A singular magazine, part I

Maman special feature

As a special thank-you to all our visitors, we’re now making the first part of this fascinating historical study free to view for everyone.

Anyone with an interest in cookery of any sort will have heard of the renowned Mrs Beeton. You may have heard less of her husband – a publisher whose output deserves some attention from those of us devoted to the disciplinary arts.

Isabella Mayson married Samuel Beeton in 1856 and Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management was published six years later. Shortly after their marriage, Isabella fell pregnant but tragically lost her child at an early age – thought to be due to syphilis passed on to her by Samuel after a liaison with a prostitute.

It was after this tragedy that Samuel persuaded Isabella to begin contributing to his publication The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine. The avowed aim of this magazine was designed to make women content with their lot inside the home, rather than to interest them in the world outside.

There is nothing much to interest us about The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine until after Isabella’s death in 1865. The following year, Samuel suffered a serious downturn in his financial fortunes and sold the rights to the Book of Household Management, in what is now seen as a spectacularly bad deal. It is perhaps against this background of financial hardship that we can see the motivation behind Beeton’s failure to act when the EDM began to be infiltrated by fetishists. Certainly, there is no evidence that either he nor Isabella had any such tendencies.

From around 1867, two subjects began to dominate the correspondence columns of the EDM. Firstly, a fascination with with corsetry and ‘tight lacing’. Secondly, the corporal punishment of children. Whereas most of the content of the EDM had been generated by women, here for the first time male voices were heard openly, and there is good reason to believe that many of the letters from ‘mamas’ were authored by a person with a penis.

As far as we can gather, A Perplexed Mamma began the controversy by asking what she should do with her unruly girls; and, upon this, Pro-Rod, A Lover of Obedience and certain other enthusiasts for domestic flogging, warmly recommended the birch. At the point of the contest where we come in, this view is ardently sustained by a phalanx of mammas, sternly brandishing slippers, canes or birches. 

A Teacher of Troublesome Girls writes: “I should strongly recommend A Perplexed Mamma to try the effect of a smart whipping, and I think if administered to the eldest it will very likely be beneficial to the younger ones. I do not think the slipper of much use as an instrument of punishment, unless for quite young children.” 

A Schoolmistress takes the same view of the slipper as an instrument of virtue, and advocates ‘uncovering the victim, and applying the punishment to a portion of the frame morally most sensitive’.

These connoisseurs in justice are backed by Pater, who appears to be both father and mother to his hapless offspring. He says: ‘Two years ago I lost my wife, having two daughters, aged 12 and 14 years, and found them completely defying control.

“I consulted with their aunts on the mother’s side, and with several medical men, upon the punishment of refractory girls and women in reformatories; all agreed that whipping in the usual manner was the best mode to adopt, and that, however severely the rod was applied, no personal injury would result, nor would the health suffer. I therefore adopted this punishment, but privately in my bedroom.”

These awful aunts and reformatory Pater, are succeeded by an unabashed Lover of the Rod, whose heart is sad because she has ‘observed of late years a tendency to go to a perfect idolatry of children’. Our correspondent ‘heartily believes in the good old birch’ and offers the following advice…

“On the first occasion on which the girls show signs of disobedience, order them up to the mother’s bedroom, to wait until she comes. I would keep them all in suspense, as not comprehending your intentions. Then I would provide myself either with a good birch rod or cane (a cane is very severe), go upstairs, shut the doors and at once tell the oldest one you are going to give her a flogging.

“Doubtless, she will feel much astonished and very indignant; but if you are firm, and threaten to call in the servant to help you, she will submit. There must be shame as well as pain in this; but she has deserved them, in my opinion; and one such punishment, in the presence of her two sisters, will do everything.”

Another Lover of Obedience has a slightly different method. “When children commit an offence, I do not punish them at the time but order them to my bedroom some few hours after. The effect of my discipline is such that they never fail to do so.

“They are laid across the bed, their clothes removed, and from 15 to 50 smart strokes administered, the amount varying with the offence. After this, I can assure you they are perfectly docile for some time to come. I have tried many systems, but find this to be the best. I should advise all to follow this same plan; they will find it answer remarkably well. Even at the age of 18, should my children require it I will administer corporal punishment.”

Another fond parent believes there is nothing wrong in slapping baby’s bottom ‘with a satin slipper, to let it know there is a will superior to its own’. Should the child grow up unimproved by slipper, a resource is offered her and others by yet another Lover of Obedience who writes: “The editor has my address, and I hope will be kind enough to give it any mother who may wish to send her daughters to me for a few months; I will return them obedient and good. I have never yet taken charge of young ladies, but would willingly do so to prove my theory correct.” Hmm!

It should be said that Beeton did allow the other side of the child discipline debate to be aired. A Lady of Title expresses shame and a shock over ‘the scenes that seem to go on in some houses’, while several English Mothers express their deep indignation and shame at the correspondence on the pro-rod side. No doubt Beeton could have stopped this subject being aired in the EDM, but with one eye perhaps on the magazine’s lucrative sales figures, advice about the use of the rod on Victorian children’s bottoms continued.

A Rector wiote: ‘I am glad to see that the subject of the punishment of children is again alluded to in your columns. I think it was dropped too soon. Surely, it is as important and interesting a subject to Englishwomen as tight-lacing which has occupied more time and space than this thoroughly practical and domestic question.

“Although I am only in early middle life, I am old-fashioned enough to regret the disuse of corporal punishment both at home and at school; and, with many others, I believe that the loss of parental authority and the precious independence, and lawlessness of young persons, are due in no small degree to this fact.

“No longer ago than my own childhood, it was otherwise. I and my brothers were whipped, and I believe we are all the better for it. At any rate, we never doubted then or since that our good mother was right; I have never loved or respected her the less for our well-deserved punishment.

“Nor was the use of the rod confined to boys. I remember we used to look with a sort of awe upon a lady who lived near us and attended the same church with a family of girls, because it was the current report that she was a very strict disciplinarian and used the birch unsparingly. Nor could I ever understand why girls should not be whipped just as much as boys, if they deserved it.

“If the good old custom had not been allowed to go out, there would not have been so many girls of the period at the present day. A dignitary of the church whom I know was so convinced of this, that when he lost his wife he still occasionally used the rod himself while his daughters were still children. In former times, both home governesses and schoolmistresses used the rod, both with boys and girls, as a matter of course.

“I could quote instances in abundance in proof of this; but things are changed now, and for the worse. The birch is happily still used in all the older grammar schools for boys, but I fear that in girls’ schools it is seldom heard of – at least, I should be very glad to hear it if your correspondents can report otherwise.

“I remember, some 15 years ago, a boy told it me as a rather wonderful thing that at the school where his sister was, they birched the girls just like boys. Whether they do so still, I do not know. I shall be glad to say a few words more on this topic on a future occasion.”

Click here for the next of three more gleanings from the EDM, available exclusively to members of our Red Bottom Club.

All Maman stories are copyright, unauthorised reproduction may lead to legal action.