In February 2006 Mr R. A. T. Brightlington-Pugh, a former housemaster at the Ridgeway private boarding school in the west of England, passed away peacefully in his sleep at the age of ninety-seven. Some years later, his great-great-great-great nephew found a leather-bound travelling chest containing diaries he had written during the 1930s and 1940s. This present story was inspired by the diary entry for 14th April 1936.
I had always thought schoolboys lived in dread of the cane and that it was the three-feet of swishy rattan that kept them in order. I believed they would obey any rule or instruction to avoid being ordered to present their backside for chastisement.
In my own case a caning is an awesome event. After six-of-the-best from me a boy leaves my study in some distress. Undoubtedly his backside would be severely bruised and sometimes, when I have administered a particularly severe thrashing, he would have grazes and cuts on his buttocks.
No schoolboy, I had thought, would want a caning if he could possible avoid it. I had not, however, reckoned with Green of the Upper Sixth. He visited my study at lunchtime last Thursday with what he termed “a proposition.”
There was a confident knock on my door which I had not been expecting. It is true that one boy or another – and sometimes more – would be summoned to attend my study most lunchtimes. Today had been no exception. I had dealt with two fourteen-year-old boys from the Remove form. They had been caught in Wringleton Wood. The headmaster had declared the place out of bounds to boys for reasons that I could not properly fathom. But, rules are rules and if a boy breaks bounds he had better not get caught.
They each took their Six like the gentlemen they undoubtedly are.
I had not expected Green and was a little irritated when he appeared uninvited. He had disturbed my reading of the Daily Mail newspaper.
I called him to enter and he stood before me confidently. Usually, a boy in my study would exhibit an overwhelming interest in the pattern on the rug beneath his feet, or alternatively he would be intrigued by the bookshelf behind my desk. Some boys would be unable to turn their attention away from the hat stand in the corner of the room and the two crook-handled canes that hang there.
Green did none of these things; he looked me straight in the eye and said what he had come to say. Green is eighteen-years-old and like all boys at the school who are not in the lower forms, he wears the Ridgeway uniform of dark-grey trousers, a bright red woollen blazer with white edging and a red-and-white-hooped cap.
Green had made a particular effort with his uniform. The three buttons on his blazer were fastened; his tie was tightly knotted. His trousers had been brushed and looked from a distance at least to be as new.
Green has always been a bit of a charmer. His open face is often covered with freckles; his fair hair was today neatly combed and hidden underneath his school cap. He is an athletic boy and something of a star of the school’s association football team.
Association football was the subject that had brought him to me.
He launched into what I supposed was a rehearsed speech. He had, he told me, been misbehaving in class and as a result landed himself with a spot in Saturday School. Saturday School as the name surely demonstrates is a school session that is held on Saturdays for misbehaving boys. Saturday for everyone else is a day of leisure.
Green’s pale blue eyes bore into me as he made his case. This coming Saturday was the semi-finals of the inter-schools’ association football knock-out cup. Ridgway, he assured me, were “in with a chance” of beating rivals Witchdale and securing a place in the final.
This could only be achieved, he averred, if he took up his usual place at inside-right in the team. Alas, for Green, the match coincided with Saturday School. If he were made to attend detention, he would miss the match and Ridgeway’s chances of cup glory would be no more.
I was startled by the boy’s arrogance, but that was as nothing compared to what he said next.
“So Sir, I wish to have my detention caned-off.”
My brows must have knotted betraying my lack of understanding, for he continued. “Caned-off, Sir. If I could be caned instead of attending detention …” He trailed off as he saw the look of astonishment in my face.
Caned-off! What a preposterous suggestion. It was not for a boy to decide his own punishment. What on earth would be the point of that?
I could have caned him there and then for his impudence and still insisted he attend Saturday School. Instead, I sent him on his way with merely a flea in his ear and returned to my newspaper. Perhaps, I had to concede, my canings are not quite as awesome as I had supposed.
I did not think of the matter again until earlier this evening. I had spent the morning in the nearby town and followed my shopping expedition with a stroll in Wringleton Wood. I had quite forgotten that the association football match was to take place today.
I was reminded of the fact by Wilson, a junior colleague. It had been his misfortune to be assigned to supervise Saturday School. Green, he told me, had not attended. His inquiries soon unearthed the information that the wretched boy had been seen boarding the motor coach that transported the association football team to its match.
I am not a man given over to temper. It is true that just like the next man I can become angry at times. I do not, however, rant and rave or behave in ways that later I might regret. When the need arises I show my anger calmly, as Green was to discover.
I had an hour or so to prepare for the boy’s return to the school. I used the time wisely. I spoke with Mr Anderson, the school porter, who assured me he would be able to assist.
It was nearly eight in the evening when Green tapped on the door of my study. It was not the same self-confident Green who had attended on Thursday. His blazer was unbuttoned; his tie was loose. His school cap was nowhere to be seen.
His usual open and cheerful face was grim. The day had been a disaster for him. Ridgeway had been trounced in the game, going down by four goals to nil. Now, to round off it all off he was appearing before his housemaster to explain his absence from Saturday School.
There was not much to say. He was clearly guilty as charged. Corporal punishment was of course imminent. Green undoubtedly expected a caning. It was after all what he had wanted when he asked for his detention to be caned-off.
“Remove your blazer, Green and hang it on the hook on the study door.” Green had been a frequent visitor to my study and he knew the ritual that preceded a caning. Soon he would expect to be face down across my desk with his arms stretched ahead of him and his backside pointing at me.
