I save the Borstal story, below, a long time ago. Never did find the author, but it does illustrate how a beating can actrually change a life for the better.
TWENTY MINUTES THAT CHANGED MY LIFE
(Last posted in 1994, the author has never been named).
WHAT YOU ARE ABOUT TO READ ACTUALLY OCCURRED. THE TELLER OF THIS TALE IS STILL ALIVE AND WELL WHAT HE EXPERIENCED WAS ALSO EXPERIENCED BY MANY OTHERS IN BORSTALS IN ENGLAND.....
The events which I am about to relate took place a very long time ago, in 1937, but they are vividly etched in my memory as if they happened yesterday, and above all the dramatic and unbearably painful climax. This only lasted for some five minutes, though at the time it seemed more like fifty minutes, in fact like an eternity. It was a devastating, unforgettable experience that almost certainly changed the course of my life. But this is the end of the story, so I'd better go back to how it all began.
My parents split up when I was only five and I spent the next few years in a succession of children's homes and foster homes. I was always wild and stubborn, difficult to handle, rebellious. For me, as I approached my teens, authority was something to be thwarted and opposed at every turn and so I was constantly getting into trouble. I wanted excitement and enjoyed taking risks. At first this was confined to roaming the streets in a gang of lads, indulging in fights with other gangs; but eventually I found this too tame and I started to go for more daring exploits. I embarked on a series of break-ins to office buildings and factories, just for thrills. For quite some time I got away with it but in the end I was caught and had to appear in juvenile court. As I was only fourteen I escaped with just a lecture and a stern warning that any other offenses would be dealt with severely. I simply ignored all this and was soon at it again, stealing from shops and breaking into houses and stores. Inevitably, I was ultimately caught and again brought before the court. This time I was sent to an approved school for a year.
The purpose of such places was to reform youth like me - to improve their social attitudes and behaviour - but in my case things did not work out that way. It was just another opportunity for me to tilt at authority. I defied the rules continually and was generally uncooperative and wilful. The school was strict and the cane and strap were used often to punish breaches of regulations and many other types of offences. My attitude was such that I frequently had to report for a caning or a strapping, sometimes on the bare bottom; but although these punish- ments always hurt, in some cases considerably, they only deterred me for a short period of time before yet again I was breaking the rules, being insolent and behaving in a thoroughly insubordinate fashion. Even some quite severe doses of the cane failed to tame my anarchic and rebellious nature. As a result, my sentence of one year was ex- tended by six months, and I finally left the establishment when I was fifteen and a half, still anti-social and strongly anti-authority.
During the following six months or so, I lived a more normal life, residing in a local authority hostel for young people and working on a building site which toughened me up physically and made me quite muscular. But it didn't last, after a row with the foreman I was sacked. After this, I simply drifted and before long resumed my wayward behaviour. To cut a long story short, I ended up being sent to a Borstal for eighteen months, aged almost sixteen and a half. The regime was far stricter than at the approved school, aimed at producing obedience and compliance so as to return the inmates to society fully rehabilitated. That was the theory; in practice it was more like a training scheme for apprentice law-breakers, with some fifty teenage lads living together, all whom knew plenty about all sorts of villainy. Many, like me, were rebellious and out of hand. Anyway, I soon settled into the routine of Borstal life and continued to clash with authority.
Corporal punishment was a prominent feature, and my persistent disobedience earned me repeated sessions with the cane. I often received eight hard strokes on the bare bottom and twelve strokes was not uncommon. These were invariably well laid on by a well-built officer and hurt severely, so that even my obstinate spirit was subdued for a time. Yet these punishments did not quell me permanently, and also I was gaining a reputation among the lads as someone who could take a really stiff caning, so I felt the need to live up to it. Apart from my constant defiance, I also absconded twice, on the second occasion burgling a house. Each time I was brought back and punished with the cane, receiving ten strokes on the first occasion and fifteen for the second. These were among the most painful punishments I'd had to date - the second of them, particularly, deterred me from trying further escapes. On each occasion I had to report to the punishment room in the evening, dressed only in underpants, bedroom slippers and dressing gown. I was then ordered to remove the robe, lower my underpants and grasp my ankles with my hands. The cane cracked down with real severity, wringing yells from me and making me regret committing the offence.
