Birching in the newspapers

Nelson Evening Mail, Volume XXIII, Issue XXIII, 13 April 1889, Page 4

By an Old Boy

There are certain subjects, which, to different persons, seem repellent, sore or ridiculous. Birching is one of them. To the man of a sober turn who conceives life to be of the Dutch garden order of things, and who would have all men and women Puritanically prim and proper, it is anathema maranatha [a gift to God at the coming of our Lord?] – infinitely repulsive.

On the other hand, the ordinary mortal, with reminiscences of his own birchings, cannot help on reflection smarting anew as he remembers his youth. Nevertheless, he is by no means the birch’s implacable foe. He views it in company with his first loves, his foolish fond early trust in fanciful Derby winners, and the like things; so that, in fact, it is dyed -with a tender and poetic glamour of the imagination that even endears it to him. He talks of it to his young children as a strange wondrous experience among the myriad others that, please God, life has in store for them.

Lastly, there are they to whom the mere idea of the birch is hugely mirth-provoking. They – the chances are – have never suffered from it, never ever seen it in the days when it acts like a dire fetish upon the mind. Thus they can afford to scourge it with their innocent unchastened wit, and to brag grandiloquently of how they would have bearded the ridiculous horror to its very twigs, had they had the good fortune to be taught “mensa, a table, within a mile of it.

Now, I for one respect the birch, with respect that borders upon affection. I have wept under it more than once. Even the abstract idea of it seems to me to be venerable. Nor can I at all sympathise with those sensitive people who blush at the mention of it, and hold up their elegant and mittened hands in scorn of it, as if it were a misbegotten monster. These are, indeed, just the persons who would, methinks, have beat benefitted by a nearer acquaintance with the thing they deprecate so uncharitably. It would have flogged some of the absurdity out of them.

How well do I recall the method and manner of my birchings twenty years ago! I suffered in two different schools. Nowadays a boy gets “tone,” as it is called, through athletics. In my day I think the agent was the birch. Just as the modern vaunts of the brief time in which he can run a mile, so his predecessor boasted of the number of his birchings in a single half, ” and the stoical mood in which he accepted them. “How many times were you birched last week, my dear?” was quite a current common place of salutation on the part of a fond mother when she visited her son at school. And if she were as fully Spartan in spirit as the lad, her eyes would brighten with pride at the elevated answer, Twice, mother, and I didn’t cry in the least.”

At the one school, indeed, birching seemed as much a part of our curriculum as the Latin grammar and Colenso. Daily alter morning school, a herd of boys stayed behind in the large room, to be castigated. One could then judge of a boy’s stamina very fairly. Some of us fidgeted a good deal during the unpleasant moments of expectation. Some smiled sardonically even to the head master’s face. Some shed tears, and volubly bewailed the injustice of their doom. These last were in the worst plight. They met with pity from neither gods nor men.

In this school our birching wore wrought in private. The drill-master was the executioner; and he used to come into the room with the birch under his arm, and smelling of beer as if he had been fortifying himself for the task. The head-master generally stood by and said “Enough!” when he thought that the crime was duly atoned for. But he did not always sufficiently concentrate his attention upon the work in hand and, thanks to sheer abstraction of mind, many a boy got more than was meant for him. Now and then he honored us by himself taking a turn with the birch; and, though amateurish, he had a strong arm, But he lacked “staying ” power. He could not, like Keate of Eton, have flogged half a hundred boys in a single evening.

A much more formal and impressive business was a birching at my second school. This was an institution with decided Ritualistic tendencies. We had half-holidays on saints’ days, Our Head master, Dr E., was also far from averse to giving us extra half holidays whenever we petitioned for them, you would have thought that boys thus indulged would never need to be birched.

I thank heaven that I for my part never suffered the extreme penalty under Dr E , though I can speak for his deputy. The birchings were done publicly – in presence of the whole school, that is. The Doctor used to turn up his coat cuffs, set back his shoulders, and widen, his legs, as if he were one in a boxing bout. His subsequent behaviour gave me the notion that he regarded birching as a fine gymnastic exercise. He took breath methodically between the blows, and sometimes paused awhile. The lad’s screams and our silence (there were two hundred of us) had then something of the sublime about them.

At this school there were perhaps ten or a dozen birchings in a half. Of course, canings of various degrees were innumerable ; but a birching is to a caning as a cathedral to a humble red-brick Methodist chapel. Impending birchings were announced many days beforehand on the green-baize board to which, notices of cricket and football matches, scholarship contests, and the like were pinned. The culprits had the pleasure of reading these advertisements like the rest of us.

The event took place in the great vaulted dining-hall, after dinner. As soon as the servitors had carried off the plates and glasses and cutlery, we sang our Latin grace, and then, instead of bustling off to play, we remained standing. When we were quiet, the head master, from the transverse table on the dais, summoned the victim to his immediate presence. The birch was already on the table. A solemn statement of the case against the boy was recounted to us all, and then there sounded the dread command, “Strip, sir.”

