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The Production and Dissemination of Knowledge in Scotland

Lesley Graham

1. Education and learning

“Nae tawse and less parsing”: school strikes in Scotland in 1889 and 1911

Rosie Findlay

Texte intégral

  • 1 See the film Lionheart by Franklin J. Schaffner, which is based on the historical Children’s Crusad (...)
  • 2 The Edinburgh Royal High School riot took place on 15th September 1595. See website ‘iainthepict’, (...)
  • 3 A petition is presented to Parliament in 1669 by a young boy on behalf of the nation’s children pro (...)
  • 4 The Spectator, 28 March 2015.

1“More chips and roast dinners!” This was the cry of schoolchildren in February 2005 as they handed in a petition to their head teacher, protesting about the plans of Ruth Kelly, Minister for Education, to provide healthier school meals. It was not the first time in history that children had made a stand for what they saw as their rights; as early as 1212 the Children’s Crusade was started by 12-year-old Stephen of Cloyes, when 30,000 French boys and girls marched from Vendôme to Marseilles, to “reclaim” the Holy Land for Christendom;1 a group of pupils of Edinburgh High School barricaded themselves in because of a dispute about reducing holidays in 1595, which led to one of the children shooting and killing the magistrate, John MacMorran, who attempted to quell the riot;2 in the 1660s a twelve-year-old boy handed in a petition to Parliament from school children complaining about their conditions;3 another petition was delivered in 1688-89 on the subject of flogging in Dame and Foundation schools, especially on girls; and there were also some protests in English public schools like Rugby and Eton.4 All these took place when children were not seen as full members of British society, not citizens with rights.

  • 5 Perthshire Diary, 11th October, 1889.

2However by the end of the nineteenth century, children in Britain had been given rights in several domains for example, in education and in protection from cruelty, but these appear to highlight the society that imposed them rather than the children themselves. The picture of school children in Victorian times coming out on strike conflicts with most people’s ideas of Victorian values and Victorian discipline;5 however the massive children’s school strikes of 1889 and 1911 all over the British Isles reveal much to us of the deep changes of the period. This was a protest movement by the school children which undermined society’s peace of mind. In those years, curiously enough two years of strong social tensions, two years of national strikes, in hundreds of State and private schools children stopped studying to demand the respect of their rights. These movements which have long been forgotten by historians (if ever mentioned) show the unease felt by the young and the conviction that their rights were more fictional and imaginary than real. Even if we can link their protest movements to the social context of the time, it still seems that the children were carrying an important message inside the framework of the evolution of children’s rights.

3However in the strikes of 1889 and 1911 the children gave their opinion on their rights, or lack of them, and in this way made their position inside British society clear. We could say that these protest movements, these school strikes, were seen as “the coming of age” of a childhood that for too long had belonged to adults. The dissatisfaction of the children was shown in the way they flouted authority in a public way, in spite of the considerable odds. They queried the boundaries established by teachers, possibly inspired by the general social unrest of the period.

  • 6 Tony Taylor, “As the old cocks crow, the young ones learn: the school strikes of 1889 and the New U (...)

4Most recorded histories of these pupil protests lack reports from the children themselves, they are excluded from any research on the topic. This paper proposes to look at the strikes from the children’s point of view, to see why the children reacted as they did, what their demands were, how they were seen by the teachers, the parents and the press... and what, if anything, they achieved. These strikes, child-initiated, where pupils rebelled, and produced a “nationally consistent set of industrial demands” were “organized by children, implemented by children and vanquished by adult authority.”6

5The 1870 and 1872 (Scotland) Education Acts were seen by many in the working classes as an “economic threat and unwelcome intrusion rather than an opportunity for social advancement” and so the strikes which were to follow were for some a

  • 7 Stephen Humphries, Hooligans or Rebels? An oral history of working-class childhood and youth 1889-1 (...)

defiant gesture of protest by working class children and their parents against the authoritarian, bureaucratic and centralized structure of schooling that increasingly wrenched control of education away from the local community and geared its organization to the demands of a capitalist state.7

6It must be remembered that children were compelled to attend school, irrespective of whether they had employment at the time (the half-time system was gradually phased to be completely abolished in 1918). There was an enforcement of discipline through the education system, through schooling during the week and Sunday schools, Socialist or other, at the weekend. The Children’s Act of 1908 did much to protect the child in society although corporal punishment by parent or teacher was excluded from this - all that was required of the headmaster was to record any cases in a separate punishment book.