However, although these stiff canings made me decide against escaping again, they failed to break my stubborn attitude and wilfulness. I continued to challenge and oppose the system in every way and at the slightest opportunity. Clearly this could not be allowed to carry on for much longer, after various instances of insubordination, I was called before the superintendent. He said that since repeated warnings and punishments had apparently done little to improve my attitude to authority, something far more drastic might shortly be necessary. I was told that he would tolerate no more of my rebellious behaviour and that he was at the limit of his patience. He gave me an ultimatum; the very next time I committed an act of defiance or other major offence, I would be birched. This was a threat that had to be taken seriously. Although now a tall and quite sturdy lad approaching seventeen and a half, I knew that the Birch was a formidable instrument. Even at Borstal it was rarely used, being reserved for serious offenses such as assaulting an officer or for persistent escapes. Some of the lads had told me about birching,, for several months before I arrived at the Borstal a youth named Ron had been given fifteen strokes with the Birch after absconding for the seventh time.
The punishment had taken place in the gymnasium, witnessed by all the others lads and the entire staff. That occasion was still a talking point among us at recreation periods, and it had obviously been a memorable experience for all concerned, it still was a talking point in recreation periods. Ron was still there, as were some of the inmates that had been present at the birching. He was now nearly eighteen and due for release very soon, he was a big, heavy young man, quiet and well -behaved; but he assured me that at one time his attitude and conduct had been very similar to mine, especially in his refusal to conform. When I asked him what had changed all this, he frankly stated that it had been his birching. He said that it; "had hurt his bum like hell." The punishment had been so severe that overnight he had become cooperative. "I never wanted to go through anything like that again." he told me. "And if that meant going along with the system, then O.K."
The lads who had witnessed it confirmed the awesome severity of the birching, saying that it had made them think twice before doing anything that might qualify them for a similar dose. Of course, this is why the punishment was carried out in public - to impress the watching lads, as so deter them from committing serious breaches of discipline. Such conversations as these were to fill my thoughts subsequently. At the time, though, I could scarcely believe that such tough lads could be affected by a thrashing, however severe. They were all, as I was, well used to getting soundly beaten on the bare bottom; nobody liked it but it was just part of the life we led in those days of strict custodial regimes, and we accepted it. So, if their accounts were to be believed, a birching had to be something special. Although I suspected that the horror stories about the birch had been somewhat exaggerated for my benefit, all the lads seemed to have a genuine fear of it; so for all my rebellious nature, and belief that I could take a good hiding better than most, I was none to keen to check it out for myself, whether or not these tales were authentic.
For a while, I more or less toed the line and kept out of major trouble, the incident that led to disaster blew up unexpectedly and suddenly. Some of us had been on an outside working party, and on out return there was a rush for the washrooms so as to be first in the evening meal queue. A certain amount of pushing, shoving and general horseplay developed, in which I was involved - nothing untoward, it often happened. Well, on this occasion one of the stroppier officers was on duty and he piled into the fracas with some force. It just happened that I was one of the lads he grabbed, violently, swinging me round to face him; and on the spur of the moment, I punched him in the stomach, hard enough to double him up for a few moments. When he recovered, he placed me on report. The superintendent ordered solitary confinement for me, and two days later I appeared in court, charged with assaulting an officer. The outcome was inevitable and I was rapidly found guilty. My previous record was then placed before the magistrate to help him decide upon the sentence. After reading it, he told me that my file revealed a continuous story of misconduct and insubordination, culminating in the grave offence for which I had just been convicted. He went on. "It is high time you learnt respect for authority. As many previous warnings and punishments appear to have no effect on you, it's clear that you are only able to understand the sternest measures. You will receive eighteen strokes of the birch." As the magistrates words sank in, I felt a pang of fear. Dazed, I was taken from the court and then back to solitary confinement in the Borstal - a small room with a bunk bed, a small wooden table and little else.
The Superintendent had told me that my sentence had to wait confirmation from the Home Office, which would take two weeks or more; meantime I would remain in isolation from the other lads. With my dreadful record, I knew there was no point in my appealing against the sentence - my one and only slender hope of evading the birch was that the Home Office might not confirm it. I clutched at this straw during the lonely fortnight that followed. I certainly had plenty of time in which to reflect on my dire situation. Eventually, one morning an officer came to my room and took me to the superintendent's office. I stood to attention while he read out the contents of a letter he was holding; the sentence of birching had been duly confirmed and would be carried out the following day in the gymnasium at 8 o'clock in the evening, in the presence of the other inmates and the staff. So there was to be no escape for me. Back in my room, I lay on my bunk, my mind in a whirl. As all the things I'd heard about the birch and how it was used came flooding back to me. I grew more and more apprehensive about my impending punishment.
