An Instinct that Shames us All


blob [NOTE: “Today”, a long-defunct downmarket tabloid weekly, was not noted as a reliable source of detailed facts. This article contains errors, and is included here not for the information it provides but as an interesting example of how some corners of the UK popular press were beginning to adopt a surprisingly liberal tone on this issue by the middle 1960s. – C.F.]IMAGINE a heavy wooden triangle in the form of an easel. A prisoner is bending over a wooden block underneath. His ankles are shackled to the front legs. His hands are tied to the back.

cuttingA prison officer tentatively runs his fingers over a birch rod — a bundle of springy twigs exactly two feet long and weighing precisely two pounds. [Completely wrong — it was 48″ long and the weight was 12 ounces — C.F.] To make them more supple, they have been soaked in water overnight.

The chief officer calls “One.” His colleague raises the birch and smashes it down on the bare buttocks of the prisoner.

The man’s face twists in agony. A canvas screen prevents him from seeing his torturer.

Out of the corner of his eye, he can seen the watching prison doctor.

Last ounce

The second hand of the chief officer’s watch crawls through its arc. The punishment must not be hurried.

After five seconds that seem like an age, he calls, “Two.” Once more, the birch shatters the bruised flesh.

The doctor takes note of the prisoner’s face. It is grey. But he is not concerned. His function is not to stop the infliction of pain but to save the authorities the embarrassment of a man dying under punishment.

“Three.” As the third stroke swishes home, the prisoner loses all sense of his surroundings. A symphony of pain engulfs his whole being. By now, he can no longer keep track of time.

His entire consciousness is dominated by the thought of the next stroke and the next — until his torture comes to an end or the doctor calls a halt.

If you think that judicial corporal punishment can no longer be inflicted in Britain today, you are wrong. Although it can no longer be imposed on free men, scenes like this are still regularly enacted in our prisons.

Between 1955 and 1962, there were thirty-seven sentences for mutiny or for assaults on prison officers. A typical sentence was fifteen strokes of the birch.

And what is good for the adult is considered even better for juveniles. Although there is no corporal punishment in Borstals, the swish of the cane is a familiar sound in our approved schools.

Headmasters may give boys and girls under fifteen up to three strokes on each hand at any time. And boys may also be beaten on the posterior — not more than six strokes for those under fifteen and not more than eight for those over fifteen.

It is not only in penal establishments that the law can order a whipping. Anyone who takes his holiday in our offshore islands is liable to find himself at the wrong end of a birch rod if he is unwise enough to break the peace.

Trevor Large, for instance, a nineteen-year-old from Oldham, Lancashire, flew to the Isle of Man for a day’s outing with the darts team. Somehow, he became involved in a pub fight. A bar supervisor was butted in the stomach and had two of his teeth knocked out.

Large, who pleaded not guilty to assault, was sentenced to six months jail — and eight strokes of the birch.

Other places were the ordinary courts can still order birching are Jersey, Guernsey and Northern Ireland.

In recent years, those sentenced have ranged from three Ulster thugs who chloroformed and robbed an old woman (twelve strokes) to a fourteen-year-old Guernsey boy who broke into a shop (four strokes).

The Guernsey boy had been given six strokes only six months before for a previous offence. This is unfortunate for those who advocate an extension of corporal punishment on the mainland. They have argued that it deters people from committing — or repeating — crimes.

The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Parker, told the House of Lords: “The courts, as well as the government, owe a duty to the community to halt this crime wave. If they are to do so, they must have the necessary weapons of punishment.”

But is corporal punishment a deterrent? All the available evidence suggests it is not.

The Criminal Record Office made a study of 1,845 criminals convicted of armed robbery or robbery with violence — the only offences for which flogging has been imposed since 1861 — between 1941 and 1948. Of these, 261 were sentenced to either the cat or birching.


So far from being deterred, those flogged afterwards committed proportionately more violent crimes than those who were not flogged. Both groups seemed to have equally bad records for minor and non-violent crimes committed after release.

By and large, enlightened opinion has come to accept that no purpose would be served in bringing back corporal punishment. Both Henry Brooke and his predecessor at the Home Office have declared themselves opposed to its reintroduction.


