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School CP - May 1911

Corpun file 25806 at

The Mercury, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia, 13 May 1911, p.10

Psychology of Punishment.

Eton's Innovation.

The Birch Abolished.

(From Our Own Correspondent.)

Press cutting

LONDON, April 7.

In England, possibly throughout the Empire, Eton has come to be regarded as the school of schools. No institution has given more statesmen, military men, and bishops to the country. Yet, on the whole, knowledge of Eton is not as widespread. The readers of "Tom Brown's School Days" know far more of Rugby than most of us know of Eton. Eton is an institution which has defied compression into a novel. Hence the interest aroused by the momentous fact which I have now to chronicle. Little as we know of Eton and Eton's ways, we have all heard of the Eton whipping block. Dr. Heath and Dr. Keate are household memories. The Eton birch, at any rate, is a living symbol in all our minds. Now we are told that the birch of history is to be banished, and a halfpenny cane substituted! Half the peerage and a good third of the Commons are protesting against the innovation.

Lord Kinnaird, now a highly respectable philanthropist, writes that as a boy he much preferred a birching to five hundred lines. Mr. Ian Malcolm, M.P., tells us that "it was no easy matter to administer a birch with a nice appreciation of anatomy and a clever calculation of effect, whereas any tyro can use a cane." The Hon. Neil Primrose, M.P. (the younger son of Lord Rosebery) summed up a mass of opinion in the sigh -- "It's a pity."

The history of the displaced birch at Eton is not without interest. One case associated with Dr. Heath shows that there have been considerable changes in the treatment of school boys during the past century. The first recorded public school cricket match took place between Eton and Winchester on Hounslow Heath in July, 1796. Eton was badly beaten on the field. On returning, the headmaster gave the eleven a thrashing of another kind. Keate was even more vigorous in his use of the birch than Heath. It was Keate's boast that he had "flogged half the Ministers, bishops, generals, and dukes of the century."

Naturally, the flogging block, which was associated with such events us the swishing of the Eton eleven in 1796, has always been an object of interest among the scholars. From time to time it has been stolen. In 1783, when Dr. Davies refused to redress certain grievances, the Lion boys drove the headmaster out of the upper school, and broke up the block into fragments with hot pokers. A considerable traffic was done with the pieces, and a section can still be seen at Gordon Castle, whither it was carried by the then Marquis of Huntley.

Another famous theft of the flogging block was in 1836. The facts are given in Sterry's "Annals of Eton College." Sterry tells how three old Etonians, the famous Marquis of Waterford, Lord Alford, and Mr. J.H. Jesse, determined to raid the school in the interest of the scholars they had recently left. The three young men got into the upper school by removing one of the panels of the door. The library door being too strong, Lord Waterford and Mr. Jesse got out of the window, and, creeping along the narrow cornice, entered the library window. From that side the door into the upper school was opened without much difficulty, and the block and stock of birches were hastily loaded on to the drag and carried off to London.

Two snuff-boxes made out of the wood and mounted in silver were sent to the provost and headmaster, and the block, after forming for a time the seat of the president of the Eton Block Club, for which no one was eligible who had not been flogged three times when at school, at last found honoured repose at Curraghmore, the Irish residence of the Waterford family, where it still remains.

The birches have, from time immemorial, been kept in a cupboard in the library, the walls of which are covered with the carved names of victims. When a boy had been sentenced, he went up the narrow staircase to the library, accompanied by the headmaster, two sixth-form praepostors, and two younger boys, known as "holders down." The abolition of the birch must mean the end of these romantic doings.

In future, the vulgar cane will play over the covered limbs of the errant Etonian, and will merely hurt. It will not remind him that he is a thing apart from the rest of schoolboy England -- alike in his joys and his sorrows. The next stage will be reached when Professor Dennis's electric spanking machine is introduced into Britain's premier public school. Needless to say, the electrical spanking machine is of American origin. The recalcitrant pupil is laid in position; a button is pressed, and a series of paddles do the rest. Both the strength and frequency of the blows can be regulated to a nicety. When that time comes, it will not be worth while to go to Eton. Any village school will serve as well for the budding statesman or soldier.

But I have insisted over-long upon the tragic site of corporal punishment. The annals of Eton recall that comedy is not inseparable from sufferings at the swishing block. One Saturday morning, history tells, a party of Etonians wound up the stairs to the library. The headmaster prepared for the customary discipline. "But what am I to be punished for?" asked one boy. "I don't know," said the headmaster, "but you are on the list." The boy went through with it. When he resumed his customary position, the lad was still far from satisfied. Moreover, two or three others were equally inquisitive as to their offences. Finally the headmaster considered it worthwhile to consult his list once more. He found that he had whipped the confirmation class!

blob Note by C.F.: This "Innovation" was to prove temporary. The Eton birch was later reinstated, and continued in use until the middle 1960s.

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