14 April 2017
Corporal Punishment at Woolmer Hill School in the mid 1970s
Woolmer Hill Secondary School in Haslemere, Surrey did not have a reputation for its widespread use of corporal punishment, but beatings administered there affected pupils for life.
“I went in first and watched as the horrible Anning selected a slipper from the bottom of his cupboard, made me bend over a chair at the front of his desk then whacked me about 5 or 6 times… It hurt like hell, my face went red and tears welled up. As I left the office I looked at Jinxy, knowing what was in store for him.” Maurice P.
"It ended with me in his study, standing opposite him across his desk. On the desk lay his cane. I remember thinking how thick it was. I'd heard so much about it and there it was lying in front of me." Bob
In the autumn of 2009 I published a short essay on the Internet summing up my memories of the headmaster of Woolmer Hill, Leslie Anning, the man who both dominated and symbolised the school from soon after its opening in the early 1950s until his retirement in 1977. I circulated the piece to a few ex-pupils whom I had contacted earlier though the social network sites Friends Reunited and Facebook; and a couple made comments. A few other ex-pupils - people I don’t actually remember - found the essay though Internet searches and made comments. What interested me most - and all those who made comments were male - was that their focus of interest was on one particular paragraph of the essay. Let me quote it in full here:
"In the Friends Reunited thread, some commentators have talked about corporal punishment with the implied suggestion that the school functioned around canes and slippers. This is not true. Corporal punishment undoubtedly played a role in creating the ambiance of fear and humiliation that intruded into every aspect of the school. Yet by the mid 1970s canings and slipperings, if not the threat of them, were rare. Only a minority of teachers ever dangled over pupils the threat of being sent to Anning for the cane. And I can honestly say that I don’t know anyone who was caned in my years at the school."
The replies threw up three issues. The first was the claim that I had seriously underestimated the amount of corporal punishment at the school. The second was confirmation of a simple fact: the existence of school corporal punishment, whether experienced first hand or not, had impacted deeply on the psyches of former pupils - if not, why had they written to me, or commented, on the topic. And finally, it was clear to me that the meaning attributed to memories of corporal punishment varied considerably among pupils.
Corporal Punishment in the 1970s
When we look back at the past - and here we are talking about looking back at the mid 1970s from 2017 - people are apt to make two mistakes. The first error is the most obvious: people interpret the earlier period by means of the social values and perspectives of the present day. Thankfully, corporal punishment no longer exists in English schools today. The ritualised beating of children and young people is perceived as a humiliating cruelty and is usually interpreted in sexual terms; i.e. the administrator gains sexual satisfaction in carrying it out while the victim experiences a rape-like sexual humiliation and/or exhilaration. Perceived in those terms, and if for no other reason, corporal punishment is now regarded in England to be a wholly inappropriate way of dealing with children. But because that is the dominant view in 2017, it does not mean it represented the official or dominant way of thinking in the 1970s. It did not.
The second error is to unconsciously impute to people in a past period knowledge of what came after their time. Today the world necessarily feels modern and we construct our scenarios for the future in our minds out of trends we spot in our existing society, But so did people living in, say, 1977. To them the world seemed modern and they constructed what they thought was the future out of developments they saw taking place then. Nobody imagined that a decade later in 1987 corporal punishment would be outlawed in English state schools, least of all during a Conservative government enjoying a huge parliamentary majority. In the late 1970s, the Tories led in the opinion polls with their agenda of authoritarian populism and of “short sharp shock” and that seemed to ensure a safe future for school corporal punishment.
So to make sense of corporal punishment at Woolmer Hill in the mid 1970s we have to rediscover the thinking of the people of the time, which means considering the attitudes of the educational authorities, teachers, parents and pupils. Beliefs and events don’t make sense, if wrenched out of their time and context.
In the mid 1970s the majority of educational officials, parents, teachers and school pupils accepted corporal punishment in schools, though, of course, there was a significant minority who did not. In state secondary schools, the standard view was that it was a quick and efficient way of making a point and that without it the chance of a school - or at least certain pupils within it - running wild would increase. This way of thinking saw corporal punishment as transactional (If X did Y then a beating was in order) and functional (i.e. it worked). This kind of practical approach stood in contrast to the ritualistic attitudes and behaviours then still lingering in some private schools in which a beating was seen as having a salutary effect per se on the victim and acted as some kind of rite de passage. There were no official provisions in state schools for boys having their bare bottoms caned in the library during afternoon tea.
In the 1970 the degree of pain that school corporal punishment could cause was in practice regulated by opinion and consensus rather than by precise legal definition. At its most severe a cane could be applied to the clothed bottom causing considerable pain at the point of administration, subsequent bruising and discomfort for a couple of days. At the other end of the spectrum, the assault might be only a light slap.
Of course there were sadistic teachers in state secondary schools, who did want to sexually stimulate themselves through causing real pain when they could get away with it, but that was not the norm. In most cases, the pain element was intended to be moderate and ephemeral. Pain itself was not intended to bend the will of the child; it was aura of fear and humiliation engendered by a beating which was meant to be effective.
The system of corporal punishment at Woolmer Hill
So what was the situation at Woolmer Hill? Corporal punishment in schools was not uniform across the country. Its existence, extent and nature depended on three factors: first, the policy of the local education authority - in the case of Woolmer Hill Secondary School that meant Surrey County Council. Second, the head teacher could ban or regulate its deployment and finally the staff could promote or hinder its use. As Surrey - as far as I know - put no restrictions on school corporal punishment, the extent and quality of its use was determined by the school itself.
