Prefects – Uk public schools

I’m doing some research at the moment into the history of prefects or monitors, older pupils selected by the Head to be in charge, who were given the power to beat other pupils for breaking school rules. Sometimes just younger ones, in other schools any pupil not a prefect. These schools tended to be boys’ public schools, which are private despite the name. The most famous being Eton but there are hundreds of others too.

This practice died out in the 1970s but would be interested to hear from anyone who was either punished by or had the punishments.

I personally was slippered by a prefect when I was 13 at my school. It was stopped the following year. They could still give outlines essays and detentions though and of course, a report to your housemaster could well lead to a beating on their word alone.

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I started at grammar school in north-west London in 1961. One day during my first year, one of the boys (A) arrived back in class in floods of tears. When asked what had happened, he said that he’d been slippered by the prefects, though I can’t remember the nature of the offense. Another boy (L) claimed, in a boastful way, that he’d also been slippered; when challenged, L said that he didn’t cry because he’d only been given one whack whereas A had been given six. He then tried to convince everyone that he wasn’t fibbing by telling us where the prefects kept the slipper.

So that was when I was in my first year. The practice had died out when I reached the sixth form and became a prefect, though I don’t recall any formal announcement.

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Graham Kalton’s book The Public Schools and Royston Lambert’s study The Hothouse Society – respectively mid-60s and early-1970s – both make reference to the powers of prefects, including their powers in many schools to give the slipper and cane,

Without dusting off the two volumes, I can’t remember which schools were specifically named. The major public schools will certainly have featured. From personal knowledge – second hand but reliable second hand (people with whom I either studied or worked) you’d find that the list includes St Edward’s School Oxford, Dean Close School in Cheltenham, and Ipswich School.  Also, in the State sector – not with certainty but with strong credibility – Leeds Grammar School and Chichester High School.  We are referring to the mid or late 1960s.

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In 1954 I was fortunate enough to gain one of the small numbers of scholarships reserved for county 11+ candidates at a minor public day school for boys with around 800 pupils.  Although founded in 1513 the school was little known outside the midlands.  However, it had an excellent academic record and was ahead of several of the much better-known members of The Headmasters’ Conference in the tables for O and A-level results and university entrance.

Most of the non-academic and non-classroom discipline of the school was dealt with by the prefects.  Compliance with uniform regulations, behavior when in school uniform in public while traveling to and from school or for any other reason, behavior on campus outwith classrooms, supervision of lunch rooms, and many other matters fell under their remit.

Prefects (normally around 12 to 15 of them) were appointed by the Headmaster and were almost always from the third year sixth form, though occasionally an appointment might be made towards the end of the second year sixth period.  At that time it was customary for pupils aiming for Oxbridge to do a third year in the sixth form to prepare.  This left them with plenty of readily scheduled free time to undertake prefectorial duties.  Boys selected as prefects were generally distinguished by sporting, and/or academic achievement,

The prefects were assisted by a subsidiary body of boys called privileged sixth formers, ‘privs’ for short.  Most boys could expect to make priv before the end of their second year in the sixth form, though not all did.  Some like me were lucky and made priv almost immediately on entering the first year sixth, though prefect was always going to be beyond my grasp.

Perfect and Priv were much-coveted appointments because although they came with responsibilities they had some consequential benefits, not the least of them being that one no longer had to wear the detested standard school cap at all times when in uniform off campus. Indeed prefects had their own very fancy cap with a splendidly elaborate tassel, reputed to be a girl magnet of some potency.  We privs were just very happy to be able to go bare-headed legitimately on buses, in cars, etc.

The prefects had disciplinary powers ranging from the cane, a maximum of three strokes on the bottom, down to lines.  These were exercised through a prefects’ court held during the double period tutor set (a period with the tutor who you stayed with throughout your time at the school) every Wednesday morning.  All those considered culpable in some way and entered in the prefects’ book by prefects or privs during the previous week would find a priv entering their tutor set room at some time during the period and addressing the tutor with the time-honored ‘The prefects would like to see xyz please sir’.