  • 8 T. Taylor, op. cit., p. 91. He was forced to resign a few months later due to the embarrassment of (...)
  • 9 He was punished for passing round a note urging his fellow pupils to strike. Llanelly Mercury, 7th (...)

7The origin of the first strikes on 25th September 1889 was a school in Hawick, in the Southern Uplands of Scotland, where the pupils from Wilton Dean and Trinity Board Schools came out and marched up and down between the two schools before heading into the town centre and then disbanding. One of their demands was for better teachers as their own principal teacher, John Bucher, was described as “allegedly incompetent and careless.”8 The 1911 strike followed by children in more than sixty major towns was more urban in origin, starting on 5th September in Bigyn School, Llanelli in Wales, when the pupils protested at the caning of one of their peers by a teacher who was not authorized to carry out such a punishment.9 Not perhaps massive reasons for a strike as in the adult ones of the same period, yet effective enough to lead to a national movement.

8When we look at the demands of the schoolchildren up and down the country, it is easy to see how these basic issues were common to all and the strike was quick to spread in both years, as the pupils spontaneously struck, recognizing their shared interests no matter what type of school or where... As one commentator noted,

  • 10 Worker, 16th April 2005, p. 5.

the key issue was the use of corporal punishment, but as the strike gathered momentum the old (but still relevant) issues concerning school hours and community control of schools rose to the surface again - a clear demonstration that the state had not yet managed to kill off working class traditions of independence and control over their own affairs.10

  • 11 Greenock Telegraph, 19th September 1911.

9Reasons for coming out on strike were varied and often depended on the country, region or type of school, but essentially the pupils demanded shorter hours, less home lessons, (these were the most frequently mentioned in the press), a Wednesday half-holiday, no cane or strap or in the case of Broxburn Public School, West Lothian, ‘nae tawse’, free education (not all the Standards were yet free11), and less parsing to name but a few. In Montrose the young strikers also laid out demands for better heating, holidays during potato-picking, free pencils and rubbers and the abolition of the Board man. The Kirkintilloch boys went even further, according to the Glasgow Evening News of 8th October 1889, demanding shorter hours and the total abolition of home lessons and punishment.

  • 12 The tawse, word comes from taws, plural of taw, Scots, a thong of a whip. It could be two-tailed or (...)

10 One of the main demands was the abolition of the tawse. When we remember that education was compulsory by now, this led to large classes and rote learning. Teachers expected silence in the classroom, as well as obedience and hard work, and this was usually enforced by the use of the tawse. It was in daily use to punish the child on the palms of his hands as a means of correction or rebuke. It was also used if the child was not able to recite his multiplication tables, if he got a sum wrong, if there was a spelling mistake or even to stop children talking in class !12

  • 13 Tony Taylor, op. cit., p. 98.

11Another demand from the school children at both periods was a decrease in parsing. Parsing was a way of breaking down a sentence into its component words, classifying each in terms of its part of speech, as well as its number, tense and function in the sentence. This grammatical exercise formed part of the overall idea that children had too much work both at school and at home. In 1904, the Board of Education published its Secondary Regulations, defining a four-year subject-based course leading to a certificate in English language and literature, geography, history, a foreign language, mathematics, science, drawing, manual work, physical training and household crafts for girls. Scottish children and their parents reacted to the system based on foreign languages as it was felt they would eventually end up in the docks, the mines or the mills and have no need for this.13 A final, but very important, demand by the children was the elimination, or at least the decrease, of the cost of education. Attending school averaged about 3d per week per child although many School Boards waived the fee for needy children. Added to this was the amount the children had to pay for school books and jotters. It is interesting to note that the free education clause of the Local Government (Scotland) Act came into force on 1st October 1889 in 55 of the 65 Glasgow schools making it free up until the 5th standard (one week after the first strike in Hawick). Many of the parents protested against the fees in the ten remaining schools. These fees were payable until a change in the law in 1891.

