There is no apparent local recognition of the role played by the Lochgelly tawse in Scottish schools in the 19th and 20th centuries, and no museum with a meaningful area dedicated to the history and examples of the item, so here is my attempt to place on record this unique contribution to Scottish education. What follows is from research conducted and is subject to unintentional error. I would welcome any contributions, additions, or corrections.
For several centuries before the arrival of the Education (Scotland) Act in 1872 the teacher's leather tawse had been a feature of the Scottish education system. It was often seen as being not only an instrument for the punishing of bad behaviour or the breaking of school rules, but also as a teaching aid, in particular for instances of forgetfulness or inattention.
The arrival of the 1872 Act made education available to all children from age 5 to 13 years. No longer was education to be the preserve of a select few, or something made more available to boys than to girls. A vast school building programme commenced and very quickly, and over the following decades, large numbers of schools were built throughout the country and teachers recruited and trained to meet the considerable demand for their services. The result was often very large class sizes and a common requirement to learn by rote. Silence in class, obedience and hard work was expected in Victorian society and was often enforced by the liberal use of corporal punishment. The tawse was regularly in daily use and was generally being used to punish the palms of the hands as a method or rebuke or correction. In earlier centuries the tawse was often thinner, shorter, broader and with more and shorter tails than the typical 20th century school strap and was normally used to chastise the posterior.
It was Robert Philp, a saddler and ironmonger with his shop at 150 Main Street, Lochgelly who, around 1885 was asked by his son, who taught in a local school, to make a tawse to help him control his pupils. Possibly from an off cut of harness hide, Mr Philp made a longer, at around 27", and narrower, at around 1 1/4", tawse than had been the norm at that time with 2 long tails designed specifically to chastise the palms of the hands. His tawse proved to be very effective and, as its reputation grew, orders came in firstly from local teachers and later from the Edinburgh area where his daughter Catherine was a school teacher. As word spread among the teaching profession, orders started to arrive in ever increasing numbers and from all over Scotland. As the years passed and the requirements for saddlery, leatherwork and what was becoming known as "The Lochgelly Tawse" increased, Mr Philp engaged apprentice saddlers to assist with the workload.
Mr Philp refined the design of his tawse over the years, shortening both the overall length of the strap and the length of the tails. He started using heavier leather, introduced a shaped handle at one end, cut a large hanging slot in the handle and introduced crease lining on all edges to improve the cosmetic appearance. At that time the tawse was often hung up on the classroom wall, or on the teacher's desk, as a visual warning to pupils. Particular care was taken to select the very best leather and to carefully remove all sharp edges from the newly made strap where the cutting, shaping and finishing was always done by hand during the many decades of manufacture. The straps were designed to deliver sudden and painful chastisement, but not to cut the flesh nor to leave any long-term signs of marking.
Around 1886 Mr Philp engaged his son Robert Jnr. as his first apprentice saddler, followed by James Heggie around 1890 and George Dick around 1896. There was a 10 year apprenticeship to be served before the trainee was qualified as a fully time served saddler. On the retirement of Robert Philp Snr c.1906 his son Robert Philp Jnr took over the running of the firm and the business name was changed to Robert Philp and Son. Following the premature death of Robert Philp Jnr in 1929, James Heggie, by now the senior saddler, took over as manager of the business. He was later to purchase it from Mr Philp Snr's widow Margaret. Mr Heggie continued to produce school straps stamped Robert Philp and Son until 1945. So perfect for its purpose was the Lochgelly tawse that it changed little in design over its 100 years of manufacture.
George Dick, having completed his apprenticeship with Robert Philp, left the firm c.1906 to find work elsewhere but he returned to The Yard, in High Street, Lochgelly to work with his brothers in their coachbuilding business c.1909. The trimming of seats and panels was his main employment but he developed into saddlery as there was plenty of work available with many horses being used for transport. From c.1923 he started to produce his own version of the Lochgelly tawse. Demand for these developed quickly as word of their effectiveness spread. Until 1945 teachers wanting a Lochgelly strap could buy it from either of the two Lochgelly makers.
Around 1942 George Dick took his son John into the business as an apprentice saddler and, around 1945, they purchased the business of Robert Philp and Son from James Heggie who was retiring. The business name changed to G.W.Dick and Son Ltd and all school straps now carried this stamp.
Around 1951 John Dick took over the business from his father George and the makers stamp on the straps changed again, this time to John J. Dick, Maker, Lochgelly. He continued to produce the now classic 24" 2 tailed belt until c.1959 when he decided to produce a wide range of models to meet differing needs. At that time he added shorter length 21" straps and new 3 tailed models. In addition he offered his school straps in four weights, Light, Medium, Heavy and Extra Heavy and a new 12" miniature strap was also made available. The range was reduced c.1975 when the 21" and 24" lengths were discontinued and replaced by a single metric length strap of 580mm, but still in 2 or 3 tail designs and in 4 weights.
In 1973 Mr Dick opened a branch at 235 High Street, Cowdenbeath, less than 3 miles from Lochgelly. The shop dealt in fancy goods, sports items, luggage, leather goods and the school strap. The Main Street, Lochgelly shop closed c.1975 and the maker's stamp on the strap changed to "The original Lochgelly, Made by John J. Dick, Cowdenbeath". Due to a demand from housewives for leaner meat there was difficulty in sourcing sufficiently thick hide for the Extra Heavy model in the later 1970's and so a special strap, made from two light to medium weight hides bonded together, was produced for about 2 years before an alternative source of hide supply was found.
The Lochgelly tawse was by far the strap most favoured by schoolteachers. There were over 30 school strap makers in Scotland but in excess of 70% of all straps used in Scotland's schools were made in Lochgelly and were used in virtually every school in Scotland. In addition, John Dick supplied straps to some schools in England and to some teachers working overseas. At his peak he was supplying 3500 -4000 school straps per year and was particularly busy in the period leading up the start of the Autumn term.
From the late 1960's opinion concerning the use of corporal punishment in schools was changing with a growing band of support for the phasing out of the sanction. From the mid 1970's some primary schools started to phase out the use of the strap and sales began to fall. The Lightweight model, suitable for primary schools, was discontinued. Near the end of production straps were available only in the Medium and Heavy weight grades. All Lochgelly school straps were stamped in the centre with the makers name.
In 1976 a Mrs Grace Campbell whose son Gordon, then age 6, attended St Matthew's RC Primary School in Bishopbriggs and a Mrs Jane Cosans whose son Jeffrey, then age 15, who attended Beath High School, in Cowdenbeath, raised an action in the European Court of Human Rights objecting to their sons being subjected to corporal punishment at school. Whilst Gordon had not been threatened with corporal punishment, Jeffrey was due to be strapped by his assistant headmaster for attempting to take a forbidden shortcut to school through a graveyard. He refused to take the punishment and was suspended. The court heard the case and, in February 1982, found in favour of the mothers, instructing that the use of corporal punishment in UK schools be ended.
The use of the strap in local authority schools was phased out at varying times in different local authority areas from 1983 onwards and was finally banned in all local authority schools from the autumn term of 1987, although its use in some private schools continued to be permitted, with parental consent, until 1998. John Dick closed his Cowdenbeath shop and retired c.1990 by which time he had ceased production of his school straps.
In the late 1980's pupils of Beath High School in Cowdenbeath collected money to commemorate 100 years of school tawse making in the area. They commissioned the making of a 5 foot replica of a 3 tail Heavy Lochgelly tawse which was displayed on a wrought iron stand in the Abbot House Museum in Dunfermline, about 9 miles from Lochgelly. The demise of the tawse represented the end of an era for both Lochgelly and for Scottish education.