This really was more of a command than a request and XYZ would duly be conducted by the priv up to the prefects’ room in the tower on top of the school and deposited outside the door to await the ominous call to enter.  I only underwent this process once, when a perfect booked me for running in a quadrangle where only walking was permitted.  I’d forgotten a textbook and had had to go back to my form room for it between classes, involving a double full traverse of the school.

A nervous and shy lad, my knees were knocking in my short trousers by the time my name was called.  Said knees went into overdrive when on entering I saw the cane prominently displayed on the court table alongside the prefects’ book.  I’d never seen a proper school cane before, and the thought of it impacting the Another_Lurker bottom didn’t help at all.  The subsequent events were fairly cursory.  If you were in the book it wasn’t expected that you’d mount a defense.  Usually, as in my case, there wasn’t one available anyway.  Forgetfulness was no excuse for breaching long-standing traditions in that school.  But fortunately, I was a first offender and got off with lines.

Canings, where ordered, weren’t anyway delivered on court day.  Time was limited and there was also a right of appeal to the Headmaster against the cane.  This was seldom exercised, but the arrangement was that those sentenced to the cane returned by appointment at a later date when the appointed prefect would deliver the appointed number of ‘beats’ in front of an audience of whatever prefects happened to be in their common room at that time.  Although some masters used classroom corporal punishments involving slippers etc., at that time only the prefects (fairly often) and the Headmaster (very seldom, and only for major offenses) used the cane.

I left in 1960.  A few years later, imbued by the 60’s spirit of the age the prefects proposed the voluntary surrender of their right to cane.  The Headmaster, reputedly very favorably impressed, followed suit, and SCP was abandoned.

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“Discipline is the basis of the English public school, where corporal punishment is a common form of correction. However, it is not upon the physical effect that the discipline rests, but upon the moral effect. It is the most powerful weapon that the prefects wield, and as such is only used occasionally, when such methods as persuasion have failed. When used, it rarely fails to have effect, and few boys return for a second dose. This is not due so much to the pain inflicted, as to the disgrace of having been ” such an ass as to have got beaten.” The strokes given rarely exceed four in number, and although there are forty boys in the House, the usual number of beatings in one term is three or four.

Thus it can be seen that corporal punishment in the average public school is no ” barbarous type of bullying practised by older adolescents upon younger adolescents.” It is a mild type of punishment, the threat of which enables the prefects to keep perfect discipline with very little exertion of their authority.—Yours truly, F. C. FREEMAN. Repton School

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I think Repton was the school that Roald Dahl attended and graphic accounts of corporal punishment both there and in his previous school are given in his first autobiography “Boy”. I also think the headmaster was an individual called Dr Fisher who later became Archbishop of Canterbury

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It is my impression that the caning of the buttocks was much better accepted by boys, fathers, and their community than the caning of the hands. I do not know whether this was just because of the inherent suitability of the buttocks relative to the easily injured hands or whether the choice of target reflected to the attitude of boys, parents and their communities to schools and discipline. Were the educated middle and upper classes more inclined to accept the buttocks as the appropriate target than the uneducated and laboring classes?

I was hoping to spark a discussion but this has not happened yet.

  1. Am I correct in my belief that the buttocks are much less likely to suffer serious or permanent damage than the hands?
  2. Were UK public and grammar schools more inclined to cane the buttocks rather than the hands?
  3. Were UK comprehensive schools catering for lower socioeconomic students more likely to cane the hands rather than the buttocks? If so, why?

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What an amazing find! On the Corpun website mentioned above, that very lengthy article by Peter Ward on Harrow County School (1958-1963) has opened up many memories for me. I was a pupil there at exactly that time, and Peter Ward’s narrative could quite easily have been written by me. I must surely have known him, but my memory fades over time. His view of life at the school was exactly as I saw it. Like him, I was neither academically brilliant nor particularly badly behaved, so was basically ignored. Mention of the names of so many masters have stirred up feelings long forgotten.