  • 14 Tuesday 8th October 1889.

12Once the children had ‘walked out’, they had many varied means of attracting public attention to their cause. Any and every method was used. In the 1889 movement, one of the 40 strikers from Broxburn Public School, Thomas Haston, rode on the back of a sheep, along the canal, while being chased by the school janitor;14 in Aberdeen, boys went from school to school, attracting other pupils along the way, shouting their demands to all who would listen ( “we are on strike, no home lessons”); they called a “meeting” to ventilate their “grievances”. In Edinburgh, the children seemed more prepared for action; after walking out of Davie Street School, they assembled behind their leader who was carrying a flag “made of a handkerchief nailed to a stick”, and marched to other schools in the area. Once there, they handed out papers to the children in preparation for a demonstration the next day on which was written, ‘Schoolboys’ Strike. - Strikers meet at 9 a.m. in Dalry-Park tomorrow; strike for short hours and no home lessons, and free education for the whole school. ’

  • 15 The Times, 15 September, p. 5d.
  • 16 Greenock Telegraph and Clyde Shipping Gazette, 15 September 1911.

13In Abercorn School, Paisley, according to The Times, 100 children paraded the streets armed with sticks and carrying a placard demanding a weekly half-holiday, no home lessons, a penny a week pocket money and ‘no tawse.’15 Some threw stones on school buildings and School Board Headquarters,16 teachers’ houses were attacked, and in Pollockshaws in Glasgow some children were seen raiding a turnip field! Some carried toy pistols and rifles on their marches, imitating perhaps the uniformed Youth movements of the period such as the Boys Brigade.

14 The main issue with these two strikes was that they caused deep embarrassment to both local and national authorities. They were unprepared for these protests and no concerted action was taken to solve the problems. Looked upon by some as a political minefield, as the actions of the school children represented a direct challenge to the authority of the teachers, the children were technically within their rights to strike and if this was restricted could have caused confrontation with the adult population in general.

  • 17 11th October 1889.

15As a result the police did not intervene despite pressure from the schools themselves. They could however intervene when it became a matter of public order to protect shops and shopkeepers. In some towns they had special patrols around the schools where they broke up disturbances and arrested some on public order charges (Govan for example). The Times17 reported of one headmaster in an English school for example in a letter to the police who stated his concern for the non-strikers – “One or two policemen in the neighbourhood of the school gates would protect our children and entrance and prevent brutal intimidation”.

  • 18 The Hawick Express, 15th October 1889.
  • 19 The Times, 10th October 1889.

16Little information exists on the individuals who led the strikes, apart from those who were arrested. For the strike ringleaders in 1889, many of them were called to appear in front of the magistrates. In Hawick where the strike began, there were 4 boys singled out to appear before the Burgh Court, charged with assaulting 2 others by ‘striking them and dragging them about’. The prosecutor believed they were the ringleaders of the strike. They were dismissed with an admonition.18 At the Leith Police Court,19 six boys, aged between ten and twelve years old, were found guilty of “yelling and bawling and of battering with stones the door of North Fort Street School”. The magistrate declared his intention of sending the boys to be flogged but instead fined them each two shillings and sixpence “with the option of 24 hours in prison”. He added in his sentencing that if they came back again “they knew what was waiting for them”. Also, in the Edinburgh Sheriff Summary Court, eleven boys were charged with having behaved in a disorderly manner at Gorgie School; they pleaded not guilty of a breach of the peace and when they returned to Court on the Monday, they were “ordered to be put under an obligation to come up for judgement when called upon within the next 6 months”. The magistrate in charge of the case declared that: “considering their youth he did not wish to deal harshly with them, but if they were again brought to that court and convicted of a similar offence they would probably be whipped and that with a worse pair of ’tawes’ [sic] than was known at school.”

  • 20 School Board Chronicle, 12th October 1889.

