Though Wilhelmina’s childhood is discussed at length in the memoir, her schooldays are only lightly touched upon. Wilhelmina devotes a section to ‘School’ that takes up around half a page and also recalls other events that affected or touched her in some way and are related to her schooling, such as her first day and the death of a classmate who was trespassing on the railway. Wilhelmina is generally positive about her schooldays, even when recollecting negative events, such as corporal punishment, that today would be considered incomprehensible.
An example of the positive light Wilhelmina shines on negative experiences takes place when she describes a collective punishment meted out to Wilhelmina and her classmates for engaging in horseplay during a teacher’s absence. Wilhelmina describes ‘one occasion our teacher left the class-room for a short time & several girls began running & chasing up & down between the seats. On her return she demanded that all those who had made such a noise come out to her desk. When no-one moved she brought out the whole class’. Considering there was as many as fifty pupils in a class this is quite a length to go to ensure discipline.
For this infringement Wilhelmina and her classmates were punished, the teacher using a leather strap to deliver a ‘hefty blow’ to each hand. Despite this reference to corporal punishment, Wilhelmina states that this was ‘the first & last time it was ever used in her class.’ Corporal punishment, though still a fixture of the classroom, was used increasingly sparingly in the UK after the infamous Eastbourne Manslaughter case of 1860 that saw a schoolboy beaten to death by his teacher. (Middleton, J 2005)
Despite this punishment, Wilhelmina states that ‘although the innocent (I was one) suffered along with the guilty, we didn’t hold it against her, nor did one single parent come up to school to “create”. Our sensible parents left discipline in schools to those responsible.’ This statement highlights her parents’ opinion and also the opinions of other parents in their neighbourhood regarding corporal punishment within schools. Wilhelmina also goes to lengths to detail the respect for her teacher her and her classmates had during their time in school. It is stressed that this respect doesn’t ever stray into fear, example that the students were disgusted when another ‘backchatted’ to a teacher.
Wilhelmina also remembers her first day at school recalling ‘It is my first day of school. I am 4. when my mother took me into the class-room the kids were singing “Cock-a-doodle-do, my dame has lost her shoe; my master’s lost his fiddling stick and doesn’t know what to do”. After 70 years I can still hear them. I was seated next to a little boy in the baby class. He was always being called out to the front of the class by teacher and either smacked or being stood in the corner, His crime – he was unable to write with his right hand. Even at that early age I sensed the injustice of this and my childish heart ached for him’
Vera Pletsch refers the daily struggles endured by left handed pupils in classes in which right handed correction was used in her book ‘Not Just the Strap: Discipline by Control: 1900-1960’ (Pletsch, 2006) describing the same leather strap as a correctional tool that Wilhelmina describes during the corporal punishment incident earlier in this post. Left handed correction continued into the 1940’s in the UK and it is telling as to the change in opinion in later years that Wilhelmina felt it was unjust.
Overall, Wilhelmina appears to have had a happy schooling and she seems to want to dispel some of the myths and beliefs of today’s society surrounding corporal punishment whilst condemning the attempted correction of left-handed pupils.
Middleton, J (2005). ‘Thomas Hopley and mid-Victorian attitudes to corporal punishment’ History of Education 34 (6): 599–615.
Pletsch, V. (2006) ‘Not Just the Strap: Discipline by Control in Ontario Schools: 1900-1960’ iUniverse p130-150
Tobias, Wilhelmina, ‘Childhood Memories’, MS pp.22 (c, 5,000 words). Brunel University Library.
Fig 2. http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-LGJ1apb-n_I/UGHQn6Z0KiI/AAAAAAAACYo/YeDzr3P24M8/s1600/tawse.jpg