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Judicial corporal punishment

Birching in the Isle of Man 1945 to 1976

By C. Farrell

policeman with birch

The Isle of Man (population 50,000) is a British Crown Dependency in the middle of the Irish Sea. It is not legally part of the UK. It has its own parliament and makes its own laws. These are often similar to UK laws, but the island did not follow the UK in abolishing judicial corporal punishment in 1948.


For 12 years after that, birching was principally a punishment for boys under 15 convicted of petty larceny (stealing), much as in UK magistrates' courts before 1948. The penalty was considered fairly trivial, though I doubt whether it seemed all that trivial to those receiving it (8 or 9 strokes in a few cases, though 3 or 4 was the norm). At any rate, it attracted little attention and was reported only briefly in the local papers and often not at all on the mainland. There were 52 of these magistrates' court juvenile birchings from 1952 to 1959 inclusive -- an average of nearly seven per year.

blob Read local press report of a juvenile court birching in 1956

Older teens -- and in theory adult men, though there were no such cases in the post-war era -- could be birched only by higher courts, which at that time was rare (only two cases in the whole decade), though it became more common in the 1960s and 1970s.

Curiously enough, two other offshore Crown Dependencies, Jersey and Guernsey, were using the birch rather more at that time for older teens, but this almost never came to the notice of the mainland media.


In 1960 the Manx law was altered so that magistrates could order CP for males up to 21 instead of only under 15.

With the change in the law, birching took on a quite new role. Previously a minor punishment for children, it became the customary penalty for youths of 14 to 21 for offences deemed fairly serious, without being serious enough to go to a higher court. These usually involved, or could be made to sound as if they had involved, some degree of violence. The maximum number of strokes was set at 12.


We now know, though it was not announced at the time, that to mark the change a completely different kind of birch was invented -- some say by Constable Henry Corlett, who often had the job of administering it. It consisted of four or five long and fairly stout hazel branches bound tightly together at one end.

This replaced the previous classic spray birch, and was by all accounts a much more fearsome weapon. It could be likened to a bundle of 4 senior school canes all being applied at once. Photographs of this instrument have appeared frequently in the press and on TV. The following photograph by Lord Snowdon of three Manx birches in a bucket appeared in the Sunday Times colour magazine (London) on 23 April 1978.

photo of birches in a bucket


At the same time, the punishment for younger boys (under 14) became the cane instead of the birch, thenceforth inflicted across the seat of the trousers (max. 6 strokes). This was portrayed as a humanitarian step -- no more shameful baring of backsides -- but in reality, as wielded by a burly policeman it was probably at least as severe as the spray birch, if slightly less embarrassing.

This is the only instance of the cane ever having been used for JCP in the British Isles, though it was and still is the usual instrument in many former colonies overseas.

There were 18 of these juvenile court canings in the early 1960s but then the practice faded out. The last was in May 1971, when a 13-year-old was convicted of robbing another boy of 10p, a small sum of money even then. For this he got not only four strokes of the cane, but also two months' detention! Very little was ever said or reported about these canings. For example, I have never come across a description of one or an interview with anyone who received it.

Incidentally, the wording of the legislation for these new canings was lifted from the mainland 1933 Approved School Rules -- "on the posterior, over the boy's ordinary cloth trousers". I wonder whether it ever occurred to the authorities that this was quite inappropriate for judicial CP, where the accused might turn up at court in thick jeans and several pairs of underpants, or (if he didn't realise what he might be in for) very thin trousers with perhaps nothing underneath. As the Approved Schools for which this language was originally framed were residential institutions, the authorities would have been in control of what the boy was wearing.

What the legislature probably should have done, if they wanted the target area to be covered, was to specify that the offender would be wearing only (i.e. with nothing underneath) a garment approved by the chief constable and kept at the police station especially for the purpose. This might perhaps have been a pair of exceedingly thin trousers or shorts, as in the Navy. But anyway it would have been the same for everyone. No thought seems to have been given to this fairness aspect.


From 1960 on, the Manx birch -- and the cases in which it was used -- attracted more and more media attention on the mainland, at a time when British seaside resorts were plagued with outbreaks of hooliganism, "mods and rockers", etc. and the popular press was indulging in one of its periodic outbursts of hysteria about teenagers.

blob Read typical mainland press coverage of a birching case in 1961

In the long run this notoriety was its undoing; if they could have kept quiet about it they might still have it yet. But at the time the island authorities welcomed the publicity because it helped portray the island as a "safe" holiday resort where violence was nipped in the bud.

Indeed, the politician who was arguably the driving force behind the new legislation, Bill Quayle, was also the chairman of the Manx Tourist Board -- as well as being a leading magistrate himself. As such he ordered quite a lot of the birchings of the 1960s, and would adjourn the court while the punishment was administered in the jury room in his presence. I have a feeling this would have been thought most improper in the UK, where the judiciary is traditionally supposed to remain aloof from such vulgar practicalities as the actual consequences of its decisions.

Probably the most notorious case was in July 1965 when four 19-year-old thugs on holiday from Glasgow got 9 strokes each -- more or less equivalent, one supposes, to 36 strokes of the cane across the bare seat. This led to a great clamour (especially in Scotland) to bring back the birch on the mainland, with the famous picture in the Sunday Mirror in which a couple of the youths show (a few of) their weals.

cover of bookIn retrospect, that was perhaps the high point for the Manx birch; by the end of the 1960s a campaign against it was under way, led by three local women. One of them, Angela Kneale, even got a paperback book published about it -- on the mainland; it seems to have made no impact at all on the island itself (Against Birching: Judicial corporal punishment in the Isle of Man), National Council for Civil Liberties, London, 1973). The book lists all JCP cases from 1952 to 1972, and remains virtually the only source of published research on the subject.

