Christ's Hospital

From "The Blue Coat Boys or School Life in Christ's Hospital"  
by William Harnett Blanch, 1877


The following powerful letter, bearing upon the recent suicide Of a Bluecoat boy at Christ's Hospital, appears in the London Times of 13th July (1877). Its publication has created a profound sensation in England '— (To the Editor.) Sir— l am an old Bluecoat boy, and I have lust heard of the death by hanging of poor little William Arthur Gibbs, who destroyed himself rather than submit to the hardships of the school. This most sad event calls, sir, for something more than a coroner's inquest and a verdict of " Suicide while in a state of temporary insanity." It demands that a most searching investigation should at once be made as to the manner in which the richly-endowed school of Christ's Hospital is managed, and especially as regards the food and treatment and the punishments which are inflicted. I can only say that the seven years which I spent in that school were years of misery and suffering, and, although I am now 40 years of age and have several sons of my own, nothing in this world would induce me to send one of them to the same school. As regards the education given, I believe that Christ's Hospital is second to no school in England; but when I have said this I have said all that can be said in its praise. The food, though good of its kind, was, and still is, utterly insufficient in quantity; the treatment was such as to make every boy detest the school; and, the punishments were simply brutal in their severity,, and often were meted out with but scanty justice. It is upon this latter point that I will touch, as showing why poor little Gibbs took away his life. He knew what he would get if he was alive in the morning. He had, I understand, run away from the school on a previous occasion; and, as is usual in such cases, had been flogged. He ran away again to avoid the bullying of the monitor Copeland, but was brought back to the school, and was there shut up in a room by himself to await his punishment, and that punishment he knew would be another flogging, to be followed by further bullying. I dare say that old Etonians who remember what a "birching" from Hawtrey was will laugh at the idea of a boy hanging himself to avoid a flogging: but only old Bluecoat boys know what a Christ's Hospital flogging is.

Fortunately, I was never flogged myself, but as long as I live I shall never forget a scene that I witnessed in the case of another boy who had been flogged. He was a small and delicate lad, by name Blount, and he slept in the bed next to me. A big boy had compelled Blount to go and bring him some lumps of sugar out of the monitor's sugar-basin. The big boy ate the sugar himself, and the small boy had none of it. The facts of the case became known to the monitor, who reported it to the Steward, who flogged Blount as a thief, and did not punish the big boy. That night poor little Blount could not sleep, and at last he beggcd me to help him. I accordingly took his shirt off, and found his back, from the shoulders down to the waist, one mass of lacerated flesh, the blood sticking to the shirt so as to cause agony in getting it off. I then, with my finger and thumb, pulled out of his back at least a dozen pieces of birch-rod, which had penetrated deep into the flesh. That boy's back looked more like a piece of raw meat than anything else. I have since seen the back of a sailor after three dozen-with a naval “cat," and I solemnly declare that the injury done to the sailor's back would not compare with that done to the Bluecoat boy. Your readers would, perhaps, not be astonished at the results produced if they knew how the flogging is managed. Two men are required for the operation. One takes hold of the boy, hoists him on his back by the wrists, and keeps him suspended. The other strips off his coat, and, armed with a large and heavy rod, gives 15 cuts on the boy's bare back, and these with might and main. This however, was a mild flogging, for if the offence was at all great, the boy, after having 15 cuts on his back, received 15 more in another place with a fresh rod and that, at least in my time, used to be the punishment for running away. I have seen a large and powerful man, one of the beadles, who must have weighed at least 13 stone, split his own shirt sleeve right down with the violence he used in flogging a poor little lad of 13 years of age. Compare this, Sir, with a modern garroter's flogging at the Old Bailey, where, as the newspapers tell us, " the man's back was slightly reddened, but no blood drawn," and let your readers say what they think of a Christ's Hospital flogging. But, besides flogging, there was the everyday punishment of caning for the most trivial offence, and this was, and is, carried out with most unnecessary violence. I have two boys at St. Paul's School, and they sometimes get caned, but the next day you cannot see the slightest mark on the hand, and I have not heard of more than two cuts being given. At Christ's Hospital six cuts with a cane was an ordinary punishment, and in the case of most of the masters and the steward each cut raised a long blister which took weeks before it went away. I was once being caned by a master who was an adept at the art of injuring boy's hands, and I saved myself the remainder of a caning by the following plan : — After receiving the first cut on my right hand, and, while in the act of receiving the second, I purposely dug my nail into the blood blister which the cane had made on my hand, so that when I held up my right hand for the third cut it was all over blood, and the master let me off the rest, as he could scarcely go on after, as he thought, cutting my hand open. Looking back on the transaction, I see, of coarse, that I was wrong to make my own hand bleed to save myself the rest of the punishment ; but my contention is that such a thing should be impossible, and it would not be possible except in the case of too great violence being used. My own opinion is, sir, that poor little Gibbs has been " done to death " by the bullying and flogging and the fear of more to come, and I think your readers will agree with me that the time has arrived when a full investigation should be made of all the circumstances of this case, so as, if possible, to bring about a thorough change at Christ’s Hospital, which shall render it impossible for another of its scholars to be driven to suicide. I would suggest that the Governors' should appoint a committee of investigation, consisting of a certain number of themselves, with the Head Master, and a few old Bluecoat boys, many of whom can be found occupying responsible positions; and these could open the eyes of the Governors not a little as to the real life of a Bluecoat boy. I, for one, should be most happy to take my share in assisting to frame rules which would prevent any boy in future from desiring to run away or to commit suicide. Andrew A. W. Drew, B.A., Incumbent of St. Antholin's, Nunhead, S.E.

Evening Post, Volume XV, Issue 229, 29 September 1877, Page 1