17What is clear from reports of the period is that the members of the education department were unprepared for these strikes, and were obviously embarrassed by children parading the streets; they saw it as a ridiculous movement, fomented by adults who ought to know better.20 The ringleaders should be expelled as they were viewed as:

  • 21 Educational News, 19th October 1889, p. 720.

dangerous centres of moral contamination wherever they have the opportunity of posing as heroes... Freed from their presence, their erring dupes would speedily forget their folly and settle down to work.21

  • 22 ibid., 5th October 1889, p. 685-6.

18The Educational News went on: “Schoolboy strikers are simply rebels… Obedience is the first rule of school life… School strikes are therefore not merely acts of disobedience, but a reversal of the primary purpose of schools. They are on a par with a strike in the Army or Navy.”22

  • 23 Northern Daily Mail 16.9.1911.
  • 24 Dave Marson, Children’s Strikes in 1911. History Workshop Pamphlets, n° 9, 1973, p. 13.
  • 25 DED 1.1.1 (5).

19 The headmasters and teachers, on the other hand, some apparently unconcerned, had a good laugh when questioned by reporters about the strikes and even sent out non-strikers to go and capture the picket-leaders.23 The strike of the Edinburgh schoolboys in 1889 ended, according to the press, through “the prompt chastisement of some of the leading strikers at home and in the school”. Others, once they returned to school, were also punished severely. Some boys were lined up to be beaten in front of the whole school; reprisals were usually out of proportion to the crime and obviously designed to intimidate the ‘truant class’ of the very poor, who watched and might sympathise with the victims. More long-term perhaps was the less ‘up-front’ actions of the teachers; they were known to put black marks on the character references of the pupils, which were needed when applying for a job. Others took away from the children their chance of winning an attendance medal, coveted by them but also by their working-class parents; at this time, a child needed 4 years of perfect attendance to receive a bronze medal, 6 years for a silver one and 10 years to achieve a gold.24 Other headmasters initiated a cover-up which resulted in mention of the strikes being omitted from School Board minutes and logbooks, to show the school in a positive manner, by, for example, stating ‘absenteeism’ instead of ‘on strike’; another way around the question was shown in Maryhill at the end of September when it was “decided to give Thursday and Friday this week as school holidays”; another school, Albert Public, noted in its Logbook the school was closed as it was a general holiday for the 3rd October. In Springburn School Board Minute Book for example on 10th Oct 1889, there was no mention of the strike but it was noted “it was agreed to give the children a holiday after the inspection was over as formerly.”25

  • 26 Dave Marson, p. 5.

20 The overall impression in the conservative press of the period was that it was not something they took seriously, only an imitation of the adult strikes, and their headlines reinforce this, for example, Juvenile Burlesque of Big Labour Strikes, A comical rebellion at Llanelly, The schoolboy strike mania, Practising for strikes, Foolish demands by silly boys, Amusing incidents, A silly game, too ridiculous. For historian Dave Marson, who went on to write a play about the 1911 strike with Billy Colville in 1973, the press was sarcastic in their journalism - “not in one single report or editorial does the children’s unrest motivate a serious enquiry.”26

  • 27 16th October 1889.

21However the newspapers did give vivid details of each and every strike all across the United Kingdom. The press initially presented the school strikes as a joke, a prank, whereas later they were more hostile and wanted a return to the idealized old regime where no-one should challenge the authority of the teachers. For the editor of the Swansea Herald and Neath Gazette, in the leader article, it was “time to use the horsewhip... for such a parody or farce cannot be winked at even amongst nineteenth century socialists.”27

22There was a strange irony in that although they were hostile to the strikes, they were the medium used to propagate them, they were instrumental in spreading them, both in the written word and in the employment of newspaper sellers and deliverers. Their method of describing the strikes in their advertisements (content bills) outside newsagents meant that it was visible to all passers-by, including school children, and so the message was passed on.

