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New Zealand - School caning

Description of corporal punishment (for boys only) at a mixed-sex city secondary school in the 1960s

Extracts from Chalk Dust And Chewing Gum (autobiography) by Freda Bream

Collins, Auckland, 1970


Assembly followed the traditional pattern. After a hymn and the Lord's Prayer, the school sat down, and then, from my position on the stage where the women staff occupied the front row of seats, I was able to examine the pupils in the body of the hall. The boys wore grey shirts and shorts; the girls had a navy-blue gymdress over a white blouse, and some wore navy blazers.


Mr Rowlings's room was a few doors down the corridor. He had a large class of boys, but there was one empty desk. He was a tall man with a wide flat face, black hair which stood straight up, and enormous shoulders. A cane lay conspicuously across his table. The room was very quiet. Mr Rowlings motioned to his boys to stand up as I entered, and he came over to meet me. He shook my hand, welcomed me to the school and showed me courteously to the empty desk. The boys were still standing, motionless and silent, so silent in fact that my request was heard by all, and rumour later spread not only among the pupils but among their parents also, that I represented the Child Welfare Department, and was teaching for a few weeks at the school while I investigated, and reported on, Mr Rowlings's somewhat severe disciplinary measures.

I learned that his caning stroke was so powerful that he broke the skin with every cut, and had been directed by the Headmaster that he must cane with the left hand only. This, the boys told me, was far worse than before, because although his left arm was almost as strong as his right, and he still drew blood, his aim was not nearly so accurate, and a cut across the back of the knees or just above the tailbone could put one off cricket for a week. They did not resent this -- after all, they pointed out, he was right-handed and couldn't be expected to get a bull's eye each time when so unfairly handicapped. They blamed the Headmaster for their wounds, not Mr Rowlings, whom they liked very much, and who was extraordinarily good to them in many ways. The only solution was to behave well in his class, which they did, making up in all the others for fun lost in his. This caused a mild resentment on the part of teachers less well physically equipped.

"They come to me straight after Rowlings on Monday," complained Mr Frieze, the music master. "After a whole forty minutes of being quiet, you can just imagine how they relax. Music's bad enough to take at any time -- when I'm at the piano I can't see what they're up to -- but taking music after Rowlings ... It's hell, pure hell!"

"And what about me?" said Mr Watts, a young history teacher. "I have them three times a week just before he does, so they use my period to limber up and exercise in readiness for sitting still in his room. And they tell one another all the news they want to impart before interval, because they know they won't have another chance till his lesson is over."


"The real trouble," said Mrs Rose, "is that we have no effective form of punishment. If we could only play nonchalantly with a long steel ruler, or point to our notes with a firm springy length of bamboo . . . "

"I did," I told her. "Mr Hercus took a class in my room and left his cane behind. I used it for indicating places on a wall map, and I tapped it menacingly on my table. Then Gail McNaught borrowed it to get her pencil out from under the heater."

"It's not so bad with the boys," said Miss Burton. "You can have someone use the cane on them. Mr Good's always willing."

"But caning just doesn't work with some of the boys. They collect canings, like scout badges or postage stamps. It puts them in good with the girls. There's a kind of competition among the bad ones to try to get more than their friends. They compare stripes and put notches on their rulers. Mooney of 4 Ag. had them all down each side of his, Mr Bowron says. He couldn't make out why all Mooney's ruled lines were so regularly wiggly -- made his geometry book look most peculiar. Then Mr Bowron confiscated the ruler and Mooney was terribly upset."

"That gives Mr Bowron a terrific hold on him until he gives it back."

"Yes, he says Mooney begs for it every day and is behaving like an angel."

"At least caning is a real punishment for some of the boys. They don't all enjoy it. And you feel you've done something if you have them caned. You haven't let them walk over you, and it shows them that you mean business. But there must be other ways."

I soon decided that the acquisition of control would come, if at all, only with experience, and could apparently be achieved by individual means which varied with each teacher.

There was the sort based on prestige, or position. This belonged exclusively to the Principal and the First Assistant.