Woolmer Hill did not have a reputation of a great caning school: in fact I recall no discussion of the matter at all at primary school. It was just accepted that there would be corporal punishment, but it wouldn’t be a major part of school life. Woolmer Hill was probably representative of the average secondary schools in the south-east of England in the mid 1970s.
In the spring of 1973 there was an induction day at the school for pupils joining in September. Aged eleven, I had agreed with my Haslemere friends in our final year at Chestnut Avenue Primary School to walk up to Woolmer Hill, much to my mother’s annoyance. She was forced to make her own way there. At the main entrance to the school building, a set of doors that pupils were forbidden to use, was Headmaster Anning. Dressed in a dark suit and dark plastic rimmed glasses, he was surprisingly diminutive in stature. At first sight he seemed less terrifying than I had thought, but his artificially smooth demeanour instilled misgivings.
After a talk to pupils and parents, about which I now remember nothing, a handful of fifth year pupils (aged sixteen) guided us around the school. The parents stayed for a further briefing. And it was indirectly from this meeting that I learnt the first details of corporal punishment at Woolmer Hill.
A day or so later, a classmate, Michael W., told me about a question in the meeting. A father had asked Anning what punishments his son would receive if he misbehaved. Anning, according to this third-hand report. had replied that he used a slipper, but if the offence were very serious - and that was rare - he then used a cane. My mother must also have heard this explanation, but was too embarrassed to pass it on to me.
It was never stated, but it seemed to be the case, at least in light of my subsequent experience, that all “legitimate” corporal punishment was administered by Anning personally or perhaps by his “third-in-charge” Alex MacShane. I can recall no instance of anyone receiving formal corporal punishment from teachers in the classroom - or outside it for that matter. Informal acts of corporal punishment no doubt occurred, but I never witnessed any of them. The incidents relating to corporal punishment involving class teachers which I saw were theatrical. Let me recount a couple of these.
Mr Williams, nominally a science teacher and a self-styled eccentric, blew hot and cold in the long teacher-pupil conversations that passed for lessons. After a spout of chumminess he would suddenly pull rank, and make threats. One boy, Jonathan L., recalled an incident which I too remember. Mr Williams “... took pride in the fact that he could chalk a cross on the desk, and one on the bottom of a plimsoll and smack the plimsoll on the desk so hard that the crosses would overlap.” During this absurd demonstration the desk was supposed to represent a boy’s trousered bottom.
Steve M. recalls another incident with the same teacher when in the teacher-pupil banter a boy, Mark S.“ said something to Williams and was taken to the backroom for a beating. (Bunsen burner tube).” I don’t actually believe that Mark S. was seriously beaten - if he was beaten at all - but Williams made the point that he could set the rules and reward and humiliate at will. I never spoke to him in the class conversation and sat there with the majority bored stiff.
Steve M. also mentions another teacher who “had a cricket bat wrapped in sand paper, sandy side out. On this he had written 'WHACK!' in mirror writing, in chalk and he would whack you on the back with it. It wasn't a hard whack and was never going to do you any harm, but he was much pleased with the resultant 'WHACK' written on the black blazer.” I do not remember this latter incident myself, but have no doubt as to its veracity.
These are not, of course, instances of corporal punishment, but of teachers relishing in its symbolism. What they wished to do was highlight the topic and bring it to bear in the atmosphere of lessons. But to be fair these kinds of teachers were not in a majority.
Instances of pupils being sent to Anning for corporal punishment either directly or indirectly (e.g. “Take this note to Mr Anning saying you did X”) were also rare. The majority of believed that Anning’s use of corporal punishment would be excessive or inappropriate. I can only recall two exceptions in which teachers dangled this threat over pupils.
The first incident concerned a pupil Ian B. and a music teacher. I can’t remember what Ian B. had done, but it was some minor misdemeanour, and Mrs Grice asked him whether she should send him to Mr Anning with a request for him to be caned. Interestingly, she referred to the cane, though I have to admit in the years 1973-78 I don’t know of any incident of it being used; though, of course, it may have been, but certainly not in a case like this. Grice’s threat was almost certainly an empty one, but it was clear that she enjoyed toying with the idea. It was not surprising, therefore, that she made other gratuitous references to corporal punishment. Robert Harding was a calm taciturn boy whom one was apt to ignore, but when his name came to Mrs Grice’s attention it sparked a memory. Apparently, in her previous school there was a boy called Robert Harding who had received the cane almost every day.
The second incident involved me. One of the most uninteresting lessons of the week was the afternoon spent doing technical drawing. Ideas and concepts interested me; pointless precision did not. Mr Pavey, a retired naval officer, had two topics of conversation that I remember. One was his crumbling neck bones, hence the need to remove any obstacle from his path that he might trip over; the other was corporal punishment. He took delight in mentioning that “when Mr Anning administers it, he takes the skin off.” which was coupled with a story of a caning that Pavey had apparently witnessed in which after the first stroke the boy “was grovelling on the deck even though he had another five to go.” All that left me wondering: was the caning on the bare bottom or on the hand? Bleeding bottoms or broken hand bones at Woolmer Hill I did not believe. Pavey was bullshitting.
Then one afternoon a couple of classmates and I passed the time writing inane notes to one another. Pavey noticed it and demanded the scrap of paper be brought to him. I didn’t particularly worry because the note contained nothing defamatory or obscene. I was thus surprised when I was told to take it down to Mr Anning. Two other boys were told to join me, Michael H. and Anthony H. Pavey said he would be down shortly. Anning received us in his office although he was in the middle of a meeting with the deputy head, Mrs Hollingdale, who turned to face the window during the whole proceedings. Pavey came in and mumbled a few words about how the whole matter needed to be referred to the Headmaster. He clearly wanted to see some corporal punishment.
