South Australia - Education
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Corporal Punishment in Schools
(Taken from Geoffrey H. Manning's A Colonial Experience)
- To some people corporal punishment seems a most natural thing possible for boys until they are fully grown; to others it appears degrading... In the seventeenth century a whipping was considered the proper treatment for a lunatic; will the whipping of a boy ever come to seem as absurd to an enlightened community?
(Advertiser, 13 May 1900, page 4.)
My readers, who are interested in the cause of education, will know of Dr Arnold, a former Headmaster at the renowned English school, Rugby. In the Leaflet, a clever literary production edited by members of Dr Arnold's old school, there appeared some unpublished letters of the great disciplinarian of which the following is the most interesting passage, referring as it does to his modus operandi in preserving order:
- I have so far got rid of the birch, that I only flogged seven boys last half-year, and the same number hitherto in this. I never did nor do I believe that it can be relinquished altogether, but I think it may well be reserved for offences either great in themselves or rendered great by frequent repetition, and then it should be administered in earnest.
For mere irregularities, if not habitual, I always thought a very slight imposition sufficient. I like to have a good ascending scale of punishment before me to try successively if the offender be obstinate; but never to exhaust one's stock at once, and then to be left unprovided if the effect is not in the first instant answered.
I have never found it necessary to assume anything of a school manner in speaking to the boys - they mind one's usual tone and manner, just as much it they know they cannot presume on it; and you thus diminish something their notion of your acting from fudge - a belief which as far as it prevails renders all moral influence in a master out of the question.
Compare this philosophy with that of an early school teacher in our colony whose sadistic practices are gleaned from a pupil's reminiscences:
- My teacher was of the Wackford Squeers type who believed in vigorous applications of the cane in the education of a child. He was a perfect master in the art of using the 'stick', reduced flogging to a science and took a savage joy in whacking his pupils.
The school windows were frosted, but there was one small, clear aperture against which the master put his eye, and woe to the boy who ventured to fire a marble after the bell had gone for reassembly after recess. He had a short leg, a cork foot and a violent temper and the weapon of torture would be plied mercilessly on the offender.
It was no use for the boys to abstract the cane, for the master kept a bundle of others in reserve suspended on the wall. When the caning business started, at it he would go until he became thoroughly exhausted. One boy would not weep or whimper under the stings of the cane and the teacher slammed at his hand until he almost cut it to pieces.
Sometimes boys would be marched in front of the master to his house in King William Street south and ordered to stay in the yard until he had finished his dinner. on one such occasion they ran away when at the Supreme Court corner, but had to suffer severely for it next day.
Corporal Punishment in South Australia
By the late 1870s the question of corporal punishment in schools was brought into prominence by certain proceedings before the law courts. In England, there was no diversity of opinion on the question where the practice of flogging for serious offences against school discipline was practised almost universally. For the English boy it was a point of honour to receive the 'licking' manfully; in other words, not to flinch. As for complaining to his parents, this notion was altogether beneath his dignity and if he did so complain he would, in most cases, get very little satisfaction for his pains.
In the Australian colonies, however, there was a strong feeling against the infliction of corporal punishment in schools under any circumstances whatever, the effect of which was to foster a degree of effeminacy amongst schoolboys which 'boded ill for the future of the rising generation. We fear that in too many cases the result of sparing the rod would be the spoiling of the child.'
In 1876 regulations issued by the Council of Education did not prohibit, absolutely, corporal punishment, but I can recall to mind instances in this colony in which schoolmasters were fined for chastising their pupils, one of which I relate later.
I am no admirer of the Spartan system of severity in the treatment of youth, but I do entertain serious doubts as to whether corporal punishment in schools could be abolished altogether with safety. It was urged by the advocates of abolition that there are other ways of punishing a boy besides beating him; which is very true, just as there are other ways of killing a dog besides shooting him; but the question is whether other modes of punishing will prove as effectual.
In some cases there is no doubt that whipping could be dispensed of with advantage. There are boys of such a keenly sensitive nature that to them a word of reproach, or even a reproachful look, would be a sufficient punishment, but such boys as these certainly do not constitute the majority.
Owing probably to the fact that a much more lax system of home discipline obtains, as a rule, in the colonies than in England, we find that a certain spirit of lawlessness manifests itself in colonial youth which, if not repressed, soon develops into the open renunciation of all restraints upon their inclinations.
Unfortunately, there are too many parents and guardians in these colonies who, either from mistaken tenderness or indifference to their duty, neglect to use the curb at the proper time, and to this source may be traced the origin of an evil which has been widely felt and which has been the means of adding a new word to our vocabulary - larrikinism.
