A Victorian Teacher’s lot was not always a happy one.

A Victorian Teacher’s lot was not always a happy one.

Our South Down teachers of the Victorian and Edwardian eras often had to contend with unruly parents as well as unruly children.  Complaints that we hear from teachers today about rudeness and inappropriate behaviour are not as recent a problem as we might think.

Harting school, as well as seeming to have more pupil illness than other schools, also seems to have had more issues with parents than other schools. The log book entry for 2nd October 1874, records that Mrs. Oliver came into the school and complained about her son being kept in after hours “in consequence of his homework not being correct.”

In 1876, the village blacksmith, James Wiggins, was so annoyed with the way the school was being run, that he wrote a letter to his daughter’s teacher, Miss Rawlins, setting out his criticisms. He told the teacher in very blunt terms that Louisa, his daughter, was not to be kept in school after hours, as “I do not approve of my children being about after dark.” He then went on to express his displeasure at the teaching methods being employed at the school. “Myself, brothers and sisters had our learning at that school,” he told Miss Rawlins, but, “I am sorry to say there is a great deal too much foolery now for much learning.”

What this “foolery” was, Wiggins does not explain, but his letter seems to have raised the ire of William Webster, the head teacher, who dryly told Wiggins that he was not to write to Miss Rawlins again, and that if he had any further complaints, he should address them to the Managers (governors) of the school, rather than to the teaching staff.

Six years later, it was Mrs. Wiggins who was up in arms with the school, and in a rather more physical way than her husband. Her daughter, Esther, had been suspended from the school for a week, after she alleged that her teacher, Edith Ellison had hit her. The school denied any such assault had taken place, but Mrs. Wiggins made up her mind to believe her daughter’s account. She visited the school and “interfered” with Miss Ellison, by which, we must assume, she assaulted the teacher.

The blacksmith’s forge was next door to the school, so Mr. and Mrs. Wiggins were literally, only an angry stride away from the school door. The Wiggins’ other neighbours were the Chittys – George and Ruth and their children. George was the village postman. In March 1890, Ruth Chitty reacted very badly to a punishment meted out to her 13-year old daughter, Harriet. The log book does not tell us the nature of the punishment , but we may think it was a physical punishment given Mrs. Chitty’s reaction. She went to the school, at the end of the day, when Miss Rawlins was alone in the classroom (although one pupil also seems to have been present) and pushed Miss Rawlins to the ground, while “using very bad language.”

Such was the consternation caused by the incident, that the superintendent of the school, and lead manager, the Rector, the Rev. H. D. Gordon, deemed it necessary to write the following letter to Mrs. Chitty (which is reproduced as he wrote it) –

I am much pained to hear that you should have so much forgotten yourself to have offered violence and insult to Miss Rawlins who was faithfully doing her duty. No parent has any right by the rules of the school to go upon the premises with any complaint against the Teachers which should be brought to me as Superintendent. A little reflection will show you that no school could be carried on if parents were allowed to come into the school and defy and insult the Teachers. I am grieved to hear that you came into the school taking care I suppose that the other Teachers were gone and then insulted Miss Rawlins by throwing your girl’s bad work in her face, and then proceeded to insult her and throw her on the floor. I am thankful to think that during the 14 years of Miss Rawlins’ faithful service here to your children and others, she has never met with such ill considered conduct. I regret however that a little child was by to hear your profane language on the occasion. I quite believe that this painful scene was due to a moment of passion, but it is my duty to stop such a bad example and to protect the school Teachers for the sake of all.

Your best course will be to write to Miss Rawlins (who does not know I am writing to you) and offer her an expression of your regret at what has happened. Otherwise, it will be my duty to bring the matter before the School Committee and you are probably aware that you have rendered yourself liable to be brought before the magistrates. I shall be sorry if this is necessary and urge you to promise that such a trouble shall not occur in future.

A special meeting of the School Committee fully endorsed Miss Rawlins’ conduct in disciplining Harriet Chitty, and resolved that no parent would, in future, be allowed to bring any complaint against a teacher on the school premises, but that all complaints should be referred to the superintendent ( a similar statement had been issued in 1876). The meeting also noted receipt of the following letter from Mrs. Chitty, addressed to Miss Rawlins –

I am sorry that I lost my temper and pushed you down and used one or two words which I ought not to have said.

The committee considered this an end to the matter. Mrs. Chitty might have thought herself fortunate not to have faced a police prosecution, although we might imagine, the school, and the Rev. Gordon in particular, would not have relished the bad publicity that the reporting of the case in the local newspapers would have brought and the consequent damage to the school’s reputation.

On the subject of reputation, it is interesting to note that Miss Rawlins became a teacher at Harting School following the resignation of the previous teacher, Miss Bedford. An entry in the school log book for 20th October 1875 informs us that, “Miss Bedford was absent from school today having been stopped and insulted by a man on the preceding evening.”

The old school building at Harting, where Miss Rawlins was assaulted by Mrs Chitty.

