Horror of boys’ birching

SARAH STONER delves into the pages of former Echo journalist Nigel Green’s new book, Tough Times and Grisly Crimes, to bring you three tales from the past in the second of our three-part series.



CORPORAL punishment was common in the early 20th century — but the birching of three 11-year-old boys in Ryhope back in 1932 provoked outrage across the country.

The story began on Sunday, May 22, when a group of youths were seen stealing bottles of ginger beer essence from the back yard of Iley’s Chemists, in Ryhope Street South.

Police were called and, following inquiries, they were led to nearby stables, where they caught six boys making ginger beer.

The following Saturday, the boys were hauled before Sunderland Juvenile Court. The chairman of the magistrates was Father O’Dwyer, a Catholic priest.

The defendants — three Catholics and three Protestants — were all first-time offenders and each had already received a severe telling-off from their parents.

So, it was with gasps of disbelief that the families heard Father O’Dwyer give the three Catholics probation and the three Protestants the birch.

The Protestants were taken to the cells below, had their trousers taken down and, one by one, they were bent over the birching stool and lashed six times by a police officer.

The sentences caused an uproar, not only for their severity, but because some felt Father O’Dwyer had picked out the “proddies” for harsh treatment.

As the boys were taken home, with at least one bleeding from his injuries, the news soon spread through Ryhope and a public meeting was called in the Miners’ Hall.

The audience unanimously passed a resolution to petition the Home Secretary over the “brutality” of the case. They also called for O’Dwyer to be declared unfit as a magistrate.

Father O’Dwyer, however, stood by his decision and told reporters: “I am not worried over any action the Ryhope miners take on this question.

“The birching these boys had will do them a lot of good. It will certainly act as a deterrent from any further pranks of this kind. Personally, I cannot see what all the fuss is about. I was birched often enough at school and it hasn’t done me any harm.”

One of the birched boys, Jonty Raper, joined the Army at 17 and fought in France during the war. He was later wounded and taken prisoner by the Germans.

After the war, he married and moved to Stoke, where he died in 1989. His brother Billy told The Echo in 1990: “The policeman who actually did the birching cried at my mother’s house and said, if it hadn’t been for him having a wife and family, he would have refused to do it.

“It kept Jonty out of trouble after that, except for when he was caught stealing a turnip during the Great Depression and he was fined two shillings and sixpence.”

Tommy Newton, another of the birched lads, also joined the Army, serving with the Royal Artillery in India. He later became a lorry driver and died in 1966.

His sister Elizabeth told the Echo in 1990: “I saw Tommy when he was brought home after the birching. His backside had been lashed so badly there was blood running down his legs.

“He was in tears. He sat sobbing and sobbing, saying he hadn’t done anything. There was murder on in Ryhope. The place was up in arms about it.”

Father O’Dwyer died less than two years later and thousands lined the roadside for his funeral at Bishopwearmouth Cemetery. His obituary in The Echo made no mention of the incident, however, or the ill-feeling still felt by many.