Dr Simpson was a one-off. His nickname was “Square” for obvious reasons, and his initials ARS did not go unnoticed by us boys! His ability to “Malaprop” was legendary, woodpecker shoes being one I always loved. His best however was saved for our end of year Speech Day. We always had a distinguished guest who gave a talk and handed out prizes. One year it was the Mayor of Harrow. Dr S stood up at the beginning and announced ” Today our guest of honour is the Mayor of Harrow Lord Hoare, accompanied by HIS Lady H
oare! I swear the laughter in the hall went for 15 minutes!

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1.   Am I correct in my belief that the buttocks are much less likely to suffer serious or permanent damage than the hands?
 
2.  Were UK public and grammar schools more inclined to cane the buttocks rather than the hands?
 
3.  Were UK comprehensive schools catering for lower socioeconomic students more likely to cane the hands rather than the buttocks? If so, why?

The hands are quite robust and have been used as a punishment target in schools since Roman times.  Had it caused significant injuries, surely the practice would have been abandoned at some point in the last two thousand years?  Catching a hard cricket ball, five times the weight of a school cane, straight off the bat, is painful but rarely injures if the ball is caught in the palm of the hand.  A greater risk comes if the fingers are struck.

The problem with hand caning is accuracy.  The palm is very small area and with one hand held out, it often moves between the start of the downswing and the impact.  The path of a flexible cane is also unpredictable.  If the cane strikes the fingers rather than the palm it is not only painful but there is an increased risk of injury.

The Scottish practice of presenting the two hands together means the stroke is much more likely to land where it was intended.  The strap is also a much more suitable tool for the purpose.

The buttocks are strong but not invulnerable.  Severe bruising can be caused by the use of unsuitably heavy implements.  Canes, weighing little more than an ounce, cause very little damage although they can produce spectacular marks.

In conclusion, all corporal punishment on either hands or buttocks can cause damage, but with the right choice of implement.

it is very unlikely to be serious or permanent.

In the absence of any formal tuition in how to administer corporal punishment, I suspect the choice of hands or buttocks largely came from the experience of the individual teacher in his or her own education.

The type of school in which any teacher might start their career is also likely to be similar to those in which they grew up.  UK grammar and public schools were most likely to select staff who had been educated in grammar and public schools, so if there was a tendency in those schools to favour caning on the buttocks, it was continued in later generations.

I would suggest that “lower socioeconomic” students may have grown up in schools where punishment was more likely to happen in the classroom – and on the hands – rather than more formally in the headmaster’s study or by prefects (who I doubt ever caned on the hands).  Just as public school students might go on the teach in public schools, so students from county or modern schools were more likely to seek teaching posts in a school system with which they were familiar, perpetuating hand caning.

On a personal note, I hated having my hands hit.  Being hit on the buttocks was painful but more easily bearable. However, being kicked in the shin or ankle of the sports field was much worse.
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It is true that a cane is fiendishly difficult to aim accurately – although bear in mind that school canes were not often of the very swishy cartoon variety, but more usually shorter, stouter and less flexible. So strokes across the palm were feasible as long as the recipient did not move – not always a certainty.  I have sometimes wondered if the requirement to hold out your hand was seen as an integral part of the punishment, having the self-discipline to keep it still and accept that extra dash of subservience?   a strap or tawse was always rather likelier to land flat on the proffered palm.

I’d add that the need for accuracy, as well as the avoidance of damage, was also the reason that the slipper/plimsoll was so frequently favored.  On a bending bottom, a broad flat surface was colliding with a broad flat surface.  Impactful but safe.

I did encounter one young man due for the slipper who was an excellent cricketer – went on indeed to play county cricket – who surmised that the slipper across hands would be no worse than taking a really hard catch.  Putting the theory to the test, he managed to take two across each hand – and then, a little ruefully opted for the final two across his bottom…