A Proper British Upbringing

LONDON — A VERY English debate broke out six years ago in the letters page of The Times of London over the legacy of one Anthony Chenevix-Trench, the headmaster of Eton College from 1964 to 1970. When he was drunk, which was quite often, Chenevix-Trench had an unpleasant habit of beating the students with a savagery unusual even by Eton standards, and then sobbing penitentially afterward.

Oddly enough, a number of his old pupils didn’t seem to hold it against him.

Christopher Hourmouzios, for example, reminisced to The Times that the headmaster “once flogged the living daylights out of me with a strap on my bare backside” and went on to beat all 21 students in a divinity class in a single afternoon. “However, this rather Victorian figure who believed in the value of corporal punishment,” Hourmouzios noted, “was a fine teacher who taught me Latin.”

In recent years, many European countries have wrestled with the question of corporal punishment, with some even making it illegal for parents to hit their children. Such proposals are heard here too, without much chance of success. Although the British finally outlawed the classic practice of caning, beating and flogging in independent schools last year, the debate over hitting in the home has been partly colored by the legacy of beatings some lawmakers received during their school days — at times from one another.

Many Britons in public life today, for instance, have recalled being flogged by Douglas Hurd, Margaret Thatcher’s foreign secretary, a notoriously avid doler-of-punishments who was known at Eton as “Hitler Hurd.” Sometimes caning is almost mentioned as a mark of pride, a rite of passage completed. It is not a coincidence that the French call spanking among adults “le vice Anglais,” recognizing that it is one offshoot of a society where authority and love were once linked with childhood violence, pain and stoicism.

For most of the last century, no one seriously tried to change the system. In the last 20 years, though, politicians began to realize that the state could no longer sanction such behavior, at least not in schools. In 1986, corporal punishment was outlawed in state schools — by just one vote in the House of Commons. In 1999, after an impassioned debate in which a number of legislators recalled how they had been beaten as schoolchildren, and quite right, too, it was finally outlawed in private schools.

The debate has now shifted to corporal punishment in the home, with the Labor government trying to rewrite the law to set out exactly what constitutes acceptable hitting. The current law, which dates back to Victorian times, was recently thrown into limbo when the European Court of Human Rights ruled that it had failed to protect a young British boy from “inhuman or degrading punishment” by his stepfather.

Corporal punishment of children is now illegal in eight European countries, including Sweden, Denmark, Austria and Latvia. But in Britain, the Labor government says it will not take that road, pointing to a number of surveys in which Britons have overwhelmingly said they supported the right of parents to hit their children. “There is a common-sense distinction to be made between the sort of mild physical rebuke which occurs in families and which most loving parents consider acceptable, and the beating of children,” the government said in a position paper.

But Children Are Unbeatable, a coalition of more than 200 organizations from children’s charities to groups representing adults who were beaten as children, vehemently disagrees.

“We’re not saying that everyone who hits a child is a bad parent,” said Elizabeth Garrett, a leader of Barnardo’s, a children’s advocacy group. “We’re saying that everyone in society has to consider how they may be condoning violence against children if they insist on hitting their own.”

The group faces an uphill battle, because many Britons believe that the government should not interfere with parental discipline. Some also agree with Baroness Park of Monmouth, who said last year in the House of Lords, “a spank and a kiss solves everything, whereas cold-hearted treatment and reasoning leaves a much greater mark.”

“There’s a strong strand in English culture that thinks this is the best way of disciplining children,” said Alexander Chancellor, a columnist for The Guardian and The Times of London who said, nonetheless, that it “would never have occurred to me to hit my kids.”

When he was at Eton in the 1950s, Chancellor said, he cunningly avoided getting beaten, even as schoolmates like Auberon Waugh, Evelyn Waugh’s son, were flogged constantly for offenses like stealing coal for the fireplaces in their freezing bedrooms. “Luckily, I’m a bit weedy, whereas he was very rebellious and was getting beaten all the time,” Chancellor said of Waugh, now editor of the Literary Review. “You’d almost want to beat him now.”

As for the former Etonians beaten by the thousands, many still contemplate their experiences with a curiously nostalgic resentment, as the letters in The Times revealed.

One letter-writer told how he was sent to Chenevix-Trench’s study on several occasions for what was then called “six of the best,” only to be pleasantly surprised by the headmaster’s sudden change of heart. “After some discussion he would remove two sabres from the wall, throw one at me, we would fence (he was an expert swordsman) and the proposed beating would be forgotten.”

For his part, Matthew Thompson-Royds missed the Chenevix-Trench era but didn’t avoid being beaten. “Mercifully, my punishment was carried out by ‘Leggy’ Lambert, the lower master,” in the 1950s, he wrote. Still, he seemed sorry to have lived before the era of human-rights courts.

“What, I wonder, would the bill be if all who had been flogged at Eton obtained full compensation?” he asked.