I kept recalling bits of information; the birch was made from many long twigs bound together. The twigs ended in a spray at the business end, wide enough to punish the entire area of the buttocks with each stroke. They were kept soaking in water for several days before use so as to make them very supple and thus maximise the sting they gave. Apparently, the fine ends of the birch caused an exceedingly sharp sting. I'd also heard that the officer administering the punishment was instructed to apply the birch with maximum force. if most or all of these gruesome details were accurate, there was no doubt whatever that a judicial birching was a grim business. I'd all ready had to endure weeks of awful suspense since being sentenced but it wasn't over yet - I still had nearly thirty-six hours in which to contemplate what was in store for my bare bottom. the waiting seemed endless I had no activities to distract my thoughts, not even a book to read - not that i could have concentrated on reading. My mind was filled with only one thing; that the following evening I had to bend over the end of a vaulting horse, bare bottom, to take eighteen full-strength strokes of the dreaded birch from a hefty Borstal officer, in public. Somehow it all seemed unreal, a bad dream. The day dragged on. At six o'clock the medical officer came to my room to examine me. He pronounced me fit to undergo the punishment; I didn't know whether to feel relieved or sorry. Supper came along a bit later on, then I resumed thinking about the next evening. All I could focus on was my appointment with the birch. How much would it hurt? Was it really as bad as people made out? And if it was, how well would I take it? I had always prided myself on being tough - but was I tough enough to take a birching in the same way as all the canings and strappings I'd had? Well, I'd soon know the answer to that! I felt so tense that sleep eluded me for hours, but eventually I managed to drop off. I was woken at six o'clock the next morning, taken to the washroom and then back to my solitary quarters where breakfast was brought at half past six, more than thirteen hours still to.....wait! If only they would come and do it to me here and now and get it over with...............
It was a grey day in November. Every now and then I could hear rain falling and the wind in the trees. Getting through that day was going to be almost as hard to bear as the punishment. As the hours slowly went by, my fear steadily rose. I'd had all the time in the world to regret the offence that had put me in this plight, as well as my long history of defiance and obstructiveness. Maybe if I'd had a track record I would have got away with a lighter sentence - as it was, there had been no hope of leniency. I had to admit to myself that the sentence was perfectly fair and deserved; it had been decreed by the law, so there was no chance of dodging it. At five o'clock that afternoon I was escorted first to the toilet and then the washrooms to have a bath. My clothes were taken away and I was issued with a pair of underpants, some soft, zip-up bedroom slippers and a dressing-gown. After putting these on, I was accompanied back to my room where shortly afterwards a light supper arrived. there was now about two hours to go before the birching, during which I became increasingly nervous. All I could hope was that the punishing properties of the birch had been over-stated........... Finally, after what seemed the longest two hours ever, I heard keys unlocking my door at about ten minutes to eight. Two officers had come, and without a word each took one of my arms.
They conducted me down a long passage, then another, gripping me firmly as I padded along in my slippers until we reached the gymnasium. One of the officers pushed open the double doors while the other one steered me through them. Out of the corner of my eye I could see some of the assembled lads, but I stared straight ahead, where I noticed that the preparations for my punishment had been made. At the far end of the Gym, the floor level had been raised by putting down stage blocks, and on top of these, in the centre, was a vaulting horse. I was now led down the room until I was just a few feet away from the stage. the officer with me now told me to slip off the dressing gown, and he took it away. The other officer now ordered me to stand to attention, then stand at ease, then come to attention again. Dry-mouthed and heart beating fast, I obeyed. The superintendent then stood up and walked across to face me and the audience (I latter discovered numbered around eighty, the other lads, all of the staff and some Home Office representatives.) He read out the charge. "For striking an officer and repeated disobedient actions, you are sentenced to receive eighteen strokes of the birch on the bare buttocks! Do you wish to say anything?" "No, Sir." I answered in an unsteady voice. "Very well. The punishment will now be carried out."