Anning asked the three of us whether we wanted the note to be shown to our fathers. We all gave the required negative answer, though given the innocuous nature of the note I didn’t see why not. Anning then took out a gym slipper and a cane. The slipper, he said was for minor offences, and the cane for more serious ones. Yet when I saw the cane, over a metre long and a centimetre thick - something akin to the instruments used in Singapore’s judicial canings - it seemed clear that we were only being intimidated. It was a physical impossibility to be caned in that office with that instrument - and if we had been the injuries would have been terrible. We were sent away untouched, leaving Pavey disappointed.
On another occasion, it was rainy lunchtime in my second year. We were confined to the classrooms and silliness and horseplay were in full swing. Suddenly Anning appeared in the doorway with a slipper in hand and grabbed Brian B. who was running around a desk and administered one or two whacks. I don’t think Brian B was hurt very much; but Anning’s act certainly had a dampening effect on the room, as he no doubt intended. I never saw corporal punishment used in public in that way again.
It would also be wrong to suggest that Anning responded to every disciplinary matter with corporal punishment. I committed two minor misdemeanours leading to his involvement. On one occasion, I was reported to him for a traffic violation committed the previous evening on my way home by bike; and on another for hiding my own valuables in my clothes in the changing rooms during games. In neither case did the penalties involve corporal punishment. Most breaks and lunchtimes also saw boys standing in corridors as punishment. Apart from perhaps rudeness, smoking and “going out of bounds” corporal punishment was administered for “mucking about offences” and then not always.
Corporal punishment certainly existed at Woolmer Hill. For me and for most of my cohort it was something of a background menace rather than a daily fear. It was part of the mental architecture of the school rather than a regular experience. Weeks and months could go by without my being aware of anyone receiving it, let alone with me being threatened by it. Announcements of its infliction were never made; and it was very rare for it to happen in public. Certainly there may have been groups of boys whose defiant and boisterous misbehaviour led to their receiving it more often, but generally you had to be in the wrong place at the wrong time to get the slipper.
Before the mid 1970s corporal punishment was more prevalent
Reading through the accounts on the former Friends Reunited pages, and reviewing responses to earlier versions of this article, there is overwhelming evidence that in the decade before the mid 1970s corporal punishment was harsher and more frequent at Woolmer Hill School. As Bob says:
“The fear of corporal punishment was much more prevalent during my time at the school [1966-71] and teachers were frequently threatening us with Anning and the cane.”
Roger Tanner writes:
“I’m sure all the boys who were sent to stand outside his (i.e. Anning’s) study remember those mortal words (as he's about to administer the cane): "This is going to hurt me boy more than it's going to hurt you" - Yea RIGHT!!”
Alan Perry, speaking for the Haslemere Educational Museum’s oral history project, referred to Headmaster Anning apprehending him on his way home from school for having cycled down the steep Woolmer Hill in contravention of school rules:
“I’d have been about eleven by that time, cycling and I got caned by Mr. Anning, the headmaster. For we were not allowed to cycle down the very steep road, I did one day and he was standing at the end. “Boy, my study, morning.” [...] And so I was taken in, put my hand out, had a lash across my hand and that was it, didn’t do me any harm.”
From this we have evidence that before the mid-1970s the cane-on-the-hand was used as a regular punishment, even on the youngest of boys for relatively minor offences. That seemed no longer the case by the time of my arrival at the school in September 1973.
Corporal punishment was also more prevalent in classrooms formerly, as Bob writes:
"Amongst many teachers there was a culture of thuggery. …[Mr A]... for example. I remember more than once seeing boys standing outside his science lab with bloody noses, inflicted by the heel of …[his]...hand. …[Mr B]... was another sicko who delighted in inflicting corporal punishment on pupils at the time.”
Andy Pollard, writing on Friends Reunited recalls a teacher who “kept a "weapon desk," which contained the following, a ruler, a plimsoll (showing my age now) a strap and a small cane, and if you were "in trouble", you picked your chosen "weapon." But this seems to me largely symbolic and theatrical.
In the earlier period Headmaster Anning seems to have exercised more violent abuse against pupils. Bob provides the following account:
“As I walked past him he slapped me across the back of the head. With this the red mist descended. I pushed him back and raised my fist saying words to the effect of 'If you want some, you can have it? I then walked down the stairs to the medical room with Anning shouting about what he was going to do to me.”
Here we see Anning hitting a pupil on the back of the head, but with the unusual consequence of the pupil not meekly accepting the assault but preparing to fight back. Indeed, Headmaster Anning’s penchant for hitting the backs of boys’ heads is revealed in A Chidd Boy’s Memories (2014) by John Bellchamber who attended the school in the early 1960s.
