Charlie Mills refuses to be caned
Ivan Ruff recounts a Tyneham incident of violence in the schoolroom
Published in December ’11
From the Tyneham rectory to the village schoolroom is about a hundred paces, perhaps less for a young clergyman striding angrily from one to the other, having been summoned from the calm of his study on a hot afternoon in July 1888.
The monitress, Amelia Mores, little more than a pupil herself, had run to the rectory to beg one of the servants please to disturb Mr Browne, as Miss Rose, the principal teacher, needed his presence urgently at the school. As Amelia ran back along the dusty track with confirmation, William C Browne, curate of Tyneham, pulled on the top-coat appropriate to his position and strode out
of the rectory’s ornate front vestibule and into the
This short journey, from the genteel parlours and ornamental gardens of the rectory to the crowded schoolroom with its population of labourers’ and fishermen’s children, took William Browne across the main gulf of Victorian society. As both clergyman and school manager he was the upholder of hierarchy and order, qualities which the school existed to instil in the young of the parish and which, he guessed accurately, were now being called into question.
A full register at this time numbers around fifty children, most of whom, in the sticky heat of the poorly ventilated schoolroom, now tensely and silently await the curate’s arrival. Before acquainting William Browne with her reason for calling him there, the teacher instructs the children to remain quiet. But the command is unnecessary – the children know they are about to witness a drama.
The teacher in question is Mary Eliza Rose, born in Compton Abbas, the 24-year-old daughter of a gardener father and glovemaker mother. Having begun as a pupil teacher in her home village, and after three years teaching just along the Purbecks at Kingston, she comes highly recommended and by 1886 is schoolmistress at Tyneham. With her she brings her sister Annie, rescued from kitchen service in an Oxford college, but within twelve months Annie dies – not the easiest of first years in this
Another problem was that at Tyneham standards had been seen to fall – the official report a month before Mary Rose’s arrival stated that ‘It is to be hoped that with a change of the school staff a higher standard of efficiency may now be reached’. We can sense a tough and determined young woman at work here – a year after Annie Rose’s death, the school inspection report attests that ‘the school has taken rapid strides since last year… The order is very good’.
If we look for possible explanations for this change, one new note soon becomes apparent. Within weeks of her arrival Mary Rose enters in the log-book ‘Caned Martin Dunn for disobedience…’ This is the first time that corporal punishment has been recorded at Tyneham, and it might appear that a new regime, familiar from our conventional view of the Victorian school as governed by constant physical chastisement, is now firmly in place. And certainly Mary Rose continues to cane, but only at long intervals – in her six years at the school only fifteen entries are made, and if canings had been routine at Tyneham there would have been little need to record them. Their infrequent mention, and the specifying of the children concerned, strongly suggests that these punishments were exceptional, more as an example than a normal recourse. The recurrence of certain names among those given the cane, regular offenders who presumably responded to no other correction, reinforces such a view.
A chief among such offenders was Charlie Mills… ‘Caned Charlie Mills for insolence… Caned Charles Mills for laziness and disobedience’. From early in Mary Rose’s occupancy of the Tyneham school there have clearly been confrontations with this pupil. And then, on the 9th of July 1888, after displaying ‘extreme disobedience’, Charlie Mills refuses to be caned.
Minutes later, barely breaking his stride, the Reverend William Browne appears in the schoolroom doorway. Charlie Mills is approaching 13, one of the oldest in the school, and possibly this has given him the confidence to resist punishment. With flushed face and angry eyes he stands defying the teacher, while the other children wait breathlessly in the heat – they have never seen the like. Charlie himself may be unusually tall or strongly built, and perhaps dominates Mary Rose physically. But faced with the advancing figure of William Browne, a fit man in his mid-30s, and the different challenge which this presents, Charlie Mills still keeps his fists in his pockets.
The classroom is hushed. William Browne orders the boy to hold out a hand for the teacher to cane him. But whether with sullen silence or hostile words, Charlie Mills once again refuses to comply.
Who is Charlie Mills? The members of the Tyneham schoolroom in general are a varied bunch. Trudging in from the scattered hamlets of the parish each day, many of them are strangers to each other – some from established village families, others the children of transient labourers, some from the fishing families of Worbarrow, others from the coastguard station, and yet others from parents working at the Great House.
Of the latter children perhaps the greatest degree of subservience might be expected. Yet Charlie Mills, the arch-rebel of the schoolroom, is the eldest son of Sydney Mills, coachman to the Bonds of Tyneham. Responsible for the carriages and horses so essential to the Bonds’ way of life, the coachman occupies a position of responsibility and some dignity – dressed in livery, public face of the Bonds as they travel around the district. A man, you would think, likely to instil deference in his offspring.
But no such submission is on display, and once the Reverend William Browne has been summoned to the schoolroom, a higher authority than that of Mary Rose has been challenged. As curate and school manager, Browne is representative of the powerful Nathaniel Bond of Creech Grange, rector of Tyneham and founder of the school. For William Browne there can be no complex issues or hesitation. The order has been given, and refused. Charlie Mills has sown the wind, and will now reap the whirlwind. The refusal is instantly followed by William Browne’s lunging forward, grabbing the defiant boy, pinning him over a desk and thrashing him hard on back and legs until the necessary humiliation and subjugation have been achieved.
Later in the day William Browne will return to the schoolroom to make his official entry: ‘Jul 9th Charles Mills was extremely disobedient and refused to be caned by the school mistress when ordered to hold out his hand, therefore I as manager was sent for, and upon his still refusing to obey caned him across the back and legs myself. Wm C Browne’
Perhaps Mary Rose is standing beside the curate, in the empty schoolroom, as he writes his account. Today’s incident must have given her grounds for thought, regarding physical punishment and its consequences. But William Browne’s words convey the satisfaction of an authority figure who was more than equal to the challenge of a defiant schoolboy. The log-book’s future readers may only be school inspectors, and Nathaniel Bond himself, but the curate is clearly anticipating this audience, keen to record an exercise of duty which will eventually bring
As for the Mills family, relations with the school must have remained reasonable, since a few years later Charlie’s sister Violet became a monitress there. Charlie, meanwhile, found a post as groom at Creech Grange, presumably having learnt the required deference to authority. By the turn of the century, however, the entire Mills family have left Tyneham, and are living at Ferndown, where Sydney Mills and his children are working as market gardeners, putting the Bonds and their world decisively behind them. Perhaps they had had enough of deference. The Reverend William Browne, meanwhile, is long gone from Tyneham, having been summarily removed from the rectory barely a year after the caning incident – a new Bond at Creech, a new curate at Tyneham. In his embittered leaving note William Browne donates a harmonium – ‘my own private property’ – to the school.
Mary Rose herself teaches on at Tyneham for another four years, finally leaving because of ill health exacerbated by the damp conditions of the village – ‘she feared the effects of another winter if it should be stormy’. She is much praised for her work at the school, and will soon move to Little Ness, Shropshire, where she will marry and continue to teach well into the new century. As for canings at Tyneham, the record shows a tailing off (only four more recorded), and in Mary’s last two years no boys are caned at all. Something, undoubtedly, had changed. Perhaps a lesson had been learnt on both sides, and the afternoon when Charlie Mills took on the system had shown physical violence, as a medium of discipline, to be a dead end.
Images courtesy of Dennis Smale