Photo from The Penitents
I'd been to tea with grandma and after we'd finished our crumpets, I plucked up courage to ask her more about her schooldays. I'd come home some months previously, weepy-eyed because I'd just been caned, and to comfort me, she told me that she used to get thrashed too. I'd been fascinated by her stories. It seemed the usual punishment for serious offences in her schooldays was a dozen strokes with the birch. I really wanted to know more.
"Oh my, yes" she replied in her quavering voice, her eyes twinkling. "If we'd done done something that made Miss Flagstaff very angry, we'd get the birch. 'Flogger' Flagstaff, we used to call her. I'm sure she enjoyed thrashing us."
"What sort of things did you get birched for, granny?"
"Well, I remember one time we were doing history and the teacher was talking about 'the franchise'. It was awfully boring: who should be allowed to vote. Anyway, I stuck up my hand and said something, and lordy: the ceiling fell on me! The teacher literally frothed at the mouth. He took me by one ear and marched me straight in to see 'Flogger'. She started foaming, too, and told me to go out to the woods and cut her a birch."
"Gosh, what was it you said?" I asked, with my hand to my mouth.
"I'll come to that. Anyway, she gave me a knife and told me to bring back a dozen birch switches. It was always like that: we had to make the rod for own backs: and woe betide us if we cut sticks that 'Flogger' considered too thin. Then we had to take them to the garden shed and bind them together with string. This was almost the worst part: knowing that those horrible twigs were soon going to lash against your bottom.
"So, when the birch was ready, we had to go and knock on 'Flogger's' door. Of course anyone who saw us knew what was going to happen, and so the whole school would be listening out for the sounds.
" "Enter!", she'd call. Then she'd inspect the birch. If it was satisfactory, she'd tell you to prepare yourself. That meant undoing your bloomers and lowering the material, and then lifting up your long skirt so that your backside was completely bare. Then she would point at the birching stool, which she would have placed in the middle of the room. It was a sort of heavy wooden box with a padded step and padded top. You had to kneel on the step, lie across the top, and put your hands on the floor.
"Then 'Flogger' would approach and tell you to keep still or you'd get more than 12.
"Oh, the agony of each swipe! You could feel those awful branches cutting in to your cheeks and you knew that you wouldn't be able to sit comfortably for several days. She'd wait a few seconds between each stroke, to let the pain from the last one reach a crescendo, then 'whack!' the birch would come down again.
"When it was over, she'd put on her glasses and pick some of the broken bits of twig out of your bottom, then she'd tell you to go and stand in the corner, looking at her hideous wallpaper, while she filled out the Punishment Book."
"Golly, grandma. That must have been awful! But what was it you said that so annoyed them?"
Granny's eyes brightened again. "I told them that I thought women should have the vote."