A HISTORY OF THE LOCHGELLY TAWSE

by J Mc

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.


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loraine twigg says

Genuine lochgelly tawses are now rare and collectable. Loraine Twigg of church antiques will pay £50 to £500 cash depending on age,rarity and condition. contact her on 01383 616231 or 07950 923814 or email churchantiquectr@aol.com for an estimate if you wish to buy or sell a lochgelly tawse.

Angela Jones says

I think the use of the belt(tawse) was barbaric. The cases brought to the European Court of Human Rights was backed by STOPP who quite rightly concerned about the sexual implication of the use of the use. I have no idea about what sanctions should be used but schools are employing ways such as restorative practice. Teachers do not see themselves as police and some teachers in the past such as those who took up the role of senior advisors in the 1970's quite clearly did this because they got a kick out of administrering the belt to pupils of all ages.

James Brown says

I agree with Angela. A poor reflection on Scotland that this was not abolished much earlier, the fault lay with cowardly politicians who did not stand up to the misguided elements in the teaching profession, mostly the inadequates and sadly some sadist too as Angela relates. And the straps that John Dick was allowed, and even encouraged, to produce were so heavy and thick as to cause pain to the child that was beyond any definition of reasonable or moderate punishment, even by the standards of the period they were in use. A sad embarrassment for the whole nation, but particularly for Lochgelly as the main source of these implements of abuse.

Julie Guthrie says

The politically correct can be so amusing when they are out of touch, always wishing to impose the particular morals of a moment in time on the full timeframe of history.

I have a number of relatives who were belted and who say that it did them no lasting harm, and that most of the time the deserved the punishment which they received.

As for the comments concerning teachers getting a kick from using the belt, they reveal so much more about the frenetic mental state those who post them! 

Don't worry, I'm sure that there are many websites which cater for your tastes.

James Brown says

Julie, you destroy any case you may have by being offensive.

It is certainly not "political correctness" to disapprove of the physical beating of children with a heavy leather implement, it is the widely agreed opinion of most people.  And that is not the opinion of a "a moment of time", it has been the consensus for many years now, and I'm sure that will continue to be the case.

And your final comment is silly and insulting.  It is well known that many 'belting' teachers were far too fond of the practice, for their own dubious motives.  Nearly everyone who lived through that era (as I suspect you did not) would have been aware of that.  Like a lot of other child abuse, it just wasn't talked about back then, and so the whole sordid business went on for far longer than it should.  It's never coming back, and good riddance.

Robert MacGregor says

The use of the tawse or "strap" as we called it up north was hardly a secret. All the parents knew the teachers were allowed to use it and the pupils knew it too.

I know that these days it is unacceptable and maybe that is no bad thing, but what now do the poor teaching profession have as their last resort. It was for many pupils an effective deterrent, but certainly during my time at school teachers would generally use other methods first, and if a parent had any problem with their child being punished in this way they were entitled to express their wishes in writing so that their child would not get the strap.

Charles McKellar says

I agree mainly with Julie. John your reply to Julie was more that of a bully as everyone is entitled to their opinion. She wasn`t claiming to have personal experience but to have asked those who did.

I am currently 43 and went to Keil school in Dumbarton where the tawse or belt as we called it was used. It was not used on a daily basis as some schools may have and throughout my years there I only received the belt on the hands maby about 4 or 5 times. Sometimes the threat of knowing the consequence is more powerful than the punishment.

Schools were in control and teachers were respected more than those of current days. No sexual pleasure would have been achieved by the teachers at Keil for administering the belt as it was given on the hands and not bare buttocks as had been the case many many years ago by courts to children between the ages of 14-16

No long lasting harm was done, although I do agree that some individuals at other schools may have misused their position where their motives were different but just because of some sad select few don`t brand all with the same brush.

It is in my belief a mistake to have banned the correct use of the tawse as some children now believe they have nothing to fear by abusing teachers or other pupils and continue to follow a life of crime once they leave school. It is unfortunate that in this world you will get people that will misuse their position should it be physicaly or mentaly and it is those individuals that should be criticised and not the system.

Charles McKellar says

With reference to my last comment I meant to say James not John.

Andrew Kilpatrick says

I wonder if James Brown was ever belted at school or if he just likes to use extreme words that the politically correct like to use to prove a point. I was belted regularly at school where the norm was two strokes. How can he consider that as being barbaric or beating a child. Yes it stung but it certainly did not cause pain that was beyond the definition of being reasonable. I do agree that there were some teachers who depended too much on the use of the belt and that is something that should have been looked at. How much time nowadays is wasted when a teacher or headteacher has to file a report on a child who constantly misbehaves and ruins it for the rest of the class. When the belt was in use you were out belted and back in your seat in half a minute and you and the teacher got on with your work. Some of you politically correct people should have a look at the real world.

