Spare the Rod: Far from being a relic of a cruel Victorian past, corporal punishment became more frequent and institutionalised
The 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.