It is not known specifically just when the cane was introduced into England. After all, it was hardly an event of historical importance to be recorded for posterity. What is known however is that cane was first shipped to England as dunnage being light in weight, rattan was the ideal material for protecting valuable cargo from water and other contaminates that could collect in the holds of ships.
The use of the cane in schools seems to go back as far as the eighteenth century. A poem, 'The School Master's Cane' was published in 1787 and there are a few other references to its use going back even earlier. The cane however, did not replace the birch but rather, was used in addition to, perhaps for less serious offences.
Corporal punishment in schools, especially public schools was both extreme and barbaric. The birch, the whalebone switch and even the lash were employed. The 'Soko Rod' used in some reformatories on both boys and girls, consisted of 3 whalebone switches set into a wooden handle. Winchester school used its infamous 'Winton Rod', which consisted of 3 long, apple twigs set into a wooden handle.
The cane however, soon gained in popularity as an alternative to or in addition to the birch and the switch. It was cheap, highly effective even through clothing and it lasted, unlike the birch or switch both of which would soon dry out and break.
In some schools, the birch persisted for more formal beatings whilst the cane was used for minor infractions and peccadilloes. As an implement for maintaining classroom discipline it was ideal because it was always ready for immediate use. It required no prior soaking in water and no disrobing of the pupil was necessary.
In 1870 the 'Compulsory Education Act' was passed by Parliament, requiring all children to attend school until the age of thirteen. Teachers had to cope with classes of up to 100 children. And, they had to achieve certain high standards in basic subjects. These rigorously applied standards were subject to a yearly practical examination by inspectors. The teacher's pay and the school's grant were dependent upon achieving good results. So, now was not a good time to even consider prohibiting the use of the cane.
Following the 1870 act, local school boards were set up by way of direct election, to oversee and maintain schools in their area. Schools were known as 'Board Schools,' these boards were the forerunners of what were to become LEA's, - Local Education Authorities.
It was the boards, as part of their contractual relationship with teachers in their area, who first developed regulations to try and control the use of corporal punishment. And, as in other matters, the basic structure of many other area's regulations were based upon those first developed by the London School Board.
At a meeting convened on 21st July 1871, Prof. T.H. Huxley moved that the following regulations should be adopted to control the use of corporal punishment in the London area:
- Every occurrence of corporal punishment is to be recorded in a book kept for this purpose.
- Pupil Teachers shall be prohibited absolutely from inflicting such punishment.
- The head teacher shall be held directly responsible for every punishment of the kind inflicted in his school.
In October 1878, one of the first recorded formal attempts were made by two women members of the London Board to abolish corporal punishment for girls and infants. It was discussed, deferred and later defeated but, even the few regulations that were in place seemed a step too far for most teachers. The London Board was constantly bombarded with letters, petitions and memoranda from teacher's associations calling for amendments to the regulations, citing the difficulties in maintaining discipline in schools.
In 1878, a petition from the Greenwich district teachers stated that although the infliction of punishment was the most unpleasant part of their duties, the education act had put into schools, children who were extremely difficult to manage. They cited truancy, insubordination, lying, stealing and foul language. Any attempts to reason with or appeals to their sense of morality were regarded as a weakness. The cane was the only effective deterrent.
Under common law, teachers acted in loco parentis and had the same power of restraint as the parents. The teachers claimed that the Boards regulations seriously impaired their powers of restraint and correction, recognized by law as necessary for the management of children.
In 1885, two additional regulations were added by the London Board:
- In the case of a mixed school in the charge of a headmaster, corporal punishment for girls must be given by an assistant mistress under the head's supervision.
- The punishment book shall be examined from time to time to ensure that all the necessary entries have been made.
It should be noted however, that regulations issued by the Boards, applied only to their own schools. Church schools, private schools, public schools and reformatories etc. were not bound by these rules.
With the advent of enforced schooling, the use of the cane became widespread to such an extent that large scale operations were established to supply this growing market. One cane importer, established in 1832, set up a large production facility which supplied tens of thousands of punishment canes every year. It became the biggest supplier in the UK. Even in the 1960's it was churning out canes at a mind - boggling rate, supplying direct to LEA's such as the ILEA (Inner London Education Authority), and other institutions. Thousands of canes per year also went for export. It finally ceased production in the late 1970's due to dwindling demand.
