Why Six of the Best

Prior to 1940, most offences were treated with the same punishment. That was six strokes of the cane on the bottom. It seems that once a boy was in senior school any offence was six strokes. The idea being to make the caning hurt as much as possible. A boy would get one stroke and feel the full effects knowing that he had to keep bending over for more strokes and feeling each stroke hurting more than the previous. As we move into the 1960 era it was felt that boys did not need such harsh punishment and the number of strokes varied with the offence. Also for many reasons caning was done on the hands as well as the bottom.

Hand caning prior to 1940 tended to be done on the non-writing hand. A boy could take six strokes on one hand leaving it swollen and unable to be used for days. Later caning was spread out to an equal number of strokes on each hand. Of course, for every rule there is the exception. In most cases boys got at least two strokes of the cane on the hands or bottom, very rarely one. This was to make the boy suffer having to hold out his other hand to get what he has just got on his other hand or keep his bottom still for another painful whack. Many regarded this process as being as bad as actually taking the whack.

Entries in punishment books can be confusing when giving the number of strokes.

one on the hands …. hands is plural, therefore each hand got one stroke

one on the hand …… means that just one stroke was given on just one hand.

One on each hand ….. means just what it says.

The same applies for two or three strokes.

The number of strokes on the hands varied with the offence, and each hand got the same number. When caning on the bottom, it cannot be confined to one buttock at a time. This is why it goes up in multiples of two. One on each hand is two whacks, so the bottom is whacked twice. This was important as all schools liked to punish the same for certain offences. Bullying was three on each hand which meant six on the bottom. Constant lateness was one on each hand which was two on the bottom. Most schools gave the same number of strokes for the same offence. Some on the hands, others on the bottom. The severity of the caning not only varied with the force of the stroke. A more painful stroke on the hand could be given by getting the fingers, where as on the bottom the lower bottom/ tops of legs feel more pain than the central area. Of course on the bottom the pain can be increased by doing it on a boy’s pants or the bare bottom.

Three strokes in total was hardly ever given on the hands but was sometimes given on the bottom. This was when the head was going to cane over trousers and thought two strokes, due to the protection was not enough. Other times it could have been four on the boy’s pants but felt it would hurt or mark his bottom more than deserved so reduced it to three.

Five strokes was not a number given, unless as a result of moving. The exception is the Barry Tavner case.


Why six? I suppose you could just as well ask “Why a cane?” Why did English teachers think it natural to use a flexible stick to hurt children with, where American teachers thought it was natural to use a flat piece of wood? (Or “why did English parents use a slipper, where American parents used a hair brush”.) Surely the answer is “because it’s a tradition”. Getting the cane isn’t just being hurt; it’s being hurt in the traditional, rather stylized way. In one way, the tradition made the punishment less traumatic. Children were prepared to submit to a caning because being hurt in that particular way was a traditional part of being at school. (If the teacher had said “stand there while I throw this stone at you three times” the child would have refused or felt degraded, even if the stone-throwing didn’t hurt any worse than the cane — because it wasn’t what you expected or accepted from a teacher.) But in another way, the tradition made the punishment a bigger deal: Getting The Cane in the traditional way represented the very worst punishment the school was allowed to give — it made you realize how bad you’d been, even if it didn’t hurt much more than, say, a smack on the legs or a clip round the ear. The famous advert for the Bognor Cane Company said that this was why canes have curly handles — because thats what kids expect canes to look like. “The sense of having been caned counts for more than the pain caused by the caning.” The symbolism is important to teachers as well, I think. Nice, liberal teachers who would never dream of punching or slapping anyone some how thought that a PROPER caning, done according to the traditional rules, didn’t really count as hitting. Nasty, brutal teachers who might have lost their temper and boxed a child’s ears or kicked him downstairs kept their anger under control, because they were only allowed to hit a child in one way (on one part of the body, with one type of stick, a set number of times.) I think that a lot of children and teachers would have thought that a whacking with a length of wooden dowling or a twig didn’t really count as a caning. I think they may also have thought that 4 or 6 whacks wasn’t quite a proper caning either.


What I really meant was ‘on some occasions hazel branches were used, not birch’. I believe this came from the recent BBC4 documentary on CP and referred to the situation on the Isle of Man.

