Birching at Eton

Having had a long interest in the history of corporal punishment, I thought I would post some notes on the birching of schoolboys at Eton public school in the 18th and 19th centuries, on which I have recently conducted in depth research, as this also highlights the indecency of corporal punishment of this type, and draws attention to the indecent exposure involved. This aspect is so often ignored, or swept under the carpet when the subject is written about.

During this period of history boys of the ages of 11 to 18 were regularly “flogged” (i.e.birched) at Eton for any and every offense.  The most interesting aspect of these floggings is the actual manner in which the floggings were administered, and the position the boy was placed in for flogging.

Eton had several “flogging blocks”, which were pieces of furniture upon which the boys were birched. This piece of furniture consisted of a block of wood about 2ft high, in the shape of two steps, the lower one being about 10″ from the floor, and the upper one forming the top of the block. When a boy was to be birched, he had to completely remove his trousers and underpants, and mount the block. He did this by kneeling on the lower step, bending forward and resting his belly on the top of the block, and placing his hands flat on the floor on the far side of the block. Once in this position, younger boys would be strapped to hold them firmly in position, with two straps around their calves just below their knees, and another thicker strap around the small of their back, holding their belly firmly against the top of the block, to restrict movement of the boy’s bottom during the flogging. The knee straps would normally be placed about 18″ apart, causing the knees to be spread apart. Older boys were expected to hold this position without being strapped.

Once in this position, the boy’s bottom was fully exposed, with the buttocks parted, fully exposing his anal cleft, perineal region, and scrotum.

Then the flogging would begin. The birches used at Eton were really quite savage instruments. Five feet long (3 feet of the handle and 2 feet of “bush”)The “bush” end being about 12″ in diameter. They were well soaked in brine to make the twigs supple and strong before use. The strokes (of which up to five dozen could be given in a single flogging)were delivered with the master’s full strength.

With the victim in the position described above, each stroke of the birch would totally cover every square inch of the boy’s bottom, with the lower part of the birch lashing the upper thighs and exposed perineal area on virtually every stroke, and stray twigs lashing into the anal cleft between the splayed buttocks. The perineal region is the area between the anus and scrotum, for those who don’t know.

At the end of a severe flogging, the whole of the victim’s bottom would be a raw and bloody mass of weals, from the small of his back down to his upper thighs, and every bit of flesh in between, including his anal, perineal and scrotal regions. The boy was being flogged “on his bottom”, and I must presume that these areas were considered to be part of his “bottom” and therefore fair game. Younger boys (say 11 – 14-year-olds) invariably wet (and sometimes soiled) the flogging block at some point during the flogging.

So, there you have it. Birching at Eton as it really was, without the nastier aspects “hushed up” for the sake of decency.

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I have also read articles of the sexual nature of the birching of 11 – 18 year schoolboys at Eton particularly as it was done in the early 19th century.

Paul mentions that younger boys usually wetted during flogging.

A more interesting physical effect of these birchings, however, was that frequently, at the end of the flogging, the victim had an erection. Whether this was caused by sexual arousal, or merely by the physical trauma and flow of blood to the area I don’t know. Bearing in mind the shear savagery of the floggings at the school, and that a flogged boy was literally having every square inch of flesh on his buttocks and upper thighs, right up to his anal and perineal region, birched to a raw and bloody pulp, causing involuntary erection is really not surprising.

It’s right that the true savagery and indecency of Eton’s history should be brought to light.

Thanks for an interesting and enlightening post.

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I have heard that it was common for some boys to be birched as frequently as once a week, mainly those who had what would be described today as “behavioral problems”. This could add up to 40 birchings per year, and in a school career of from age 10 to 18, a total of 320 birchings. It is true that after an Eton type of birching, a boy’s naked bottom would literally be a raw mass of blood, and he could have had this done to his bottom this many times throughout childhood and adolescence. It’s not surprising that so many boys who were flogged frequently became hardened and indifferent to the whole ritual and experience of birching while mounted on the flogging block in the manner described.