In this respect a perceptive citizen reached the following conclusion in a letter published in 1877:
- [Larrikinism] being a production of modern times must have its origins in modern causes, and the main cause seems to be relaxation of all discipline... Its growth may be easily stated - the child with home discipline neglected, the boy with school discipline forbidden, the youth unrestrained by the rules of society, and the man undeterred by the law. The early birch will be more effectual to prevent the growth of larrikins than the late 'cat' to cure them...
However, in every country amongst a given number of boys, there will always be found some whose moral sense being more or less feeble, cannot be properly controlled without an occasional appeal to their physical senses. It is in such cases as these that the application of corporal punishment is the most necessary, and at the same time, the most effectual.
It is, I suppose, an outcome of the law of compensation in nature that where the moral sense is feeble the sensitiveness to physical pain is proportionately keen. Hence the bully is invariably the coward and, vice versa, the coward is generally ready to act the part of the bully, when circumstances afford him an opportunity. This fact was recognised in the House of Commons when a Bill was introduced for the punishment of garrotters by flogging and the result was that as soon as the Bill was passed the garrotting ceased.
Sentimental humanitarians may theorise as much as they please about the degrading effect of corporal punishment, but in the face of this fact it will be difficult for them to deny that it must be effectual when the mere dread of it obviates the necessity for inflicting it. Can they point out any substitute for it which will prove equally efficacious?
This is the real question which the abolitionists must be prepared to answer in a practical way before they can ever hope to impress their theories upon the great bulk of mankind. I go with them so far as this - that it should only be resorted to when other means have failed.
The Flogging Parson
In November 1890 the Reverend S.S. Moncrieff, the head teacher of All Saint's Grammar School, Moonta, was charged with unlawfully assaulting and beating Horatio Abrahams, aged 11 years. In giving his version of events he said that, while examining the work of teachers and classes, he noticed the writing of young Abrahams in an exercise book to be 'bad and blotted' an so applied his cane to the hands of the offender. The reverend gentleman continued:
I told the boy to begin his work again, but he refused by leaning his head on his arm over the copy book and crumpled it. I told him several times to begin work again and he did not do so. The boy is habitually stubborn, most careless an adept at idling time. He disobeyed repeated orders to come out of the desk and I then brought the cane down to his shoulders several times.
Again called him out. He did not obey, but scrambled under the desk and kicked violently against the desk. I caught him around the shoulders, lifted him up and set him on his feet without any unnecessary violence. He would not stand, but struggled to kneel down... Gave him another caning on the legs and sent him to his place. He received altogether about 20 strokes of the cane... I deny having committed an assault on the boy within the meaning of the law and it was my duty to punish him.
Mrs Abrahams was incensed and took her son to Mr W.H. Wilkinson, a local magistrate, who examined the lad and found a severe bruise on the hip, a large bruise on the thigh and several on the back. The boy complained most of a blow on the back of the head from which the skin was removed.
The matter proceeded to the local court where Rev Moncrieff was fined two pounds, plus costs, for the magistrate was of the opinion that 'the punishment inflicted was unreasonable.' The defendant was not enamoured with the verdict and told the court that he would rather go to gaol than pay the fine and, if necessary, would go to the Supreme Court with the case 'as he had not got justice.'
A few days later Rev Moncrieff telegraphed the Adelaide press to the effect that 'the following gentlemen have represented to me that the public are shocked at the verdict and they have subscribed the fine... [several names were appended].' A little later the attention of Bishop Kennion of Adelaide was drawn to the case and so the Venerable Archdeacon Farr proceeded to Moonta to enquire into the whole circumstances of the matter.
He heard depositions from wardens of the church, while Mrs Abrahams declined to be present. The finding was that 'it did not appear that Mr Moncrieff had been to blame in the matter. The punishment inflicted on the boy was severe, but the boy's stubborn resistance was the cause of the severity. Mr Moncrieff was indiscreet... [but] the punishment was not excessive. I am happy to say that wherever I heard the matter mentioned sympathy was with Mr Moncrieff.'
This partisan assembly, lacking in Christian benevolence, said nothing of the injuries inflicted on the boy and declined to comment on the court's decision and it is interesting to read two opinions emanating from the public:
I think most people who have read the evidence... are astonished at the verdict and regret that the defendant, instead of accepting the sympathy of those who subscribed the fine, did not appeal to the Supreme Court. Surely, no sane man who understands much about the management of refractory lads would uphold the decision of the bench. Corporal punishment should not be common in schools... but in extreme cases... it is absolutely necessary to keep on thrashing the boys at intervals until he comes to his senses...
In my own experience I know of at least half a dozen lads, very bad indeed, upon whom kindness had been exercised by many teachers in vain until eventually a sound good thrashing was administered and resulted in the making of them.
I am quite at a loss to understand what other course Mr Moncrieff could have adopted. No amount of kindness or talking would have cured this lad... What will be the effect of this verdict upon the other boys at All Saints and with boys generally throughout the various schools in the colony? They will simply laugh and defy their teachers...