“On my last day at Woolmer Hill School, Hans Weiss and I thought it would be fun to carve our names on a brand new bench that had been put outside of the gym. This was in the morning, silly us; you guessed it; when lunchtime came, the headmaster Mr Anning came roaring into the dining room, and called out our names to stand up; he then hit us both around the back of our heads; we got a right old bollocking.” (Some spelling, grammar and punctuation corrected)
It is impossible to say that these back-of-the-head hittings no longer occurred by the mid 1970s, but I do not recall them - or it might be that public ad hoc beatings diminished and the same thing carried on in private. But the most horrifying account of Headmaster Anning’s violence was the following information which I received anonymously in January 2017. Of course, it may exaggerated or misremembered:
“I remember seeing the headmaster beating a boy with a long widow pole because the boy had opened a window without permission. He chased the boy into the corridor and beat him about the head and shoulders as he cowered against the wall.“
Indeed, if that is true, and the ‘beating’ was more than symbolic, I am surprised. Anning used calibrated corporal punishment to terrorise and humiliate; he never struck me as a violent psychopath who lost self-control. But by the mid 1970s, such violence would be unlikely. The decline in corporal punishment could be put down to two factors. First, in the 1960s criticism from some teachers and parents of corporal punishment was growing, so generally across England it was applied less often and less severely. Woolmer Hill would not be an exception to that trend. Evidence of parental opposition to corporal punishment, at least on their own children, is forthcoming. Jon B. states after his slippering:
“I went home and told my parents and showed them what he had done. Well my mum went apeshit and stormed up to the school and gave Anning the biggest bollocking and threatened him with the police.”
Second, a classmate, Michael W., once told me that, prior to our joining the school, Anning had administered a severe caning which had been reported to the police. Then in January 2017, I realised that this alleged incident was probably genuine when I was informed by someone else:
“There was one case of a boy committing suicide following punishment by the headmaster in the mid 1960s. He was 14 or 15. The whole school, minus the teachers, was called into the assembly room by the headmaster and told not to divulge any details, to anyone.”
As a consequence, corporal punishment had become less severe and slippering had generally replaced caning by the mid 1970s.
The meaning of corporal punishment for its victims
On Friends Reunited and in responses to my earlier essays on Woolmer Hill, nearly all the comments relate to corporal punishment. The fact is that even three or four decades after receiving corporal punishment at the school the psychological imprint is still there for many men; and these men use the net to express their feelings. Why?
A beating, however minor, impacts on and scars the psyche at three levels. First, the whole body, not just the point of impact, experiences pain and tension, which turns the consciousness inwards away from the outer world towards the injury. Nobody has the freedom to ignore pain and to carry on mentally and physically as if nothing had happened. Second, a relationship between pain-giver and pain-receiver is established which has to be processed and interpreted by the victim. Nobody can remain neutral to an abuser. Third, a beating, particularly to the bottom, is likely to produce a sexual response. In other words, taking these three points together, a beating produces severe mental anguish; it is a shock to the system.
The men who experienced corporal punishment at Woolmer Hill and who have written comments about it adopt one of three attitudes. One group remembers the event as a personality destroying humiliation. Maurice P. clearly falls into that category:
"I was given the slipper by Anning and I remember it well. Me and my friend " Jinxy " were caught smoking and marched to his office. I went in first and watched as the horrible Anning selected a slipper from the bottom of his cupboard,made me bend over a chair at the front of his desk then whacked me about 5 or 6 times. Not on my backside but above that, at the base of my spine! It hurt like hell,my face went red and tears welled up. As I left the office I looked at Jinxy, knowing what was in store for him. Nothing was learned by this experience. I didn't behave any better. In fact, for me it was a backward step, it made me more rebellious and I hated Anning with a vengeance."
Jon B gives a similar account, two boys involved in a misdemeanour, both receiving a slippering:
"As for Anning... grrr!, he gave me the slipper the first week I was at Woolmer Hill. Me and Ian B were into drawing funny cartoons of fellow pupils, and that particular day the subject was Tracy L and how her fanny went around the school swallowing people up. hahaha! Mrs Y apparently wasn't impressed (even though she was giggling when she confiscated and read it) and sent us both to Anning. Luckily he was busy, and it was near the end of the day on a Thursday, so he told us both to report back to him the next day. I decided to tell my parents that I felt sick the next day and had the day off school thinking I might get away with it. But over the weekend, I met up with Ian, and he showed me his arse after getting six whacks from the sadistic little Hitler, and boy was he bruised. There was a very prominent outline of a slipper... the bastard had it down to a fine art making sure he landed his blows in exactly the same spot every time. Ian told me that Anning was very disappointed that I was not in school and was looking forward to seeing me on Monday. So I made sure I was prepared on the Monday. I wore three pairs of pants, two pairs of shorts, and two pairs of trousers! But it made not a lot of difference, it hurt like hell and left exactly the same mark as Ian had... It didn't make me behave any better, and just made me hate him even more."
Others coped with the experience differently. Instead of humiliation, the experience is interpreted as an ordeal that is survived with honour. Tim writes: “The fear of the slipper was real but also served as a badge of honour amongst a lot of the boys, I received the slipper on one occasion and so did several of my friends.” A parallel situation exists at a fairground when someone goes on a new ride: a combination of terror, exhilaration and a sense of achievement for having survived it.
A third response to corporal punishment was resistance, but this was rare for several reasons. Most boys accepted that corporal punishment, albeit light and occasional, was just part of the normality of school life and was accepted, however unwillingly, on that basis. Boys knew that refusing to participate in the ritual of slippering would just make matters worse: it might simply delay rather than remove the punishment; it might lead to additional punishment such as suspension; it would involve parents who might in the 1970s not have supported their son; it could even potentially lead to expulsion from the school and generate embarrassing publicity for the pupil. For all these reasons it was far easier to submit and get it over with.
