The schoolchildren's strikes, 1889 - Steven Johns

Contemporary engraving depiction of the 1889 schoolchildren's strike
Contemporary engraving depiction of the 1889 schoolchildren's strike

A brief history of walkouts of schoolchildren across the UK in October 1889 against corporal punishment and excessive workloads.

Submitted by Steven. on September 14, 2015

In 1911 there was a large wave of strikes of schoolchildren across the UK, which mirrored the mass unrest in workplaces.

Similarly, 22 years earlier there was another wave of walkouts which began in London shortly after the workers' victories in the great dock strike in London and the Glasgow dockers' go-slow.

In imitation of the East End dockers (some of whom would of course have been their parents), children in East London initiated the walkout.

The London children made banners emblazoned with 'No cane', 'Shorter hours', 'No home lessons' and other libertarian slogans.

Historian Clive Bloom described that in Bethnal Green the schoolboy ringleaders were seen to carry red flags and wear “scarlet liberty caps”.

On 10 October the London correspondent of the The Melbourne Argus described:

The children attending a dozen board and other schools in London have left school. They demand that the school hours shall be shorter, that home lessons shall be abolished, and that there shall be more holidays. They are intimidating those who continued to attend school.

To-day 500 children marched through the streets in a procession with banners flying, some of them having been driven in by their parents or by neighbours.

The strike spread rapidly across the country. I have been able to find references to schoolchildren walking out over the next few days in Finsbury Park, Homerton, Woolwich, Plumstead, Kennington, Charlton and Lambeth in London, West Hartlepool and Middlesbrough elsewhere in England, and Rattray, Blairgowrie, Hawick, Edinburgh and Dundee in Scotland.

In Rattray the local paper stated:

Infected by the strike contagion at present passing over Scotland many of the boys at Rattray School refused to resume lessons on Tuesday forenoon and proceeded to Craigmill and subsequently to Blairgowrie but failed to induce the scholars at these places to join their ranks. The strikers caused considerable disturbance but the movement was short lived most of them returning to school the same day, where they were duly rewarded for their pains.

It also described the walkout at Blairgowrie the previous day:

A band of them congregated at the Cross, hooted and shouted at those who wished to return to work and at some of the teachers who passed and otherwise attracted attention. The sound of the bell and the appearance of the Headmaster however was too much for the courage of the strikers who made a rush back to school where they were promptly dealt with by the teachers for disorderly behaviour - this reckoning doubtless accounting for their refusal to join their Rattray friends on the following day.

A leader in the paper was sympathetic towards the children, however it expressed doubt as to how genuine intentions of the strikers were:

a demand for fewer hours and less lessons is the nominal reason assigned for the escapade but in fact most of the scholars will confess that they really came out ‘for a lark’.

Elsewhere, the Edinburgh correspondent of the Times described the walkouts in Hawick:

The good town of Hawick, the capital of the Borders, has acquired a fresh claim to notoriety. It is the scene of the latest development of the strike movement.

The scholars of two of its Board schools have "come out". On Wednesday afternoon a majority of the scholars in the high standards marched out of their class-rooms and their teachers were left lamenting. The demands of the strikers are not for anything so paltry as higher pay. They claim shorter hours, lighter work (that is to say easier lessons), and better teachers…

Following the example of the dock strikers, they organised a public demonstration. Having formed a procession, they marched through the streets of the town between the two rebellious schools, appealing in this way for public sympathy and support. Their proceedings were perfectly orderly; and when the local police were asked to interfere they declined, as the Metropolitan Police did, on the grounds that it was a private quarrel, and that neither life and property was endangered.

The journalist outlines the way in which the students thought they could apply pressure on the authorities:

The leverage on which the little rebels rely is the belief that, if they disqualify themselves for presentation to the inspector by absences there will be a loss of the Government grant, which will tell upon their teachers and on the ratepayers.

But s/he goes on to outline an implied threat which was held over the students:

They forget, however that there escapade me entail on them another year's attendance at school.

The correspondent goes on to express their surprise at the audacity of the students:

There is something comical as well something very shocking in those demands. What the boys want, in fact, is to assume the functions of the school board and at the same time to exchange places with their masters.

The Educational News of October/November 1889 showed the fear of the authorities:

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… They are manifestations of a serious deterioration in the moral fibre of the rising generation… They will prove dangerous centres of moral contamination.

Over 100 years later, this spirit of rebelliousness has remained, as thousands of children walked out of classes in 2003 against the Iraq war and in 2010 against government cuts to education.