If we have virtually abolished corporal punishment for thugs, we lovingly retain it for our schoolchildren. We have, rightly, decided that it is barbarous to birch a robber who has beaten up a defenceless old woman.

At the same time, we officially approve the whipping of little girls aged seven for simple naughtiness. Many teachers still think that “six of the best” is the only way to knock arithmetic into mentally backward children.

The Ministry of Education washes its hands of the whole problem. “The administration of corporal punishment is left to the discretion of the local authorities,” I was told.

“They, in turn, usually leave it to the heads and manager or governors of individual schools.

“But it must be carried out under the supervision of the head. And he is responsible for seeing that each award is entered in a punishment book.”


How do local authorities exercise their discretion? In England and Wales, most of them are extremely coy about it.

The London County Council confirmed that it had to be carried out by the headmaster or by a senior master to whom the authority has been delegated. All punishments had to be recorded in the punishment book.

“It is extremely rare for girls to be corporally punished,” I was told. “Only the headmistress may do it — and it must be on the hand. Beyond that, we are not prepared to give details.”

Some authorities have abolished caning. And even where it is allowed, some heads allow it rarely or not at all. But there is a flourishing trade in canes.

And some schools use the cane pretty freely. At one school in South London, there had already been two mass beatings when boys failed to wear their caps. Then boys of Class 4 started to shoot rice at each other in an English lesson.

When the culprits failed to own up, all fifteen boys were given four strokes each by the head of the upper school. Neither he nor the school headmaster would comment.

A boy said: “The rice was being used by some boys as peashooter ammunition. The teacher sent for help when he saw some of it being thrown about the classroom. I didn’t throw any. But I was caned just the same.”

The courts have little sympathy with parents who bring charges against teachers who have caned their children. Even when Liverpool magistrates fined headmaster John Gilchrist, of Ryebank School, �5 for caning a fourteen-year-old girl fourteen to sixteen times on both hands, Judge Laski allowed his appeal.

According to the judge, parents must expect teachers to maintain discipline. And he did not think this particular punishment excessive.

Advocates of corporal punishment in schools argue it is necessary for keeping discipline. “If the public would insist on small classes and good, well-trained teachers with that inward integrity that all children recognize, we could abolish it altogether. Until that millennium, give us some protection,” says Norman Tosh, headmaster of Mount Junior Secondary School, Greenock, Scotland.

Is “that millennium” so far distant? The Rising Hill School is in one of the toughest districts of London. The population is highly mobile, the delinquency rate high. Yet when William Duane was appointed first headmaster in 1960, he abolished corporal punishment entirely. “At first,” he admitted to me, “the effect on discipline was disastrous. The children had been so beaten up in their previous schools, they just didn’t believe it and had to test it. But new children responded.”

The results? “When the school opened, a hundred children were on probation. Now there are under a dozen.

“Whether or not this springs directly from the abolition of corporal punishment, only a social scientist could say. Corporal punishment is only a symptom of a bad attitude on the part of adults. What matters is whether you care for the children.”

Experience elsewhere tends to support Duane. A survey of thirty West Riding schools showed that those that caned least had the best discipline. The heavy caners had almost twice as many children before the juvenile courts as the light caners.

A.B. Clegg, chief education officer, asked:

“Is it not possible that those who advocate more caning may thereby spread the disease they are anxious to cure?”

And that just about sums it up. Whether imposed by courts or schools, corporal punishment is becoming more and more an affront to the feelings of decent people. It does not deter. It merely provides an outlet for the authoritarian, even sadistic feelings of the people who impose it.

Society doesn’t need corporal punishment to protect it. And teachers who are worthy of their calling should be able to keep discipline by earning their pupils’ respect, not fear.


There is almost invariably an element of the sadistic in the use of corporal punishment.

It is a dangerous remedy because — with the exception of the everyday, swift and unrehearsed parental slap — inflicting deliberate pain can warp the minds of those who administer it.

And this, surely, is a shameful thing.

The civilized person recognizes these dark, hidden instincts — and does his best to move away from them.

Our society must take a collective decision to do just this. We must get rid of this shameful neurosis — once and for all.