MANY of us of a certain age will have noticed that students and schoolchildren have been going on strike to demonstrate about various social issues lately and thought to ourselves: it could never have happened in the old days... and we would be wrong.

All we have to do is to go back and see what was happening in Victorian and Edwardian times – all over the country. Schoolchildren were coming out on strike, pupils convened meetings and staged walkouts. Judging by press reports, the junior strikers all seem to have been boys (were any girls involved? Anyone know?)

One morning in October 1889, the schoolboys of Lawrence Street Board School, Workington, returned to school after their lunch break. Some of them held a meeting outside the gates and informed headmaster Mr Thompson that they were coming out on strike. When other pupils tried to enter the school, they were intimidated by the “strikers” who sought to frighten them off – even going so far as “to threaten them with sticks”.

So what were they complaining about? They were against caning, homework and too much geography and history. It seems a modest enough list. Down in East London, one school’s strikers had demanded no caning, no fees, no homework and (somewhat optimistically) a new teaching staff!

The Lawrence Street strikers then marched off to St Michael’s School to see if they could persuade the boys of that school to take a similar strike action. Were any the boys of St Michael’s seriously interested in taking action? We will never know, as the Lawrence Street “flying pickets” never had a chance to argue their case – because they never reached the gates of the neighbouring school. The local police had obviously been informed of the young strikers’ movements and a local policeman stepped in and halted their progress, sending them back to their own school. It was the end of Workington’s 1889 school strike.

Pupils in Victorian times had another way of influencing their schoolmasters. They managed to prevent them from entering either classroom or school buildings. This technique of preventing teachers from gaining access to their place of work was known as “barring out”.

Pupils would barricade doors and windows and often block off any means of access to a whole building. This last was most effective because very often school staff lived on these “barred out” premises. Pupils and schoolmaster would then begin a process of bargaining – a few days’ extra holidays and, possibly, a few extra perks. To what extent these proceedings were deadly serious is open to question. I have a sneaking feeling that in many cases they were some form of annual ritual or game. It is a tradition that has long been discontinued.

In this day and age, I can’t imagine that any situation would ever arise when a class of pupils would choose to exclude a teacher from their classroom. Unless, of course, you know any different?

Over the years various strikes and campaigns have occurred in our history, no doubt all intended to right a number of perceived social wrongs – but just how many actually achieved their aims?

Did they all justify the time, effort and cost – both human and financial – which were often involved.

I know that people feel that they must do something, if only to vent their feelings. One such event took place on Easter Sunday, 1910. The area had been going through one of those industrial slumps and unemployment was high. Many unemployed people were desperate, so much so that 1,000 or so children of the unemployed went on a march through the town.

Unlike the earlier school protests, the young people hadn’t themselves planned this hunger march, it had been organised by the local Labour Party. So what did it achieve? It might perhaps have won a few the members for the party. And it might have given its participants the feeling that they were at least doing something about the country’s economic problems of 1910.