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rainbow ruler   :  Personal recollections  :  UK boys' school 1960s

Stretching Forward to Learn

by James Morgan

The debate about corporal punishment for schoolboys has tended towards extremes of opposing views. Like most arguments, the position taken may well depend not just on personal experience, but on stories read and hearsay. This account of personal experience and reflection comes from one who had some experience of what may be termed moderate CP in a wider context of male attitudes that no longer pertain.

It may well be that it is no longer appropriate to cane boys as we were caned, but I offer these thoughts to balance a view that it was all bad, that we were all grossly abused, and that we hated everything connected with it. We did not. I have never been involved in any 'deviations' because of being subject to physical discipline, and neither do I revel in reminiscence. It happened, it is a fact of life and at the time it was accepted.

I attended Sharmans Cross High SchoolEXTERNAL LINK: opens in new window for Boys, Shirley, Solihull** in the 1960s. CP was a regular part of the regime in those days and, out of my class of 30 boys, only one was not given some kind of CP in the five years he was there. I stayed for six years and received the cane twice and the slipper about four times -- I cannot recall exactly.

A very male school

The school was very 'male': this may seem like an unnecessary statement, but what I mean is that the we were inculcated with traditionally male values - self-discipline in the face of trials, male bonding in games and sports, suspicion of overt intellectualism and of course the ability to take corporal punishment without complaint.

All teachers had what was referred to as a 'slipper', but in reality was a cut down gym shoe designed for smacking our bottoms. They were usually a size 12 and whacks were delivered while we bent over, sometimes down to our toes, but often just with a token gesture at bending forward. The most whacks I saw delivered was three. A few teachers, including the Deputy Head, Mr Bain, and the Headmaster, Mr York, had bamboo canes. The administration of the cane was a more serious matter, and up to six strokes were administered across tight trousers.

The schoolThe school kept discipline not just with the actual use of CP, but also the threat and discussion of it. We were constantly reminded by the sight of a slipper on a table or in the pocket of a teacher's jacket that we might at any moment be required to submit to a smack. And how quickly we got used to it. The first term I was very nervous about it and although we all joked about other boys' beatings, we were secretly worried lest we were next.

It should be explained that most slipperings took place in the class, and, in the first three years, so did the canings. By the time I left the school, even though I had not been required to bend over for two years, I still worked hard to avoid receiving any kind of smacking right up until the last day.

Healthy respect for authority

It was second nature to obey in those days. It would never occur to us not to bend when told. Parents assumed it was happening and would almost always support the school if a caning had to be administered. So by the end of the first year I knew what was expected of me, and so did everyone else, if a punishment had to be taken.

It is my contention that the CP that was properly administered to me and my class mates can be considered one of the reasons we had an ordered school, a clear set of boundaries and a healthy respect for authority.

I would illustrate this by referring to the manner in which the Deputy Headmaster administered his punishment. It relied not on merely causing pain, but a whole system of making sure we were coming to lessons prepared to learn and paying attention at all times. Mr Bain taught us science. In the first term, just about every boy in the class must have been over his table and been shown how to get ready for a caning.

Most of us wore short trousers in the first year, there being a gradual changing over to long trousers before the end of the second year. Thus my very first time of bending over in class took place I guess in about the November of 1963 while I was still in shorts. I cannot recall why I might have been called to the front; indeed Mr Bain was likely to pick on someone for the smallest of reasons, but whatever it was, I still remember him telling me to put my hands behind my back and bend across his table. This table was always kept clear for boys to go over.

Let me just describe this position for a moment as I have not read any other account of anyone having to assume the exact same position -- and Mr Bain was very particular. His teaching was pedantic -- every detail had to be just right -- and so was the way he made us lie over his table. Hands behind the back, then stretch over the top of the table. At 11 I had to stand on tip-toe to get over the top, by the time I was 14 I was able to get over easily. The word Mr Bain used was 'stretch', he never said 'bend'. So that first time I got over the top of the table and he ordered me to 'stretch more'.

It seemed impossible, but all the boys in the class were watching and I tried to do as I was told, then Mr Bain tugged on the legs of my shorts. Remember I was very naïve about the cane -- no-one had sat me down to discuss it, so even when he patted my bottom with his huge hand and repeated his instruction, I still didn't know why I was being told to stretch. He finally smoothed my shorts over me and told me to 'settle' while he patted me again.

This had happened to every other boy in the class and was very puzzling. It was not like a slippering and after a lecture I was allowed up. Off back to my seat, remember thinking 'Why is this a punishment?' But all was revealed very soon.

Another boy in the class who had been over the table before was summoned to the front for inattention. He was stretched and his shorts were made tight. At this point Mr Bain took out a bunch of keys and moved to a nearby drawer, which he unlocked and from which he produced a bamboo cane. The boy over the table had no idea what was happening of course.

The first he must have known was when Mr Bain began tapping his bottom with the cane and telling him to settle. There was a slight crack as the cane finally did its job and it was my first sight of an actual caning. The boy cried, I suspect from shock rather than pain. When he was allowed off the table he was forbidden from rubbing until he had said 'Thank you' to Mr Bain. From then on, being told to 'stretch' held no puzzles for me. When warning the class about our noise, Mr Bain had only to say, 'It will be trousers tight for someone soon,' and we would fall silent.

