I speak this evening in support of the birch as a preferred method of chastisement in schools. As you will be aware there is a great deal of debate and correspondence in our great newspapers regarding the introduction of the supple cane to replace the age-old birch rod. I speak as the headmaster of one of our country’s greatest schools and I trust you will consider that I speak from experience.
For those unfamiliar with such things, the birch rod is an ordinary birch and is constructed of twelve or fourteen twigs held together at one end into a handle. Its length is up to eighteen inches and the spread of the rods is twelve inches. It is applied to the bare posterior once trousers and underwear are lowered.
As some of us know, the birch stings freely and occasionally breaks the upper skin and underlying tissue. But the birch hurts less than the cane in the end.
I approve of the use of this punishment rather than expulsion for some of the graver offences, and for the continual repetition of lesser faults, which other punishments have failed to control. I approve of the use of the birch only, for it simply temporarily stings.
It should be administered only on the place suggested by nature; and thus applied I continue to advocate it as one of the kindest, most impressive, and least injurious punishments.
Further, it should be invariably administered by the headmaster, or in his presence and never by the form-master. I entirely disapprove of the use of the cane, for it can act as an instrument of torture, severely bruising the posterior for days and weeks. Moreover, a vindictive cut with the cane on the hand by a master can be too easily given in the moment of exasperation. This could not occur where the birch was employed; the use of the birch, too, allows time for the temper to subside before its application.
I believe that the birch is a safer method of chastisement than the cane. It can do less harm than a severe blow with a single cane, and at the same time a lighter stroke causes more pain, owing to the number of thin supple rods. The severity of application is more important than the size of the birch. In all cases in which it is used the part should be naked, as injury might be caused by objects in the boy’s clothing coming in contact with the body under the blow. The presumption is that in all cases the boy is in a good state of health, but if he is not, the injury from the one method would be very similar in all respects to the other.
Those who paint harrowing pictures of the boy’s sufferings from his well-deserved punishment simply betray their ignorance. I can speak from knowledge. I have suffered both birching and caning; I have inflicted both, on some of my children and on some of my pupils. My own experience and that of my victims, voluntarily communicated long afterwards, is that the former is the less painful operation, though the marks (which no one need or ought to see) may to the uninitiated appear to betoken the contrary. I believe that medical authorities are pretty well agreed that of all the forms of corporal infliction in use in English schools and of all the instruments used for that purpose, flogging with a birch rod in the usual way is the least injurious. Caning on the hand is almost universally condemned, and the efficacy of an infliction on a covered portion of the body varies with the amount and texture of the ordinary (or extraordinary) clothing worn upon it at the time.
For centuries the birch was the usual form of school flagellation, and although no doubt in olden times school punishments, like those of adult criminals, erred greatly on the side of severity, that is no reason why a moderate chastisement should be regarded as an outrage. Probably a majority of the older men among aristocratic families have been flogged in the old fashioned way in their boyhood for much less serious offences than lying, and even the younger ones who have not experienced the discipline of the birch rod themselves have been at schools where they were liable to it on due occasion. Certainly no schoolboy who has had experience would regard five strokes with the rod (which, is the amount of this much-exaggerated punishment) as a very serious or severe infliction. I can only say that when I was a boy I should have expected (and my expectation would not have been disappointed) a much more severe personal penance for a similar offence, if at home from my parents or at school from my master.
In conclusion, may I say that if there be one thing that will not fit our boys for the important and honourable duties of future citizenship it is ‘mollycoddling.’ Some parents nowadays injure their children and lessen the teacher’s influence for good by listening to petty complaints about punishment. It is a great mistake. It tends to sap the growth of true nobility of character and make puling, whining nobodies. Long ago (those were manifestly more Spartan times) when a boy was caned or strapped the last thing he dreamt of doing was to tell his father. He knew that most likely in that case the chastisement would be supplemented. That line of action, for the boy’s sake, was immeasurably the better one. Let parents wisely, frankly, tenderly put their boys on their honour to be truthful, pure-minded, inflexibly fair and just, kindly and companionable to be, indeed, always and everywhere genuine, and to honour their teachers, on whose efforts their future so much depends. And while warning the boys against getting into scrapes, let the parents with equal frankness tell them, should they ever happen to get into one, not to sulk or whine, but stick to the truth and take their chastisement like a man and be wiser for the future. Above all things, may we be saved from a generation of ‘mollycoddles’!
Thank you for listening.
Picture credit: C of Sweden
AUTHOR’S NOTE: This story was compiled from genuine correspondence in the Manchester Guardian, England, in 1907
Other stories you might like
More stories from Charles Hamilton II are on the MMSA website
Charles Hamilton the Second