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 If the hand was withdrawn, extra strokes were given.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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Discipline Victorian Style

One of the things that fascinates modern children who visit our Victorian School is the discipline. It seems to me that modern pupils have little or no concept of the ways in which children were disciplined in years gone by.

caningThe first thing to say is that discipline was very strict. In some ways it had to be, because school classes were often large, and were led by one teacher with assistance from monitors or pupil teachers. But also there was a belief that children had to be trained to do good.

Some of these beliefs came from religious views. Christian teaching said that people were born with a tendency to do wrong and therefore needed training to do right. We are all familiar with proverbs such as “spare the rod or spoil the child”, and “train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.”  The Victorians fully embraced this thinking and believed that it was essential that children be taught to keep to the rules.

This is quite different from modern thinking, where children are taught to question everything they are taught, and quickly learn how to push at the limits. In addition, parental discipline has  declined, and schools have had to follow the pattern.

In modern schools a cane is considered almost barbaric and any form of physical punishment is termed abuse. The Victorians had no such scruples and  used canes, the slipper, the ruler and even the belt, to discipline wayward children. Undoubtedly there was some abuse, those who used the punishment excessively, but there were also many who exercised their authority fairly and with restraint.

Interestingly enough, many modern children seem to think they might prefer some form of mild corporal punishment to the sloppy and ineffective punishments meted out in schools today. I have heard of school classes that have descended into chaos because teachers have been unable to maintain control, with their only weapon being the detention. I have wondered, for many years, whether a detention has done any good. I have never spoken to anyone who has said to me, I really appreciated those detentions, they got me back on the right path, but I have had several who have said to me that corporal punishment kept them on the straight and narrow.

You may have gathered by now that I am in favour of corporal punishment, as long as it is carried out fairly. My belief is that a short sharp shock is often sufficient correction to point a child in the right direction, and it is quickly over. Often the possibility of punishment is sufficient deterrent in itself. In my view, the detention is a feeble punishment that achieves very little and results in a fair number of naughty children growing up into uncontrollable teenagers and anti-social adults.

I’ll come back to the subject later.

Published in: on May 12, 2009 at 2:20 pm  Comments (17)  
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