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Artist's impression: A senior Approved School resident pays a painful visit to the headmaster's office

Corporal punishment in reformatories and youth institutions

Comments by C. Farrell

UK flag UNITED KINGDOM: Reformatory CP

Over the years, Britain has seen many different kinds of residential institution for young offenders. Before 1933 they included "Industrial schools" and "Reformatory schools" and "Training schools", all with different methods and purposes. These were allowed to birch misbehaving inmates across the bare seat until the early 1920s. Under government pressure, the cane or tawse over trousers then became the standard means of applying internal discipline. Most of these establishments were run by local voluntary bodies but licensed by central government and subject to regular Home Office inspection.

 In 1933 these all became "Approved Schools", to which the courts could send youngsters for a period of several years. Their policies on corporal punishment, laid down by the Home Office, were standardised in the Approved School Rules 1933 (see documents linked below). These covered England and Wales. There was a different version for Scotland, featuring the tawse instead of the cane.

 Approved Schools had no iron bars or locked cells, and the official line was that they were not to be referred to as reformatories. Rather, they were modelled on ordinary boarding schools, complete with dormitories, avuncular housemasters, tuck shops, fearsome matrons, classrooms, boyish school uniforms, cricket, summer camps, pastoral care, etc., and the officer in overall charge was called the "headmaster". Many of them were in rural areas, where work with farm animals, market gardening, and brisk country walks were all intended to help inculcate a healthy outdoor life as an antidote to urban delinquency.

 A few others, sometimes described as nautical schools, were run on naval lines, with navy terminology and traditions, though they had nothing to do with the Royal Navy and were entirely distinct from the real Naval Training Ships.

 In keeping with the "boarding school" ethos, formal CP was commonplace for the more serious offences in most of the boys' Approved Schools, usually taking the form of a forceful and vigorous caning applied to the seat of the trousers. This was to be carried out privately. Normally the ceremony would be performed by the headmaster, with the deputy head assisting. Other staff could be called in to act as holders-down if a boy proved reluctant to be disciplined, but it appears that as often as not the offender was ready to undergo his punishment without much demur -- though not always without making a good deal of noise (which he was freely permitted to do).

 CP was much less routine in the girls' institutions, where caning was permitted only on the hands, and not at all for girls over 15.

 There were junior, intermediate and senior Approved Schools. The maximum age at the latter was 19, but even at this age the residents -- perhaps in order to emphasise that they were not in prison -- still counted as schoolboys and schoolgirls. This produced the odd state of affairs whereby a youth of 18, in some cases still in short-trousers uniform, could find himself bent across his headmaster's desk for up to 8 strokes of the senior cane, when probably all his friends back home would, in those days, have left school and been in employment (and long trousers), free from all corporal punishment, for three or four long years already. (The ordinary school leaving age was raised to 15 in 1947, and to 16 only in 1972).

 All formal CP at Approved Schools had to be recorded in a book provided by the Home Office and checked regularly by H.O. inspectors. A few of these documents survive in certain Local Record Offices, though with a 50-year bar on public access.

 Punishment books from the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s show that the average boys' Approved School might cane several miscreants each month. At some, probably the bigger ones dealing with the more unruly kind of offender, there were several canings a week. In general, the senior schools deployed the cane more often, and certainly more severely, than the junior or intermediate ones.

 The single most frequent offence listed, especially at the senior schools, was absconding, typically punished with a caning of the maximum 8 strokes. This would be carried out immediately on the runaway's return, and would leave him with heavily wealed and sore buttocks for a week or more. Statistical evidence (see documents linked below) suggests that this swift and robust response did help to persuade some lads not to run away.

 There is also credible anecdotal evidence that, at some Approved Schools, informal and unrecorded spankings and slipperings were occasionally meted out by staff who were not officially empowered to administer CP. It seems a little unlikely that the authorities never became aware of these technically illicit minor punishments; perhaps a blind eye was sometimes turned.

 The rules were sometimes "bent" in other small ways. Boys who had offended together were in some cases caned together, despite the rule that stipulated "It shall not be inflicted in the presence of other boys". At the Court Lees inquiry (see documents linked below) it was found that the wrong kind of cane had been used, and that some boys were dealt with in their pyjamas and not the "ordinary cloth trousers" required by the regulations. At another approved school of which I have some knowledge, each culprit due for chastisement was required to take off his cotton khaki shorts and remove his underwear before putting the shorts back on and bending over, so that only one layer of thin clothing covered the youth's behind -- thus keeping to the letter of the rules while, arguably, violating their spirit. (This policy did however have the merit of fairness: it was the same for everybody, with no possibility of resort to such subterfuges as wearing several pairs of underpants.)