Andrew Kilpatrick

elizabeth swift says

A friend of mine still has his tawse he used as a teacher he is Ronnie Browne of the Corries fame

Laura Wilson says

My  dad was a high school teacher in Fife up until the mid-80's. He had a reputation as a big and strong user of the belt amongst the pupils but in reality his use of the belt was far less than most of the staff, the school kept a log. With each new intake of pupils he  would place a brand new stick of chalk on the front of his desk, make a lengthy speech about what constituted unacceptable behaviour and the likely consequences whilst pacing the front of the classroom and flicking the belt over his shoulder. As the speech finished he brought the belt down hard on the chalk turning it into dust. It was the threat of punishment rather than punishment itself which worked.

Yeats Taylor says

A lot of rubbish gets talked about this subject.

When I was a kid we spent our time playing up in class.  I was a bright child, but started to go off the rails a bit (partly because of peer group pressure) around the age of 13 or 14.  With hindsight, the problem was that we were all looking for boundaries to our behavior, but no matter how far we pushed we didn't find any.

I suspect we would have all learned a great deal more if the first time we had played up, we had been required to hold out our hands for a couple of hefty strokes of the lochgelly.

We knew we were doing wrong.  But it was fun, and there was no reason not to when there was no punishment we particularly feared.

Bryan Fraser says

I agree wholeheartedly with Andrew Kilparicks' posting.

I attended a High School in Ayrshire in the very late 60's-early 70's where EVERY teacher that I knew posessed a Lochgelly strap.

I myself received the belt fairly regularly, and has been said, the regular two strokes were administered by irate tutors who were honestly in the main wound-up by innatentive school children!

It never really did us any harm at all-though it was bloody painfull! I once was strapped for not having a pen to hand during one science lesson.

It's fair to say, and I'm sure that this would have taken place all over Scotland-that there really did exist the (sad) and solitary sadistic teacher who'd quite happily spend a 40 minute period administering 'the strap' rather than teach-this could (and did) range from sloppy handwriting to 'gazing' out of the window!! I'd no idea until recently that the practice was completely abolished in 1987! I'd left school in the Summer of '73 when the Lochgelly was in in daily and widespread use. I harbour no resentment about this since it was frequently a choice between 'extra homework'-or-'the strap' !

anna butler says

I was at school in Lochgelly when this belt was in use. I left school in 1959.  I hated this belt it left terrible marks and was very painful. It depended on how much anger the teacher had built up rather than your own wrong doing. My young sister scribbled in my homework book and I knew what the outcome would be............So so painful. I was afraid to return to school and made every excuse to not return until it was unavoidable any longer and had to return, but I was constantly nervous of doing anything to upset teacher (one in particular) I was shy, small and unused to pain as punishment. A very cruel weapon used mainly by bullies .       I could never understand how someone could make it, knowing it would be used to hurt children................Strange world indeed

J Mc says

Sadly Anna's experience was not unique, but we now view the use of corporal punishment in schools through 21st century thinking rather than 19th and 20th century thoughts when a different  view often existed. "Spare the rod and spoil the child".  It was essentially the middle of the 20th century before attitudes to the use of the belt in schools started to change and now we find the whole idea completely unacceptable.

It is true to say that some misguided or incompetent teachers did use the belt excessively where, in some cases, alternative sanctions might have been more appropriate.  Unfortunately, some saw the belt as a quick solution to a particular problem that took up little teaching time, and there were certainly instances where this could be fairly said. Its use could quickly quieten a disruptive class but the disruption might have been an indication of a lack of inspirational teaching.

The unfairness of its use was a problem. Sometimes its use was not justified or was inappropriate,  Sometimes a pupil was strapped for something they did not do.  Sometimes a whole class would be belted because there was noise from a classroom in the absence of the teacher and no one owned up. Sometimes a pupil would be given more strokes than were justified out of anger or frustration.

These unjust or excessive uses of the belt could greatly damage a pupil/teacher relationship resulting in a long term effect on the pupil by causing them to lose interest in the subject being taught. Some pupils felt real fear when at school through living with the constant threat of being belted by certain teachers.  Not a good environment in which to learn.

Having said that, many who were punished with the belt will say that they deserved it and that it taught them not to commit the same offence again. Others will say that they were belted repeatedly for the same offence indicating that, for them, the belt was not a solution to the problem.

Teachers generally believed that the tawse makers of Lochgelly produced the most effective instruments of their kind and they were by far the most used belts throughout Scotlands schools. Had production in Lochgelly ceased, there were many other Scottish saddlers who would have been able to fill the gap.  Most towns had at least one saddler who could supply a belt and, as long as the law of the land permitted the strap to be used, there would be a demand for them until more enlightened times came along.

 

 

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