Judging from documentaries I have seen on the Isle of Man, I suspect the Women’s Institute has denuded all of the available birch trees for their own perversity! I am of course referring to the WI folk practicing the use of the birch for the TV cameras about the time abolition came up, depicting middle-aged women with twinsets practising with the birch on each other…..


Personally I think that while knowledge of the realities of SCP will inevitably become more vague it will not disappear from our culture here in the UK for some time yet.  Even if they do not encounter old style classroom exhibits in museums on private visits young school children are often taken on school trips to such sites.  While they may well form the opinion that the cane was applied only to the hand and only to boys they are almost certain to see a cane,  hear the term ‘six of the best’. and learn that there was once something called ‘corporal punishment’ used in many schools.

As regards caning generally, in the wider world of course caning as a school punishment is still used in some regions.  It is though possibly more likely to be noted by the British public in its JCP manifestations.  From time to time newspapers and other media highlight the misadventures of some stupid European or American who has taken it into their head to paint graffiti on Singaporean public transport or similar and has been sentenced to be caned.  Similarly canings ordered by religious courts in Aceh, Indonesia and some Malay States make the news occasionally, especially when they are conducted in public and the recipients are female.


There are indeed many expressions/phases still in common use but very few people nowadays know their original meanings of them. Many of these are often misquotes too.

I believe the great majority of adult people in the UK will still recognise it as referring to ‘old fashioned’ corporal punishment, particularly that used in schools. Military and judicial CP of the past was often far in excess of six strokes. So even six hard strokes would relate to what was seen in the past as a ‘mild’ punishment. Of course, it really hurt and left marks but within a week or so it had gone. However, the memory remained for very much longer, for some forever.

So why was it six? The answer to that relates to the pre-decimal era.  Up to 1971 in the UK much of the numeric system was based on twelve or a dozen. Twelve old pennies equalled one shilling. Eggs and many other items were sold by the dozen, for some obscure reason eggs are still sold by the dozen or half dozen. The western world’s calendar has 12 months. All that said the old ‘Imperial Measure’ system had varying ways relating to solids, liquids and distances. Many of these measures were from ancient times and quite quaint but they were a nightmare to generations of school children and many adults too!

Anyway back to the original question; why ‘six of the best’? The simple answer is, I believe, it was a practical number with the way of counting at the time. People counted in dozens then. I am not sure quite when six was first used in most UK schools, late Victorian times perhaps. It was about this time when education was becoming compulsory (up to about 12 at least) and controlled by local authorities.

Six was a convenient figure too, easily broken down for lesser punishments, One reads of ones, twos, threes, fours and the full six, never five! With hand canings, two, four or six could be divided equally between left and right hands. A single stroke of the cane was generally given on the left hand or the non-writing hand. Three of the cane was more common for bottom canings being half of the maximum.

School canings were usually fairly quick punishments, even a full six was over in a minute or so provided the ‘victim’ cooperated. Some schools had traditions involving long waits before the actual punishment. Quite what was considered the ‘Best’ is difficult to define. Full force might be offered as one answer but that depends on the type of cane and the person applying it. One reads of trousers down or the wearing of thin PE shorts for a caning too.

I have read that in 1972 when the UK school leaving age was increased from 15 to 16 some LEAs authorised the maximum punishment for those in the final school year to be increased to eight strokes. In Scotland, a heavier tawse was also made available for the same reason.

I have purposefully avoided talking of girls being punished at school but much of the above applies to them too.


In my day “six of the best” was widely understood to mean the strokes would be laid on as hard as possible to make the caning as severe as possible.  This was the intended implication when the term was used. Reality was likely variable and uncertain.

  1. Canes varied in size, weight and “temper”.
  2. Teachers varied in skill, strength and resolution. Two strokes from one teacher was worth six from another. There is reason to believe that most teachers laid it on as hard as they could most of the time easing off only for delicate boys.
  3. The distress felt by the recipient varied depending on the circumstances. Speedily administered deserved punishments likely caused less trauma than delayed and unfair punishments. Boys caught fighting who were immediately caned got off lightly compared to those who were caned next day.


