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Eric Wildman, 1950s crusader for corporal punishment

by Gervas d'Olbert
(Fortune Press, London, 1956)

One phenomenon that it is hard to classify is the work of Eric A. Wildman. His singular activities indeed ended in disgrace, but they remain of interest to the sociologist and psychological investigator. Briefly, Wildman was the founder and organizer of the League for the Retention of Corporal Punishment and of the Corpun Educational Organisation Limited.

Together with managing these institutions, he edited a fortnightly review called The Retentionist, not to mention the Bulletin of his League. These publications, be it said at once, reached no very high literary level: badly duplicated, each number was apt to reveal the same clichés, the same type of letters and anecdotes, and above all the identical spelling errors. Better printed, but of the same intellectual quality, were his series of pamphlets, which in the end reached a stage where the Police thought it necessary to interfere: the unfortunate story of Wildman's debacle will be told a few pages hence.

His main activity, none the less, was the production not of literary material but of weapons of chastisement. His prospectus stated that his customers for these articles included addresses as far apart as America and the Gold Coast -- with what truth we do not, of course, know. Certain it is, however, that he was occupied in a full-time job, as any visitor to his premises could tell for himself from the profusion of punitive articles everywhere to be seen. Wildman himself would give the last twists to a cane while holding converse with the visitor.

It may well be imagined that his premises were never permanent: beginning in the Oxford Circus [London] district, his landlord and fellow-tenants not unnaturally objected to his type of publicity, and he was forced to move to the quieter neighbourhood of Kensington. Here again his luck was out, and he was compelled to move to the less residential district of the City Road. This proved his last address.

Throughout all these moves he kept to a more or less rigid type of organization: the duplicating-machine and the neat card-indexes, the scattered canes on the floor and the parcels on many tables, and -- most noticeable of all to the average visitor -- the walls hung with instruments of punishment cast in a variety of colours and shapes and producing a strange effect as of some barbaric chieftain's tent. On the walls, as on the tables and floor, were specimens of almost every type of punitive instrument: birch, whip, cane and strap. The extent of the director's energy -- or it might be truer to say mania -- is shown by the variety exhibited within each type of weapon: shape, size, design, and weight were there in a kaleidoscope to suit apparently all tastes. The price-list naturally varied accordingly. It would seem that the main trade was in the homelier articles, that is to say in canes, straps and belts. A speciality was the series of Tawzes, the Scottish punitive instrument.

Not content with selling his goods personally or by post, Mr. Wildman embarked, foolishly even as regards his own interest, on a grandiose scheme of publicity. Frequently on crowded notice-boards in all parts of London one observed, amid advertisements for sewing-machines or flats to let, a neat yellow card bearing the Corpun imprint, recommending parents, teachers and all those concerned with the young, to contact Eric A. Wildman for advice on upbringing and especially to inspect his variety of canes, birches and straps. "Parents, consider your children's moral character, consider their future, and do not shirk the necessity of occasional corporal punishment." Such, in essence, was his cry on all these cards and notices, on which was also printed a picture of the Director himself, pipe in mouth, apparently quiet and reliable: the sort to whom, he felt, parents and teachers would be glad to turn for advice.

In his Kensington period he went further and either he himself or hired sandwich-men paraded the borough with huge placards lettered with this type of query: "Parents, do your children need beating?... If so, etc.. . ." Small wonder, then, that his removal from the district followed soon after. During all this time his "missionary" activities continued to expand: meetings were held at the Caxton Hall, London, and elsewhere. These meetings frequently ended in disorder: it was obvious that both supporters and opponents had arrived, organized into cliques well prepared to make the most vociferous use of their opinions.

Wildman himself, deadly serious with the eyes of a fanatic, appeared at such functions always arrayed in cap, mortar-board and gown; his speeches were invariably of the dullest and most monotonous type: content and delivery were alike undistinguished. In addition to the two main bodies of opinion, the hall would contain a handful of journalists, some of whom sent ironic accounts of the proceedings as far West or East as Canada or Australia. No doubt all this fuss provided Wildman with a complex of self-satisfaction and of a mission dutifully discharged.