This was certainly a trying time for the boy. However firm his previous determination to bear himself with dignity, he was sure to find late too much for him. And so he lay like a sucking-pig on the table, and took his punishment as best he could. It was not very edifying to the rest of us; but it was dramatic; and so, though those of us who were in front held their breath and affected to turn pale, no sooner was it all over, and we were out in the cricket-field, than we discussed it as an incident in the monotony of school -life not on the whole unwelcome,

I do not pretend, in conclusion, to debate about the merits and dements of birching ; because, as I have said, l am unbiased. But no doubt there are cases in which birching is a very effectual deterrent from evil-doing as well as a cure for it; and the only deterrent or cure. Sometimes I think the birch might, with advantage be introduced into the life of adults. I wonder whether Schopenhauer [pessimistic German philosopher], for example, would have benefited by it, Perhaps, however, he experienced it when he was a school boy at Wimbledon. It is a curious point; for if so, may not his whole philosophy be the outcome of the birch and his proud resentful nature? Not everyone is magnanimous enough to be birched and be the better for it.


American Way,

I regret that I did not notice your link to the birching article. In truth, I tend to skip clicking your links when I have trouble understanding your supporting text and especially after I have clicked links that fail to deliver the promised content. It seems that some USA documents can only be viewed by those in the USA. The rest of us are denied access, even to snippet views.

Papers Past contains more than one million pages of digitised New Zealand newspapers and periodicals. The collection covers the years 1839 to 1945 and includes 63 publications from all regions of New Zealand. It is quite possibly the best such free English language digital collection in the world. Google’s collection is far less systematic and presently very incomplete.

The service is free and includes OCR text and word search. It is also searchable using Google. The OCR is of variable quality depending upon the quality of the original printing, and its photo image.

The papers reflect the ethos of the nation and the daily concerns. There are many reports of foreign news that show how New Zealand viewed the world and was influenced by it.


Sadly you are not alone. I do not share the enjoyment that our excellent and hard-working Management Team find in American Way’s more surreal efforts. I simply find myself frustrated and annoyed that I cannot understand them.

As regards the inaccessible links, I have pointed out to American Way in the past that certain features of Google are only available to US IP addresses. If you find yourself really desirous of seeing the promised contents of such a link a trick which will sometimes work is to access the link via a US anonymous proxy service, of which there are some free ones. One of our past nuisance posters (I would say fun pesters, but I’d have to put in the © notice ) made extensive use of one such service.

However, if using an anonymous proxy service be sure to first clear your browser cache, including cookies, as Google is extremely wary of the copyright implications of allowing access to the material outside the US and will identify some data from previous websites visited which makes such origin appear likely. Sadly though even this precaution may not be sufficient, as depending on use previously made of the IP address the anonymous proxy allocates you Google may object to it anyway. In short, a lot of hassle unless you really, really want to see whatever is purported to be in the link.


PROFESSIONAL GIRL FLOGGINGTimaru Herald, Volume L, Issue 4760, 3 February 1890, Page 4

A writer in Truth [a scurrilous muckraking newspaper] some months ago called attention to the advertisements on the part of a woman, offering to flog unruly girls of any age on payment of a fee. It struck her that this sort of thing ought to be exposed, and she endeavoured to enter into correspondence with the “operator.” After one or two failures she succeeded in catching her fish, a correspondence ensued, and she, posing as the mother of an unruly daughter of 20, had an interview with the advertiser. The whole story is too long to be repeated here but the woman’s system is explained by herself in a sort of circular as follows:

– My first object when a girl is placed with me is to show her kindly, but firmly, that I must be implicitly obeyed. It is always a good plan to rule by moral suasion if possible. When that has been fairly tried and fails, then it is positively necessary to use some other means of making the girl obey.

First I warn her of the consequences of repeated faults; then, when a direct act of disobedience, a lie, or very serious fault shows itself, I tell her that presently I shall punish. Never birch when angry. During the interval she thinks over the fault. I make preparations. These consist in having ready a strong narrow table, straps (waist band with sliding straps, anklets, and wristlets), cushions, and a good, long, pliable rod, telling her to prepare by removing her dress, kinkers, &c., and putting on the dressing gown (hind part before). Then I talk seriously to her, show her the nature of the fault, and the need of punishment as a cure. Next I put on the waist band, after having told her that if she submits quietly no one need know; if she struggles I must call in help, (girls generally prefer to be quiet). Placing her at the end of the table (on which there are cushions to protect the person) I turn her body over the table and fasten the straps underneath it. Then I fasten the knees together, wrists the same, unless I anticipate a struggle – then I use anklets and wristlets, and fasten the limbs to the legs of the table. This really takes less time to do than to write about. Unfastening the dressing-gown, the orthodox surface is found at the right angle for punishing. Taking the birch, I measure my distance, and standing at the side, proceed to strike slowly but firmly. By moving gently forward each stroke is differently placed, and six strokes may be enough if well given with full force. If the fault has been such as to need severe correction, then I begin on the other side and work back again. For screams increased strokes must be given. If a girl tries very hard indeed to bear it bravely, then, perhaps, I give 10 instead of 12.

