Tuesday, March 29, 2011

April 21, 1860 --- A Brutal Schoolmaster

A 15-year old schoolboy dies of his injuries after being beaten by his headmaster. Thomas Hopley - "a person of high attainments and irreproachable character" - operated a small school in Eastbourne for difficult children of the upper middle classes.  Reginald Cancellor was the son of a London attorney who thought his "stolid and stupid" son might benefit from the sea. and Hopley's equally bracing discipline. The boy suffered from what doctors then labeled "water on the brain."

The headmaster soon complained of the boy's obdurate ways and sought permission to use the rod.  From London came word from Cancellor's pater: "Act as you think fit." Sadly, the family was soon informed by Hopley that Reginald had been found dead in his bed. Summoned to claim the body, Reginald's elder brother, a clergyman, became suspicious as the corpse was unusually clothed; elbow length gloves and long socks to mid-thigh. He demanded a police inquest. When the clothing was ordered cut away, it revealed a horrible sight: "legs and arms a dark & livid color, and swollen from extravasated blood—the skin of the thighs reduced to a perfect jelly."

Hopley was tried in Lewes for manslaughter amid "intense interest."  He admitted beating Reginald with a skipping rope for refusing to do his sums and for refusing an order to go to his room. He called the death "an unfortunate accident" and insisted, "Heaven knows I have done my duty by that poor boy."  Hopley is undone however by a servant girl whose testimony detailed the boy's terrible screams and the subsequent frantic efforts of Hopley and his wife to clean the blood spattered room. The schoolmaster got a four year sentence, which many thought insufficient; The Times, for example. "There is nothing to be said for this man ... [it was] not discipline but murder."

Adding to the public outrage was the fact that Hopley had won some attention for his speeches and writings about the abuse of children in England's factories. The Illustrated London News recommended that Hopley be "set in a pillory to be lapidated by an indignant mob."

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