He began enlarging his activities in his office itself: at one time, during the school-vacations, a "resident housemaster" was to be seen there, who professed himself ready to give free advice on the upbringing of boys. And his advice was sometimes actually sought. According to reliable accounts, a long discussion might take place as to the respective advantages of beating on the bare buttocks or of providing the coverage of trousers or shorts. On this topic, as the "resident housemaster" himself admitted, "there are two schools of thought;" he himself was inclined, but not in every case perhaps, to favour the directer method. It was more humiliating to the boy, and thus provided an element of punishment which enabled the master to take a more lenient attitude in the beating itself; it was thus, in the long run, kinder to the lad. But, of course, circumstances alter cases.

This viewpoint was in strict accordance with Wildman's own attitude as expressed in numerous letters to the press, many of which probably remained unpublished. The Richmond and Twickenham Times, for instance, published in 1951 a letter from Wildman in the midst of a growing controversy on the theme of corporal penalties. In this massive missive he stressed the value -- to his mind -- of punishment inflicted "on the bare buttocks and upper thighs'" -- a phrase which he repeated several times for multiple emphasis.

Other correspondents, of course, took up decidedly different viewpoints, and many even anticipated the verdict subsequently passed on Wildman by the Magistrates of his country. Not that this in any way impeded his zeal: papers in the various parts of England and Wales were printed from his pen, an occasional letter, and always on one invariable theme.

It would seem that his fame as a self-styled "apostle" was growing; he was even invited to lecture. Always he accepted, never suspecting, for instance, the trap laid for him at a certain school in some secluded Midland valley. This incident may be worth recalling in some detail. The school concerned was eminently "progressive", and hence highly opposed to Wildman's ideas. In fact it was decidedly too progressive, and was soon closed by the Authorities for its cumulative deficiencies in discipline, teaching, and morals. At this time, however, it was still a fairly flourishing institution.

The Headmaster had officially invited Wildman to give a lecture to the assembled scholars, and to demonstrate to the lads (though not, of course, on them) his methods of imposing school discipline. The theme of the lecture was to be general: discipline, manliness, corporal punishment and so forth. Wildman fell straight into the trap. Accepting with eagerness, he packed his bag with a selection of punitive manufactures, and took a train for the Midlands. He was fêted and indeed impressed by the intent assembly of masters, scholars, school-staff, and local visitors, among whom sat a considerable journalistic contingent.

His talk was listened to with attention, which says much for the boys' good manners, since they had never been chastised and the whole tenor of his remarks must have sounded alien to their ears. Still, they heard him out, or rather until a certain moment when the lecturer, proudly displaying his canes, remarked of one, "This is a fine cane for six of the best; all my canes, moreover, are antiseptic." At this very instant, no doubt thanks to some pre-arranged sign, half-a-dozen of the heftier lads fell on him, bent him over and pinioned him. A strapping young Indian lad then seized Wildman's own instrument and laid on with no uncertain arm and aim. Released at last, the lecturer was met with derisive laughter, while the Headmaster duly handed him two pounds for his fare. Storming, he fled from the building, only to rush into the local hospital, where a surprised Matron beheld him taking down his trousers and exclaiming indignantly "I've been beaten by boys!" She, too, could not restrain her mirth, and the lecturer left in high dudgeon. Still storming, he threatened his aggressors with the law, but for understandable reasons was counselled into prudence.

Since then he apparently became more sceptical of beaming [sic] invitations, and this proved, in fact, to be his last public lecture. We can well imagine the gaiety which succeeded his departure from the school, and how masters, scholars and visitors alike guffawed over his undignified fall. The local Press, needless to say, gave the affair fullest prominence. The national newspapers were not slow to copy them, and slogans like "Caning man caned," "Caning Expert gets a dose of his own medicine," splashed with ink. Whether the authorities themselves approved of the Headmaster's practical joke is not known, but a partial indication is found in the fact that, on the subsequent disbandment of the school for the reasons already given, no mention was made of the Wildman incident, which would surely have supplied useful fuel for an attack on the School's policy, had it been desired to stress this point.