Thus, the pressure was psychological. It was highly unlikely that a pupil would be forced to receive corporal punishment through being restrained. But the psychological control was not total: there were cases of boys who refused corporal punishment. These were typically boys in their final year on the verge of leaving the school. One such refusenik was Bob in 1971:
“It ended with me in his study, standing opposite him across his desk. On the desk lay his cane. I remember thinking how thick it was. I'd heard so much about it and there it was lying in front of me. He had calmed down by now, and I remember him saying that the cane probably wouldn't do me any good. I replied that it didn't bother me what he decided to do, because I wasn't going to let him use it. He then told me to be seated, and he gazed out the window for a minute or so. We then had a 10 minute conversation about the trees and flowers outside the school before he let me go to the medical room.“
One point of interest is that in all the cases discussed, Maurice, Jon, Tim and Bob, the pupil only experienced corporal punishment on one occasion. No declared policy limited corporal punishment to one administration, but it is reasonable to suppose that Anning perceived the fear of slippering as the main deterrent, a fear made real in the minds of pupils by having experienced it and having been terrorised by it. Frequent beatings, accepted by pupils as unpleasant but bearable experiences, would replace fear by normalisation.
But the overriding point remains: for all these boys corporal punishment had a profound psychological effect and remained in the memory. For none of them did it play any role in curbing delinquent behaviour.
My personal experience of receiving corporal punishment
In infant and primary school I was never hit or beaten; and any corporal punishment which did exist in those schools was rare, informal and light. In my first school, which I attended until I was seven, I can only recall one incident when a boy received a symbolic slap on his legs from an angry teacher for some misdemeanour. It frightened me though, and I can remember crying.
In the junior school which I attended until I was eleven, the normal penalty for wrong-doing was spending breaks and lunch hours standing in an otherwise teacher-only corridor called “top lobby.” At seven I did not know where top lobby was or what happened there; and when older children were sent to top lobby I was terrified. In later years I stood there myself on a couple of occasions. The only two incidents of hitting that I witnessed in the school were one where a boy, Brian Denman, had become hysterical about not wanting to go into a classroom - and another when Derick R. received a light swat on his bottom with a ping-pong bat from Headmaster Pearson during a dancing lesson. Both incidents, though, were witnessed while I was in my first year and they terrified me.
Yet here too I may have underestimated the amount of corporal punishment. Jon B. recounts the following incident of a slapping given by Mr Pearson, headmaster of Chestnut Avenue Junior School in the early 1970s:
"What a strange man he was, and the first teacher to slap my arse for being naughty. I remember my dad taught me a dirty rugby song, and I wrote it down for you guys to read. Well somebody left it lying around, and when I got back from lunch (I lived very close and went home for lunch... my mother still lives in that house!) he cornered me in the main lobby and slapped me really hard the bastard."
In my penultimate year at junior school, the issue of corporal punishment emerged because of the theatrics of our first male teacher. Mr Clarke would often make reference to the subject and even on one occasion went looking for “his slipper” but as far as I know no one was ever punished in that way. Such antics nevertheless led to a great deal of silly rumour and fantasy, such as kids pointing out a window which pupils were allegedly bent out of while being slippered. But for me, as for my classmates, apart from much silly chatter and rumour, we had little experience of corporal punishment.
Let me now return to the topic of this essay, corporal punishment at Woolmer Hill School. During my time there, I was only ever hit twice by teachers. The two occasions are so different that they have little in common. The first was an instance of formal corporal punishment; the second was a simple assault in rather strange circumstances.
The first incident occurred in my first year when I was aged eleven; it must have been in the autumn of 1973 because strangely I can still remember it was warm outside. One of my least favourite lessons of the week was science with the newly appointed Mr Cantan, a serious young man who insisted that his name be pronounced as if “Canton,” even though his wife, who taught at a primary school and had presumably adopted his name was happy with the pronunciation CAN-TAN. The lessons were boring, not just because they lasted all afternoon, but because Cantan made the mistake - as many young teachers often do - of endlessly trying to explain why science was interesting and relevant to practical life rather than teaching anything of any substance.
Fidgeting and the noise level in the room grew, and unfortunately Brian B. and I were singled out to be made examples of. Brian B. was sent to stand outside that room and I to another one upstairs. No doubt Cantan’s intention was to have us stand there for five minutes or so and then bring us back in. Things turned out differently.
I soon became aware that Headmaster Anning was in the small office for science teachers near where I was standing and I realised he would probably emerge before Cantan called us back into the class. Had I been more streetwise, I might have taken myself off to the toilets, but instead I just stood there and let events take their course.
As expected, Anning came out, saw me standing there and, naturally enough, asked why. In trying to explain Cantan’s decision to send us out of the classroom - I had no precise idea of what I had done - I embellished the situation by saying that Brian B. and I had been mucking around when there were dangerous chemicals in the laboratory. Anning told me to go downstairs with him; we collected Brian B en route. and went to the door of Cantan’s laboratory. What followed is a sequence of events and sensations which I chose not to confide in anyone until writing this essay thirty-eight years later.
Anning opened the door of the laboratory and told Cantan with the whole class able to hear that safety in the labs was crucial. He might just have noticed at this point that there were in fact no dangerous chemicals anywhere, but I don’t know that he did. He then said that he would give “these boys two of the slip.” It took me a second to realise that he meant two of the slipper. I hadn’t been expecting that, so I was a little stunned. Brian B and I were told to go and wait outside his office; he did not follow us immediately, so perhaps he spoke to Cantan about the incident. I don’t know.
The corridor connecting that wing of the school to the main part of the building had two steps next to which there were floor-to-ceiling windows on either side. As I took the two steps in a single leap, a shiver went down my spine to my penis. I had never received a ritualised beating in my life and was now about to experience one; my fear became sexualised.
