A 1950s housemistress recalls an episode in which a girl forced her to apply the ultimate deterrent.
by Sally Cavendish
Of all the girls in my house, Celia Charlton was the biggest enigma. She was bright, enthusiastic and, in general, very well behaved. But then she would suddenly go off the rails and be sent to me by one of the prefects.
‘Sent’ was something of a euphemism. Prefects had the power to send misbehaving junior girls to come and see me. A girl thus sent would knock on the door of my study, inform me simply that she had been sent and I would then give her six of the best without further ado. Sometimes I would question the girl as to why she had been sent and give her a ticking off before administering her six, but most of the time I did not bother. I was just the apex of a disciplinary system whose rudiments were understood by every girl in the house. You stepped out of line. You were sent. You got six. That was how this boarding school worked.
The traditional six of the best were administered with a cane over knickers or, if the girl had been sent me after lights out, over pyjama bottoms. Bare-bottom punishments were above my pay grade, as people would say today. But the canings stung like hell and I would guess that, of the scores of girls I had occasion to cane while I was housemistress, a good half left my study red-faced and with tears welling up in their eyes.
Celia Charlton certainly cried the first time she was sent to me. And the second. And the third. And the fourth. That was what I could not fathom. Unless these were crocodile tears, the canings were getting through to her, on the part of her anatomy where they would do most good. But why, despite being generally such a pleasant and studious girl, was she such a regular visitor to my study? After I had caned her for the fourth time, in a little more than a term and a half, I decided to put my foot down.
“We need to stop meeting like this, Celia,” I said, trying to keep the mood as light as possible. Once she had adjusted her clothing after her caning, I invited her to sit down next to me on the sofa, noting with quiet satisfaction that she winced as she lowered her bottom into position. Then I read her the riot act.
“You’re being sent to me on such a regular basis that we can’t go on like this. You should have learnt your lesson by now, but you seem incapable of mending your ways, however often I have to chastise you. So, let me make myself quite clear, Celia. If you are sent to me one more time this term, you will not be getting six from me, but an exemplary caning from the headmistress. Do you understand what that entails?”
“Would you like me to tell you?”
The poor girl was looking quite terrified by this stage, and part of me was feeling sorry for her, but I had resolved on a certain course and I intended to stick to it.
“A headmistress’s exemplary caning, Celia, is the ultimate sanction used at this school. I have only known three in the whole time I have been housemistress, and they all caused quite a stir. An exemplary caning is a far, far more serious matter than a whacking from me, and I pray to God that you never find yourself on the wrong end of one. Exemplary canings are administered by the headmistress in person and they take place in the upper library after school. They consist of a dozen hard, and I do mean hard, strokes of the senior cane. And they are always, without exception, administered on the bare bottom. The bare bottom, Celia. Have you got all that?”
“Yes, ma’am,” she stammered, ashen-faced. If I had meant to put the fear of God into her, I had certainly succeeded. As I sent her packing back to her class, I genuinely believed that my warning had done the trick.
You can guess the sequel. Celia did make a genuine effort to improve her behaviour and, in the next six weeks, kept scrupulously out of trouble. Then, like a little fool, she was cheeky to a prefect. Five minutes later, she was knocking on my door.
“Yes, Celia, what is it?”
“I’ve been sent, ma’am.”
“I’m very sorry, ma’am.”
“Well, I think you are soon going to be even sorrier.”
Without further ado, I picked up the telephone on my desk and asked to speak to the headmistress’s secretary, Mrs Hawkins. After the preliminary courtesies, I got straight to the point.
“Could you please tell the headmistress that I will be sending Celia Charlton to see her for an exemplary caning? She should be with you in five minutes.”
And so it panned out. The headmistress of the day, Dr Shelagh Peabody, MA, was such an aloof figure that she rarely spent time socialising with mere housemistresses. But I got, as it were, a blow by blow account of Celia’s caning from Mrs Hawkins, the headmistress’s secretary.
It was so long since a headmistress’s exemplary caning had been administered in the school, by Dr Peabody’s formidable predecessor, Miss Marshall, that, before the caning could be carried out, a frantic search of old files had to be instituted to establish the proper procedure. I had been right about one thing. It was the upper library where the punishment took place. But I had forgotten, if I had ever known them, the many other rituals associated with the time-honoured punishment.
“First, I had to take Celia up to the library and prepare her,” said Mrs Hawkins. “That meant removing all her clothes except her pants and vest and folding them over a chair. You should have seen her blush as she took her skirt off! I almost felt sorry for her. Then I made her stand with her hands on her head in front of the library steps, which I had placed in the middle of the room. Then I went to fetch Dr Peabody. She had a face like thunder and was wearing her academic gown. ‘Celia Charlton is ready for her caning,’ I announced – the traditional form of words. After that we marched up to the library together, with me carrying the senior cane. It was three foot long, and I felt sorry for Celia just holding it.”
“Did anyone see you?”
“You bet! You could see girls’ faces looking at us bug-eyed from the windows of the classrooms. That was the whole point of the headmistress’s caning – to set an example to others. Poor Celia was quivering like a jelly when we got to the library. Luckily for her, it was all over quite quickly. The headmistress simply told me to prepare her for her caning, which involved making her kneel and lean over the library steps, with her bottom raised. I then carefully peeled down her kickers and stood to one side while the headmistress administered the caning. Christ, she laid it on hard! I had to count out the strokes, as part of the ritual, and after five, I thought Celia would not be able to take any more. But she took it well, considering.”
“Her bottom must have been in quite a state.”
“Oh, it was, it was. Raised welts, nine inches long, from top to bottom. Red in places, purple in places. If that doesn’t keep her on the straight and narrow…”
Which, funnily enough, it did. A headmistress’s exemplary caning would not normally be regarded as a happy ending. But as Celia Charlton turned over a new leaf to the extent that she became a senior member of the judiciary, things worked out rather well. Perhaps those Spartan 1950s boarding schools were more effective than their critics allow.
© Sally Cavendish 2017