When the class war reached the classrooms

Clive Bloom recounts the nationwide wave of pupil walk-outs that struck fear into the heart of the establishment 100 years ago

Wednesday 21 September 2011 22:57 BST

Despite rising A-level results and GCSE passes, there is still the nagging suspicion that, for some, school is not where the best years of your life are spent. For many, school can be boring and despotic and it would be a rosy memory indeed that converted hours of endless rain-soaked PE into a scene out of Hogwarts.

Once back at school, however, adventurous history lessons might just include the forgotten centenary of a wave of school protests that brought fear to the heart of the establishment and suggested a moral crisis in our young. In September 1911, many working-class pupils saw school as little more than prison for the children of labouring families. The previous summer had seen protracted and bitter trade union action. It was these disturbances that ignited the resentments of those school pupils whose parents were already striking. Pupils from slum families, driven to a bare subsistence because of unemployment, looked at the parents' plight and imitated their actions, organised pickets and marches.

Schools everywhere emptied as teachers were no longer obeyed and order broke down. Mass truancy and a national schoolchildren's strike seemed on the cards as institutions closed across the country. In all, 62 cities saw disruption, including major centres such as Manchester, Birmingham, London and Liverpool and smaller towns such as Ancoats, Leith, Grantham and Stoke-on-Trent.

In most places newspapers spread the idea of rebellion, which took little to ignite, but in London it was simple word of mouth that spread the action from the suburbs of Enfield to inner-city Islington and Hoxton to the East End, the London docks around Deptford and west into Fulham. That the strikes gained momentum in so fast and frightening a manner seemed to many an expression of the breakdown of the social fabric.

At a Roman Catholic school in Hull, the boys had spontaneously walked out after morning lessons. Once out of the gates, the cry was "too much work", and boys left at their desks were denounced as "blacklegs". For some, at least, the strike was the inevitable result of social and economic breakdown. The local paper reported the next day that "for weeks there had been a feeling of anxiety: first the sailors and the dockers, then the millers, cement workers, timber workers, railwaymen, news boys, factory girls and now the schoolboys".

The strike was for the moment confined only to Hull, but within the city the strikes were spreading, which made local tradesmen "anxious about the whereabouts of their errand boys". The milling crowd of teenagers in the dock area was only dispersed by the arrival of a policeman on a bicycle. The mob reappeared once he left, unable to control the situation.

In Llanelly, where there was deep social division and a police and army presence to prevent labour unrest, schoolchildren were quick to understand the meaning of class warfare. The strikes started there because of the punishment of a boy who had handed round a paper calling for strike action. The Llanelly Mercury reported the events in the language of moral disease and that the "strike epidemic had infected the rising generation [who] in order to be 'in the fashion' [have] decided upon a 'down tool' policy".

In Swansea, the pickets locked the school gates, while in Edgehill near Liverpool, the strikers smashed the glass in the lamp-posts as they marched, and in Montrose they demanded shorter "working" hours, potato-lifting holidays so they could earn spare cash, no corporal punishment and free pencils and rubbers. At Darlington, they even demanded attendance payments and an extra half-day holiday.

Schoolchildren formed committees and painted inflammatory banners, organised mass meetings, picketed and attacked "scabs" who entered the school gates. It seemed to the authorities that these children were merely young anarchists intent on the destruction of civilisation, and oral evidence suggests children from deprived backgrounds fully understood their place in the imperial pecking order, often seeing the British Empire as colonising them, too. This was a revolt of the young against the old and an unconscious uprising of the poor and colonised in Britain.

This was certainly not the only time schoolchildren have had enough. There was a wave of strikes as early as 1889. Banners were emblazoned with "no cane" and other libertarian slogans and schoolboys then had worn red liberty caps and flown the red flag. Moral outrage followed, with the educational press in apoplexy: "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."

Punishment, when it came, was severe, with boys being beaten in front of the whole school. Children were publicly birched or even sent to the workhouse in an attempt to intimidate the "truant class". In London, magistrates dealt with small children as young as six and eight. The message was clear: this would happen to parents if social disorder and trade union demands continued.

Neither working-class parents nor their children appeared to know their place. There was another wave of strikes during 1914 and again in 1929 and 1938, all of them during periods of economic uncertainty and trade union activity. Indeed, after a strike in 1929, one commentator noted the "active resistance to discipline amongst the unmoulded minds of ... children", which had in most cases occurred at the "instigation and approval of the parents". School rebelliousness simmered into 1968 and again in 2003, when pupils marched through British cities as part of the Stop the War Coalition, an action they repeated in 2010 when they protested over university tuition fees and the withdrawal of education maintenance allowances.

Strikes in school may have been swiftly suppressed and soon forgotten, but the authorities feared collective action left an indelible memory.

Clive Bloom is the author of 'Violent London: 2000 Years of Riots, Rebels and Revolts'. A version of this article is in September's BBC History magazine

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