The headmistress recalls a serious rebellion

by Alison Short

“Shall I tell you about the worst crisis I have ever faced in all my years as headmistress?”

Miss Hilary Underwood, principal of the Wolds School, was in expansive mood. We were taking afternoon tea in her cottage shortly after the incident described in the last of these memoirs, when she had occasion to give me a thoroughly deserved slippering for poor behaviour. The throbbing in my backside had not yet abated, and from time to time I had to shift position in my chair, but Miss Underwood had such a commanding personality, and was such a natural raconteur, that I hung on her every word.

“In May 1972,” she began, “there was one of the worst cases of civil disobedience in the history of this country. Pupils in their thousands, in towns and cities across Britain, took to the streets to protest against the use of corporal punishment in schools.  Ah, I see that you remember the episode. I thought you would. It was in all the papers.”

I nodded. My memory of the episode was hazy, to be honest, but it had certainly made a splash at the time.

“How could they? I mean how could they, Miss Simpson?”

And how I wish I had the words to describe the mixture of sadness and anger in Miss Underwood’s kindly, bespectacled face. Knowing her own almost messianic faith in corporal punishment, those protests must have felt like sacrilege.

“And you know the worst thing? No fewer than nine girls from my school took part in the protests in the centre of Lincoln. Not one. Nine! And on a Saturday afternoon. The school janitor happened to be in town that day and gave me their names.”

“What did you do?” I asked. There was not much doubt where this story was heading!

Miss Underwood took a sip of tea before continuing. “After two sleepless nights, wondering whether or not to simply expel the girls, I decided to bring matters to a head at assembly on Monday morning. I announced that it had come to my attention certain girls from the school had taken part in the stop-the-cane protests and that anyone who imagined I was going to turn a blind eye to that sort of loutish behaviour had another think coming. As I said these words, I looked hard at Claudia Penrose, one of the girls on my list of culprits. I strongly suspected her of being the ring-leader and, from the furious way she blushed, my suspicions were confirmed.”

“So she was for the high jump?”

“Miss Simpson, they were all for the high jump. But I always make a point of distinguishing between ring-leaders in acts of serious misbehaviour and others who have simply been led astray. I did so on this occasion.  First, I announced that Claudia Penrose would be caned in front of the whole school at assembly the next morning. There were shocked gasps, as you can imagine.”

I squirmed in my seat. It was not hard to imagine the scene and the terror that must have struck to the heart of Claudia Penrose.

“I then announced that I had been supplied with the names of eight other girls who had taken part on the protests. I would not be revealing those names, but the culprits knew who they were and, if they were to report to my study in the course of the next twenty-four hours, in a suitably penitent frame of mind, they could expect more lenient treatment than Claudia Penrose.”

“Meaning you would let them off with a warning?”

Miss Underwood threw back her head and laughed.

“A warning? Oh come, come, Miss Simpson. You know me better than that by now. No, I had resolved to cane them, hard, but over underwear. Six of the very best apiece. I thought that would meet the needs of the case.”

“And did all eight girls come forward?”

Miss Underwood gave one of her wintry smiles.

“They did. And that, in a way, was rather gratifying. I was afraid one or two of them might think they had got away with it, and had not actually been spotted at the protest. In that case, I would have had no alternative but to cane them in front of the whole school, alongside Claudia Penrose. But I always instil in girls that they must take responsibility for their actions, even when they have made mistakes. And they duly did so.”

“Did they all come and see you together?”

“More in dribs and drabs. Some, I imagine took time to pluck up the courage. Sue Binks, Mary Hawkins and Vicky Miller came to see me together straight after assembly. They were suitably contrite, but they took their canings pretty stoically in the circumstances. Rosie Brooks, who came to see me in the lunch-hour, cried her eyes out. She had never been caned before and, as you know, the experience of a first caning can be quite traumatic. The bottoms of teenage girls are so very tender.”

I nodded grimly. My own first experience of being caned by Miss Underwood had certainly been traumatic, as well as indescribably thrilling.

“Who else was there? Oh yes, Sylvia Brown. Serial offender. I was extremely fond of her, despite her obstreperousness. She is now a model citizen in every way, and a mother, and a good example of what I have often said to you, Miss Simpson. The cane works. It instils good habits of behaviour, even if it takes a little time. Ginny Howard and Judi Parkinson were boarders. They came to see me just before bedtime and were caned over their pyjamas. I shouldn’t really say this, Miss Simpson, but I do so enjoy sending girls straight to bed with sore bottoms. It is such a classic form of punishment. Which only leaves Catherine Morgan. Dear Catherine.”