He removed his blazer and turned back to face me. The puzzlement on his face was evident. He watched me take two wooden chairs and place them in the centre of the room back-to-back. Satisfied by the re-arrangement of the furniture, I ambled to the other side of the study and picked up from an empty bookshelf a dusty sack. The contents bulged but it was surprisingly lightweight. Green’s pale blue eyes burned into me as he studied my every movement.
I placed the sack on my desk, opened its neck and reached in. Green’s face blanched as he realised what was emerging from the sack. It was a freshly-made birch rod. Mr Anderson had made a splendid job of it. He had found the leafless branches at Wringleton Wood. He cut eight of them so they were three feet long and tightly bound them at the base with twine. Usually, a birch rod would be soaked in brine for as long as possible to ensure the suppleness of the rods and the effectiveness of the sting they would inflict on bared flesh.
I had considered delaying Green’s punishment for a day to allow the birch to soak overnight, but I always prefer to administer punishment as soon after the crime is committed as possible.
“Remove your trousers and underwear, Green,” I intoned. I do not believe I have ever seen a schoolboy look so horrified. “B..b..” he tried to speak, but really what was there for him to say?
“Please, let us do this without fuss.” I had no pity for the boy, he deserved everything that I intended to deliver. He would not be the first boy at Ridgeway to be birched. I knew from experience that boy’s believed a birching to be an extreme punishment. In fact, I have it on good authority that a birching hurts a lot less than a traditional caning with a rattan rod. It hurts a great deal, but the birch delivers a different pain to the cane. The rattan would slice into the bottom, cutting a single welt with each rise and fall, creating intense agony where the rod landed. The birch was different; the boy’s bottom would be on fire, but it would feel as if a white-hot egg-whisk had been pressed into his flesh.
The other difference is that a birch is only effective if it is swished into a bared bottom.
Green stood motionless as if he had failed to hear my command. I repeated it. “Take off your trousers and underwear.” I hoped the boy would be man enough to comply. I know that boys do not like to expose their bare bottoms to schoolmasters, but that is not my problem. If a boy behaves such that he deserves a thrashing bare, he has only himself to blame.
The eighteen-year-old’s hands fumbled at the buttons of his trousers. They fitted him well and he needed no belt or braces to hold them up. Once loosened they fell down his thighs and snagged to a halt at his knees, before slowly slithering to his feet.
“Step out of them, Green.”
As if in a trance, he lifted first his left foot and then his right and stepped clear of the trousers. He was now standing before me in his underwear. He wore modern drawers that fastened at the waist; it would be easy to remove them. But the boy needed to demonstrate the will to comply with my instruction.
He remained silent, but his eyes pleaded with me for mercy. Please, he seemed to be saying, do not make me expose myself to you.
I was in no mood for mercy. “Take down your drawers, Green.”
His face was that of a ghost. He closed his eyes tight and placed his thumbs in the waistband of the drawers. They were soon at his feet. Unbidden, he stepped out of those too. He clasped both hands in front of his privates. His eyes were still closed as he stood trembling awaiting my further instruction.
“Kneel on one chair and reach over the back and grip the seat of the other.” It was a standard position for a caning. Many of my colleagues preferred the two-chairs technique because it could present the boy’s posterior at the perfect angle if you wanted to slash it rather like a batsman at cricket slogging a ball to the boundary for four runs.
I admit now that I was relieved when Green complied with my instruction. I had been unsure that he would be brave enough to do so and I had instructed Mr Anderson to wait in an adjoining room should I need his assistance to hold the boy down.
Green kneeled, his stomach resting against the backs of the chairs with his bared bottom raised in the air. Slowly and with some ceremony I took hold of the tail of the boy’s shirt and rolled it up his back. I was now staring at a considerable are of naked flesh from the boy’s shoulders to below his knees where his socks were slumped.
The boy gripped the edge of the wooden seat and flexed his buttocks a little in anticipation of the agony he expected as the rods struck home. I measured my distance and swung the birch round my head and brought it down with a terrific upper-cut on the Green’s naked flesh. The hairless buttocks were scarred with dozens of thin white lines; narrow welts were rising where the birch twigs connected with the boy’s fleshy haunches.
The birch swished again; Green screwed his eyes tight and stifled the yell I knew he so desperately wanted to make. He was a trooper. He would not let himself down: he would not give me the satisfaction of seeing him in pain.
Swish! Swish! Sweat poured from his body, down his half-naked back and into the crack between his cheeks. There were dozens of lines across his bottom, arranged neatly from left to right and from the top of the bottom where they meet the spine to under the curves close to the thighs. Every square inch of his rear end was scarred.
The sixth-former wriggled his body from left to right, as he struggled to remain in position, prostrate across the wooden chairs with his bared bottom still pointing submissively at me.
Swish! the hardest cut yet and the boy’s response was to beat his knees up and down against the wooden chair. Tears were now forming behind his eyes.
I lashed down two more strokes with full force. That did it: the skin started to open. Soon blood would seep through. Green’s scream of agony echoed around the study and no doubt could be heard as far away as study hall.
“Right boy, stand up.” It was over: Green had survived. Slowly, he relaxed his grip on the chair and raised himself to his feet. Instinctively, his hands shot to his buttocks to gently rub against the dozens of raised stripes that decorated them.
Unsteadily, he retrieved his drawers and gingerly stepped into them, all the time avoiding looking at me. Soon his trousers were in their rightful place.
“Dismissed.” I had no desire to prolong this meeting. The boy had transgressed; he had been punished most severely. The matter was now closed. We should all get on with our lives.
He limped from the room, pausing only to unhook his blazer from the door.
Picture credit: Sting Pictures
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More stories from Charles Hamilton II are on the MMSA website
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