I was interviewed the other week by two delightful sixth-form schoolboys. They were doing a history project about the town and since I had lived in Brocklehurst for all my 76 years a local vicar I know pointed them in my direction. I had never thought of myself as a “historical figure” but they seemed like nice boys so I decided to oblige them.
They visited me at my home in The Avenue and because it was such nice weather we sat in my extensive garden. They complimented me on this and that row of plants and the small clump of trees that run along the far boundary. I accepted their praise, although I did not reveal that I have never in my life lifted a spade or a pair of secateurs and that I pay (quite handsomely I must say) a father and his son to visit twice a week during the season to keep it in tip-top condition.
But I digress, the boys who were called Clem and Jake recorded my voice on their phones, and because they were not writing notes it was very easy for us to chat along merrily. We sipped home-made lemonade (not, of course, made in my home) and ate small sticky cakes. It was a delightful occasion and we talked a lot about how Brocklehurst had changed over the years. I told them that I had attended their school sixty years ago. It had been a grammar school back then and things had changed greatly.
Naturally, we quickly got onto the subject of corporal punishment (as you do). Clem rolled his eyes in astonishment when I told him about the cane and how we boys regularly presented ourselves at the housemaster’s study for six-of-the-best across the seat of our trousers. His colleague Jake had a much deeper interest and asked me all sorts of questions and many of them were very detailed. Schoolboys today know nothing about corporal punishment, it was banned in schools sometime in the nineteen-eighties. Even Clem and Jake’s fathers wouldn’t have felt the swish of the rattan.
I told Jake and Clem they didn’t know they were born. Jake wanted to know more. When I was a boy we took corporal punishment for granted. It was everywhere; it was natural. Fathers routinely took a belt or a slipper to the backside of their errant sons. The plimsoll and the cane were in regular use in schools across the land. In Brocklehurst the parkkeepers would take off their belts to boys who fired their catapults at birds or squirrels. You could expect a clip round the ear (at the very least) from the local “bobby” – the police constable who patrolled the streets. When was the last time you saw a bobby on the beat?
But it was my experience at the school that interested Jake the most. The rule was that only housemasters and the head himself were permitted to cane a boy. The school was divided into various houses (the one I was in was called Wilson’s) and we would compete against other houses for sporting and academic awards. We were all encouraged to work hard for and be proud of our houses. It was a form of team-spirit, I suppose. Woe betide us If we let down the house.
Discipline was strict. There were all kinds of rules. Jake who was interviewing me had hair way over his ears. That wouldn’t be allowed in my day. Short back and side haircuts were the rule. If you tried to grow your hair a master would order you to the barbershop. If you didn’t go pronto you’d find yourself bent over in the housemaster’s study. Jake thought this was fascinating.
Discipline was strict and so was punishment. People who supported corporal punishment against critics who wanted to see it banned always said it was used as “a last resort”. They meant other punishments were tried and if they didn’t work only then would the cane be taken out of the cupboard. Not in my school: the cane was pretty much the first resort. We boys took it for granted. Break a rule, get found out, attend the housemaster’s study, bend over, whack-whack-whack-whack-whack-whack; six strokes of the cane and on your way. The problem sorted. There were hardly any detentions, writing lines was unheard of and there was no need for “exclusions” like they have these days.
I told Jake I got the cane so many times I couldn’t remember how many. He asked what was it like? Well, it was just part of the school day. I wasn’t an especially rebellious boy who took on the school; if I had been I wouldn’t have accepted the cane. I should have refused to be beaten. There were some who did. No one at my school but I heard an interview on radio a while back with a disc jockey who was famous in the nineteen-seventies. I forget his name. He was in the sixth-form and they took some beer into the common room. They got found out and the headmaster wielded his cane. The DJ chap refused to bend over and had to leave the school. Who knows if he had taken his punishment like a good fellow and stayed on at school to take his exams he might have had a better job than playing records.
