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THE ENGLISH VICE: Beating, Sex and Shame in Victorian Britain and After

by Ian Gibson

Duckworth, London, 1978, 364pp

Review by C. Farrell

There is no such thing as the 'standard work' on corporal punishment in Britain, but this rather strange book perhaps comes nearer to it than any other I have found.

It is not, however, to be recommended for the author's opinions. Ian Gibson was brought up in Quaker schools and clearly does not understand these things. The English Vice is, for him, 'flagellomania'. His tone of voice throughout is one of pained astonishment that the official striking of buttocks could ever have been contemplated. He devotes considerable space to showing that it was already apparent, several hundred years ago, that such a practice had sexual overtones. There is a lot of heavy-going stuff about Meibom (1590-1655) and Rousseau and various other theorists on how beating allegedly causes impotence and turns people into 'flagellomanes'.

book coverGibson has explored the works of Doppet, Acton, Krafft-Ebing, Freud and many others. The problem about all these authors is that they are mistaken. They are the people who regarded homosexuality and masturbation as unacceptable perversions. We now know all that to be nonsense. Yet Gibson simply takes it as read that a taste for CP -- he calls it all "sadomasochism" -- is a bad thing, and that CP in schools is therefore bad because it is the cause of that taste. How, I wonder, would he explain away the presence of so much sadomasochism in France -- just look at the small ads in any French gay magazine -- when that country has had no CP in its schools for well over a hundred years? And what about the fact that most men over 50 in Britain today were probably whacked at home or at school, or both, but the large majority of them appear not to have turned into CP fanatics? Even if they had, why would it really matter?

It is mainly to the great public school headmasters of 150 to 200 years ago that Gibson attributes the quick spread throughout British society of the idea that the main way of punishing boys is to beat their bottoms. He finds it scandalous that these men did not quickly take on board the sexual implications of whacking, and abolish the custom forthwith. This suggests a certain naiveté on the author's part about the way the world works.

The three long chapters which form the core of the book -- "Home and school beating in the 19th century and later", "Eton, the birch and Swinburne", and "Judicial, prison, army and naval flogging in Britain" -- are the ones likely to be of most interest. There is a great deal of factual and descriptive material from a variety of sources.

However, there are some major weaknesses. Firstly, Gibson relies too much on secondary sources -- especially The Humanitarian, organ of the Humanitarian League around the beginning of this century -- when the primary sources are quite easily available (19th century parliamentary papers, for instance). Thus, for example, he says the 1862 Juvenile Male Offenders Act specified that the birch be applied only to the naked buttocks; that did indeed become the standard practice from the 1860s onwards, but there is no mention of it in the Act itself, or in any other Act. Similarly, he thinks that boys in the Navy were flogged with the cat on the upper back before the 1860s (when the birch was introduced instead), despite his own quotation from The Lancet a few pages earlier making it clear that it was the cat on the buttocks.

Secondly, the author is too ready to take at face value the writing of those who share his own horror of corporal punishment, like the Humanitarian League, Bernard Shaw, W.T. Stead, STOPP, and others. These are all useful sources, but some of their prose exaggerates. Proponents of a cause always overstate their case.

Thirdly, Gibson is somewhat misinformed about corporal punishment in modern times. He recycles (in two places) the hoary old myth that "where State schools are concerned, caning is usually applied to the hand", for which statement he adduces no evidence at all. There have always been some schools which punish on the hand, but in most parts of England and Wales the majority of secondary modern, comprehensive and grammar schools more often caned on the backside, at least in the case of boys.

Indeed, the book concentrates far too much on the major public schools -- as if these were where most CP took place. It's true of course that these few famous schools have traditionally produced Britain's ruling class, and thus largely set the tone for what was and was not acceptable throughout British society. But to ignore completely the much more numerous minor public or direct grant schools and, especially, grammar schools, seems quite perverse. These schools were nearly all enthusiastic users of the cane, and were the main source of provincial England's middle classes for several decades. That, as much as stories in Gem and Magnet, is surely why CP is so much to the fore in the national (at least male)psyche, at all levels of society. The whole phenomenon is a lot more widespread than Gibson appears to realise.

There is a very full bibliography. In an appendix, some of Swinburne's birching poems are quoted at length. There is a section exploring possible relationships between corporal punishment, shame, ritual and humiliation, with particular reference to blushing and the possible erotic overtones of the bending-over 'rump presentation' posture, though this latter notion had already been done to death by Desmond Morris in his numerous books.

For all its faults, this is a book which no serious student of the subject can really be without.