 By and large, however, in spite of occasional irregularities, the system held up rather well, as these things go. There seems to be no evidence of the kind of large-scale corruption, barbarity and chaos that apparently characterised some American youth reformatories, for example. The government's brutally abrupt Court Lees closure decision in 1967 was certainly a jolt to the system, but perhaps there were bound to be some such convulsions in a era of fast-changing social-cultural values. By all accounts the Approved School staffs were mostly dedicated and well-intentioned people who did manage to rescue significant numbers of youngsters from the likelihood of a life of crime.

 Responsibility for Approved Schools, including laying down rules about punishments, was devolved to local social services authorities (county or metropolitan councils) in the early 1970s and they were renamed "Community Homes with Education". CP was being actively discouraged by central government by this time, but it nevertheless continued in some Community Homes for a few more years, as in these 1977 news items. One specific government recommendation, that over-16s should no longer be caned, was rejected by Warwickshire in 1979. Then, as recently as 1980/81, Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire gained some notoriety for approving canings for girls, to be delivered across their clothed buttocks, including girls over 15, who under the older Approved School rules could not have been caned at all.

 CP was abolished altogether, for all types of institutions, later in the 1980s, but by then the whole idea of sending wayward youngsters away from home had gone out of fashion in any case.

 Although not strictly speaking reformatories, it is convenient also to mention here Remand Homes and Children's Homes, for both of which there were different rules for CP laid down by central government. At the Remand Homes these were roughly similar to the Approved School rules, except that CP here was only for boys: girls at Remand Homes, unlike girls at junior and intermediate Approved Schools, could not be caned. Another difference was that Remand Home boys over 15 could receive only six strokes at a time, whereas the maximum for senior Approved School boys was eight strokes (and indeed 12 strokes in exceptional cases, with the special approval of the school's managers, although in practice this power was rarely used).

 CP at children's homes was less severe. Their residents had, after all, not necessarily committed any offence. The Administration of Children's Homes Regulations 1951 (S.O. No 1217) provided that children under 10 might be smacked on their hands only. Girls over 10 must not receive CP, and boys over the school leaving age (15 at that time) should not be corporally punished either. A boy over 10 but under 15 could be caned on the posterior, over his ordinary clothing, up to a maximum of six strokes.

 There were also Borstals, run by the Prisons Department, for older and more serious offenders. These were essentially prisons for young men: some inmates could be as old as 26 before leaving. Contrary to popular myth, there was officially no corporal punishment here except on the same terms as in adult prisons, i.e. extreme violence against an officer could be punished with a ceremonial birching by order of the Visiting Magistrates, but only on the signed approval in each separate case of the Secretary of State. In practice, this happened only rarely: the Cadogan Report (1938) found that the power had been used, in all the country's Borstals added together, on only 26 occasions between 1912 and 1936 -- an average of about one birching per year, most of which were administered at the Borstal Wing of Wandsworth Prison in London.

(This supposed account EXTERNAL LINK: opens in new window of such an event therefore seems very likely to be fictional, and is in any event clearly highly embroidered; in particular, it is not credible that the authorities would have got away with inflicting an official birching in front of the assembled inmates, which would have been completely against the rules, or that the offender would be made to count out the strokes. And in my experience, people who really have received a severe punishment are rarely inclined to talk or write about it in this breathless and excitable manner, or to recall the events in such minute detail. Finally, it is claimed that the events described took place at Haslar Borstal in 1937, but Haslar was never a borstal; in 1937 it was a naval barracks, and only in the middle 1950s it became a Detention Centre - see next paragraph.)

 After World War II, partly as a political sop to those who were opposing the abolition of judicial birching in 1948, yet another type of institution for errant teenagers was set up, the Detention Centre, designed to administer a "short sharp shock" with much drilling, physical jerks, military-style discipline, and cold showers before dawn. It was to be more or less what in America would be called a boot camp. Surprisingly enough, corporal punishment was explicitly forbidden at these places from the outset. They were soon found not to be very good at deterring re-offending, unlike the more homely and holistic Approved School regime, which produced many success stories, according to former staff. It may of course be pure coincidence, but it is quite interesting that the kind of institution where a boy was well looked after, treated with respect and provided with constructive activity, but got his backside soundly thrashed when necessary, seems broadly to have worked, at least in some cases, while the kind modelled on negativity and mindless routine, but with no official CP, proved by general consent to be a failure.

 At both Borstals and Detention Centres, but much less so at Approved Schools, there is plausible anecdotal evidence of inmates suffering unofficial beatings-up and casual brutality. A 1979 fictional film set in a Borstal, Scum EXTERNAL LINK: opens in new window, though no doubt exaggerated, conveyed the flavour of this, with inmates getting thumped by staff as well as each other; correctly, it didn't show any proper CP. Nor, in the absence of corroboration, am I altogether persuaded by various purported accounts of illicit formal canings at these places. It was only in Northern Ireland that there was officially any caning in borstal.