There was that gained by intimidation. Mr Rowlings had this. He overwhelmed any resistance by a torrent of noise and strength and physical superiority. Of course this worked only with the boys. Others who taught boys relied on constant caning, or on the convenience of the daily punishment queue outside Mr Good's study door. Miss McComish, the cooking teacher, also contrived to keep her girls not exactly in abject fear of her, but fairly well subdued, by her good-natured blustering manner, her own physical size, and an indefatigable vigilance. They seldom defied Miss McComish, because they had a good idea that if they waged battle, she would come off best.

Miss Tulley, too, had the upper hand by a more moderate use of the same methods. But both she and Miss McComish taught practical subjects, in which most of the girls were genuinely interested.


Then there's the Man Next Door, in my case Mr Bowron. Being a man, he had the privilege of wielding a cane, and sending a boy to Mr Bowron, who helped me out as a comrade, was not the humiliating experience of having to send one to Mr Good or to the Principal. Nor, unfortunately, was it as effective. But I could take a boy to Mr Bowron with the knowledge that he would not cane him unless he considered it really desirable. He was well practised in verbal lashing too, so I could send girls to him also if I wished.

The other women told me that I was very lucky in having the First Assistant just over the passage from my room. But the position did nothing to help me.

The first period alter assembly each day was reserved by Mr Good for punishing malefactors. They lined up outside the door of his office, with various expressions of boredom or anticipation, and would disappear one by one into the sanctum. If the door was shut after them, the prognosis was bad. In my room just opposite, the whack of the cane could be clearly heard. If I then looked through the glass portion of my door, the rest of the queue would grin cheerfully at me, and sometimes put up their fingers to indicate the number of cuts the offender had just received.

"You won't have any trouble at all with the boys," the staff assured me. "All you need do to frighten them is to put one or two in the caning queue in the corridor outside your room. They will realise how easy it is for you to do that when you're so close."

This sounded quite right in theory, but in practice ... well, I tried it.

"The next boy who calls out in class," I said resolutely to 3HTB, "will be sent over to Mr Good." The next boy who called out was a small, curly-haired, wide-eyed child called John Herrin. I angrily put him at the end of the queue which had already been formed -- it was the first period of the day. Then I walked up and down my bench, trying to conduct the lesson. It had certainly been an effective measure. The class was now quiet and attentive, and no one else called out. But time passed slowly; I began to have doubts. I looked through the glass -- the queue was still long. I continued the lesson, but kept being interrupted by visions of the diminutive Herrin bending over a chair. I looked again. The queue had begun to move on -- it was noticeably shorter, and Herrin looked frightened.

At last I could stand it no longer. I could not bring Herrin back into the classroom, because that would destroy all vestige of my authority over this form, but perhaps I could prevent the actual caning. I abandoned the class and stopped the First Assistant as he was ushering in the next of his victims. He was not pleased. This was a daily ritual at which he did not favour any interruption. I almost pushed him back into his office, and said, "I've put a little boy at the end of the queue, but don't cane him. Please don't cane him."

The First Assistant looked at me coldly.

"I'll cane whom I please," he stated. He seemed very angry. I tried to explain, I remonstrated, I pleaded, while he impatiently tapped his cane on the desk at intervals, and looked very much as if he would have liked to invite me to bend over myself. He let me talk for five minutes. At the end of that time he informed me with a rather amused twinkle that he never did cane first-years anyway -- well, not until the third or fourth offence. And in due course Herrin returned unabashed, and in answer to the questioning eyebrows of his friends across the room, called out happily, "Nothink. Nothink at all." I realised that this was a course which was not going to aid me and I gave it up.

I had thought at first that the caning queue would even help to subdue the girls, that they would have a constant sobering thought that there, but for the grace of their sex, went they. But it was just the reverse. My girls enjoyed the existence of the caning queue. They revelled in it. On any change of timetable they looked eagerly to see how often they came to my room for the first period of the day. The queue provided more boys to make faces at while they lined up for class, and if they were lucky they might see some of their current boy friends there, and be able to exchange a few words. When they heard the whacks they merely looked smug and happy at this reminder of their immunity from corporal punishment, and it gave them another subject to discuss with their neighbours during my lesson. For girls, the field of retribution is sadly limited.


It was during a spirited reading of Macbeth that we ran foul of Mr Good.

