Painful memories

28th September 2001 at 01:00
The punishments handed out to pupils just 15 years ago would these days land a teacher in court. Unearthing a school archive that chronicles four decades of beatings took Andrew Granath back to a time when the cane was king. Illustration by Brett Ryder

I remember clearly the evening in 1986 when I was sitting in the Strangers' Gallery in the House of Commons listening to the debate on the abolition of corporal punishment. It was the night before Prince Andrew's wedding and the pavements around Westminster were blocked with folding chairs and people in sleeping bags booking themselves a good view for the next day.

During the debate, several Conservative members rose to their feet and claimed that being beaten at school had made them the men they were and was a "character-forming" experience. The vote was close but in favour of abolition. In future, those who wanted to be beaten would have to take themselves off to an independent school or help themselves to a card in a central London telephone box. But the enthusiasm for the English Vice was depressing. The ghosts of Wackford Squeers, Billy Bunter and Jimmy Edwards in Whacko! (only the English could have had a sitcom about beating little boys) still haunted British education.

It all now seems an educational lifetime away that we used to tell little boys and sometimes little girls to bend over or hold out their hands while they were physically abused. I remember an inspector telling me many years ago that he knew of no educational problem that "six of the best would not solve". Some of my colleagues, mostly retired and reluctant beaters of the "this will hurt me more than it hurts you" variety, now confess themselves ashamed and puzzled that they indulged in such practices - which were the cornerstone of state education policy for more than 100 years.

Discovering the Holborn school punishment books in my school's archive reminded me of the bizarre nature of corporal punishment. In the early decades of the last century, Richard Ashworth, the first head of the Latymer, being an informal sort of chap, dispensed with punishment book and cane, and instead administered his punishments courtesy of a flat-handed right hook that would knock pupils over desks and against walls. An ex-colleague of his told me some years ago that such blows were "delivered without malice and accepted without rancour". The comments of the victims are not recorded.

The books cover 1929 to 1968. The early entries reveal that the cane was a weekly rather than a daily occurrence and that sometimes months would pass without resort. The reasons are familiar: smoking on the school premises, lighting matches in class, "vulgar horseplay in the corridors", misuse of soap in the senior boys' lavatory, fighting with a girl, riding two on a bicycle, taking a mackintosh from a girl's bag, burning a boy's coat, kicking a ball in the classroom. Other offences included "disgusting behaviour in the toilet" (no further details available), four strokes; "shameless lying", three strokes; singing in class and firework-throwing.

The listed offences were never straightforward; insolence was always flagrant, lying was always brazen and defiance was always sullen. Albert Meltzer, later to become father of the British anarchist movement, was caned for being a "thorough nuisance". Perhaps this was the reason for his later antipathy to all forms of authority. Pity poor Blackmore and Heywood, who were caned for laughing at a prefect. I spent my entire school career believing that was what prefects were for.

Lamble received four strokes for heading a ball in class. He died in 1953 as a result of war injuries after having shown great bravery and fortitude. Haynes was given three strokes in 1936 for being cheeky in front of the class, followed by four strokes for firing an air pistol on the premises and injuring a boy. Contrast this with poor Bun, who seems to have been harshly dealt with as he was seen in the road without his cap and received four strokes. Shearman, in contrast, slashed a boy's hand with a razor blade and was only given two strokes.

In 1951 Hudson and Boyce were beaten for "asking girls rude questions", while Jones got his for spitting at a wall. Richards and Dwyer felt the wrath of the headmaster in 1953 for "failing to obey the ruling on watching Spurs play". Was the head an Arsenal fan? On November 23, 1961, Mines, Crockett and Clifton watched the international match on television and were caned for their pains. Was this an afternoon or evening game? I am intrigued by the head's hostility to soccer.

From the early 1960s onwards motorcycles become a problem. Smithson was caned for riding a motorcycle during the lunch hour, Brownlow for revving his motorcycle outside the gates when he was off sick and Dixon for riding pillion without his school cap. The failure to wear a crash helmet does not seem to have been an issue. Sociologists would call these crimes of affluence.

In 1965 Ratty was beaten for "making an addition to a biology diagram in textbook indicating a corrupt and vulgar mind". Some things never change. He pops up again two months later, receiving two strokes for riding his bicycle at lunchtime. We finally come across him caught with cigarettes in his bag. It seems the canings made no difference.

Cutting games, in the time-honoured fashion, was the most common offence. In 1965 seven boys disappeared from games without permission and received two strokes each - although Bishop's caning was delayed for a week due to boils on his buttocks.

Surveying these entries, I am overwhelmingly reminded of how trivial most of the offences were: "flicking elastic on a girl's undergarment" as the offence is coyly described; talking in assembly; dropping orange peel; pulling a girl's scarf; throwing a cake at girl on a bicycle; and ragging prefects.

At least young Ottrey had a bit of style; in 1960 he received two strokes for lighting a cigar in class. Time and again boys were flagellated for being a nuisance in lessons. This was of course long before any of the deficits, disorders, tendencies and syndromes that characterise modern education had come into being.

It all stopped on October 23, 1968. The last victim, one S Brown, was given two strokes for the traditional offence of smoking near the school gate. And then the book is silent, the pages blank. The governors' minutes are mute on the subject. Along with bear-baiting and public hanging, the practice had fallen into disuse, a relic of the past. Now I go into my children's primary school and the pupils call the head Patricia. Thirty years ago if I had called my headteacher Patricia I would have been caned - but then he was a man.

Andrew Granath is head of history at the Latymer school, Edmonton, north London

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