West Sussex at the centre of the debate on corporal punishment

Punishment in schools has changed immeasurably, in some cases only relatively recently, but go back 140 years and even then, some school leaders in West Sussex had more progressive thinking and were at the forefront of the national debate.
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Horsham School Board, even then, at a time when the cane was seen as the norm, was opposed to teachers having ‘unbounded liberty to punish the children’ - an attitude that was, shockingly, said by others to be ‘grotesque, thick-witted insolence’.

Jeremy Knight, Horsham museum and heritage manager, has been searching the archives and uncovers a time when Horsham was the centre of the debate on corporal punishment.

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He said: “As a result of the current pandemic, a lot of people are now home educating. No doubt a number of parents have thought about what it must be like teaching 30 or more children!

The old grammar school in Horsham. Picture: Horsham District Council / Horsham Museum and Art GalleryThe old grammar school in Horsham. Picture: Horsham District Council / Horsham Museum and Art Gallery
The old grammar school in Horsham. Picture: Horsham District Council / Horsham Museum and Art Gallery

“Today, we have very strict rules on punishment, some of which were comparatively recently introduced.

“The following relates how 140 years ago, the Horsham School Board, much to the annoyance of the teaching profession in general, took a rather more enlightened view than most.”

In October 1880, The Teacher, a national newspaper, reported in heavily sarcastic tones the policy the Horsham School Board had adopted regarding corporal punishment, namely, that no child should receive corporal punishment by a teacher without permission of the Board.

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As The Teacher commented: “The grotesque, thick-witted insolence implied by the regulation goes beyond the limits of caricature; but, after all, a good many Boards such as that presided over by Mr Frost are really caricatures of the worst London vestries, so anything in their proceedings that seems unfamiliar to metropolitan individuals need not be reckoned incomprehensible.

The old Horsham Town Hall. Picture: Horsham District Council / Horsham Museum and Art GalleryThe old Horsham Town Hall. Picture: Horsham District Council / Horsham Museum and Art Gallery
The old Horsham Town Hall. Picture: Horsham District Council / Horsham Museum and Art Gallery

“The Reverend being whom we have just proved to be a teller of falsehoods encouraged the staff by the following statement: ‘if’, said the Reverend being, ‘a teacher struck me, I should give him one back’.

“Now, in the catechism which Mr Frost and his species love to impart to the infant mind, children are enjoined to order themselves lowly and reverently before their pastors. Mr Frost is a pastor, so any child who does not strike at a teacher when punished is disobeying his pastor, and thereby imperilling his soul’s health. Therefore all loyal children in Horsham are justified in refusing to brook chastisement tamely.

“Mr Frost is an interesting specimen of his species.”

Later in the correspondence, the Rev Frost gives his reason for what today would be seen as an enlightened attitude.

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“The chairman said that his view of corporal punishment was that the position of the Board in the town was different from what it would be if the schools were voluntary.

“In the latter case a parent could take his child away at any time if he were dissatisfied, but as matters really were every parent was obliged to send his child to school whatever treatment it received, and there was no court of appeal but the magistrates’ Bench.”

Mr Frost went on to say when the parents had given permission to the teachers he ‘felt no difficulty in supporting the resolution’.

He was opposed to the teachers having ‘unbounded liberty to punish the children’.

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Further discussion took place within the committee concerning the level of punishment and where, if the child was to receive corporal punishment, the blow or blows should take place.

The committee even asked for medical advice on the matter. A suggestion was put forward that a maximum of two blows and on the back was appropriate, with Dr Bostock stating that ‘the back was made on purpose for the cane’.

The debate itself may surprise readers because of the assumption that ‘in boys’ school every sum wrong, every spelling mistake, every blot, every question which could not be answered as the fateful day of examination drew near, was liable to be visited by a stroke of the cane’.

Yet, in a survey of 444 children who were born between 1870 and 1908, ‘at least a quarter of working-class children, a third of other children, and 42 per cent of all girls suffered little or no such punishment’. A number of other respondents stated the punishment was often strict but just.

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Having said that, Collyer’s, a school founded in 1532, was ruled with the cane of Richard Cragg, the headmaster, and the usher, John Williams, between 1869 and 1883, with both being remembered as ‘floggers’.

Mr Knight said: “The issues raised in the debate are revealing, and the fact that Horsham appeared in the national press probably indicates a wider discussion going on, rather than a localised one.

“Perhaps because it is often easier to discuss local specifics than grand generalities, so the comments were not relegated to the ‘and finally’ but to the main editorial.

“What is apparent is that children were being seen in a different light. Instead of society needing protection from children, children needed protection from society.

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“In fact, two years later, after the debate in Horsham, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, NSPCC, was founded.”

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