No, I was no rebel. I just couldn’t stick to all the rules. So, I got the cane. That’s how it was. I had to explain to Jake what “the cane” actually was. There were rules about what you could and could not use to pepper a boy’s backside. At my school the cane was made out of very flexible rattan. It had a curved handle and was maybe three feet long (or a little shorter). We called our housemaster Hector because he had the hang down look of a well-known children’s cartoon character of the time. Hector had a big collection of canes: some thin and some a bit thicker. They were all very pliable and he liked to flex his cane between his hands and swish it through the air before he set about your rear end with it.
Jake wanted to know if the cane hurt. That made me smile. Of course a caning hurt, otherwise what’s the point of it? But, I had to admit it was something a boy got used to with each successive visit to the study. I was terrified on my first visit to Hector; we all were. What would happen? Would it hurt? Would we cry? Would we have to take down out trousers? Would we get it on the bare bottom?
There were a lot of stories going around the school that you could get the cane on your underpants. Nobody ever did, but it didn’t stop rumours flying. It did happen in some schools. I vaguely remember reading a report in a newspaper at the time about a court case. A housemaster from some elite boarding school was prosecuted for caning boys on the bare. They called it “sexual assault”. The magistrate or judge, or whoever it was, dismissed the case saying if this was sexual assault, then half the housemasters in the country would be in the dock. So, obviously a lot of boys were being caned on the bare bum back then; or at least they were when the magistrate was at school.
So, I never got in trousers down. Except for the first time, it was always six strokes. People often call it six-of-the-best, but that isn’t strictly true. The housemaster – should he so choose – could deliver no more than a flick of the wrist. That would hardly even raise the dust from the seat of the trousers. On another occasion he might flog the boy with all his energy and leave severe welts throbbing beneath his underpants. I suppose it depended on the mood of the housemaster, or the severity of the offense caused.
Jake was agog when I said that the last time I had been caned I was the same age as him. It was late in my final year. I had turned eighteen a few months earlier. It was so typical of my school. They had a rule that you couldn’t leave the premises during lesson time. The headmaster for some reason I cannot now recall had made a special mention of this rule at morning assembly. By this time classes for senior boys had halted and we were revising for exams. Bored one afternoon me and a couple of pals slipped away and idled around the town for an hour. We were spotted and reported.
Hector hit the roof. There was no point telling him that we hadn’t actually skipped any lessons. He said we had deliberately disobeyed the headmaster’s expressed rule. Such behaviour was intolerable. It could not be allowed. We had to be caned. Unlike that DJ I mentioned, it didn’t occur to any of us to refuse. Hector had a point. I don’t think we even considered the headmaster’s edict when we went AWOL, but we had broken the rules. If it had been a boy in any of the junior years he would be showing Hector his arse.
I had been caned so many times previously this final visit to the study held no terrors. I knew exactly what was going to happen. I said this to Jake and he insisted I tell him exactly what happened. He wanted on all the details. I joked that he was after a blow-by-blow account.
Hector’s study was in fact a very modern office. It was nothing like the ornately-furnished studies that were pictured in the classic stories about public school life, or you sometimes saw in old films on TV. There was a desk made of light wood and some ordinary wooden chairs. There was no open fire or glass-fronted bookcases. Hector didn’t wear a heavy academic gown or one of those crazy mortar-board caps with the tassel hanging down the back. He was dressed in an ordinary suit and wouldn’t have been out of place working in an office for the local council.
When it was my turn to be done, he made me stand in the middle of the room. One of the straight-backed chairs had already been strategically placed in space in front of his desk. He didn’t interrogate me, we had already established my guilt. I waited patiently for the inevitable command. If I was anxious at all it was just that I was anxious for it to be over, so I could go home and carry on revising for an exam I had to take the next day.
The cane was on his desk. I saw immediately that it was one of his stouter and thicker specimens. I had no doubt that Hector intended to lay it on hard. This was going to hurt. I watched as he reached across his desk and took up the cane. He swiped it through the air and then walked towards me, flexing it all the while in his hands. Such action might have intimidated a younger, less experienced, boy. Hector was demonstrating the power of that cane. His showboating was wasted on me: I already knew.