Certainly the boy may be a thoroughly bad one and yet who is to say if he was a bad and unruly lad or whether it was one of those sound good thrashings that [the above correspondent] speaks of that made him bad. I have known of more than one boy who has got four or five cuts across the hand with a cane for such offences as talking or looking about the room, but instead of 'being the making of them' it had a tendency to make them stubborn.
Most masters have their favourites in school and their 'black sheep'. They take every opportunity of caning for the least breach of the regulations. I have seen a boy caned so severely as to bring blood from his hand for merely talking in school... Is that what [your correspondent] means by a sound thrashing? Perhaps he was one of the favourites when he went to school and never was subjected to a thrashing, hence his letter. I sincerely hope that Mr Moncrieff's case will be a lesson to schoolmasters in general and I would ask them to bear in mind that schoolboys have feelings as well as their masters.
A Change of Heart in the 20th Century
The supporters of Rev Moncrieff and his brutal methods of chastisement would have been disappointed in an edict contained in a report of State school inspectors in 1901 when they had the temerity to say:
The discipline regulations appear to be carefully followed in the majority of schools and a wise system of dealing with faults without resort to corporal punishment has had a good effect generally.
In many schools we are glad to say that corporal punishment has been abandoned and the work goes on smoothly and pleasantly, without that constant friction which is so often seen where teachers govern by force rather than by mild and persuasive means. We trust that all teachers will follow the wiser course and that in time we shall find that corporal punishment will be inflicted only for the grosser offence that are committed against manners and morals and then only when every other attempt to reform the offenders has failed.
In no case should the common mistakes and failures of children when trying to learn be visited with punishment of any kind. Patience, sympathy, encouragement and tact in dealing with children will produce a far greater, more permanent and beneficial effect on their characters than harshness, severity and want of consideration, for the latter have only a repressive influence, while the former are powerful in enlisting goodwill and arousing to energy and mental effort.
This report culminated in interesting correspondence to colonial newspapers and, naturally, subscribed to differing opinions, but little notice was taken of it from the teachers' point of view. There is no doubt that modern teachers of the best type regard it as a reason for hearty congratulation if they can look back upon a month or quarter that has just passed without having to resort to personal chastisement in classes.
Indeed, they feel somewhat like the humane judge to whose lot it falls to receive a pair of white gloves in token of the absence of criminal charges from the session sheet. Yet, it would be a great mistake for any judge to intimate that he was determined - or even exceptionally anxious - that on some particular occasion no convictions should be secured and no sentences passed. Such a proceeding would act as a direct incentive to lawlessness. It has generally been noticed that when certain classes of people have in any way gathered the impression that the lash has been entirely forgotten by the judges there has been a decided recrudescence of offences against the person. And so it would be among the more lawless of the boys in a school - the bullies who inflict all sorts of tortures upon their weaker juniors - if any kind of reassurance were given that in no circumstances could physical pain be inflicted upon them.
One of the most sacred duties of school teachers is to protect the weaker, or the more impressionable children, who are placed in their charge from the cruelty, or from the bad example of those who would tyrannise over them or lead them astray. It should never be forgotten that - as one correspondent put it - we are bound to deal with child life as we find it, rather than as we may theorise about it. Everyone who has made a practice of watching children at play or in school knows well how ready is the resort among them to physical force if their wishes are thwarted. With them it is often 'a word and a blow'.
They represent in this respect a lower grade of civilisation than do their seniors in modern society. Perhaps their natures are, in the main, none the less genuine on that account, but the fact must be recognised frankly. For the protection of one child against another, and for the enforcement of obedience to discipline so as to make the work of a school possible, it is always advisable the rod should be kept as it were 'in pickle', being relegated as much as possible to the background, but never by statutory enactment.
This is practically the condition of affairs in any well-regulated home, because every parent knows that to permit a child unlimited recourse to physical violence, under an assurance that none will be attempted in retaliation, is the surest way towards completely spoiling the nature of a child.
The question of the infliction of corporal punishment for neglect or lack of ability to learn lessons should be looked at in an absolutely different way. The teacher who makes a practice of thrashing his pupils through their examinations is a brute, and ought to be drummed out of the service forthwith.
Indeed, it is one of the strongest recommendations of the new system of inspection - as contrasted with individual examination - that it puts the cane, as a so called educational instrument, largely at a discount. It is the duty of the schoolmaster to teach his pupils - not to intimidate them into learning or imploring their parents to teach them.
This remark has its application not only in corporal punishment, but also to such penalties as detention after school hours, particularly into cold, wet and dark winter nights. Most reprehensible of all is the practice of keeping children in during luncheon hour, which ought to be devoted to nourishment and refreshment of the physical and mental powers.