Upon leaving the school at 18 or 19, most boys from aristocratic families in the 17th and 18th centuries would have gone straight into an arranged marriage, most probably to a girl who had also experienced regular birchings at an exclusive finishing school for young ladies.

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There are many references to this activity, and Gibson’s famous book of the subject gives a number of instances.

There is the famous “Rochester WorkHouse” scandal where the man in charge [Was it James Milne?] was tried for birching young girls and, I believe, acquitted the first time around. The school at Clifton in bristol was run by a woman who specialized in birching girls – I do believe she, too, was taken to court and I think convicted.

So girls WERE birched at certain establishments which were set up for various reasons, not always of a “pure” nature.

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53 Oakfield Road
CLIFTON

November 1889

Mrs Heaton,

I have waited until later, because I thought I might get another letter from you. If your daughter is “feigning”, we must certainly bring her to her senses. My reason for suggesting postponing the whipping for a little was simply that if she really was in bad health it might be wise to wait.

I will arrange to be quite free on Friday, and to give the punishment in the afternoon. I hope to have a quiet word with you prior to this, and the tawse will be in my pocket, to be produced when necessary.

You will oblige me by waiting in another room until I tap – when the girl is fastened. I wish to make her understand me alone, if possible. I prefer that she does not see you until after it is done. I propose to give Millicent about a dozen with the strap, and she will not forget that quickly. No injury will be done, and she will be sufficiently tender for a few days to remember it.

I hope that you may feel that your daughter has benefited by the whipping. I use the birch commonly; the tawse for serious punishment. Ten strokes of that will be severe for a girl. When I punish, I do it *thoroughly*, but not cruelly.

I am sure the punishment will cure the temper, and I hope to have the pleasure of showing you your daughter much improved.

[Extracted from a letter about four times as long published in “Truth”, 21 November 1889.

Mrs Walter made it clear in a pamphlet she provided to parents thinking of bringing a daughter to her that, when she punished, it was on the bare buttocks, the recipient being required to bend over “a strong, narrow table” to which if necessary she could be secured.]

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Ian Gibson, “The English Vice”, 1978, page 81.

‘The report of the Schools Inquiry Commission …

The Royal Patriotic Asylum … was a girls’ institution opened at Wandsworth in 1869 for the education of the children of victims of the Crimean War. When conditions at the school came to the notice of the House of Commons in 1863 it was found “among other things, that a girl who was within two months of having completed her fifteenth year had been flogged with a birch rod by the lady superintendent under the express direction of the chaplain.’ …

Then there were the girls’ Reformatory and Industrial schools, details of which may be obtained from the 1868 Report. Here, as in the boys’ schools of the same category, birch, cane and tawse were in frequent use. …

[Mrs Cameron, superintendent of the Maryhill School, Glasgow:]

‘Have you any corporal punishment? – Yes, we have.

How often? – The average I should think is two or three girls in a month.

Are they caned on the hand or on the back? – On the back; and not with the cane.

With a birch? – with a leathern tawse.

Of course it is done in private? – Yes.

How many strokes do you give? – I have given as many as five for a very serious offense.

Do you give that yourself? – I give that myself. I keep the weapons locked up.’

[Mrs C. Hunter, superintendent East Chapelton Reformatory for Girls:]

‘Will you tell me what a whipping consists of ? – All strokes with the tawse.

And on what part of the body? – On the hand, mostly.

Any otherwise? – Yes.

What, on the shoulders? – No, we put them to bed.’

The Chairman was not to be silenced by such a bizarre reply, and his further questioning of Miss Hunter revealed that, before a culprit was ‘put to bed’, she was ‘stripped and whipped’.”

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It may be that the documents referred to above are entirely genuine – although one has to say that a publication called ‘Truth’ is no more likely to contain truth than a plane with ‘Virgin’ on the outside is likely to have one on the inside.

However, even if we allow the documents, with the best will in the world we have also to allow that such institutions are not ‘schools’ in the sense in which we understand the word on this forum.

Where a person is essentially a prisoner, who knows what might or might not befall him or her?

