The class was absolutely quiet as we waited in anticipation of what was going to happen. The silence was broken by the swish of the cane through the air, followed by a loud thwack as it landed across the short trousers of the boy bent over in front us.
Three more thwacks followed before he was told to stand up and go back to his desk. He got up, red and flushed in the face, tears falling down his cheeks. He walked slowly back to his desk where he sat and cried for several minutes.
This was not an uncommon event in my final year at primary school in south London in the early 1950s. The school was an independent fee-paying one and the class, which was being prepared for the eleven plus exams, was taken by the Headmaster. He was an excellent teacher but demanded complete attention and good behaviour, which he achieved largely by the use of the cane.
I can’t remember much about the implement itself except that it was straight rather than having a crooked end, quite thin, very swishy and it hurt a lot. I never understood why, as in theory we wore a lot of protection. Our short trousers were made of quite thick material and were often lined. They also had back pockets which provided an extra layer. Underneath, were a further three layers of shirt, vest and pants which, in those days, were white shorts.
Talking in class or staring out of the window would generally result in one or two strokes across the hands, which was bearable. It took three or four strokes on the same hand to bring on the tears. Such canings were commonplace and occurred several times a day.
About once a fortnight there would be a more serious offence, like flicking ink or writing in someone else’s book. These were when you got called out to the front of the class and told to bend over. You did not have to wait long before the first stroke landed and you were engulfed with pain. The second stroke brought on the tears and after the third and the fourth strokes you tried your hardest not to cry out loud or scream. Those who did were mocked as babies by the rest of the class.
I remember one boy who rose in tears after only one stroke. It took some time for him to recover sufficiently before he was able to bend over again. He now kept looking behind him and, as the second stroke came down, he stood up and ran away from it. The Headmaster followed him, however, and caught him with quite a sharp thwack across his trousers when he wasn’t expecting it. He jumped into the air clutching his bottom and letting out a long piercing wail.
The Headmaster let him off at this point and he was able to return to his desk where he sobbed loudly for what seemed like a good five minutes. We all thought this was extremely funny.
Once or twice a term, usually after being caught fighting, a few of us would be told to remain behind during the mid-morning break. This only happened to me once. Not sure what to expect, I was somewhat surprised when my friend was called out to the front and told to take his trousers down and bend over. The Headmaster pulled his shirt and vest clear, picked up the cane and with a swish and thwack brought it down sharply across his pants. It made me jump and I didn’t really fancy what was coming.
Although my friend remained quite still after this stroke, he began crying after the next, before rising after the third, clutching his bottom and trying to rub the sting away, only to be told that he still had one more to come. He was made to bend over again and receive the fourth stroke by which time he was bawling loudly.
Now it was my turn. I soon realised how little protection pants only gave compared to being fully clothed. I managed to stay in position for all four strokes but yelled loudly after each one. By the end, I was crying profusely and rubbing my bottom furiously, but nothing I could do seemed to relieve the pain.
One boy, who was not present on this occasion, told me afterwards that the best method was to pull ones pants right down to let the sting out and get some air to the bottom. I have no idea if this would have worked.
Despite these canings, there was never any question of six-of-the-best. The Headmaster never gave us more than four strokes and he never got us to remove our pants for a caning on the bare bottom.
Although it was predominantly a boys’ school, a few girls were admitted and there were five or six in our class. They were generally better behaved than us boys, but were not exempt from the cane. Mostly they received it on their hands but I do remember two girls having to bend over for the standard four strokes over their skirts. No girl, however, was asked to stay behind during break, which was a pity as there was one bossy girl several of us would have liked to have seen bent over, skirt down and receiving four sharp thwacks firmly placed across her navy blue knickers.
From primary school, I went on to a boys’ grammar school where the gym slipper and cane were both used, but nowhere near as frequently. They were usually given across trousers, with between two and six whacks, depending on the severity of the offence. If you got into real trouble you could be given six-of-the-best, trousers down, across your white or blue briefs. These had replaced white shorts as the preferred style of underwear, but they gave no better protection against a well-wielded cane. There were rumours that some masters made you take your trousers and pants down for a bare-bottom caning, but I never came across any boy to whom this actually happened.