Harvey Brampton, the largest and most muscular boy in the class, was that day taking the part of Macbeth.

"Take thy face hence," he declaimed with great pleasure to his friend Harrison. But Harrison, as the servant bearing bad news, had momentarily lost the page in his book and was not sure whether he had really spoken his final line. He fumbled with the pages.

"Get moving," said Macbeth impatiently. He was really enjoying this scene and wanted to go on with it. "Hurry up and hence, can't you, you cream faced loon."

But the servant had not yet found the place, and did not intend to be ordered around by another member of the cast.

"I'll hence when I jolly well decide to hence," he argued, as he turned over the pages.

"You'll hence right now," said Harvey. "We can't get on till you're off the stage." He opened the classroom door with one hand and placed his other vigorously on the middle portion of the servant. Then he pushed. We did not normally use the door as an exit. Those moving offstage usually drew discreetly to one side. So Harrison was taken by surprise, and off balance. At least, we think that is what did it. He said later he might have tripped over a case which was just outside the door. But something gave him surprising momentum. He staggered backwards across the corridor, fell against the unlatched door of Mr Good's office, which opened under his weight, and landed in a most appropriate position draped over the chair which was usually offered as support to offenders.

Mr Good was a reasonable man, and a good-natured one. He had a high degree of self-control and was slow to anger. But he also taught senior mathematics and was at that moment completing, for display on the sixth form wall, a carefully shaded diagram of Schonhardt's solid. It was difficult to draw, and the noise from my room had been irritating him for some time. He did not want to interfere with what was obviously legitimate and useful class activity, but he found it difficult to concentrate against our boisterous reading of Act V. He was quite unprepared for a body hurtling unannounced and uninvited into his room. The table jerked, his pencil shot wildly across his paper, and the work of half an hour was ruined. This was enough to anger momentarily the best of men, and when Mr Good looked up and saw a 4 Ag. boy in a position associated with one specific daily action on his part, his next move was automatic. In a few seconds he had lifted up his cane and administered two of the best.

All this, of course, we found out much later. At the time we heard the strokes of the cane, and Harrison returned, ruefully rubbing his seat, and wearing an expression of utter astonishment. For the first time in his wicked young school career, he had been punished without justly deserving it. By this time Mr Good had composed his thoughts. Boys reported by the staff did not normally burst open his door and present their rear so conveniently for the prescribed treatment. He had perhaps acted a little hastily. He walked over to my room to find out what it was all about. When he opened my door Harrison was still standing with his mouth open, gesturing complete bewilderment to me and the class; Macbeth and the doctor had collapsed against the blackboard, clutching each other in abandoned delight; and the rest of the class and cast were helpless with laughter. They stood up for the First Assistant, as always, but they could not control their mirth. Nor, entirely, could the teacher. That is the only time I have found any amusement in the caning of a boy. Mr Good, as I said, was a kind man, and a fair-minded one. He did not apologise in so many words. But he grinned, twisted Harrison's head round to him, and said "Well what do you expect, lad, when you barge in like that and practically beg for it?" Then he asked if he might watch the next scene or two. 4 Ag. were very pleased at this. Mr Good stayed until the end of the play, and then complimented the boys on their performance -- a little unorthodox, as he pointed out, but nevertheless impressive and full of feeling.

The incident would not have occurred at all had Macbeth been played by a normal boy with a normal sized push. But Harvey Brampton was the tallest and strongest member of the class. He was a good-natured, friendly boy, always willing to help, and at first I would call on him for any heavy tasks, such as shifting desks or carrying large piles of books. But I had not then realised that when Brampton was asked to do a job he did it in the shortest possible time, with the quickest and nearest means at hand, and this was usually his own exceptionally powerful muscular strength. Any damage or destruction in the process was quite immaterial to the issue. I asked him once to open a window which appeared to be stuck. He opened it all right. As the sill splintered we realised that it had been nailed down by the caretaker because the cords were broken.


For more detail on the caning of boys in New Zealand schools, see Book review: "Caning: Educational Ritual" and The Archive: New Zealand: Schools: October 1981

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This presentation copyright © C.Farrell 2000
Text copyright © original author
Page created April 2000