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Victorian town schools


Distressing experiences at school in the early 1900s

unhappy school experiences

This page shows how children could be made very unhappy at school in the early 1900s due no fault of their own. This is probably as true today as it was then, but the examples are different. At the time, there was no shortage of parents and teachers who denied children the rights as individuals; and corporal punishment was rife. This page gives firsthand examples.


Extracted from the memoirs of the webmaster's mother (1906-2002) and edited by the webmaster with firsthand contributions from former pupils

I have some distressing memories of my schooldays in the early 1900s:

Conflict between school and parents: a child's distress

One unpleasant memory was when my mother refused to have my hair tied back as required by the school. My father went up to the school about it and even wrote to the Board of Education saying that he was refusing to have my hair tied back.

The response was that it wasn't a byelaw but a request as a precaution to control head vermin.

For some reason my father refused to comply, and I was singled out at school. The teachers used to have a cup of tea at morning break on the landing, and the next day as we filed past them, my teacher pointed a finger at me and with all the venom she could muster and said loudly so everyone could hear, "That's Florence Cole".

Being picked on by a teacher

On another occasion, my mother had to go out for some reason and as my father was in bed, I had to stay away from school to be on hand for him, which was not unusual at the time. In the afternoon when I returned to school and was in the assembly line in the playground, the teacher said - again loudly so everyone could hear, "And where were you this morning, Florence Cole?".

Childlike, I told the truth and said I had to look after my father. She in turn mimicked in a most derisory tone - and loudly, "She had to look after her father", which of course brought peals of laughter from everyone.

My father received a letter from the Board of Education cautioning him that he would be summoned if his child did not attend school, but it seemed to make no difference to him.

It wall all taken out on me at school, although it was out of my control. You can imagine how distressed I was, and it stayed with me throughout my time at school.

Being caned - a seemingly daily activity

The Headmaster of Silver Street School was Mr Stewart. [Note that the girls and boys parts of the school were entirely separate with their own headmistress and headmaster.] We all feared Mr Stewart but respected him. He was a disciplinarian and used the cane efficiently. Anyone late for school usually got a cut with the cane on each hand.

The next year our teacher was Mr Parry, who seemed to take a dislike to nearly all the class and very seldom did he get through the day without using the cane. Many a time he lined up the whole class - nearly 50 of us - and gave us one cut on the hand. However he was a good teacher.

Mr Whitehead, another teacher at Silver Street School, took an instant dislike to me. I was frequently hit by his cane, not only on my hand but around his calves as well.

One day in class Fatty Clarke passed wind which Mr Whitehead heard, but he didn't know who had done it. When the class was asked, no-one would own up. So he decided to cane the whole class!

Quoted from the written recollections of Alfred William de Grussa (known as Fred) born January 1912, and provided by his granddaughter Carolyn Middleton

I got the cane once for not knowing what 5 times 8 was in mental arithmetic. How things have changed!

Tom Wallace

Attempts to avoid being caned

One day the class was queuing up and suddenly I heard Mr Whitehead call out my name. He said he wanted to see me as soon as we got into class. I went out to the front by his desk where he accused me of pinching the boy in front of me in the line. I hadn't done so and called out to the boy to confirm this. The boy, Fatty Clarke (again), did so and said that neither I nor anyone else had pinched him. Yet Whitehead was determined to cane me and I was just as determined not to be caned for something I hadn't done.

We started wrestling around, with Whitehead trying to get my hand. Eventually I gave him as hard a push as I could. He went backward against a desk and quick as a flash fell over and crashed to the floor. I gave one horrified look and fled out of the class, down the stairs and ran home as fast as I could.

I told Mum and said I wasn't going back to that school again. I then went to another school.

Quoted from the memoirs of Alfred William de Grussa (known as Fred) born January 1912, and provided by his granddaughter Carolyn Middleton

Caning for girls

My second unpleasant memory was when I was in trouble again with the same school mistress. It was a needlework lesson and we were making pillow cases. At the end of the lesson we had to fold up the cases and were enjoying ourselves getting as much air into them as possible and causing a bang when we folded them. The mistress got annoyed and said the next girl to do it would have to come out to the front.

It so happened that I, along with my friends had some balloons. They must have been very cheap as they would not blow up easily. During this lesson my friend told me to blow mine up, and I had a go. Before it was any size, it burst. Immediately the mistress demanded, 'Who did that?', thinking it was a pillow case. Some little tell-tale said that it was Florence Cole who burst a balloon. I was sent to stand in the hall so that the headmistress would see me, which she did. After hearing my story, she gave me a letter to take home to my father asking for his opinion about what they should do. Should they cane me?

My father's answer of course was that the school should cane me. Did he want me to suffer at school? I like to think that he was just ill.

When she read his reply, she told me that she was loathe to do it because it would be a disgrace and my name would have to go down in the black book. So after another little pep talk, I was dismissed.

You can see that I was often in trouble at school. Yet I had two prizes for good behaviour. One was a print of a well-known picture called 'Between Two Fires', the fires being two women who were either side of a dining room table with a solitary male sitting there. The second was a small Royal Dalton vase. I also got a prize for a wild flower collection.

A note from the webmaster

The cane was banned in British State Schools on August 15th 1987.

The cane was one example of what was known as 'corporal punishment'. The name derives from the Latin word for the body, 'corpus' and means any physical punishment, such as caning, flogging, the tawse, etc. There is an entire page on other forms of school punishment in the past.

If you can add anything to this page or provide a photo, I would be pleased if you would contact me.

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