Hector tapped the tip of the cane on the seat of the chair and intoned those words that must have instilled dread in generations of schoolboys: “Bend over the chair.” It was an ordinary chair, but the back was quite high and my stomach rested comfortably on its highest point. I took hold of either side of the seat. It was summer so I wasn’t wearing a blazer and my striped school tie fell in front of my face. I spread my legs a little and lifted my head so I could stare across the study at a photograph of last year’s house rugby XV.
A less experienced boy than myself might have felt foolish or even humiliated submitting his backside to the attention of a much older man in the knowledge that at any moment he intended to inflict the greatest pain possible. I had no such feeling; it was what it was. This was a ritual that had taken place in that study, perhaps every day for countless years. Back then we had no reason to believe that such things would ever change.
I couldn’t see Hector because I was concentrating on the rugby photograph, but I could hear his body moving. Then, I felt the tap-tap-tap of the cane against my right buttock. He was taking his aim. I clenched my hands and held the chair seat tighter. Hector raised the cane away from the seat of my trousers and a second later there was an almighty whacking noise as it connected with the fleshiest part of my bum. It remained numb for maybe another second and then I felt the familiar deep burning pain. It hurt! A lot! It was by far the hardest stroke of the cane I had received in my considerable career. I didn’t yell out. I didn’t stomp and wriggle. I let the pain sink in.
There was another series of taps as Hector got his mark to deliver Number Two a little lower than the first. This was a typical caning method. You put a strip along the dead centre of the buttocks and then land subsequent cuts above and below that first marker. Hector always made sure to land at least one in the undercurve on the “sit-spot” just where the bum connects with the back of the thighs. You need to be an expert marksman to get it right. Many lesser caners than Hector would strike the back of the thighs themselves and that would be agony. It helps also if the boy being beaten has the fortitude to keep still and not move about and distract the master. I had that fortitude and Hector duly put a cut there. It was a deep stripe and I felt it every time I sat on a hard surface for days to come.
In our school we had what was called by the boys a “headmaster’s caning”. He would deliver the first four strokes as I have described but for the final two he would lay the cane along one diagonal so it went from the bottom of one cheek to the top of the other and then he would reverse the diagonal for the last stoke. It meant the cane twice intersected the already throbbing and possibly weeping strokes he had already administered. This was a particularly awesome punishment. I never experienced it personally, but one friend of mine who did sportingly showed us his bared bottom. We admired the perfect “X” mark that decorated his buttocks.
The six stokes Hector gave me were definitely his “best”. My bum was alight. Each successive stroke added to the pain until my arse felt like it had swollen to twice its natural size. Hector left me bent across the chair while he returned the cane to his desk. He had not finished yet, there was still one more boy to beat after me. Even in the few seconds he left me waiting the pain was subsiding. That is one of the attributes of a severe caning. The pain as the rod strikes is intense. It burns like the fires of Hell and quickly radiates from the point of impact. That initial pain is doubled by the second stroke and is added to until the whole punishment has been administered. Then, almost immediately the caning is over, the pain diminishes. Even then as I lay across the chair waiting to be dismissed the pain had eased. It was still an intense throbbing but I knew that very soon that would become an ache and then only an irritable discomfort.
Hector told me to stand. I did so and he quickly sent me on my way, telling me to send in the next boy as I went.
I could tell Jake was transfixed by my story and he probably wanted more detail, but some innate sensibility cautioned him not to display too much interest. We spoke of other things; school sports, the Officers’ Training Corps and so on. Clem and Jake politely thanked me for my time and went on their way. I took the lemonade and poured what was left of it in the sink. I took an opened bottle of white wine from the fridge and poured myself a generous helping. I sat in my favourite chair and replayed the past hour in my mind.
I took a big slug of wine and castigated myself for one oversight in my story. I had not told Jake that I myself possessed a couple of school-type canes that I keep in the wardrobe in my spare bedroom. I am sure he would have liked to see them.
Picture credit: Sting Pictures
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More stories from Charles Hamilton II are on the MMSA website
Charles Hamilton the Second