Directly it is finished I cover up the part exposed, unfasten the girl, and, finding her probably much subdued, help to resolutions of amendment. If this birching has been judiciously and conscientiously administered, the girl will bear against the operation no resentment, but be ready to “kiss and be friends.”

After allowing the culprit a little time to compose herself and re-dress, I expect her to join the others, and no mention of any kind is made of the punishment unless future misconduct makes it necessary, and this is not often.

Birching is an extraordinary thing, not an every-day work, therefore care must be taken that the operator has the proper nerve and patience for the operation. Mothers are the proper persons to whip girls, but if they have not the necessary nerve, then it is better to appoint a deputy. After this serious business is over, much steady patience is needed, for a birching is no use whatever if a girl is to be petted again and allowed to do just as she likes. She must be under firm, kind discipline. None of my girls have been more attached to me than those whom I have obliged to discipline severely. They have a great respect for those who can master them, and who do not taunt them with past misdeeds. One good scolding is worth months of “nagging.” Efforts at amendment must be encouraged, and those having the charge of girls must not expect to reform them all at once. “Rome was not built in a day.” The old Adam will sometimes show itself, and for checking his work nothing is so useful as a birch rod judiciously used.

Anyone who would be deterred by screams or struggles from carrying out what has been begun should never attempt whipping, because, unless it is thoroughly done, ground is lost, and the girl will rejoice in her triumph.

Source: … 00203.2.31


That description is almost exactly how spanking houses operated in Victorian London & other cities.

The only differences:

The drawers were left on when the miscreant girl donned the dressing-gown back to front.

Six was usually considered sufficient for even the oldest miscreant.

I’m sorry that we exported that particularly disgraceful modus operandi to your fair land.

Can we have it back, please?!!



At Christchurch on Saturday ten boys, ranging in age from fourteen years and nine months to seventeen years, appeared in the Juvenile Court, before Mr W. R. Haselden, S.M. They were charged with having created a breach of the peace in Colombo street, Sydenham, on September 5. Eight of them pleaded guilty, and the other two not guilty.

Sub-Inspector McGrath said that there seemed to be a tendency among a section of boys in Sydenham to form “pushes,” and the ten boys before the Court were apparently one of these gangs. They appeared to have arranged to give a boy of sixteen a thrashing, and on the evening of September 5, a Sunday, the whole band sallied forth to meet their victim on his return from church. They met him in Colombo street, and gave him an unmerciful drubbing. Two young ladies who arrived on the scene went to the assistance of the lad, and succeeded in rescuing him from his tormentors, though they were somewhat roughly handled themselves. The gang did not disband then, but proceeded to maltreat other little boys whom they met.

Three of the boys gave their ages as seventeen, three as sixteen, three, as fifteen, and one as fourteen years and nine months, and in reply to the Magistrate’s question why those boys who were over sixteen had not been taken before the Magistrate’s Court the Sub- Inspector said that when juveniles and others were concerned in the same offence it was usual to charge all the offenders before the Juvenile Court.

The victim of the assault said that he felt the effects of the punishment he received for a week afterwards. The two boys who had pleaded not guilty were with the others, but he could not say that they struck him.

Statements made by some of the accused boys were produced by Sergeant Reamer. From these it appeared that the reason for the action of the “push” was that they believed the boy had said that he would blacken the faces of the Sydenham larrikins with boot polish. One boy stated that seven of the gang took an active part in the infliction of the punishment.

The Magistrate said that what the case demanded was a whipping for all the boys, but he had not the power to order such punishment for those over sixteen, and it, would be unfair to submit the younger boys to the indignity while the older ones escaped it. He gave the four boys under sixteen the option of taking six strokes of the birch rod or paying a fine of 20 shillings and two of the boys elected to take the whipping.

The Magistrate said that such conduct, on the part of the boys was most serious, and he was determined to put a stop to it. For the sake of good order it was impossible for him to let them off lightly. The two boys who had been manly enough to take a birching would receive the minimum number of strokes, four. He thought this punishment would be a sufficient deterrent to them and to other boys, and if it was not he could order up to twelve strokes. All the other boys would be convicted and fined 20s each, the fines to be paid at the rate of 5s per week. If they were riot paid, the defaulters would be committed to solitary confinement for seven days.

Source: … 90927.2.55


The case illustrates the difficulty when there are arbitrary age limits for punishments and it gives some insight into the exchange rate for different punishments – birch versus fine versus solitary confinement prevailing at the time. Also, it seems, youth gangs are not new.