In 1902, the 'Balfour Act' abolished the school boards. This did not apply to London which was abolished a year later under a separate Act. Schools now came under the control of councils. London schools were now controlled by the LCC.
In 1905, representations were made to the LCC by the 'Society for the Reform of School Discipline,' to consider the possibility of abolishing corporal punishment. At the same time, the 'Independent Labor Party' called for abolishing for infants and girls. The Education Committee of the LCC concluded that it would be unwise to do so. Reasons given were:
- Some children are only amenable to corporal punishment.
- Certain offences, such as indecency, could only be dealt with by the use of corporal punishment.
- If C.P. were to be abolished there would be grave danger of other forms of irregular and harmful punishments.
By 1910, following successive amendments, the LCC regulations comprised of the following amendments:
1. Heads to use every endeavor to keep C.P. to a minimum.
2. C.P. not to be inflicted except for grave moral offences or until other means of control have been tried.
3. Heads to be responsible for all punishments but able to delegate the power to use c.p. in writing.
4. Those using irregular, cruel or excessive punishment liable dismissal unless under severe provocation.
5. Care to be use in the case of nervous and delicate children.
6. In mixed schools, a mistress to inflict punishment on a girl.
7. Blows with the hand, cuff, boxing of ears, shaking and all other irregular ways of inflicting punishment, to be strictly forbidden.
8. All corporal punishment to be recorded.
9. The punishment book to be inspected at each manager's meeting.
10. C.P. for children in infants' schools to be permitted, but for grade one should normally only be inflicted with the hand.
Such was the care with which the LCC regulations had been formulated, that many other Local Authorities adopted them wholly or in part. It is interesting to note however, that even in the 1970's, only 75% of LEA's had any regulations at all.
Of course, these regulations were no doubt crafted with good intentions, but they did not go nearly far enough and were largely ignored anyway. In essence, schools and teachers did as just they wished. In theory, teachers could be hauled before the Education Committee and disciplined; a fine could be imposed or in extreme cases, dismissed. But this rarely happened, mainly because the authorities never got to know about their misdeeds. In a lot of schools, especially deprived inner city ones, children were subject to shocking physical abuse. Punishment books were rarely filled in, savage caning's were administered and a whole variety of unauthorized punishments and implements were used.
Throughout the course of the 20th century, the regulations were added to, but curiously, none of these ever stipulated the maximum number of strokes that could be given or indeed the severity of the punishment itself. Even the law was equivocal, stating only that a punishment should be reasonable. Reasonable was undefined and in the event, it would be up to a magistrate to decide just what was reasonable in the circumstances.
Some authorities such as Barrow in Furness and Wigan did regulate the lengths of canes to be used upon different age groups/genders. A small number of LEA's actually supplied canes direct to their own schools in order to prevent teachers using their own. Wigan for instance stipulated that the cane to be used should be only a thin, flexible one as supplied by their Supplies Department, all other canes were forbidden.
The ILEA, which became more progressive in the 1970's after falling under Labor control, amended their regulations to include the length of canes to be used. 'A cane of not more than 36 inches to be used on secondary school boys; a cane not over 30 inches to be used on all girls and junior boys'. In practice, these regulations, although a step in the right direction, meant little because no account was made as to thickness or more importantly, the density of the cane. Under Labor control, the ILEA like Wigan, supplied their own canes to the schools in their area. Some of these canes were actually stamped 'ILEA' in order prevent unauthorized canes being substituted. But, the canes were graded only for length.
Corporal punishment was finally abolished by law in 1987 after a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights. It is a sad indictment of the British schooling system that the abolishing of C.P. took so long. Britain was the last country in Europe to do so. The cane was in use for over 200 years. In retrospect, it seems incredible, surreal even, that factories and workshops produced implements e.g. canes, straps and tawse, for the sole purposed of beating children.
UK Canes - Authentic School Canes.