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Although I have read a great deal on these matters over the decades — and there are more first-person and eye-witness accounts of the Eton procedure in print than probably for any other school anywhere, given the special nature of the place — I don’t remember ever seeing these details before. As far as I am aware, the boy was simply held over the block by the praepostors using their hands. The business about fixing the knees apart with a strap sounds suspiciously like an S&M fantasy to me. From pictures of the block that are widely available, it doesn’t appear to me that there would be any physical way of attaching such straps. Even Ian Gibson, who tries in his book to put the worst possible spin on every aspect of CP and is especially obsessed with what he perceives to be the iniquities of Eton, doesn’t mention anything about this.

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The preparatory school to which I was sent was in Eastbourne and was called Ascham St Vincent’s. … The discipline was fairly strict. Only the headmaster caned but the matron could administer spankings. I received one or two spankings and one caning in my last year there for ragging in the dormitory. I do not remember there being many canings, though when they were given they were quite severe. The victims used to hold court in the lavatories afterward, displaying the marks on their bottoms which the cane had made. …

[He attends Eton] The usual penalty for shirking exercise was to be beaten by the house captain of games. … The members of Pop also enjoyed special rights in this respect, and indeed made use of a special knotted cane. The procedure in College was for the victim to be summoned by a fag who went along the passages crying out that so-and-so was wanted. The wanted boy then went down to the room where the sixth-formers had their supper. If he saw a chair put out in the middle of the room he knew that he was for it. Having been told, unnecessarily, that he was going to be beaten, he took off his gown, knelt over the chair and received seven hard strokes, whatever the offense. … The beatings, especially when they were performed by hefty athletes, were very painful but one was expected to bear them without crying out or flinching, and to say good-night, when one had resumed one’s gown, without a quiver in one’s voice.

One of the boys who beat me was Quentin Hogg [later Lord Hailsham, the Master of the Rolls], who displayed what seemed to me more than judicial severity in the performance of the exercise. … Beatings by the headmaster were ceremonious affairs. They were witnessed by two sixth-formers, called the praepostors. The culprit was brought in with his trousers lowered and held down over the flogging block by a porter, who seemed to be specially employed for this purpose. The headmaster then plied the birch, usually administering not less than six strokes. I witnessed one such birching and was glad that I never had to suffer it.”

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“Birching (Judicial)
The prisoner is strapped to a triangle or an easel. His feet are spread and bound to the front two legs. He bends over the connecting horizontal padded bar, and his wrists are bound to the back, third leg of the triangle. (Or, he straddles a vaulting horse with his legs and wrists bound to the legs, leaving the buttocks perfectly spread and positioned for flogging.) The birch is soaked in water to make it supple. It is 40 inches long for boys and 48 inches long for adults. After two or three strokes the birch draws blood and it can break up after only a few (three to six) strokes, so a fresh birch is needed. Sometimes up to four birches can be used to give 18 to 24 strokes. The birch is given across the bare buttocks at a rate of several strokes a minute in front of the prison Governor and medical officer. The medical officer should be able to see the prisoner’s face at all times, and he may stop the punishment at any time. Maximum strokes: 24.”

From this description, (found on the net) it would seem that a man or boy undergoing a judicial birching would have his most sensitive parts – (anus/perineum/scrotum) at best partially, or at worst fully, exposed, and therefore vulnerable to a stray twig or two!!!

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I think that the birch was original — to put it like that — a spanking weapon: you were given a large number of fairly light whacks, which made your bottom extremely sore, but which wore off quite quickly after the punishment was finished. Swinburn must be exaggerating when he talks about boys getting hundreds and even thousands of strokes, but more sober people have talked about lands getting several dozen. The cane on the other hand is a “whipping” instrument: it’s laid on hard, and even one stroke hurts very badly. I think that, when the birch was going out of fashion, headmasters might have used it as a glorified cane, and tried to give six hard whacks over the clothed bottom. That probably would have hurt less than a caning.

