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The Sun, London, 13 July 1968
Eight strokes of the birch
"Strapped down -- then the doctor nodded ..."
by Harry Arnold
Last Saturday Guernsey put their birching law into effect for the 67th time in 32 years.
It could not happen in England, Wales or Scotland. Birching was abolished 20 years ago after the Cadogan Committee studied its use and effect.
And last time a serving prisoner in England was sentenced to be birched -- in 1967 -- the public outcry which followed resulted in Mr Roy Jenkins, then Home Secretary, banning the birch altogether.
A Bill is now before Parliament to have all corporal punishment abolished in Northern Ireland.
But in Guernsey no such ban is even remotely in the offing. So, last Saturday, a boy of 16 was strapped by his wrists and ankles to a bare bed and "privately whipped" on his bare bottom eight times.
A court official in Guernsey told me: "There appears to be some misunderstanding in London that the boy was being birched for the third time in his life.
"This was, in fact, his first birching and followed his third appearance before a court. However, there was a boy who was birched three times, in 1961, 1962 and 1963."
What the court official, nor anyone else in Guernsey was able to tell me was whether birching had been proved an efficient deterrent.
Of 19 youths birched in the past 13 years, 10 of them subsequently appeared before the magistrate again.
And in the case of the boy birched three times, he made several more appearances in court and eventually served two prison sentences.
He is now married and settled down in Belfast. But his mother, who still lives in Guernsey, told me this week:
"Birching never did my boy any good. He just went right on getting into trouble. To me it seemed, and still seems, sadistic and cruel."
The mother's was one of the few voices of dissent on an island which seems almost "devoted" to corporal punishment.
Hanging was officially abolished three years ago, but the notorious cat-o'-nine-tails is still legal -- although it has been many years since it was used.
The birch, I was told, is like a "miniature garden broom" -- a short rod with a leather grip at one end and birch twigs fixed to the other.
The boy of 16 -- we will call him Peter -- was birched on Saturday for assaulting another boy and knocking him unconscious.
He said of the birching: "It was like being hit with a huge egg whisk. It stung and went on stinging for several hours afterwards. It was terrible not seeing where it came from -- they made me turn my head away.
"It wasn't so much the pain, because I've had worse from a school caning, but the fact that I was terrified. I couldn't stop shaking."
A birching is carried out under clinical -- almost ritual -- conditions in the presence of a doctor, the prison governor, the island's Solicitor-General and several warders.
Peter, who had to wait four hours in a prison cell for the birching to begin, told me: "They asked me if I wanted lunch, but I was scared to eat it in case I was sick.
"I didn't have a watch, and it seemed days before they came for me. I walked around a bit, and then I cried a bit, and fell asleep on the bunk.
"Then they took me up some stone steps, through two metal doors, and into another room. I knew right away this was where they were going to birch me.
"It was pretty dim, and had a big square bed in the middle, with straps at the top and bottom of either side. I noticed a window, and there were about seven people waiting there for me.
The doctor examined me and then I had to take off my shoes, trousers and underpants. I lay on the bed in just my shirt, vest and socks, with a blanket under my face.
"I had another folded blanket under my stomach -- I suppose to raise my bottom. They pulled my shirt up and put a towel across my back.
"I felt very scared by then, and the doctor asked if I was all right -- I suppose I was white. I was shaking, but I didn't want to faint or anything, and I said I was all right.
"Then four of them strapped me down, and I was told to turn my face to the right so that I wouldn't see who was hitting me. The doctor looked at me again, and then turned and nodded slowly.
"The first stroke caught me by surprise, and I jumped a bit, but I didn't shout out. The doctor, who was standing beside me, looked at my face and nodded again.
"The second stroke seemed to hit me in a different place. He sort of moved them up and down, so that he did not always hit the same spot.
"The doctor looked at me and nodded in between each stroke. I just lay there with my eyes open, trying not to jump or shout out.
"I had eight strokes, and when it was over I was told to get dressed and had two more medical examinations.
"They took me back to my mother soon after that. She was waiting in the Governor's office, and she took me home. I cried a bit more on the way home.
"Later, I got my brother to have a look, but there were no marks on my bottom. I felt the stinging, though, for several hours afterwards."
Peter thought he had probably deserved the birching. But many others in Guernsey, he said, had "done worse and only got a fine."
He comes from a "broken home". His mother, a Roman Catholic, married at 16 and later obtained a divorce on the grounds of cruelty.
She married again. "The second one was just as bad," she told me. "He was never any good."
She had several children before leaving him, and now lives with a married man, by whom she has two more children.
Peter's mother, who claims she was not asked to be present for her son's court case, cried as she told me of her two failed marriages. Then she said sadly: "I suppose lots of children are punished for their parents' mistakes."
Peter was sent to an approved school for stealing, when he was 12, and it was there that he was taught to box.
His fists have got him into trouble ever since -- first in 1966, when he was bound over for assaulting a boy at a bus stop, then again last month.
"The trouble is that Guernsey is so small that once you have been in trouble everyone knows it," he said. "I hit the other boys because they called me a convict and other names."
He will shortly be leaving the island. A married couple who befriended him while staying in Guernsey have invited him to live with them in Lancashire. It is probably the best thing that ever happened to him.
The law officers in Guernsey to whom I spoke regarded him as a bully who needed a lesson. None of them thought a broken home made very much difference in the long run.
Few, however, wanted to talk about birching at all -- particularly those who had seen it take place.
Mr Richard Thatcher, 58, who retired recently after 12 years as Chief Prison Officer, told me: "I've given dozens of birchings and never regretted one.
"Believe me, it's what some of these boys need. It really brings them up with a jerk.
"It's all very well for soft-hearted politicians in England to talk, but Guernsey isn't London and we feel that birching is sometimes the only answer."
The man who sentenced Peter to the birch is Dr Francis Coningsbury, the island's only stipendiary magistrate.
Dr Coningsbury, who is also deputy lieutenant, bailiff, the coroner, a trained barrister and a lay preacher with a theological degree, has "awarded" the birch three times in the three-and-a-half years he has been on the island.
He told me: "Birching is an undesirable necessity. It doesn't seem to me any more severe than a fine, and to me a prison sentence is much more serious."
In any case, he thought it was good to have a big variety of punishments because "it keeps them guessing."
Every Government official I spoke to did not want to be quoted. The Attorney-General refused to see me at all. And the island's Grieff (clerk to the court), Mr Roy Videlo, would say only: "We are here to administer the law -- not air our views."
The prison governor and Sheriff, Mr Lionel Sarren, who has to be present at all birchings, refused to talk about them.
"I cannot talk about what goes on inside the prison," he said. "It's a job that has to be done."
The Church in Guernsey takes no official stand on birching. But Canon Kemp, the vicar of St Stephens, told me: "I have seen teenagers who have been psychoanalysed and given psychiatric treatment, and they laugh at it as so much bloody nonsense.
"Discipline is at a discount these days, and in some circumstances birching is a good thing. 'Spare the rod and spoil the child' is rather a glib way of putting it, but there's a lot to it."
There certainly is a lot to this question. And I doubt whether birching in Guernsey, or any other island, will ever be abolished as long as it is kept in the dark.
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