23The school children did not get satisfaction in their demands - if anything, conditions in the eyes of the children were just as bad if not worse, as hours at school were not altered, homework still existed and parsing is also still around. The age to remain at school was extended to 14 in 1918, to rise to 15 after the Second World War and to 16 in 1972. Corporal punishment still existed and was only abolished in schools almost a hundred years after the first strike in 1889, in 1986, although it remained legal in independent schools until 1999, so the children of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century had a long wait for this demand to be taken into account.

24In relation to this publication based on the theme of the production and dissemination of knowledge, these strikes, even if they have been downplayed, showed that the children of the period were not simply sitting back and following the system. They were standing up and telling the State and all those who would listen that they didn’t agree with it as it stood and wanted change. It would be wrong to dismiss these strikes as being tied to the industrial conflict of the period, but they did clearly demonstrate, both to the pupils themselves and to the State, that school strikes, if they were linked and were mutually supported, had a power that could seriously worry authority; indeed the Educational News asked:

  • 28 Educational News, 5th October 1889, p. 685-6.

whether these walk-outs would have any longer-term repercussions amongst the next generation of workers, considering they had been blooded in open class war at such an early age.28

  • 29 The 1911 schoolchildren strikes, BBC History Magazine, 6th February 2014.

25As one historian remarked, “strikes at school may have been swiftly suppressed and soon forgotten but, as the authorities feared, collective action left an indelible memory, a trace that would be one first step in many people’s political education.”29 Scottish industrial militancy in the years after the strikes would imply that they had indeed their part to play in shaping Scotland’s industrial and political militancy in the years to come.


1 See the film Lionheart by Franklin J. Schaffner, which is based on the historical Children’s Crusade.

2 The Edinburgh Royal High School riot took place on 15th September 1595. See website ‘iainthepict’, 14th September 2010.

3 A petition is presented to Parliament in 1669 by a young boy on behalf of the nation’s children protesting against excessive school punishments. The petition suggests: "That [any] person, who by sweetness and gentleness, or by the gravity of their deportment and countenance, or else by prudence and contrivance, is not able to awe and keep a company of youth in obedience without violence… is not fit for that function."

4 The Spectator, 28 March 2015.

5 Perthshire Diary, 11th October, 1889.

6 Tony Taylor, “As the old cocks crow, the young ones learn: the school strikes of 1889 and the New Union movement”, History of Education, 1994, vol. 23, n° 1, p. 90.

7 Stephen Humphries, Hooligans or Rebels? An oral history of working-class childhood and youth 1889-1939. Oxford, Blackwell, 1981, p. 92.

8 T. Taylor, op. cit., p. 91. He was forced to resign a few months later due to the embarrassment of the Board and the local HMI by the national consequences o the Hawick strike

9 He was punished for passing round a note urging his fellow pupils to strike. Llanelly Mercury, 7th September 1911.

10 Worker, 16th April 2005, p. 5.

11 Greenock Telegraph, 19th September 1911.

12 The tawse, word comes from taws, plural of taw, Scots, a thong of a whip. It could be two-tailed or more.

13 Tony Taylor, op. cit., p. 98.

14 Tuesday 8th October 1889.

15 The Times, 15 September, p. 5d.

16 Greenock Telegraph and Clyde Shipping Gazette, 15 September 1911.

17 11th October 1889.

18 The Hawick Express, 15th October 1889.

19 The Times, 10th October 1889.

20 School Board Chronicle, 12th October 1889.

21 Educational News, 19th October 1889, p. 720.

22 ibid., 5th October 1889, p. 685-6.

23 Northern Daily Mail 16.9.1911.

24 Dave Marson, Children’s Strikes in 1911. History Workshop Pamphlets, n° 9, 1973, p. 13.

25 DED 1.1.1 (5).

26 Dave Marson, p. 5.

27 16th October 1889.

28 Educational News, 5th October 1889, p. 685-6.

29 The 1911 schoolchildren strikes, BBC History Magazine, 6th February 2014.


Professor in Toulouse 1 Capitole University, is a specialist of the social history of childhood in the United Kingdom, 19th and 20th centuries. She has written on various subjects, from baby-farming and infanticide to child prostitution, from child labour to assisted child emigration schemes and from British youth movements to Socialist Sunday schools.

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