Whether 36 light whacks on the bare bum with a bundle of twigs is better or worse than 6 hard whacks on the clothed bum with a bamboo stick is probably a judgment call!

The Isle of Man birch was a different thing, though — more like half a dozen light canes tied together.

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My grandfather and great-grandfather were both birched at school, AND …over the very same block! I always thought this funky, particularly as 29 years separated their school years.
Both of them gave accounts in their memoirs and there were similarities…
From what I gather we can dismiss the soil tray and the knee, etc straps stories – there’s no mention of them. There is mention, however, of erections. It seems that life would have been a lot easier and more comfortable if TWO blocks had been in operation… one for seniors and one for juniors; Yes, the anus, perineal area, and scrotum did come under fire, but caused mainly by poor contact with the block… As a consequence, the friction alone may have been responsible – or partly responsible – for ‘heightened awareness’ in the nether regions.
…Something else that I hadn’t realized until reading these memoirs… that the severity of these birchings seemed to vary according to the time of year… It seems that a birching during the month of March was to be avoided… hard, bulbous buds but with plenty of life in the stems as the rising sap was active.
Neither my grandfather nor my great-grandfather seemed to have any regrets or negative feelings toward a punishment that was then an accepted way of life. As my grandfather noted, the birch had way of ‘focusing the mind’ and, while the results may have appeared gruesome, the skin healed within three weeks and ‘some other boy’ would soon assume all attention

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Flogging at Eton (by which I mean the application of a birch rod to the bare buttocks) was the primary means of punishment by the Headmaster and Lower Master until the 1960s, though by that time it had become extremely rare, and was replaced for around 20 years thereafter by caning (on the clothed buttocks). In the twentieth century caning as the form of punishment within houses (either by the housemaster or by senior boys) had become a common feature of Eton life, but as far as the headmaster and lower master were concerned, the birch retained its pride of place.

The use of flogging famously reached its apogee in the first half of the nineteenth century in the person of John Keate, the famous flogging headmaster, but flogging with the birch remained prevalent for over a hundred years afterward. The question of its severity is difficult to answer definitively, but there are enough personal accounts in memories and histories of Eton to be able to make some reasonably confident generalizations.

First of all, it is important to correct some hysterical exaggerations in the post that began this thread. At no time were boys restrained on the block by leather straps. Nor were their genitals or inner reaches of their bottoms exposed to the birch. Finally, accounts of buttocks being regularly reduced to a raw mass of bleeding weals must be considered a gross exaggeration (though see below about the limits of severity).

The following generalizations can however be asserted confidently:

Boys put ‘in the bill’ (i.e. sent to see the headmaster or lower master on disciplinary grounds) would for the large part of the nineteenth and the early twentieth century have faced the very likely possibility of undergoing corporal punishment. This punishment would have taken the form of a beating (usually referred to as a flogging or ‘swishing’) administered on the bare buttocks with a sizeable bundle or birch rods tied together. A boy required to undergo this punishment was ordered to ‘go down’ over a wooden flogging block. This had a step to kneel upon and a higher surface to bend over, with the boy supporting himself with his forearms resting on the upper surface. His bottom was therefore raised prominently in the optimum position for chastisement.

Before ‘going down’, the boy was expected to take down his trousers and underpants (or breeches) to expose his own buttocks. One or two senior boys (called praepostors) were always on hand as ‘holders-down’: they were responsible for handing fresh birch rods to the headmaster, and for ensuring that the victim remained in position over the block for the duration of his punishment.

Boys in the Upper School (approximately age 16 and over) were punished in private in the Headmaster’s own school room (adjoining Upper School).
However, boys in the Lower School, were (until some time in the early twentieth century) punished in public in Lower School, an ancient school room. In other words, other boys were entirely free to act as spectators at the flogging of their peers.

So how severe was an Etonian flogging?

