The cane and corporal punishment

So far it seems that my post on school discipline Victorian-style has attracted the most views, so I shall say a little bit more about the cane. Most schoolmasters would have used the cane for discipline, and it was not uncommon for senior pupils to use it on junior pupils as well. In fact the cane was used in British schools into the 1970s I believe, although less often in the later years. The cane was usually made of a thin wooden stick probably 10mm thick. Sometimes it was bamboo or rattan, but it was certainly also made out of other wood as well. Birch was used for some canes and it was often kept in a tank so that it was wet and more pliable. The cane often had a curved or crooked handle. The length of the cane was usually less than 1 metre.

Boys were generally caned on their bottom or hands, while girls were often caned on the backs of their legs and also on their hands. It is usually accepted that caning on the hands was probably the more painful. The schoolmaster would choose to cane the hand that was not used for writing, and three or six strokes were given, usually aimed to be placed across the fingers, which hurt more than the palms of the hand. If the hand was withdrawn, extra strokes were given. Caning on the bottom was sometimes aided by the victim bending over a chair, or sometimes over a vaulting horse, but it was also possible that the pupil would just be told to bend over and touch his toes. A number of strokes were applied, sometimes only one or two, with six of the best being reserved for serious offences. It was not common for the cane to be given on the bare bottom, it was usually given over clothes, but in boarding schools it would often be given at the end of the day when the pupil was wearing pyjamas.

That said, at Eton, during Victorian times, a recalcitrant pupil might be given the birch. This was not a birch rod, but a cluster of thin birch branches, bound together, and looking much like the head of a besom (the broom used for sweeping leaves). In this case the pupil dropped trousers and underpants and was hit repeatedly with the birch. This inflicted a mild pain at the first stroke, which built into a more intense pain with each subsequent stroke. The birching was usually given in a kneeling position and never over clothes. The school punishment was reinforced by home punishment and the wise pupil would not willingly admit to a caning at school as this might well elicit a further punishment at home.

The Victorian child soon learnt that if he wanted to misbehave he should ensure that he did not get caught. Did the punishment work? There is little doubt that for some pupils the threat of a caning was a sufficient deterrent to prevent misdemeanours. For the more serial offender it did not completely stop bad behaviour, but it certainly curbed it. Was it abused? Almost certainly. There is little doubt that there were teachers and prefects who gave punishments in an unfair or sadistic way. Corporal punishment finally ended in Britain in the late 1980s and one wonders if the loutish behaviour of some teenagers today would not have been tamed by application of some old-fashioned punishment. When I was a boy, rules were black and white, and you knew how far you could go. Nowadays it appears that rules are meant to be broken and you get away with as much as you can. A bit of Victorian discipline would perhaps not come amiss, or do you have better ideas on how to tame young people today?

Published in: on May 28, 2009 at 10:26 pm  Comments (125)  
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