On this day in history : 12th February 1932 – Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald introduces a bill to improve Youth Courts, raising the age of juveniles and banning whipping of under 14s….

Under the reform which came into power in 1933 the age of criminal responsibility was raised to the age of 8 years and the death penalty abolished below the age of 18….

The Children & Young Persons Act also introduced approved schools, for criminal and beyond parental control minors – replacing reformatories, industrial and training schools…. With no locked cells or bars at the windows approved schools were meant to be more like boarding schools…. In 1948 a law was passed that prevented under 17s from being sent to adult prisons….

Discipline in approved schools was strict…. Each establishment was required to keep a punishment book and these were checked by Home Office inspectors on a regular basis…. Punishment books of approved boys’ schools in the 1930s, 40s and 50s show an average of several canings per week…. Corporal punishment was used less in girls’ schools and when it was only the under 15s and across the hands…. Punishment in approved schools did not differ all that much to the discipline meted out in ordinary schools…. However, before the Children & Young Persons Act it was a very different story….

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published in The Comic Almanack for 1839 – George Cruickshank – Public domain

From 1847 onwards birching could be ordered by ordinary local magistrates for a variety of offences – but was nearly always for stealing…. By 1879 it had become more regulated….and the punishment was often carried out immediately after sentencing…. The young offender (boys up to the age of 14 – and 16 in Scotland) would be taken to a nearby police station – or sometimes it would be carried out in the court itself – and the beating would be administered by a policeman…. The birch used would be smaller and lighter than those used in prisons….

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Committal for birching – A magistrate’s committal for birching two children dated 4 December 1899 – displayed in West Midlands Police Museum, Sparkhill, Birmingham Credit: Oosoom at English Wikipedia

The birch was a bundle of twigs, bound at one end to form a handle – and came in three sizes…. For boys under 10-years-old the birch measured 34 inches long and weighed 6 ounces…. For 10-16 year-olds it was 40 inches long, weighing 9 ounces…. The adult version was 48 inches long with a weight of 12 ounces…. It would be administered to the unclothed buttocks…. In Scotland the tawse would be used instead of the birch – a leather strap with two or three tails….and boys could receive up to 36 strokes….

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Museum specimens of the tawse. Kim Traynor CC BY-SA 3.0

Corporal punishment for juvenile crime was seen as a better alternative to prison – once the punishment had been carried out the recipient was free to go home having learned a very painful lesson….

From the 1860s only higher courts could order corporal punishment for males over 14-years-old….and had to specify the instrument to be used…. The birch was for offenders of any age but the cat-o’-nine-tails could only be used on those over 16-years of age….and the punishment had to be administered in prison….

The cat-o’-nine-tails had a total weight of 9 ounces and each of the 9 tails was a fine whipcord, each measuring 33 inches long….and the tip bound with silk (not knotted at the end – this is a common myth)…. The tails were attached to a 19″ handle….

Both the birch and cat were issued to prisons by the Home Office and were distributed from Wandsworth Prison….

The cat was applied to the bare upper back…. The birch was rarely used on adults to start with but eventually became more common place than the cat…. Some adults would have preferred the cat given the choice (but doubt if they were) as they felt it less humiliating than having to expose their buttocks….

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Cat-o’-nine-tails United Kingdom 1700-1850 Credit: Science Museum London CC BY via Wellcome Collection

The birch and cat-o’-nine-tails were abolished in the UK in 1948 (but were still used in prisons for violent assaults on prison staff until 1967)…. One of the last cases was that of a 23-year-old man who was sentenced at the Old Bailey in 1947 to 6 strokes of the cat and 7 years imprisonment for an armed raid on a public house in South London….

The birch was last used as a punishment for an assault on a prison officer in 1962…. Before that during the 1950s there had been an average of 3 or 4 such punishments per year for similar offences….

The Channel Islands finally banned the birch in the 1960s, with the last case on Jersey being in 1966 and Guernsey in 1968…. It took the Isle of Man until 1976 to abolish it – the last case being that of a 13-year-old boy who stole 10p from another child….

It took state schools until 1986 to ban caning and 1998 in private schools…. Scotland’s schools followed in 2000 and Northern Ireland in 2003….

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Digitised by State Library of Queensland – Public domain

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