History of the Tawse

It was towards the end of the nineteenth century when education became compulsory that the belt in Scotland was introduced. The first maker of the famous Lochgelly Tawse was Robert Philp, who produced the first one for his daughter to use when she entered teaching as a profession. From thence, the tradition was continued by another maker called George Dick, and more famously by his son John J Dick. Of course, the tawse was not only made in Lochgelly, Fife; but by others who made them in the same design as in having two or three tails. Among those were makers like J G Stevenson, Leckie & Graham and others who manufactured them for the Glasgow Corporation for use in Glasgow Schools and were widely known as Glasgow Straps as they were the regulation straps for use in Glasgow Schools. However, that is not to say that the famous Lochgellys were not used in Glasgow Schools because they were – and very well used too, according to folks I have spoken to over the years.

Another little bit of folklore that many people are unaware of is just how many were used in domestic use. Young mill girls when leaving to be married, were given one inscribed either with “Ca’ Canny Maw” (meaning go gently) or another with “Fur the Weans” or even “For the Wee *****” whatever the surname might be. The Mill tawses tended to be shorter, wider and with more tails. So acceptable was this form of punishment that no eyebrow was raised; but dare a teacher use it in a manner that the parent thought untoward, an enraged mother would be up at the school immediately.

During its long history the design of the tawse changed little except that after perhaps the 1930’s, it tended to be slightly shorter and was divided into fewer tails, most teacher being content with two or three. Whether two or three thongs were more effective was, in fact, a matter of long dispute among teachers, but most agreed that while the broad thick tawse made most noise, it was the long narrow one, which pupils feared most. It was also common knowledge among both staff and pupils that it was not the teacher who used most force when strapping who produced the maximum effect, but the one who knew exactly when to flick her wrist so that the tails struck home with that added sting.

The tawse was applied along the length of the hand, i.e. parallel to the fingers. A standard classroom punishment was a minimum of two strokes on the left (or non-writing hand) with a two or three tailed strap. The fiercely exquisite pain started to subside after about ten minutes and after an hour, only slight warmth remained. A severe punishment tended to be rather different. The instruction ‘cross your hands’ or ‘both hands’ usually preceded it, and was a sure indication that six or even eight strokes were on the way. Both hands were held out, one on top of the other with palms facing up and thumbs tucked it. After each stroke the hands were changed so that the strokes landed alternately on both hands. Also, with the hands both out, the sleeves were drawn back exposing the wrists. The last one or two strokes could be applied a couple of inches up them, so that the evidence of discipline could be seen by parents, (wrist marks did not fade before the day was out as did the reddening of the hands) perhaps bringing another dose. Another advantage of the ‘crossed hands’ method is that there was a lessening of the tendency to pull the hands away while the strap descended, and therefore punishment could be completed more quickly and with less embarrassment to both teacher and pupil.

But while administering the strap was an art, avoiding its full effects was an even greater one. Few modern pupils will have heard of their grandfather’s ideas. Such as placing a horsehair across the palm or rubbing the palm with a raw onion to cut down the pain. Other boys and girls placed their faith in spitting on their hands, or, if lucky enough, heating their fingers and palms on a radiator before receiving their punishment. While pulling the hand away, so that it appears to have been well smacked but is in actual fact almost unscathed, was a skill of which not a few boys were very proud; being caught at this would usually bring forth, “Keep still, take that stroke again.”

No record of punishments were kept, so it was really in the control of the individual teacher as to how much, if any, corporal punishment was inflicted on a particular day, secondary schools had no way of knowing that as different subjects meant different teachers, so there was no way of knowing who had already been punished that day, so an unfortunate (???) boy or girl could have been punished on at least four different occasions in one day. This was not unusual, as my research has found.

© J Lyon & J Duncan