Sinking feeling

I was actually not caned by Mr Bain until I was 14. It was another teacher who gave me that first stroke, just before I went into long trousers at 12. That day was of course very special -- the first time of being caned is always something remembered, even if it was not particularly spectacular. The threat of punishment for not reaching 20% in the test (I still recall the actual percentage all these years later) was only delivered after the results were given back and recorded. The sinking feeling of hearing that the boys who were below that grade would be caned was awful. I hurriedly looked at my paper to see if I could find a wrongly withheld mark -- I had scored 19% -- and the panic was on. There were just two of us who qualified. The first boy went out the front and I could hardly concentrate, being divided between watching his punishment and scrabbling through my paper to escape mine.

My classmate was already in long trousers and I remember watching him go to the front where the teacher was already standing with his cane in his hand. He was told to bend -- I do not know what words were then used. My recollection is that he went over without arguing and the teacher pulled his blazer up so his bottom was ready to receive the punishment. His trousers had lost the creases now he was over. He was given two swift, light strokes and allowed to stand. There was little formality to this procedure -- it was swift punishment and intended to be over quickly. When he faced the class, his face was red and his eyes were tearful, but he was not crying. I took a little comfort from that.

Then it was my turn. In the moments I had had to try to escape I thought I had found a loophole. I went to the front triumphantly holding my test paper and pointed out to the teacher that one correct answer had been marked wrong. 'Let's see,' he said and I think he was smiling. This was not done with any malice, he was just doing his job. 'Yes, he said, right answer, but you have misspelt the name!' Oh the disappointment!

Touch your toes

'Come on,' he said, over you go, 'don't delay any longer.' Reluctantly I bent forward and he pulled my blazer up. 'Bit more,' he said. I went a little lower. 'Try and touch your toes'. Awkwardly I tried to get right down without bending my knees: I have never been able to do it. However, as I stared at the toe caps of my shoes with my fingers pointing straight down and before I had time to think about what it would feel like the cane swiped across my bottom and it was all over. 'That'll do, since you nearly made it.'

I was of course relieved as I stood up, but just when I thought I had done rather well, the stripe on my behind began to sting even more and I knew this was a punishment not a warning. I made my way back to my chair just wanting to rub the pain away, but I knew every eye in the class was watching to see if I showed any sign of cowardice. When I sat down the stripe was not on the part where I made contact with the chair. This was surprising to me having been brought up on The Beano, where the characters always had difficulty sitting down.

Thus did I learn with others that working hard was a good way to avoid a smacked bottom. As time went by, we were subjected to more strokes of the slipper and cane. Two became the minimum and three and four more common. Those who disappeared to see the Headmaster were known to receive six, and Mr York's 'six of the best' were legendary.

Within the school there was little dissent from the use of corporal punishment. My friends and I discussed it at length, wondering about what it was like to give it, who trained the teachers, what was the best way to make it hurt less. I remember we argued about who was the worst (or did we mean best?) whacker in the school and whether two strokes of the slipper was worse or better than one stroke of the cane. We speculated whether we would prefer to be smacked on our underpants with fewer strokes, but that option was never given.

The one point we never made, to my knowledge, was that we wanted it abolished. We all thought it natural: how else could discipline be maintained? Indeed the words discipline, punishment and sore bottom were more or less synonymous. It was not that we wanted to be caned, but the thought of life without its justice was not acceptable to us boys. We obviously grumbled that sometimes it was unfair and there were occasions when it was severe, but there was for the most part a sense that this was 'right'.

By the time I was 14 I was in long trousers and generally a conforming member of the school. Indeed, I was too frightened of the authorities to try to be anything else. Most now knew the system and if we had to bend, so be it and it was just part of school life.

Mr Bain taught me a lesson one occasion that is still with me and his use of CP on this day has remained with me, for he put me in a place where I had to learn and make a decision about which way I was going in life.

The problem was that I was led astray by a much more lively lad, whose name I remember very well, but I would not embarrass him by telling it here. We were told to hold some doors open by a prefect. This was a perfectly normal request and I had done it before. The problem was it sometimes meant that we had to rush to get to class on time as we were not allowed to leave our post until the prefect released us. To cut the story short, the other boy decided he was not staying and disappeared, and I decided that if he could I would.

Because the other boy was well known, he was quickly found, and dispatched to Mr Bain, who tanned him, after which my name was given to the Deputy Head. Although I believed in justice for all, I lied to Mr Bain about what happened, telling him that the other boy had said the prefect had let us go. I was at heart frightened of the cane and was happy to avoid it if possible. The trouble was Mr Bain had taught boys for so many years he knew a liar when he heard one and now I was in trouble-and-a-half.

Over the table

I was in Mr Bain's science lab with just him and the prefect. The lie was discovered and I now had to take what was coming. 'Stretch young man,' ordered Mr Bain. Although I was very shaky now, I did not argue. I decided the only way to help myself was to cooperate and get it over with. I had not been over the table before in long trousers, although I had seen other boys do it. I put my hands behind my back, slid my blazer up to the waistband of my trousers and bent over the table. I stretched as far forward as I could and lay with my right cheek on the hard wooden surface. The next bit happened quickly, but I seemed to take all the detail in.

