the deadly straight left I had developed from shadow-boxing before the mirror, I got a knee in the groin or a kick in the shin or had my glasses knocked off and went home weeping," one boy wrote of his Irish schooldays before the First World War.

Teachers, meanwhile, tended to be unconcerned by fights, although a 1930s schoolboy who drew a knife on a peer received two strokes of the cane. By contrast, impudence might be punished with six lashes.

In fact, Mr Middleton writes, the school fight tended to compare favourably to other forms of violence encountered by schoolchildren of the era, such as corporal punishment.

"The playground fight at least allowed its participants the possibility of triumphing over their opponents and, if not, a chance to show a mature magnanimity in defeat," he says.

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