Approved School Rules 1933
Approved School Rules Rules 33 to 39 of the rules for approved schools in England and Wales. Corporal punishment had to be administered either by the headmaster or in his presence and under his direction. Boys under 15 could be caned on the hands or the bottom. Boys of 15 and over were to be caned only on the buttocks, over their "ordinary cloth trousers". The normal maximum number of strokes was eight for boys of 15 and over, and six if below that age. Girls under 15 could be caned, but only on the hands; girls of 15 and over were not to be given CP at all.

[Extracts from] Report of a Committee to Review Punishments in [...] Approved Schools and Remand Homes

Report on punishments

This UK government enquiry reported in 1951. These extracts are the sections relating to corporal punishment. It looked at the Approved School Rules 1933 and found them broadly satisfactory. In particular, it concluded that it was essential to retain the headmaster's power to award corporal punishment. The punishment records of several (unnamed) approved schools were examined and compared. Some extracts from these are quoted in the report.
 The main specific finding as regards CP was that for senior boys undergoing punishment the existing cane was inadequate. Committee members felt it was too thick and rigid, and would merely bruise the young man's posterior without necessarily supplying him with sharp enough immediate pain to act as a proper deterrent. The committee therefore recommended that the senior cane be replaced with a longer, whippier one that would afford a more intense disciplinary experience. It also criticised one school for applying too few strokes on each occasion, arguing that, if the canings were of greater severity, it might be possible to have resort to the cane less often.

Outbreak of insubordination at the Kenilworth Training School
Internal government documents from the National Archives about rioting at a girls' institution in 1923. The teenage ringleaders were severely tawsed on the seat, with their skirts lifted up. This quickly brought the trouble to an end. There was then detailed discussion between the school and the Home Office about whether it was advisable to continue to strap unruly girls on their buttocks. (As it turned out, this possibility was removed a decade later -- see 1933 rules, above.)

The Court Lees Approved School Affair
Feature article on the 1967 Gibbens Inquiry into allegations of excessive caning at the largest boys' reformatory in the country, leading to the institution being summarily closed down by the government. Links to numerous contemporary press reports.

'Injustice at Court Lees'
A riposte to the Gibbens report from the staff point of view, giving a robust defence of the caning headmaster.

Extracts from Borstal in Ireland
From a 1975 book comparing the treatment of senior young offenders in the two parts of Ireland. Caning was introduced in the North in 1930 as a disciplinary measure for borstal boys; it was never used in the equivalent institutions either in the rest of the UK or in the southern part of Ireland (the Republic). The author discusses why this might be, outlines the rules laid down for inflicting the cane, and notes that it was still in regular use at the time of writing: there were 29 canings of inmates (aged 16 through 20) in the single Northern Ireland borstal in 1971.

Caning of reformatory absconders, 1960s
Published in 1971, this statistical study finds some evidence that caning may have deterred some boys from absconding from Approved Schools.

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Northumberland Archives: Punishment Books
A few brief extracts from punishment books at Netherton Training School (1907 to 1914) and at Wellesley Training Ship (1955 to 1958).

'Saved From a Life of Vice and Crime': Reformatory and Industrial Schools for Girls, C.1854-C.1901
An exhaustively researched university thesis from 1993. A huge document, with many references to the cane and the birch.

A punishment book page 1941
A punishment book page 1946
These pages record some canings at St Christopher's, an Approved School for senior boys in Hayes, just west of London. The ages of the recipients range from 14 to 18 inclusive. All the punishments listed are described as between 3 and 8 "strokes with a cane on posterior over trousers". The surnames and precise dates are missing.

Three years of strict discipline: My experiences at the Hereward Approved School
A short memoir by one who "made good" after a spell at Approved School. Clearly one of the system's success stories, he gives a fair and rounded picture of the regime, describing "pretty severe" canings and hard work but also trust, respect, sport, culture, useful skills, country walks and even, perhaps surprisingly for the 1940s, good food.

South Wales and Monmouthshire Truant and Industrial School
Rules dating from 1896 for this boys' reformatory in Merthyr Tydfil. For serious misbehaviour, residents could be whipped on the posterior with a birch rod. There was a maximum of six strokes per offence, all to be inflicted on one occasion, either by the superintendent or in his presence. Minor offences could be punished with four strokes of a tawse on the palm of the hand.

Penitentiaries and Reformatories
Long essay from 1865 includes an account of birching and caning at Feltham Reformatory for Boys, near London. (150 years on, Feltham is still a young offenders' institution.) The birchings were delivered to the bare seat, with the culprit held over a table; the canings were applied to the hand.

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