The reader may well begin to wonder, what was Wildman's exact aim: this can be answered fairly succinctly, though the psychology of the man himself calls for far deeper discussion. Wildman, who had suffered from accidents that might have affected his brain, seemed sincerely to believe it his mission to spread the doctrine of corporal punishment. In a world where such punishment had already greatly diminished both in quantity and in force, he saw himself somehow as an apostolic figure. He insisted to the end that his purposes were purely ethical, and that among his clients were monasteries, convents, church-schools, and individual ministers of religion. Throughout he laid stress on the ethical value of judicious chastisement, pointing with a sigh to the decadence of the age and to phenomena like the Coshing-wave, which he claimed could have been forestalled and prevented by the use of cane and strap in the homes from which the young coshers came. Whatever we may think of his views, it is but just to emphasise that they are and were held by a large body of opinion, including the present Lord Chief Justice.

Wildman's mode of presenting his case was not always of the happiest. He laid stress on aspects of whipping that cannot but exist yet need not be emphasized; he further hindered his cause by undignified publicity and indeed by a craving after vulgar applause; he lacked both prudence and a sense of proportion, thus laying himself open to many rash and doubtful actions; this same lack of proportion invited doubt in many eyes as to the sincerity of his numerous ethical professions; while a certain clumsiness in his writings and publicity alike could not be denied. Averse to all criticism, he perhaps led people to suspect his true motives -- though what these were only a trained psychologist could decide.

Wildman himself, of course, poured out scorn lavishly on psychologists, psychoanalysts and all members of any "modern" or "progressive" movement. These, in fact, were largely to blame for the chaotic state of British discipline to-day. One result of this one-sidedness, clearly unforeseen by him, was to alienate many moderate-minded persons who up to a point may well have agreed with him. It is an error to suppose that all who accept the principle of moderate chastisement need to be avalanched with pseudo-ethical justifications for their own commonsense. This last was never Wildman's strongest quality, and it may well be that, had he possessed it in larger measure, more parents and teachers would have turned to him for advice; as it was, he found himself in many respects his own worst enemy. Even so, however, any who believe in corporal punishment must logically admit the usefulness of such an emporium as Wildman's.

Yet just here he tended to alienate many of his would-be customers. Most normal parents or teachers do not think in terms of graded sizes of straps and canes, nor do they regard their children and charges primarily as belonging to the "strapping age" or the "tawzing age" or the "caning age" or the "birching age." Yet these were actually the type of classification on which the Corpun Educational Organisation prided itself. The very title of the institution, again, may well have deterred many prospective clients of the homely type. These would have been ready enough to admit that little Jack or Harry needed an occasional whacking to render him obedient or keep down his high spirits, but they would have been repelled and bewildered by Wildman's excess of paraphernalia. Nor would such teachers or parents have liked his over-insistence, his apparent denial that boys ever deserved to be "let off" a thrashing. There are, as we have seen, many aspects of this difficult problem, but Wildman refused ever to say that it might benefit a particular lad in a special context not to be beaten. This, surely, runs counter to the general view of those parents or masters who still approve of thrashing in certain extreme cases.

Few of these potential clients, again, would concur with the father mentioned by Wildman who, when his son was three years old, had already purchased and stored in a wardrobe a series of instruments for the punishing of the lad in succeeding years, culminating in a flexible Wildman Smoky Malacca cane which was to wait till his son's fourteenth birthday.

Not that Wildman was always on the side of the big battalions: on the contrary, he continually championed moderation in chastisement. He was no sadist; he paid a lavish subscription to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. His concept of moderation stemmed from his horrors at the enormous chastisements of the past, whether under masters like Busby or Keate, or in the Armies of the Peninsula War. Where a mother, for example, would write telling him how she had given her daughter twenty-five strokes, he would always suggest that twenty-one would have sufficed. This was his principle. Never did he recommend an increase in the total of stripes.

Moreover, in mentioning the beating of a daughter, we have arrived at another of his principal ideas: the hatred of injustice, which led him to counsel equal chastisement for the young folk of both sexes. This principle of equality he pursued consistently in all his literary productions. Whether it was followed out in practice by the responsible parents and teachers of England is a point that will never be solved. Wildman, of course, would have admitted at once that the cases where boys merit chastising exceeds [sic] those where girls deserve similar medicine. The cosh wave, for instance, which reversed the views of many previous opponents of beating, is a case in point. His contrasting of the temporary marks left by the rod with the well-nigh permanent stain left by a prison sentence proved an essential argument in his cause; he earnestly sought to prevent the origins of such phenomena as coshing, which he, in common with many others, attributed mainly to lack of discipline in the domestic upbringing. Far better, this view would run, a series of moderate chastisement in the home, than the disgrace of a prison-sentence, reinforced perhaps by a birching, not to mention the sufferings of the coshers' victims.