The accurate answer is that it varied hugely. For a start, boys facing their first flogging were allowed to plead ‘first offense’ or ‘first fault’, and were more often than not let off without corporal punishment.
Moreover, even in the time of Keate, boys who received a token flogging of six light strokes found it an entirely bearable punishment, and not to be feared. The particular nature of the birch rod, is such that (despite the invariable application to bare buttocks) its severity depends to a very great extent on the vigor with which the strokes are applied, as well as the number of strokes administered (universally described as ‘cuts’ at Eton). Thus a light birching of six strokes could indeed cause some discomfort but little more. But by all accounts the effect of the birch lay in its cumulative effect: the unpleasant burning sensation caused by the birch twigs on the chastised skin of the bare buttocks became very rapidly more heightened as more strokes landed, and a succession of strokes laid on with greater force very quickly caused a rapid crescendo of pain.

The token application of six light strokes was thus only one end of an extremely variable scale of punishment. At the top end of the scale (leaving aside cases of extreme severity which undoubtedly took place over the years, but represent very rare anomalies) were floggings requiring two fresh birch rods. Birch twigs break up and lose their buds after only a few hard strokes, so for a more severe punishment, a fresh rod was required to complete the punishment. Judging from the available literature, a total of between 14 and 24 ‘cuts’ was the usual range for a severe ‘two-birch’ flogging. Such punishments appear relatively frequently in the literature, even in twentieth-century accounts, but usually singled out by the authors as being of notable severity.

Such a flogging would undoubtedly have represented a genuine ordeal for the boy in question. The use of holders-down, particularly for younger boys in the Lower School, seems to have been not just a ceremonial one, but genuinely necessary when a thrashing of this kind was being administered. It does not require much imagination to visualize the deeply unpleasant experience as an adolescent boy of kneeling on a wooden block, buttocks bared, and undergoing 14 or more strokes on the bare flesh with a large bundle of birch twigs. The skin would usually have been broken by the buds sooner or later, causing small beads of blood to appear. A flogging administered with harder strokes than normal was described as a ‘tighter’ flogging. To imagine this ordeal being undergone in full view of a rapt crowd of one’s peers seems all the more extraordinary.

Nevertheless, the context of these floggings should be remembered. The approval of physical chastisement in all walks of life (for adults as well as children) was at a height in the early nineteenth century, and it was seen as almost a source of pride at English public schools, and Eton in particular, that boys should submit manfully to vigorous corporal punishment as morally strengthening and character-building. Flogging seems to have been taken for granted by boys as an unpleasant but necessary evil to endure, and the overwhelming sense from the literature is almost of wry humour about the rituals of the block and the small triumphs of having undergone floggings and living to tell the tale.

A two-birch flogging as described above was in any case the upper end of the scale. Judging by the anecdotal accounts, most boys put in the bill could expect to receive a sound flogging of around six to ten ‘cuts’, an ordeal of perhaps 20-40 seconds of mounting pain. An inexperienced 13-year-old facing his first flogging would have undoubtedly suffered extreme trepidation at the propspect, and indeed there are several accounts of the anguished cries of distress uttered by Lower School boys undergoing their first severe swishing in public. One can however equally imagine an older boy hauling down his breeches and kneeling down for the fifth or sixth time, stoically resigned to the unpleasantness of the ordeal, and sucking air through his teeth as the pain of each cut lit up his butocks.

We should probably not underestimate the effect that drama and ritual played in boys’ experience of such punishments. Boys put in the bill knew for some time beforehand that they faced a painful appointment with the headmaster; on arrival they would have been waiting outside a room from which the sounds of floggings would have been clearly audible. Flogging was called ‘swishing’ for a good reason: a birch rod ‘swishes’ noisily through the air before making a distinctive splashing sound as it meets its target. On reaching the front of the queue, a boy entering the Headmaster’s schoolroom would have been met with the sight of the flogging block in the middle of the room, and a row of fresh birches in a rack against the wall, not to mention the stern figure of the headmaster flankd by the two praepostors. Even for a generation of modern adults who still received parental spankings on the bare bottom (as I did), it seems extraordinary to our modern conception that a boy of 13 or 14 years old should have faced the prospect of then kneeling on a block and voluntarily presenting his bared buttocks to his headmaster for corporal punishment with such an embarrassing kind.