Miss Underwood was now in her element, her eyes half shut as if remembering. I was curious to find out what had made Catherine so dear.

“Let’s say she was not the sharpest tool in the box,” said Miss Underwood, as if in answer to my question. “She had been a silly fool to take part in the anti-caning protest and she then did something even more stupid. Having finally plucked up the courage to come and see me to own up to what she had done, she then made an absolutely elementary error. Desperately hoping to lessen the sting of the cane, she wore a second pair of knickers under the one layer of clothing permitted. I mean, honestly. Did she think I would fall for that old trick?”

“What did you do? Give her six extra on her bare backside?”

“Almost right, Miss Simpson; three extra. You are beginning to have a nice appreciation of the way my mind works. Her poor bottom was well marked afterwards, but it was her own silly fault. Still, I was quietly satisfied with the way I had responded to the crisis so far. All eight of the girls whom Claudia Penrose had persuaded to take part in this idiotic protest had learnt the error of the ways. Now it was her turn to face the music; a public hiding in front of the entire school immediately after assembly.”

“When you say ‘hiding’, you mean a caning?”

“I am probably being a bit over-theatrical. In Victorian days, it would have been a birching, with all the attendant ritual. Are you familiar with the history of birching, Miss Simpson? I must enlighten you some time. No, Claudia was simply to receive twelve strokes of the cane on her bare bottom. Everyone gasped when I said twelve, and Claudia went white as a sheet. But what was I meant to do? It was imperative to drive home, in the most emphatic way, that protesting against corporal punishment was an affront, not just to the school and its traditions, but to me personally.”

She paused again, settling ever deeper into her armchair.

“I have rarely had to cane girls in front of the whole school. The ritual smacks of Victorian melodrama. There can also be problems if the girls watching are not on the best behaviour. But it is the ultimate sanction, and there has to be an ultimate sanction. I resolved that every detail of Claudia Penrose’s punishment would not just remain etched in her mind, but in the mind of her friends.”

“What was the exact procedure?” I asked, in what I hoped was a casual voice, although I was completely riveted by this stage.

“That’s a very good question. Procedural precision is a minor passion of mine. The choreography of the punishment is as important as the punishment itself. First there is what one might call the place of execution. In this case, I had decided that Claudia would be punished bent over the small desk at which I sit during assembly.”

“Facing the other girls or away from them?”

“Another excellent question, Miss Simpson. You are becoming quite a student of corporal punishment. There is something to be said for both approaches. Should the watching girls see for themselves the dramatic impact of the senior cane on a bare bottom? Or the tears on the face of the girl being chastised? On balance, I favour the first approach, although I have used both in my time. The baring of the bottom is another thorny issue. Should the girl be asked to bare her own bottom? Or have it bared for her?”

“I know which I would hate more,” I said with a nervous laugh. “I will never forget the first time you caned me and took it on yourself to do the honours. I was mortified.”

“Exactly.  I remember your embarrassment. In fact, I willed your embarrassment. But back to Claudia Penrose. In her case, I had decided to ask the head girl, Christine Upton, to act as master of ceremonies, so to speak. While I stood poised with the cane, she led Claudia up on the stage, bent her over the desk, then carefully raised her skirt out of the way. Now only her regulation knickers stood between her and her nemesis. You could have heard a pin drop.”

I could feel myself breathing heavily as the drama unfolded. Miss Underwood was certainly a consummate storyteller.

“It only remained for me to issue my final instruction, the same solemn form of words I have used for twenty years. “Present her bottom for punishment.” The head girl did the necessary, there were the usual gasps from the girls watching, and then I proceeded to administer sentence. Twelve hard, precise stokes, delivered over a period of about three minutes.” She allowed herself a wry smile. “I am not giving away any secrets when I say that Claudia Penrose did not enjoy those three minutes.”

“Did she manage to stay still?”

“With great difficulty, but yes, she did. Girls know that they will get extra strokes if they move, but sometimes they just can’t help themselves. As I have said before, the bottoms of teenage girls are very tender. Very tender. But I guess that’s the point, isn’t it? No pain, no gain, if I may lapse into a colloquialism. Don’t you agree, Miss Simpson?”

“Yes,” I said in agreement. As her story unfolded, I had been so gripped by her account of the episode that it was as if I was Claudia Penrose; terrified, humiliated, prostrate, knickers lowered and Miss Underwood’s avenging cane landing again and again and again on my tender teenage rump.

It was the stuff of nightmares, and I did indeed have a nightmare that very night. Miss Underwood was caning me so hard that the tears were streaming down my face and I was howling like an animal.

So why did I wake with a huge smile on my face?

The End

© Alison Short 2021