By Joseph A. Mercurio

Published by Holt, Rinehart and Winston (Australia), 1975
First published USA 1972 as "Caning: Educational Rite and Tradition"

Review by C. Farrell

THE FULL TEXT of Caning: Educational Ritual is available here as a single PDF file (1.5 MB).
If a box opens headed "Save it for later in Dropbox", you can just close it. You should then see the document (19408.pdf). You can read it online or you can press "Download" in the top left corner to download it to your device and open it at leisure, using Adobe Acrobat Reader or some other PDF-reading software.

This is a most extraordinary book. All 189 pages of it are devoted to an academic study of the single topic of caning at one particular school in New Zealand, Christchurch Boys' High School.

How did this come about? The author was an American university postgraduate research student, and in 1969 he gained a Fulbright-Hays Fellowship to New Zealand, a place he seems to have chosen at random. Once there, he conceived the notion of persuading a school to let him inhabit it for nearly a year so that he could observe its disciplinary customs and write a thesis about them.

Mercurio sets out his reasons in the Introduction:

" ... no one has ever taken a lengthy, detailed look at corporal punishment as practised under the conditions of school life - that is to say, no one has yet gone into a specific setting in the role of disinterested participant-observer and studied corporal punishment over an extended period as an ongoing, 'working', institutionalised practice. Consequently, scant attention has been paid to an entire series of questions such as: What does the practice of corporal punishment in the schools look like from the point of view of the participants? How do pupils and teachers not only view, but react to its administration in live situations? In other words, what is the meaning of corporal punishment to those involved with its practice? What is the relationship of the practice to the values, expectations, and demands of the larger school community? Does the practice itself serve purposes of an extradisciplinary nature? If so, what are these purposes?...."

He's not quite right about nobody ever having done this before. Royston Lambert and Spencer Milham were "disinterested participant-observers" at many English boarding schools a few years earlier, investigating very similar questions (though not confined to corporal punishment). The result was a fascinating book called "Hothouse Society" (1968).

New Zealand is renowned for being more traditionally English than England, and Christchurch Boys' High is a very traditional school. It was founded in 1881, and at the time of the study had 1,093 pupils. It takes boys between the ages of 13 and 17, all of whom in 1969 wore grey short trousers ("of reasonable length and reasonable fit -- width to be 17 inches or above at cuff") with long grey socks ("no lower than two-thirds up the leg") and caps (to be "worn squarely on your head with no hair showing at the front"). A host of similarly detailed rules covered haircuts, punctuality, no hands in pockets, manners, parts of the building out of bounds, standing to attention when talking to a master, and so on.

Mercurio starts with a definition:

"Corporal punishment is defined as chastisement inflicted on the body in order to cause physical pain, usually for the purpose of modifying behaviour. The instrument of corporal punishment considered in this study is the cane, a rattan or bamboo rod approximately three feet long and one-half inch in diameter. It is administered to a pupil's backside (i.e. buttocks) while he is in a 'touch-your-toes' position."

(At least, so Mercurio says. Other anecdotal evidence from Christchurch High suggests that the boy was usually required to rest his hands on his knees, which produces a much less tight but arguably more stable bending position, and seems to have been something of a New Zealand speciality.)

book coverIt turns out that in this particular school the canings could be administered by any teacher; there were formal beatings in the head's study, but most canings took place in the corridor outside the classrooms, the culprit being taken out of the class for the purpose and returning to it immediately afterwards. This custom provided what the author calls "semi-privacy, in the interests of sparing a boy unnecessary humiliation" such as would occur if he were caned in front of his classmates. I find this a bit odd; is it worse to have one's classmates witness one's punishment than to risk it being seen by any master, boy from another class, visitor, school secretary, delivery man or American academic researcher who may happen along at that moment?

The author's method during his nine-month stay was to attend classes, sit in the staffroom, hang around with boys in their lunchtimes, visit the pub with teachers -- talking all the time, gaining the confidence both of pupils and of masters by being resolutely impartial. Naturally the subject of caning came up quite often, enabling Mercurio gradually to collect opinions and anecdotes on the subject. (Nobody except the headmaster knew that his real interest was in punishment; they thought he was researching the school in general.) It is upon these many conversations that most of the book is based, together with some meetings which the school arranged for him with parents, many of whom also were old boys of the school.