It is worth remembering that for large parts of Eton’s history, birch flogging was only one kind of punishment faced by younger boys in particular. In the later nineteenth and early twentieth century, the rise of caning as a punishment led to the situation described by one 1930s memoir in which a boy could be subject to a whole range of corporal punishment: beatings (genuine, painful canings) by his own housemaster (in rare cases such as Ian Fleming’s house on the bare buttocks); equally severe beatings by the senior boys in the ‘library’ of his house; ‘Pop-tanning’ (a particularly prolonged and excruciating caning by the self-elected prefects of the school); and flogging on the bare buttocks by the Lower Master or Head Master.

To summarise, Eton did indeed have a prevalent culture of vigorous corporal punishment, which died out relatively late in twentieth-century history, but it is important to keep a sense of proportion and context in assessing the severity. Unpleasant, embarrassing, and painful to a large range of degrees – yes: but grossly abusive and cruel – no.

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I have seen the flogging block, and I agree that it wasn’t made to accommodate any “straps”. I am not sure how the knee straps would have worked too to spread the knees 18″ apart, unless the straps were held from outside. From various accounts, no straps were held from outside. The boy was to take down his own trousers and underpants to expose his buttocks. Some accounts say that the trousers and underpants were left at the ankles. Other accounts say that the trousers and underpants were hung up or handed over to the headmaster.

After that, the boy had to kneel on the lower step of the flogging block and bend over. His stomach would be resting on the upper block, where his hands touched the floor on the other side. As mentioned in other accounts, this position raised the boy’s bottom prominently to the optimum position for his punishment. One or two older boys will hold the boy down during the caning. This was usually done with the younger boys, who had a tendency to fidget.

The school did not shy away from public punishment. Floggings were commonly carried out in front of other boys, perhaps as a warning to the other boys or to embarrass the boy being caned. Or possibly, floggings were carried out immediately upon an offense (on-the-spot). The humiliation and embarrassment faced having to take down his trousers and underpants to expose his buttocks in public is excessively harsh in modern society. Also, the boy had to assume a kneeling position, which appears to be a symbol of subservience to authority (the headmaster). And submissively bending over the block to “aid” the headmaster in getting an optimal position for his own caning must have been salt on the wounds. This would be completely unacceptable today.

I have also seen the birch, and it is several times worse than a typical cane because of its sharp surface. The intention to cut through the buttock flesh is inhumane is every respect. Although I do not reject the notion of using a cane, the birch does seem too much to bear for 1 13-year-old. After all, what offense could a 13-year-old commit to warrant such a punishment?

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I have been trying to figure out what the position of a boy on the Eton birching block was.

The block itself was about 60cm (2 feet) high, the kneeling step was about 25cm (10 inches) to 30cm (12 inches) high. This has been mentioned before in this thread, and after examining and analysing old photographs these figures seem to be correct.

The first message in this thread states that:
“He did this by kneeling on the lower step, bending forward and resting his belly on the top of the block, and placing his hands flat on the floor on the far side of the block.”

Resting his belly on the top of the block is not possible, unless for very young boys. Adolescent boys are much taller, and there would be at least 10 to 15cm (4 to 6 inch) space between the boys belly and the top of the block. “Placing his hands flat on the floor” however is very well possible.

(I have some very detailed photographs of a birching block, and there are no provisions for leather belts to strap a boy to the block. That story must be fantasy.)

Jamie McCullough states in his message that the block:
“Had a step to kneel upon and a higher surface to bend over, with the boy supporting himself with his forearms resting on the upper surface.”

Supporting himself with his forearms resting on the upper surface is also a bit unlikely. The only way you can do that is in a somewhat upright position with the body in a kind of Z shape. The other problem with this position is that the boy can put up quite some resistance because he has his arms on the block.

So in my view the general position mentioned in the first message is the most likely, a kind of on all fours position, with the knees raised on the lower step. In this position he is quite powerless to struggle, so it is easy to hold him down if required.