Anning arrived and told us not to go into his office but to wait outside. He went in alone and came out with a slipper. Thinking back on events, I now suppose there was somebody else in his room. I was standing nearest so I was the one to go first. He asked me whether I denied the offence, which obviously meant he had his doubts about the facts of the affair. He told me to bend over. The look on my face and the slowness of my response led him to comment, “If you do something wrong, then you have to be punished.” Even at eleven years of age I thought of saying - though I did not of course - “well, yes, but not like this.”
Two swipes in rapid succession were delivered to my bottom. What struck me most is that they did not hurt. Of course I felt them, but they did not come anywhere near a sensation of pain. And that led me to hold the false view - never rebutted by experience because I never again received formal corporal punishment - that school corporal punishment did not hurt but was only ritualised humiliation. It was only when I was sixteen that I understood from reading that in some schools - and maybe for other pupils on other occasions at Woolmer Hill - that corporal punishment could cause serious pain.
Physically, I was left unaffected by the slippering. I watched Brian B receive his two and by the look on his face following each swipe he seemed more physically affected than I had been. I had expected to be told to go back and stand in the corridor, but we were both instructed to return immediately to Cantan’s class, so the point when I had to face the humiliation of appearing in front of my classmates was sooner than I had thought. No one commented or paid any attention; I sat down on one of the long wooden fixed-to-the-floor desks that pupils were sitting on to get a clear view of the teacher's desk. On sitting down, I was reminded that my bottom had been hit, but felt over the next few minutes the sensation in my bottom fade away. Of course we were little boys guilty of very little, so Anning hadn’t intended to physically hurt us much, though he probably wanted to hurt me physically more than he did.
The anguish of my slippering was not physical; it was psychological. Something had been done to me which I felt ought not be have been done, particularly by an adult whom I might otherwise have respected. I had been violated sexually. Although Anning is dead and it is now thirty-eight years later I still resent that beating; and like so many other men who have commented on Friends Reunited and Facebook, my memory of Anning and Woolmer Hill School is coloured by corporal punishment abuse.
My humiliation was exacerbated by the fact that the slippering had been announced to the class. Walking back into that laboratory was probably one of my worst moments during my five years at Woolmer Hill. Yet nobody commented on it then or later, not out of sympathy, but because of a sheer lack of interest. What I did not realise is that my opposition to corporal punishment, for me or anybody else, was very much an individual opinion. Brian B. did comment the next day that some second-year girls had teased him about the event on the way home, but how exactly they would have found out about it remains unclear. I expect he told them.
My main fear was of my parents finding out. That my classmates knew of my humiliation was difficult to handle, but for my parents to know would be unbearable. But I don’t think my parents ever knew.
For completeness, I need to include the second incident in my life in which I was hit by a teacher. I wish to refer to the teacher concerned as Mr Z because even though the incident happened thirty-three years ago the man may still be alive. I wish to grant him anonymity not for his sake but because I want to treat the incident as history; and although it is unlikely that he would ever see this essay, I have no desire to open any line of communication with him.
The facts of the incident were straight-forward. I was sixteen and in my final year at Woolmer Hill. Following games, we had a maths lesson with a teacher I liked, Mrs Myall. She appeared to have a free period before our maths lesson, so I often hurried up in the changing rooms so I could chat to her before the start of the maths lesson. There were a couple of other pupils who did the same; however, on this occasion I was the first pupil to reach the classroom.
I suppose I knocked at the door before going into the classroom, but I might have done so in a fairly casual way. Once inside, it became obvious that Mr Z and Mrs Myall had been having a confidential conversation which I had interrupted. Had I been told by either of them to go out of the room and wait, I would have meekly accepted the situation and no doubt have forgotten about it by now. What in fact happened was quite different Mr Z loudly remonstrated with me, and at some point during his spiel decided to punch me on the side of my head.
Quite obviously, this was not an act of formal corporal punishment in the sense understood in the 1970s; it was a simple assault. The pain in my ear and at the side of my face was severe enough, so without asking for permission I went over to a desk and sat down. Despite the pain, thoughts were running through my head about how to deal with the incident. I rightly made the decisions not to hit back and not to disguise how much pain I was in. The look on Mrs Myall’s face showed that, however much she might have wished to show solidarity with Mr Z, she was horrified at what had happened. Mr Z, now reduced to some speechless zombie, left the room.
The punch had the potential to disrupt the rather safe orderly life that I was having at Woolmer Hill in my final year. I could have complained to my parents, but like many victims of abuse I saw that the easiest way of dealing with it was to behave as if it had never happened. Some other pupils arrived, knowing nothing about the incident, and the lesson took its normal course. Mrs Myall asked me during the lesson whether I was all right, and I answered that I was. In the thirty-three years since that happened I have never told anyone else about the incident.
Why did Mr Z hit me in that way? To be fair to him he was neither a psychopath nor a a sadist. In retrospect, I believe that there was an immediate and background cause. The immediate impulse was his understandable annoyance at what he saw as my barging into the room when he was in the middle of a private and perhaps sensitive conversation with Mrs Myall. But why wasn’t telling me to go and wait outside enough?
Mr Z was not a clever man. He tended to teach remedial classes; and in so far as he could be regarded as a teacher his ability lay in building a give-and-take modus operandi with his pupils. I had never crossed him, but I preferred to ignore and sideline him whenever possible because I found his endless diatribes about respect and discipline rather tedious and pointless. What angered him the most, I believe, was the enthusiasm I showed for talking to the much more intellectually able, Mrs Myall. And like a jealous delinquent, he lashed out. He resorted to violence, not because he regarded it as the right thing to do, but because he rightly knew that he could get away with it - if only once.