'Bend your knees,' I was told. I crooked my legs and felt my pants pulling over the skin. Mr Bain smoothed his hand over my buttocks and patted. 'Tighter than that. No creases.' I bent my knees more and I could tell that my trousers were close over me. The waistband of my trousers was tugged and I was told to keep stretched. All the nonsense about books down trousers is a fiction. Mr Bain was meticulous about ensuring nothing more than my trousers and underpants came between my bottom and his cane. My vest and shirt tail were already riding up out of my trousers as I was stretching, but he grabbed my clasped hands and slid them further up my back so not only the blazer was well away from the waistband of the trousers, my shirt tail also came out further. He patted my back pocket and then my bottom low down and said, 'Settle hound. No yelping when you are whupped.'

Then I heard the sound of the jingling keys and my fate was sealed. I have rarely felt so humiliated as in those moments of preparation for the cane. I was helping to make it hurt by obeying Mr Bain's instructions.

In those seconds before the cane arrived, I vowed I would never disobey a prefect again and I would never tell a lie. Because of all the activity around my backside the now tight trousers felt very thin and my bottom so exposed I felt a sensitivity never experienced before. I tried to look down, to see behind me but my shoulder and my bent arms blocked the view.

The cane tapped just below the middle of my buttocks, where everything seemed most tight. He tapped a few times -- I was not counting and then I heard the whoop and a crack as the bamboo landed. I shut my eyes I think and the stinging that erupted almost immediately took me by surprise. It was very sharp indeed.

'Stay settled'. I tried to hold myself very still as ordered. The cane tapped again below the now burning stripe and after a few moments another whoop and crack heralded a second line of stinging. I know I had tears in my eyes from the sharpness of the stroke and the hot sensation across both buttocks was like nothing I had ever had before. This was no gentle 'little boy's' smack.

A third time I was tapped by the cane and this time I was desperate that I would burst into tears: and if I had to take six I would lose all composure, I just knew it. Whoop/crack! The third stroke made me gasp and as I squeezed my eyes the tears fell on the table. I was now in real pain and all I could think about now was my bottom and what was happening under my pants. Mr Bain placed the cane once more on my trousers and tapped. I can honestly say that at this point I lost all hope of not crying out. As the cane tapped, all the stripes of pain seemed to join together in a kind of hot band and I knew I would have to shout out if I had any more.

The next thing I heard though was not the swoop of the cane but the sliding of a drawer and the jingling of keys. It was over and Mr Bain had locked the cane away. The relief was wonderful and in a strange way I was grateful to him for stopping before I sobbed. 'Stand up, hound.' I slowly pushed myself up off the table and stood in front of Mr Bain. My shirt was untucked and I felt really undressed so I went to tuck myself in. 'No rubbing,' Mr Bain said misunderstanding what I wanted to do. The prefect was behind me and he must have had a good view. I whispered a 'Thank you, sir' to Mr Bain and he I think continued to speak for a while, but I know I was not listening. My bottom was now crying out to be rubbed and I wanted to get away.

I remember leaving the room and immediately grabbing my backside as I walked down an empty corridor. My pants were stuck to the skin and I needed to unpick them. I retreated to a cloakroom full of coats and hid amongst them while I massaged the damage and adjusted my clothes properly. When I went to class everyone was looking. I had tried to dry my eyes but they may have seen I had been rubbing them. And yes, the chair was very difficult to sit on for a while. The main pain went within an hour or two, but I was aware of that caning for a few days. I looked in the mirror only once after someone asked if I had marks a few days after the beating. There were pink marks by then, not a lot to see.

What conclusions do I draw from that occasion? I never told lies again to get out of a punishment. I always did as I was told and I made sure I was never again over that table. Mr Bain died not long after this incident, but his legacy to me was making sure I had an opportunity to reflect on my behaviour and think about what the consequences of lying were. Over that table I made a vow and kept to it. Those moments of preparation for the cane were full of physical sensations that concentrated the mind not only on the seat of punishment but also as to why I was there. I told my friends how bad it was and they also were influenced when I gave them the detail. I had one friend who loved to hear the story recounted and repeatedly asked, 'Did you cry?' He had his own caning before mine and had been quizzed so I knew what the curiosity was like.

For the rest of my schooldays I made sure that the cane was only for other boys and I succeeded. While some of my classmates went on to get six of the best from the Headmaster, my CP career ended at that moment.

CP was right for the times. As for today, I am reluctant to say we have changed, but one thing is for sure, modern boys would have even more difficulty than I did with getting their trousers tight for Mr Bain!

** Now in the West Midlands (at that time Warwickshire). Classified as a secondary modern school, it was something of a hybrid as it had a grammar-school-level "A" stream taking GCE "O" levels. Two separate single-sex schools appear to have merged into a single co-educational Sharmans Cross school in later years, which is why you see girls on its school reunion pages. The school no longer exists. (Back to text)

Article: Corporal punishment in British schools

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