The fear of a first caning was immense. Even more so if you’d seen another boy being caned or the marks it left. In my school in the late 50s to mid-60s the full scale six of the best was reserved for the most serious offences. Three of the best was far more common.


Back to the question, why was six the figure that was associated with spanking? As I have said in previous posts these were pre-decimal days. The dozen (12) was a common unit in many things. Eggs are still sold in dozens even now. Twelve months in a year, twelve old pennies in a shilling.

School punishments were generally a quicker affair than home punishments too. A visit to the headmaster was usually over quicker once guilt was established! At home spankings could take longer, some youngsters were sent to their bedrooms first. Some had to wait until dad came home. At home there were no rules about how many whacks could be given but most parents were sensible about it.

At home it was just Mum and me, dad died when I was about five. I remember knowing when I was in my mum’s ‘bad books’ all evening and suspecting a tanning was likely. When my bedtime finally arrived and I was in my pyjamas I’d be told off again then it was across mum’s knee for what she called a ‘good hiding’. Then she slapped my bottom. At first the slaps didn’t really hurt too much but as she kept slapping the sting really built up. Sometimes she’d pause to tell me off again, maybe to get her breath too! Usually, it was done across my pyjamas trousers sometimes they were pulled down.

When I was that bit older, 10 or 11 perhaps, top end of junior school age, mum slippered my bottom a few times. I had lay over the end of her bed, a bit more grown up! The slipper hurt right from the first whack and I had much fewer whacks with it than from mum’s hand.

Once I was in senior school, I’d passed my 11+ exam I became more familiar with the phrase ‘six of the best’. As I understood it was the ultimate punishment before expulsion. That said I knew of no one ever being expelled but some lads did get six of the best from the headmaster’s cane. After getting my first school caning I realised that what I had at home were fairly mild punishments but believe me they didn’t feel like it at the time!


Schools all over the UK seemed to have their methods and how the frequency varied. My school tended to give a firm three of the best to all years, first to fifth. Missing a detention meant two strokes unless you were a repeat offender. Then it was a proper three of the best. Six of the best was reserved for more serious misbehaviour.

I found myself in continuing trouble when just in the fifth form. It was more or less just a bit of showing off. nothing too sinister. After one silly prank I was told to go to the Deputy Head’s office after Friday school. I knew that would probably mean one thing. When I got there he sat me down and gave me a firm talking to. I was basically told to grow up and act my age. He said I needed to settle down and work for my GCE exams the next summer. I began think I was going to get away with just a warning when he stood and said “Let’s get it over with, remove your blazer.”

I realised that he was going to cane me. I was told pull my shirt tail out of the back of my trousers and to bend over his desk. Once I was in place he gave me a proper six of the best. My bottom was sore for the whole weekend. Unlike you I wasn’t spanked at home into my teens. A slippering from my mother hurt but it was never like the cane at school.


You and others here have reported being required to remove your blazer and pull your shirt tail out of the back of your trousers when being caned.

The blazer removal is easy to understand.  A blazer might well act like a very short skirt and create an air pocket just over the target area which would slow and hamper the cane.

But the shirt tail is more difficult to understand.  Shirts were not usually of very substantial material by the time I was was at secondary school, and I seem to recall that I am a little older than you,   Futher the shirt tail would be tightly trapped under tautly stretched trousers in the bent over posture and closely moulded to whatever portion of the buttocks it covered.  Given a very penetrative implement like a cane one wouldn’t expect the presence of the shirt tail in situ to make much difference to the severity of the punishment as perceived by the recipient.

Indeed I’ve seen it claimed that other than the psychological effect enforced removal of trousers, or even trousers and underpants, made very little difference to the pain of a caning.  Indeed I recall claims that the latter wasn’t too bad because due to factors concerned with compression/decompression of flesh in a cane stroke, it is actually less painful if the buttocks are not covered by tight clothing.

Lacking personal experience of any of this I would be most interested in what views you, or indeed anyone else who encountered the practice, had of the pulling out of the shirt tail from the trousers prior to being caned.  Can you recall if you had an opinion as to whether it made the punishment more painful, or was it just seen as a time-honored tradition, just something that happened without any particular reason for it?  All opinions gratefully received.