What the book amounts to, then, shorn of its sociological jargon, is a sort of non-statistical opinion survey. And indeed it is the many quotations which make it worth reading. A few examples of quotations from boys:

"I think they should keep caning. I mean this is a boys' school. There has to be some form of discipline here." (Fourth-form boy)

"You bend over. You get your whack. It's a wee bit hot for a while. But it cools off." (Fourt-form boy)

"I didn't mind it. I usually got caned for something I knew I did wrong. I only didn't like it when it was unjust ... my Math teacher once told me I would get one lick for every five points I was below a passing grade on my exams. I got three licks altogether before I made my grade."(Sixth-form boy)

"You really respect a teacher more who canes," Tony offered. "Well, Mr Jamison canes a lot," I said. "Do you respect him?" Michael acknowledged, "No. He canes all the time". "But take Mr Pierce", John now asked the other boys. "Would you like him as much if he didn't cane?" The other six agreed that they really wouldn't. (Third-form boys)

"Some of the masters around here are cane-happy.... Say Mr Moss wanted to cane you. So he sent you to Mr Watson to borrow his cane. Well, Mr Watson would give you two of the cane himself before sending you back to Mr Moss for two more." (Fifth-form boy)

"You learn after a while that six of the cane from one master are worth three of another's or only one from a really good caner". (Fifth-form boy)

And one or two quotations from masters:

"If I do have to cane a boy, I cane him at the time of the offence. And I hit him hard, because I don't want to have to do it again. I do it while I'm hot, and while he's hot ... while we're both hot.... it's quick, it's clean, it's cathartic."

"They don't like it ... mostly because it hurts a hell of a lot: I know I've hurt a kid or two with the cane ... although some of their backsides are so thick from caning that they're almost impervious to it".

"Caning is a personal relationship. A boy places himself in the position of a son to his father .... by bending over, a boy shows he can stand up to his punishment and take it. It's tribal. Of course it is." And then, referring to an Australian boy whom he took into his home for one year as part of a school exchange program, he went on: " ... he wrote his parents about .. how I punished him on occasion. And he said, 'But Mr Walker cared for me enough to give me a hiding'.

"If it is an accepted part of things, then it is viewed differently in the school than it is viewed from outside, and this is what I don't think the public realises. I have certain cut-and-dried things that are a caning offence .... if a boy is found smoking in a public place, he will get caned by me .... If a boy gets more than four detentions in a term, then I cane him. I would be sure in this case there's no malice toward anybody ... the amount of caning I do will depend entirely on how many such cases arise or whether or not a boy has broken the school rules. And I would say that I might deal with three or four cases a fortnight.... that is the established pattern in this school, and if they break it, they get punished." (Headmaster)

Addressing himself to the problem of quantifying the amount of caning going on at Boys' High, Mercurio is up against a difficulty: there is a Masters' Caning Book, but most masters can't usually be bothered to fill it in. For the whole of 1969 there were only 76 entries in it, and yet Mercurio reckons from his own observations that there were actually about 5 canings per day on average, which would make 950 in a year! He also establishes that it was fifth-formers who got caned most (those aged 15/16), closely followed by 3rd and 4th year boys. This suggests a slightly higher optimum age for being whacked than contemporary average practice in Britain, where it was nearer 14 according to the official figures. In 1969 it was also not at all unknown for sixth-formers to be caned at Boys' High, and occasionally even members of the Upper Sixth (three cases recorded in the book in 1969).

The author also did some historical research, and found that one of the earliest headmasters (1884-1920), who set the tone and traditions of the school, "swung a good hefty cane"; his successor (1921-1940) extended the power of caning to monitors (= senior prefects):

"One of those blokes belonged to the First Fifteen and could really lay into you. They used to line boys up outside that little office. The object was to have you bend over for your whacks at the entrance to the corridor and see how far down the length of the hall they could make you fly." (Old Boy)

And during the same headmaster's reign, on a winter's day in 1930,

"three boys were publicly given twelve strokes of the cane each, in front of a turnout of the entire school, and suspended for a week, for smuggling and consuming wine ... The incident is discussed to this day".

What Mercurio concludes from all this (mainly anecdotal) evidence is that the question of corporal punishment cannot be divorced from the social/cultural assumptions and traditions within which it operates; that as a traditional and authoritarian symbol within a mini-society whose values are traditional and authoritarian, it is accepted by more or less all concerned as an effective and sensible thing to do, and expected by boys when they misbehave; and that because it is accepted and expected, it works -- in that particular setting. All of which will seem, to those of us who are familiar with the subject, like not much more than obvious common sense. But nothing is that simple for the American sociologist: he inflates this fairly commonplace perception into a great edifice of complex value-systems, with names like "The CIE/CIA Perspective" (for Caning Is Expected/Caning Is Accepted) and "The CINTHA Perspective" (for Caning Is Nice To Have Around).

But we must not mock too much. The author has quite a few interesting insights on the subject as an intelligent and non-judgmental outsider. He notes the various ways in which CP has a highly symbolic significance, the astonishing amount of folklore surrounding it, the fact that it has a lot to do with manliness (third-formers notch their canings on their belts to see who can get most whackings in a term; it proves how tough they are), its status as a tribal ritual, its tendency to be self-perpetuating, and the part it plays as a social bonding process.

For anyone interested in the wider, especially cultural, aspects of corporal punishment, this book is well worth searching out.

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Copyright © C. Farrell 1985-2015
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