The entry for the next day records the following: “Miss Bedford resumed work this morning although still in a very nervous state.” Three days later, we find the Rev. Gordon reporting that “in consequence of the alleged assault upon Miss Bedford her situation as mistress becomes vacant.” No more detail is recorded, either on that day or subsequent days. It is very curious, and we are left wondering if Miss Bedford had resigned of her own accord, or whether she was pressured to resign, in effect, sacked? It will also be noticed that the first entry described her as having been ‘insulted’ by the man on the road, but the later entry says she was assaulted.

Was there a court case? What, if any, was the relationship of Miss Bedford to the man who assaulted her? Did the school in some way hold her responsible for what had happened? Had there been a sexual assault and was her departure hastened to avoid scandal for the school? We cannot know; but we may speculate that the 1875 incident involving Miss Bedford informed the actions of the School Committee and Rev. Gordon in dealing with Mrs. Chitty’s assault on Miss Rawlins in 1890.


Over the years, going back to the late 1980s, I have recorded oral history interviews with some 150 people, most of whom related to me their memories of being at school. These memories frequently included incidents of corporal punishment, either inflicted on them or their classmates. Being caned seemed a frequent occupational hazard for most school children until the 1970s, yet the school log books do not reflect this perception; on the contrary, they record corporal punishment as being very much the exception rather than the rule.

This discrepancy may have two explanations. Firstly, memories can misleading, and people like to recall dramatic events, that, over time may become embellished and exaggerated in the retelling . Secondly, the Victorian and Edwardian head teachers may not have wished to leave a record that suggested the only way they could keep discipline in their school was through the frequent application of corporal punishment. They wanted to give the impression of a well ordered school, where indiscipline and disorder were not a pressing issue.

old cottages like these will sell for many hundreds of thousands, but in the Victorian era they were often little better than slums.

Head Teacher Allen at Pulborough, the same head so preoccupied with headlice, was quite prepared to record his use of corporal punishment, but then the school was newly opened and his was recently appointed, so we may understand that he wished to show his managers and the school inspector, that he was losing no time in asserting his authority, as this log extract from 1863 demonstrates –

My patience was so exhausted with some children who had been repeatedly imperfect that I found it necessary to administer a little corporal punishment to each child who had not thoroughly learnt the task set him.

The following year, Allen recorded his persistence in dealing with ‘repeat offenders’, and this included visiting the parents of such children to try and ensure greater compliance. As we have seen, head teachers could not always rely on the cooperation and support of parents. In the following extract from Allen’s log, we can see the parental response could be divided –

Henry Johnson punished for disobedience. This is the second time this boy has acted thus. I called on his parents and told them I would dismiss him if he gave any more trouble. The father expressed his determination to insist that his son obeyed the rules, and thanked me for calling. The mother is more inclined to the child’s part.

Occasionally, it could be the parents that requested the punishment. Heene School log book for September 1915, records that Frank Sawyer’s mother asked for her son to be punished for playing truant.

Generally, boys were more likely to be caned than girls, but some head teachers clearly believed that gender should be no impediment to punishment. At Storrington School in January 1884, Elizabeth Foard was caned “for stealing and telling a lie about it,” while Mary Jane West “received three cuts on each hand for stealing a pencil case and some pencils.”

Uniquely, Miss Greenwood, the head teacher at Broadwater School was the subject of a prosecution, brought against her by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. Greenwood had been in charge of the school since 1886, and the prosecution would have created quite a scandal at the time. The case was thrown out be the magistrates, after which the local elites rallied around the beleaguered head teacher. A ceremony took place, presided over by the Rev. E. K. Elliott, the Rector of Broadwater, who presented Miss Greenwood with a watch on which were inscribed the following words: “Presented to Miss Greenwood from many friends in Broadwater and Worthing as a mark of esteem, December 1892.” Both Rev. Elliott, and esteemed Worthing businessman and town historian, Mr. H. E. Snewin, gave speeches, praising Miss Greenwood and her conduct.

The old school at Broadwater (now demolished) where Miss Greenwood faced a charge of child cruelty in 1892 (reproduced courtesy of West Sussex Library Service).

This extraordinary case, of which very little is recorded, begs the question of what punishment Miss Greenwood had administered that had so shocked and appalled the Society for the Protection of Cruelty to children to the extent that they had sought to bring a criminal proceedings against her. It must be wondered how the Society got involved in the first place? Had they been approached by parents or even other teachers at the school? Lastly, did the fact that Miss Greenwood was a woman make her alleged behaviour seem more offensive that if she had been a man?

In 1892, female head teachers were still something of a novelty, and most people would have had clear ideas of what behaviours were appropriate and expected of men and what were appropriate and expected of women. Perhaps Miss Greenwood did not conform to these expectations? On the other hand the local patriarchy certainly rallied to her cause. Perhaps it was the idea of authority been questioned and challenged, possibly by a working class family that was seen as the threat that needed to be faced down?

Notes and research by Chris Hare, with additional research by Phil Wood.