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Fagging was a traditional educational practice in British boarding private schools (nearly all "public schools" in the English sense) and also many other boarding schools, whereby younger pupils were required to act as personal servants to the most senior boys. While domestic servants were common in family households, the custom reflected household task distribution and taught pupils about service from both ends of the relationship. Under school rules, fagging might entail harsh discipline and corporal punishment when those were standard practices.
The practice of personal fagging faded away during the 1970s and 1980s, but to some degree has been maintained in former colonies or has been replaced by systems which require junior boys to do tasks for the benefit of the general school community. In England, the word "fag" became slang for a wearisome chore. It was also a punishment for younger children.
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Fagging originated as a structure for maintaining order in boarding houses, when schoolmasters' authority was practically limited to the classroom. Dr. Thomas Arnold, headmaster of Rugby from 1828 to 1841, defined fagging as the power given by the supreme authorities of the school to the Sixth Form, to be exercised by them over younger boys. Senior pupils were given both power over and responsibility for the behaviour of younger boys, thus creating a progressive social structure in the house, while teaching both parties something of service, a concept particularly highly valued in Victorian education and society. Fagging was a fully established system at St Pauls, Eton and Winchester in the 16th century, and may well date back to the Medieval discipline of the monasteries which founded most of the great public schools. During the 19th century, almost all British public schools had a fagging system, and the numerous new boarding schools founded for the children of the British Empire generally adopted the system as a natural reflection of society.
Fagging carried with it well-defined rights and duties on both sides. The senior, sometimes called fag-master, was the protector of his fags and responsible for their good conduct. In cases of any problem outside the classroom, such as bullying or injustice, a junior boy's recourse was to him, not to a form-master or housemaster, and, except in the gravest cases, all incidents were dealt with by the fag-master on his own responsibility (perhaps in consultation with other fag-masters or prefects) and without report to masters.
The duties undertaken by fags, the time taken, and their general treatment varied widely. Each school had its own tradition. Until circa 1900 a fag's duties included such humble tasks as blacking boots, brushing clothes and cooking breakfasts, and there was no limit as to hours. Later, fagging was restricted to such light tasks as running errands, bringing tea to the fag-masters' study and fagging at cricket or football. At many schools, fag-masters were expected to reward their fags for their efforts at the end of term by giving a monetary 'fag tip'. The 1911 Britannica details an evolution of the role at Eton College.
During the late 20th century, fagging fell out of use, as attitudes to boarding education and child development changed. Despite the reluctance of senior boys who had served their time and expected to enjoy the benefits of the system, between the 1960s and 1980s first the duties became less onerous and then the system was abolished at most major public schools. It is now believed to be obsolete in Great Britain. Nevertheless, official or unofficial relics of fagging are still quite common in some of the leading British public schools.
Fagging in memoirs, literature and art
- Roald Dahl relates in his autobiography being told, when he was a young fag, to warm toilet seats for older boys at Repton.
- Stephen Fry describes a practice akin to fagging used as punishment in Moab Is My Washpot
- Aleister Crowley's The Confessions of Aleister Crowley
- Julian Mitchell's play Another Country (1981)
- C. S. Lewis's book Surprised by Joy (See Chapter VI, pp. 94-95)
- Lindsay Anderson's film If.... (1968)
- Fagging is mentioned in the "Noel, Noel" episode of French Fields
- Galloping Foxley episode in Tales of the Unexpected. John Mills' character relates a story of being systematically abused by an older boy. It was based on a short story by Roald Dahl, who said he based it on a true story.
- In Tom Brown's School Days (1857), a semi-autobiographical work by Thomas Hughes (1822–1896), Tom Brown was a fag for other students.
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