An accurate picture of school life at Rugby School in the 19th Century is given by
Thomas Hughes' famous book Tom Brown's School Days. Hughes was a contemporary of
the famous headmaster of Rugby School Dr.Thomas Arnold who did much to restore discipline,
order and learning to the Public Schools of the day and introduced the system of
school prefects. The book tells of formal floggings by both masters and prefects
as well as of illicit 'roastings' of junior offenders by holding them close to the
fire until blistered, a punishment which Arnold did much to stamp out.
In general, from Dr.Arnold's time until the 1970's the cane was the standard punishment
for offenders in the State as well as in the Public Schools. However, in the State
Schools, canings were usually mild and carried out by the headmaster or his deputy.
By contrast, in the Public Schools, the masters concerned themselves only with teaching
and the maintenance of discipline was a matter for senior boys designated as Monitors
and/or Prefects. and selected both from the upper-sixth form and the captains of
sport. They were allowed to administer punishments, including canings. Other forms
of punishment in Public Schools were 'lines' often in the form of copying several
pages of the Greek or Latin classics and Punishment Drill, usually 20 minutes of
strenuous exercise on the parade ground or in the gymnasium at 5.30 am sharp! In
Scotland, the tawse, a wide strip of thick leather cut into three of four strips
and attached to a leather handle, was/is used in place of the cane.
Discipline in the Public Schools centred round a complex tradition of privileges
and restrictions. New boys for example might have to keep all three buttons on their
jacket fastened, 2nd year boys could be allowed one button undone and 3rd year boys
two. Likewise, only sixth formers and those with sporting 'caps' or 'colours' would
be permitted to walk round the College Green clockwise, all other boys having to
move in an anti-clockwise direction.
The number of strokes administered at a caning depended, in most Public Schools,
on the culprit's seniority rather than his offence. Thus a first year pupil would
merit 4 strokes, a second-year 6 strokes and a third-year boy 8 strokes. An offending
sixth-former might even merit ten! It would not be unusual, therefore, for a boy
to receive 8 strokes for having his blazer buttons undone in public. Such canings
were usually carried out in the presence of some or all of the other prefects which
certainly encouraged a stoical response from the victim! For details of canings at
The King's School in Canterbury during the early 1940s click here.
Although in more recent times girls have been exempt from the school cane, some of
the more famous Girls' Public Schools caned, or more usually whipped or birched offending
girls. Convert Schools continued the practice until recent times.
Re-introduction of Corporal Punishment
Because of the increasing violence and disobedience in schools, particularly in State
Secondary schools, there is considerable pressure from the general public for the
re-introduction of caning in schools. This pressure is strongly resisted by theoretical
educationalists who were largely responsible for the abolition of CP in the first
place, and by Government who see problems which could arise from an appeal to the
European Court of Human Rights who have already expressed opinions on the matter.
To conform to European law, corporal punishment of all kinds is now illegal under
any circumstances in the UK but pressure groups are active to overturn this ruling.
Two other considerations arise: firstly the almost universal distribution of coeducation;
do we cane the girls and if not what do we do with them ? And is it fair to differentiate.
Secondly the problem of who should do the caning. School teachers, already the objects
of pupil violence fear retaliation out side the school from pupils whom they might
Some people feel that there is no obvious solution to the first problem except to
leave things as they were in recent years and find alternative punishment for the
girls. But there is no logical or medical reason why girls shold not be caned just
like boys. They were in the past and still are in many civilised countries. The second
problem is easily solved by the prefectorial system used in the Public Schools. Let
a pupil committee decide the punishment and carry out the sentence; their decision
will be respected by their colleagues.