'He that spareth his rod hateth his son' says the Scriptural proverb, 'but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes.' The first part of this verse has been so often quoted as to lead to a considerable neglect of the real significance of the second part.
The force of the last word 'betimes' is to indicate that corporal chastisement must be resorted to only at the proper times and occasions; but many fathers - especially those of the last generation - have confined their attention to the notion that the wearing out of a new rod every few weeks from contact with a boy's shoulders constituted a faithful observance of the Scriptural injunction.
The habit of a constant resort to physical punishment in the home rendered practically inevitable a similar practice in the schoolroom, because as a matter of universal experience, it is impossible to govern those who have been brutalised by constant flogging otherwise than by an application of the same force with which they are familiar.
Topsy in Uncle Tom's Cabin might, perhaps, develop finer feelings after being removed from the rule of those who accustomed her to look upon a thrashing as an every day experience; but if she had been flogged and cuffed at home for several hours each day and sent to school during the rest of her time, she could never have had a chance to develop the better part of her nature. The birch was a time-honoured institution in the public schools of England long before the days of Negro slavery, and any one who has protested against its very liberal use, at all times and seasons, would have been referred promptly to the wise words of the proverb already quoted as proof positive that the constant application of the rod was the only correct mode of bringing up young folk in the way they should go.
Thousands of pupils of the last century were literally thrashed through the Latin grammar and invited to appreciation of Virgil and Horace through the tingling of their skins. The turn of the tide of national sentiment was marked by Charles Dickens's terrible pictures of the cruelties inflicted upon the boys at Dotheboys Hall.
The humanitarian movement has succeeded to a very large extent in eliminating corporal punishment from the penal codes of the British Empire. Yet I would, indeed, be a sanguine person to conclude that it would be wise or salutary for the legislature to forbid the judges to inflict corporal punishment upon even the most hardened and degraded among offenders against the person.
Some of those people of very advanced humanitarian views, who now advocate the entire abolition of corporal punishment in schools, are probably forgetful of the fact that, unfortunately, the incipient criminal of the succeeding generation are to be found in the school classes of today.
"Flogging Schoolboys" is in the Chronicle,
25 March 1876, page 5c,
"Chastisement of Boys" on
21 December 1878, page 11d,
"Flogging in Schools" on
16 March 1889, page 5c.
Corporal punishment in schools is discussed in the Register,
24 November 1886, page 6g and
the use of the cane is the subject of comment on
2 and 8 December 1890, pages 3e and 5c:
I have seen a boy caned so badly as to bring blood from his hand for merely talking in school, and that was done by the master using a thin cane and bringing it down with such force to cause it to bend round and the end of the cane hit the back of the hand.
3 January 1887, page 5e.
"Thrashing a Schoolboy" is in the Express,
26 November 1890, page 7c. Also see
2 December 1890, page 3e,
25 June 1890, page 7f,
11, 16 and 20 May 1892, pages 6d, 7c and 7c,
25 and 28 May 1901, pages 6g and 4c:
It is the duty of the schoolmaster to teach his pupils - not to intimidate them into leaving them for themselves or imploring their parents to teach them.
8 July 1899, page 13c.
"The Boy and the Birch" is the subject of editorial comment in the Advertiser,
13 May 1900, page 4f:
To some people corporal punishment seems a most natural thing possible for boys until they are fully grown; to others it appears degrading... In the seventeenth century a whipping was considered the proper treatment for a lunatic; will the whipping of a boy ever come to seem as absurd to an enlightened community?
18 May 1901, page 30e,
"Birching Boys" on
19 March 1904, page 34c.
"Boys and Handers" is in the Register,
27 February 1906, page 6e.
"Schoolmaster and Scholar - The Use of a Rope" is in the Observer,
28 March 1908, page 46a; also see
24 March 1908, page 1i.
"The Cane in Schools" is in the Advertiser,
22 July 1909, page 6f,
"Caning as a Correction" in the Register,
4 May 1912, page 12e:
The rising generation of Australia is not so amenable to discipline that restrictive influences may safely be relaxed... The Biblical warning against sparing the rod and spoiling the child still holds good.
(Also see Register,
20 and 23 May 1912, pages 3d and 3g,
6 July 1912, page 9b,
4 June 1921, page 2d.)
1 September 1913, page 15b,
"Punishment of Schoolboys" in the Register,
1 May 1925, page 12c.
"School Teachers and the Cane" is in the Advertiser,
26 May 1925, page 6d,
"Flogging in Schools" on
26 August 1925, page 20c; Register,
29 August 1925, page 5h,
5 September 1925, page 60b.
"The Rod in Education" is in the Register,
18 December 1925, page 8c.
"Cane Not Essential in Schools" is in The Mail,
4 August 1934, page 6d.