For children in the 1950s (the decade in which this account is set) corporal punishment was an accepted part of life both at home and in school, be that primary or secondary. In primary schools CP would range from a slap or two on the bare legs through to a rather painful encounter with the cane either on the hand or bottom.
In the primary school I attended the female teachers preferred slaps on the legs with the miscreant standing on the seat of their desk whilst the male teachers would apply a few whacks with the slipper to miscreant’s bottom whilst they were bent over in front of the class. There was no distinction made between the sexes, except that girls had to lift their skirts slightly so that their bare legs could be accessed. My school may have been unusual in that CP was rarely used whilst the cane was unheard of. Yes we all knew about the cane, what child of that era did not, but none of us had seen it or knew of anybody who had been caned at that school during that period. However, all of that changed one summer morning during my penultimate year at the school.
Before I go any further, curious impatient reader, I have to describe the physical layout of the school and explain a couple of practices, so I crave your indulgence for a few lines. The school building was shaped like a crucifix with the long stem being the main corridor with classrooms on either side. The school hall formed the cross piece whilst the boys and girls cloakrooms occupied the short vertical part of the crucifix. There were doors from each of the cloakrooms to the separate playgrounds and a further set leading into the hall opposite the double doors that led from the hall to the main corridor. At the end of break we would line up by classes in the playground and file through the cloakroom across the hall to the main corridor so that two crocodiles of children would exit the hall side by side. Needless to say certain areas of the school and playgrounds were off limits during break.
On that fateful summer’s day, two boys and I decided that we would play in the cloakroom during break despite the rules. Naturally we were caught by the headmistress who was less than pleased and made all three of us stand against the hall wall near the door to the corridor with me furthest away from the door. She disappeared and I assumed that she had either gone to get a slipper or to fetch one of the male teachers to slipper us. Oh boy was I wrong because shortly afterwards we heard her asking one of the men if she could borrow his cane. My initial reaction was one of shock followed by resigned acceptance and, I must admit, a certain degree of curiosity as to what the cane looked like, what a caning would look and sound like and how it would feel being caned, a curiosity that would shortly be satisfied. Just before she returned with the cane, the bell went for the end of break which meant that everybody would soon be filing past us as we were caned.
The headmistress returned with the cane which to me looked like a very thin yellow-ivory coloured walking stick and just as she returned the first of the children started filing through the hall. She called out the first one of us, told him to bend over and touch his toes and not to move. She got into position next to him, lifted her arm and brought the cane down onto his waiting bottom. There was a swish followed by a thwack and a thin line appeared on his shorts and, as I was to discover for myself a little later, on his bottom as well. Another swish and thwack and a second line appeared followed by a third before he was told to return to his place. The second boy was called out and once again the sound of three strokes of the cane being applied to an upturned bottom was heard in the hall.
I have to admit that I found the sights and sounds of the other two boys being caned fascinating and utterly mesmerising, so much so that when I was called I was rather slow in responding. The headmistress just glared at me and said “One extra stroke for not paying attention. Bend over and touch your toes”. I did as I was told and can still remember seeing my sandals and the wood blocks of the hall floor and hearing the shuffling of the other children’s shoes as they crossed the hall whilst I waited in that very uncomfortable and for me embarrassing position for my caning. Suddenly and without warning I felt the cane bite into my upturned bottom and a couple of seconds later a line of fire cross it before a wave of pain shot through my body. I had scarcely registered what had happened before the second stroke landed followed by the third and then the fourth. My curiosity about being caned had finally been very painfully satisfied. We were sent back to our classrooms where we had to explain to our teachers what had happened before being made to sit down. Slowly the pain dissipated whilst the weals took a couple of weeks to vanish completely.
Was I embarrassed about being caned? No, not even though it was in public as we were used to seeing the rare acts of CP carried out publicly and, as far as I was concerned, being caned was a more painful version of being slippered. Given that my school had weekly swimming lessons during the summer there was not much point in being embarrassed in any event as everybody would have been able, and indeed did, see the marks the following week at the swimming baths.
Despite the prevalence of C.P. during the eras that I was at school, I suspect that the vast majority of children went through their school years without being touched. For those of us that were caned, once was usually enough but there were some children who had several encounters with the cane. Whilst I was not in the latter category I am unable to say that I was in the former either because the following term I once again had a close-up view of the school hall floor whilst my bottom renewed its acquaintance with the cane as it cut six painful weals into it for exactly the same offence, albeit in a different off-limits area.