Yesterday’s protests by schoolchildren were by no means the first time London’s schoolkids have chosen to withdraw their labour from the classroom, as Clive Bloom discusses in his recently updated ‘Violent London’.
There were waves of strikes in 1889 and 1911 around issues such as corporal punishment, the length school day, leaving age, holidays and bullying teachers. In 1889 there were strikes in Finsbury Park, Homerton, Woolwich, Plumstead, Kennington, Charlton and Lambeth and in 1911 in Enfield, Islington, Hoxton, Fulham, East Ham and Deptford. Strikes continued until long into the 20th century. I’m pretty sure Grange Hill went on strike a couple of times as well.
These original strikes featured pickets, marches and demos with flags and banners, and often ended with some casual window-breaking, for which the pupils would invariably receive disproportionate punishment such as being birched in front of the whole school or sent to the workhouse.
That was because the authorities were terrified about these strikes, firstly because of the lack of discipline it demonstrated but also because they suggested the children were developing a political consciousness that challenged and threatened the establishment. Kids were learning to think for themselves and were bold enough to shout about it. Some in Bethnal Green even carried red flags.
Newspapers argued that strikes were ‘manifestations of a serious deterioration in the moral fibre of the rising generation’, argued that ringleaders ‘could prove dangerous centres of moral contamination’ and claimed that ‘such movements as this do not spring up spontaneously. They are always evidence of a deep conspiracy against social order… the doom of the Empire must be near at end if the country is honeycombed with Secret Societies of schoolchildren.’
Things never change all that much, do they?