All the more pity, therefore, that Wildman should have allowed strictly non-ethical attitudes gradually to assume the reins in his activities. These were to prove his downfall. In this he was aided by his Messianic conceit, his megalomania which persuaded him that he had a World Mission in the matter of the corporal chastisement of the young.

We must now chronicle in outline the sad story of Wildman's fall. No doubt the Authorities had had their eye on him for some time past, but the first sign of the storm breaking occurred in February, 1953, [actually January - C.F.] when, as a result of the examination of certain of Wildman's pamphlets, a police squad invaded his premises. They showed their warrant, and proceeded to search the two or three rooms with their wealth of material. Wildman apparently was employing quite a substantial staff, mainly female. The police then removed into four huge vans the entire contents of the rooms save the furniture; not only were drawers emptied and their contents removed, but every piece of literature was confiscated; what is more, they took away every punitive weapon found on the premises, whether lying on the table or floor, or stacked in cupboards, or adorning the four walls. During this removal, which lasted the incredible time of three hours, Wildman himself remained calm, muttering merely that he would consult his lawyers.

The summons itself arrived a few days later, and Wildman appeared in court on a charge of obscene libel. Curiously enough, the trial was twice postponed, and the prisoner let out on bail, during which interval he continued in his dangerous activities, thereby displaying that want of tact and indeed almost of sanity to which we have already referred. This imprudence naturally told heavily against him at the trial. Both before the police-raid and after he had had several warnings, every one of which he cheerfully ignored. It was almost like the pattern detailed in his own propaganda: how the boy gets his warning, ignores it, and is immediately punished.

The trial proper took place in May, 1953; the Prosecution urged that Wildman was guilty of obscene libel in publishing pamphlets of whose detailed nature the general public had naturally no precise knowledge. Here we can but list some of the titles of works to which objection was taken: A Girl's Beating; Punishment Postures (with illustrations); and so forth. The presence of illustrations seemed to reinforce the Prosecution's standpoint. All this despite the fact that several of these pamphlets had prefaces from the pens of clergymen in Glasgow and elsewhere; such a defence availed nought. The Prosecution further alleged that Wildman had long been carrying on a business that was at least partially obscene, which was why they had removed his armoury of birches, whips, canes and straps. The police-tactics had been of the usual type: as private individuals they had applied for pamphlets and received them; this they continued, even after Wildman had been served his summons: he still sent them out his literature, thus proving his utter imprudence and impenitence.

The Defence had no easy task. They took the line that Wildman had suffered physical and psychological injuries which affected his brain to the point of fanaticism, and that he quite sincerely believed in his mission to spread the gospel of corporal punishment. To this end he had devoted all his powers, and genuinely felt he was pursuing God's work; evidence was also produced of his religious inclinations: he taught regularly in Sunday School, and so forth. Interesting for the psychologist was the account given of how Wildman had begun his business: demobilised after the War, he had tried to trade in men's leatherware, strops, etc.; finding this unremunerative, he had the brainwave of converting the leather into chastisement-straps.

Judgment, however, went against him, as might have been expected. The Magistrate expressed no wish to "crush him out of existence," but decided -- unconsciously using a phrase of Wildman's own -- that what he needed was a "sharp lesson," which he was going to get. "He must learn that he is not the world's Messiah in this matter," declared the Magistrate, whose first impulse had been to impose a fine of one thousand pounds. When assured by counsel that Wildman could not possibly pay such a sum, he lessened the sentence to an alternative of five hundred pounds payable within six months, or a year in gaol. Further, Wildman's small adopted daughter was removed from his "care," and the plan -- almost completed -- for the adoption of another child was cancelled forthwith. The future of Wildman, and the possible renewal of his activities in another form, remain at the time of writing an enigma.

blob [In fact, Wildman continued his canes-by-mail-order business for another 20 years or so. He was still listed in the London telephone book in the mid-1970s as a purveyor of "tutelage supplies". In 1967 his name popped up in the Court Lees Approved School inquiry as the supplier of the unauthorised canes used for the punishments found by the inquiry to be "excessive". - C.F.]

blob See also: Eric Wildman timeline

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