Fagging was the system in schools, and particularly English public schools, whereby younger pupils, called fags (see below for homonyms), acted as servants to the older boys in exchange for personalized mentoring. Originally an emulation of domestic household task distribution and individual paternal attention and authority the the Housemaster could not give, fagging formerly included harsh discipline and corporal punishment. Bullying and even sexual abuse were also sometimes associated with it.
Facing public scrutiny, the practice of personal fagging has gradually been discontinued during the 1970s and 1980s, but in most schools it has been replaced by a system where junior boys are required to do tasks for the benefit of the general school community.
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. Older pupils, in a sense trustees, would take responsibility for the behaviour of younger boys, thus helping the staff to avoid chaos. Fagging was a fully established system at Eton and Winchester in the 16th century, and is probably a good deal older.
During the 19th century, almost all English public schools adopted a fagging system.
The right to fag carried with it certain well-defined duties. The senior, called fag-master, also known as the protector of his fags, was responsible for their happiness and good conduct. In cases of bullying or injustice, their appeal was to him, not to the form-master, or housemaster, and, except in the gravest cases, all incidents were dealt with by the fag-master on his own responsibility and without report to the master.
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. Almost all the fag's spare time could be so monopolized. Later, fagging was restricted to such light tasks as running errands, bringing tea to the 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. Roald Dahl relates in his autobiography Boy being told, as a fag, to warm toilet seats for older boys at Repton. Stephen Fry describes a practice similar to fagging used as punishment.
Abolition of fagging
During the late 20th century, fagging fell out of use, as attitudes to education and child development changed. During the 1970s and 1980s fagging was abolished at most major public schools and school-sanctioned fagging was very rare by the turn of the millennium. Nevertheless, unofficial relics of fagging are still quite common in some of the leading British public schools.
"Fag" can also mean (unrelated to fagging):
- (US, technical) In textile inspections, a rough or coarse defect in the woven fabric.
- (US, technical) A photovoltaic cell that is no longer in use.
- (UK and Australian, colloquial, dated in US and Canada) A cigarette.
- (UK, obsolete, colloquial) The worst part or end of a thing.
- (UK, colloquial) A chore; an arduous and tiresome task.
- (colloquial, vulgar, derogatory) A male homosexual (abbreviation for faggot).
- (US, colloquial, vulgar, pejorative) An annoying, weak, or effeminate male.
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