To some extent my position was a strong one because what Mr Z had done was against the rules. I nonetheless took even more care to avoid him. For his part, he attempted to befriend me by the pettiest of means: e.g. finding some fault - for instance in my clothing - and then “generously” letting me off. He was on a losing streak and had little recourse against my cold politeness and mechanical obedience. In the end he left me alone.
In continuing this discussion I wish to ignore the incident with Mr Z. It was isolated; it had nothing to do with normal school corporal punishment and, curiously enough,it had very little impact on me psychologically. I tended to look at it in the same way as I might as if I had painfully stubbed my toe. In fact when I came to write this piece I had to drag the details from the recess of my mind. Four years earlier, by contrast, the painless slippering - and its public announcement - had punctured my eleven-year-old soul. In my outward speech and behaviour I pretended that it had never happened: inwardly it caused turmoil.
The slippering had no effect on my classroom behaviour, nor could it have done. I hadn’t done anything in particular and I was only slippered on account of an unfortunate combination of circumstances. I never saw my slippering as something that ought to have been and as I grew up and progressed through the school I increasingly saw Anning and his regime as illegitimate. That is a feeling which has stayed with me until the present day.
My internal rage had only one direct consequence as far as I can remember. Soon after my slippering, I chose to insult the young Mr Cantan, when provided with an easy opportunity to do so. Cantan, like most beginner teachers in the mid 1970s, did not have a car and needed to suffer the indignity of travelling to the centre of Haslemere by bus with a crowd of school children. But unlike some other teachers - the elderly spinster Miss Savage comes to mind - he sometimes chose not to pile into the crowded 13B bus, the terminus of which was couple of hundred metres from the school gate, but instead he plodded down Woolmer Hill and up to the Hindhead Road to catch another bus. One evening, knowing nothing of Cantan’s plans, I decided to travel by the same route.
The Hindhead Road bus stop was a small strip of concrete cut into the bank on the far side of the road. Waiting for the bus, he and I were brought into close proximity. I don’t know what gave me the nerve to start insulting him, but I tried to provoke him with any number of trivial and disrespectful questions about his life. He just glared forward across the road without replying. I later regretted my actions, if only because it was never Cantan’s intention for me to be slippered during his class.
One grows up at secondary school. I entered Woolmer Hill as a prepubescent boy of eleven and left as a youth of sixteen, so it would be nonsense to think that my thoughts and feeling about events and issues did not change in those years. In considering corporal punishment - and so much else - I can broadly distinguish two periods: my first two years in the school and my last two. My middle year when I was fourteen was one of transition.
My sole experience of corporal punishment (excluding the incident with Mr Z) occurred in my first year. Although I clearly believed that what had happened was wrong, I was not able to explain or articulate that belief. I accepted that corporal punishment existed for children as an aspect of life which was as certain as the fact that it rained. Had I been slippered again, I would have accepted it with very much the same feeling as the first incident. It never happened; as far as I know none of my immediate circle were ever slippered and I did not think about the subject much.
My attitude did change in my fourth and fifth year at Woolmer Hill. On the one hand it was highly unlikely that I or my friends would now ever receive a formal beating. I didn’t smoke; I was polite and orderly; and leaving school without permission never occurred to me. And in the fifth year - after Anning’s retirement - incidents of corporal punishment became even less common. But on the other hand, I had to contend with the background fact that such an indignity was a possibility. I increasingly felt that if such an incident arose, I would have to refuse the punishment which would have meant suspension from the school, an outcome which in practical terms would have been much worse.
Looking back I can only think of one misdeed of mine that might have led to corporal punishment. My illicit conduct occurred in my fourth year during the last year of the reign of Headmaster Anning. Mark W. from time to time brought “girlie mags” into the school. These magazine containing pictures of naked woman were readily available outside school and raised little interest other than the “dare value” of having them at school. One day, however, he turned up with a German pornographic magazine which his brother who was serving in the British army had apparently brought back and had given to him. At that time (and perhaps still today for all I know) the sale of magazines with actual, i.e. non-simulated sex portraying erections, ejaculations, fellatio and penetration was unlawful. The magazine was passed from one boy to another and handed on like a hot potato. Left alone for a moment with the magazine, I decided to keep it, take it home and read it in more detail. I hid it in my bag, but claimed that I had handed on to someone else. Mark W. was glad to be rid of it.
I took the magazine home without detection and that was the end of the matter. If I had been caught with it, I might well have received corporal punishment. But thinking back now I might well have thought at the time that a private slippering would have been preferable to a suspension or the involvement of may parents. But thankfully the issue never arose.
My slippering at the age of eleven was a source of shame. I felt that when it happened and I continued to feel the same way afterwards. I never spoke about it to anybody and later in life when surrounded by people who could not have known about it, I denied that I had ever received corporal punishment in school. It would be foolish to exaggerate and say that I was traumatised in life by the slippering; I was not, but the incident still called forth emotions of shame and denial over several decades.
I recall another sunny morning: one in September 1978 when I walked down my home street towards Haslemere railway station. I was starting Godalming Sixth-Form College. I was not just happy to be wearing clothes of entirely my own choosing, but appreciating the feeling of dignity that came with the knowledge that I would be attending an educational establishment with no corporal punishment.
Girls and corporal punishment
Throughout this essay, I have spoken about corporal punishment in terms of how it affected boys at Woolmer Hill School, and I think I was right to do so. As a male, my experience, if not my perspective, has a gender bias. In addition, of the tens of comments and emails I have read on corporal punishment at Woolmer Hill School all but one were penned by males.