The "Three ladies" stirred up plenty of controversy and (with help from mainland liberals) got a lot of publicity, though it was always clear that theirs was very much a minority view locally.

Indeed the Isle of Man, like many small islands, was a fiercely conservative place, and most residents seemed almost fanatical in their support for the birch. Many really believed it allowed the island to be relatively safe and crime-free (a notion that Kneale's book challenges). For others its significance was perhaps more metaphorical: the birch as the potent symbol of Manx independence.

But the opponents were able to draw attention to the right of appeal, something apparently never invoked until then. Offenders had customarily been birched immediately after the court hearing. Appeals would cause delay, giving time for a fuss to be stirred up in the press and making the whole procedure much more cumbersome and longwinded.


Still, birchings continued into the 1970s; and in 1972, four schoolboys were birched for assaulting a prefect. One of them, Tony Tyrer, had appealed, but lost the appeal, so his birching took place many weeks after the offence. This was a new departure, and his was the case eventually taken to the European Court of Human Rights.

When this happened, the UK Government became reluctantly involved, since it is responsible for the Crown Dependencies' external relations and hence for their international treaty obligations. It is unclear whether the Manx Government had been consulted separately when the UK signed the European Convention on Human Rights in 1952, but at this point they certainly started wishing they were not bound by it.

The Human Rights Court, when it at last delivered its judgment on Tyrer in 1978, predictably held (by 6 votes to 1) that birching was degrading and hence in breach of the Convention. The Manx authorities had tried at the last minute to head this off by introducing a new rule (never in fact implemented) that recipients would thenceforth keep their trousers on. This ploy was unsuccessful, and the idea was untested and probably impractical: birching has always and everywhere been applied to the bare buttocks. A spray birch, at least, would have very little effect through clothing; this may be less true of the special Manx birch, but in any case there is some anecdotal evidence that the Isle of Man may have secretly reverted to the spray birch (while retaining the familiar fearsome one for press photographs) at some point in the 1970s.

Some elements of the Manx hierarchy, however, were minded to defy the ruling: the legislation stayed on the statute book for many years, but no court dared invoke it again until 1981, when a magistrate sentenced a 16-year-old (yet another brawling Glaswegian holidaymaker) to be birched for assault.


Once again the boy appealed, but this time the appeal was upheld, partly because of the Human Rights Court's ruling in Tyrer but also because of the delay caused by the mere fact of appealing. The judge hearing the appeal was sent over from the mainland and was regarded locally, how true this is I don't know, as a UK Home Office stooge with a brief to squash the whole embarrassing (to the UK Government) business once and for all.

(Actually, by the time the case came up, the boy said he wanted to withdraw the appeal and get the birching over with, rather than go to borstal which would probably be the alternative, but the court of appeal conveniently ruled that, once lodged, the appeal had to be heard in the public interest.)

After that, I don't think there was ever any real prospect of the birch being used again. For a while there was talk of the island derogating from the Human Rights Convention, but this notion was soon abandoned as politically unrealistic.

And yet although the birching laws now looked to be a dead letter, it was to be a further 12 years before they were formally repealed. This was in 1993, 17 years after the last birching, in January 1976, when a youth from Northern Ireland received six strokes for assault. He was the 60th young man to be birched on the island since 1960. As it happens, this was a High Court case; the last magistrate's birching was in 1975.

A novel reason for abandoning the birch was produced by the local politician who piloted the repeal bill through the local parliament (the House of Keys), Mr George Waft. It was now far from a deterrent, he said, as "The individual and families of anyone birched would benefit considerably by selling their stories to the newspapers" ("Isle of Man to scrap birch at a stroke", The Guardian, London, 6 March 1993).

blob RELATED VIDEO: Two clips.

CLIP 1 OF 2 updated (New better-quality version)

One minute's worth of raw ITN news footage from 1978, evidently made for a report on the Human Rights Court decision. Policeman comes into room holding two birches, policeman talks about birching rules and regulations, close shot of birches on table. The rules described here (involving the culprit keeping his trousers on) were never in fact applied, the last birching having taken place two years previously. The suggestion that the constable administering the punishment was required not to raise the birch above shoulder level is new to me; I suspect it was dreamed up retrospectively.


IMPORTANT: Copyright in this video material rests with the original copyright holders. This brief excerpt is reproduced under the "fair use" doctrine EXTERNAL LINK: opens in new window for private, non-profit, historical research and education purposes only. It must not be redistributed or republished in any commercial context.


This is a 3-minute extract from a 2011 Timeshift BBC TV series about crime and punishment. It includes scenes from a 1978 episode of Tonight featuring some of the middle-class Manxwomen who at that point were still campaigning, in vain, to keep the birch. There is also some famous footage that first appeared in BBC TV's 24 hours in 1969, in which a policeman demonstrates the application of the birch to the back of a chair.


IMPORTANT: Copyright in this video material rests with the original copyright holders. This brief excerpt is reproduced under the "fair use" doctrine EXTERNAL LINK: opens in new window for private, non-profit, historical research and education purposes only. It must not be redistributed or republished in any commercial context.

blob See also: 1972: Birching ... The Facts -- a Manx lawyer explains the legal and procedural aspects of the judicial birch in the Isle of Man.  Main menu page

Copyright © C. Farrell 1999-2023
Page updated November 2023