Without doubt the overwhelming majority of instances of corporal punishment involved male teachers imposing authorised pain on male pupils. Girls and women teachers tended to see corporal punishment as something inflicted by men on boys and not something they experienced at school. For this reason, on-line debates on the subject, and not just that relating to Woolmer Hill School, tend to exclude women, rather like discussion of premenstrual tension excludes men.
One exception is women - or sometimes men adopting the online persona of a woman - who claim falsely to have received corporal punishment, or to have witnessed it, because they regard accounts of the involvement of women in corporal punishment as sexually stimulating. Indeed, many of the searches for this article online have been made for reasons of sexual stimulation.
Yet the question still remains: were girls subject to corporal punishment at Woolmer Hill. Let us take caning and slippering first. In an earlier version of this essay, I wrote the following:
"The cane was either not used or used so rarely that I know nothing about it. The slipper, the only remaining approved instrument of applying corporal punishment was used exclusively on boys. Cultural norms did not permit girls to be slippered on their bottoms."
I still believe those words to be generally true, but in January 2013 I read a comment on Facebook by a woman called Karen (a genuine person not a pseudonym), who must have joined the school circa. 1970. Karen claimed in a discussion thread that she and another girl had received the slipper for misbehaviour. I do not know whether the story is true, or who administered the slipper or in what circumstances.
In January 2017 I received an anonymous comment from a pupil who had attended the school in the 1960s, a decade earlier. She, and I assume the writer to be a woman, stated categorically that “No physical punishment was ever applied to girls at Woolmer Hill.” And indeed that might have been the school policy in the 1960s. But the author goes on to point out that:
“They [girls] were punished psychologically, by public humiliation, by orchestrated bullying, conducted by both teachers and pupils and by sending girls 'to Coventry.'... Girls who seriously transgressed, pregnancy, trouble with the police etc. just disappeared. We never heard what happened to them.“
Whatever the truth of these horrendous allegations, by the mid-seventies official policy, if not practice, had changed, and a clear statement to that effect was made after Mr Anning’s retirement in 1977, when he was succeeded by the former deputy head, Mrs Hollingdale. In response to an outbreak of disorderly behaviour, she informed a morning assembly that culprits risked a slippering from Mr McShane or Mr Jimpson (who had now apparently been delegated the task), or if a girl, “a good slapping”. All I can imagine is that such slaps, if they were administered at all by senior female teachers, were applied to the arms or thighs. It is a close call on the scale of humiliation whether it is worse to bend over and be hit on the bottom or to face someone who is hitting you on your limbs.
The issue of the different treatment of girls and boys in matter of corporal punishment did not figure largely in my own consciousness at the time, mainly because corporal punishment for boys, at least in my cohort, was not that prevalent either. Moreover, most of the corporal punishment which did take place seems to have resulted from cases of boisterous messing around which tended to be a male crime. Major breaches of discipline which might have affected both sexes were swearing, rudeness, smoking and walking out of school. My guess is that if the group of offenders were of mixed sex, the same penalty (e.g. a special detention) would be applied to all of them; only if they were small in number and exclusively male might the slipper be applied.
It was certainly not true that girls had an easy ride compared with the boys in matters of discipline. Most of the incidents of public dressing downs that I can remember were of girls. They were particularly humiliating because they often concerned sulkiness, breaches of school uniform or the wearing of make-up.
Leslie Anning was headmaster of Woolmer Hill School in a period stretching from the mid 1950s to 1977. Decades later, a number of his former pupils used the Internet to make comments on corporal punishment, remembered or experienced at the school. Several turned to the first successful British social media site Friends Reunited, wound up in in February 2016; others commented through my blog or through Facebook. One victim related his experience to the Haslemere Educational Museum’s oral history project; and another, John Bellchamber, wrote up his experience of corporal punishment in a published memoir A Chidd Boy’s Memories (2014). The first version of this article was published in 2012, with small edits made after that as more information flowed in. A major overhaul of the text was undertaken in 2017.
Everything I could find relating to the subject has been included in this essay, but this piece of writing is mainly a subjective response based on my own memories and feelings. I wrote the essay not just to sort out my own thoughts but also to try to put the record straight for all those men (and maybe a few women) who experienced the humiliation of corporal punishment at Woolmer Hill 1973-78. Headmaster Leslie Anning lived until 1990, long enough to see the abolition of corporal punishment in state schools. But though he is now crematorium dust, most of his victims are still living, and living with the psychological consequences of his actions.
One huge gap in the article is what happened to corporal punishment at Woolmer Hill between 1977, when Anning retired, and 1987, when corporal punishment was abolished in state schools. The absence of information is total. Though it is true that the new head, Mrs Hollingdale, made an assembly announcement that slippering for boys and slaps for girls were possible, I guess that few occurred, and corporal punishment withered at the school and ceased to exist even before its prohibition.
On the Internet this article has had tens of thousands of hits. Only a few of these are from people who are interested in Woolmer Hill School, as present or former pupils, teachers or parents. The vast majority of hits are from people seeking sexual titillation by searching for a range of matters connected to corporal punishment. Some examples of words searched for are: real accounts of females receiving corporal punishment, slippered bottoms, corporal punishment in the home, real corporal punishment of females, pictures of black men receiving corporal punishment, girls caned in the 1970s, etc. I don’t mind surfers seeking out material pertaining to these subjects. I am just sorry that those seeking sexual excitement will receive so little of it from this article.