For the first time, I spotted an officer standing on the stage, to the left of the horse. Evidently he was the one who would be punishing me. I had never seen him before, so he'd obviously been drafted in from another Borstal, or perhaps he was a policeman. For whatever reason, the authorities had chosen someone who didn't know me; still, no doubt the officers from our place would get plenty of satisfaction from watching me being well and truly whipped. As I stared at the officer near the horse, I quailed; he wore a short sleeved shirt which revealed large biceps and thick, brawny forearms. As if that wasn't enough, he was a heavily-built man who must have weighed all of fourteen stone or more. Looking at him raised my fear to panic level - I shuddered to think what a guy as big and strong as that would do to my bare buttocks with the birch. I was roused from these awful thoughts by a voice barking out. "STAND AT EASE!" which I did, mechanically. Then it ordered... "ATTENTION!" Which I obeyed, as if in a trance. I couldn't believe this was really happening. The next command was...... "STEP UP!" and I had to walk forward and ascend the stage. "You are to count each stroke aloud before it is given." the voice came again, "Is that understood?" "Yes, Sir." Hardly recognising my quavering tones. So they were even making me count out the punishment.. How unfeeling........ Again I looked at the hefty officer standing by the vaulting horse, and trembled at the sight of him. I'd never felt so scared in my whole life. Another officer came up to me and said quietly. "Get 'em down, lad." and I lowered my underpants so that my bottom was fully exposed. then he ordered. "MOUNT." and I had to bend over the edge of the vaulting horse, with my stomach lying on top of a thick roll of blanket which raised my bottom so that it stuck out prominently. Several officers now moved forward to secure me.
My wrists and ankles were tied to the legs of the horse, then another strap was wound round the middle of my back; lastly, four more straps bound me to the horse: one round each forearm and one round each of my calves. I was so firmly secured that movement was virtually impossible. Panic- stricken, I stared ahead of me where the medical officer was seated next to the matron. A door to the side of the stage opened and in came an officer carrying two buckets of water he put down on the stage. From one of them he removed a dripping bundle of twigs and handed it to the punishing officer. I had never seen a birch before; it was some four feet long and had a spread of about eight inches at the spray end. It was big, bushy and fearsome. The big officer walked around the horse and took up position behind me.
The order was given. "START COUNTING!", and in a shaky voice I called out "ONE" and so began an experience that I can still remember in every detail, after so many years. There was a long pause after I called the number, then I heard a loud swish and the first stroke descended. It landed with a resounding crack and I felt the wetness of the twigs - but not, to my huge surprise, much pain. All I felt was a slight tingling. I called "TWO", again a long pause-all of ten seconds - then the soaking-wet twigs again landed on their target; and again I hardly felt a thing. I couldn't make it out, from the loud impact, the officer had obviously used a lot of force, yet other than a somewhat greater tingling, I hadn't been hurt. I began to wonder if the birch's alarming reputation was overblown. What I did not know - yet - was that it takes a few strokes for the effects of the birch to penetrate fully............. "THREE" Once again the officer paused; then I hear the swish, closely followed by the feel of he birch as it made contact with my bottom. this time it did hurt, not all that much, but enough to hint at what was to come. I counted "FOUR", another lengthy pause, then the birch came down hard. It was the worst stroke so far and I really felt it. I wasn't looking foward to the next one. "FIVE", Pause. Why did he have to wait so long each time; was it to take careful aim?, or was it to let me fully feel the pain before the next stroke? Perhaps it was for both of these reasons.
Again the loud swishing sound and the birch cracked down with tremendous force. It stung considerably and I began to feel very frightened again after a brief period when I'd felt less scared. "SIX". Pause. Down came the next stroke, it hurt like anything, the fine wet tips of the rod splaying out to contact just about my entire bottom. I wriggled, though my bonds were so tight that the movement was very slight. "SEVEN". Eventually there was a terrifying hiss, then those whippy twigs hit the target area. I felt a very severe sting which steadily spread across my bottom. now at last I realised that I was in for a whipping of a lifetime; each stroke was hurting more than the one before and I was dreading the next one. "EIGHT". Slow again to come, timed, purposeful, the sting was so hellish that it made me gasp. "NINE". Much worse, it hurt my bottom so much that it drove all the breath out of me and I lay across the horse panting and squirming. The punishment was only half way through and getting worse all the time. Steadily my buttocks were taking fire under those biting twigs and I wondered how on earth I could take another nine.......................................
When I found the breath to utter again, I called out "TEN", in a very quivery voice. This time the pause was longer than ever and still the birch didn't descend; soon I realised the reason. The officer wielding the birch signalled to a colleague who promptly went to the other bucket of water and withdrew a fresh birch. this was brought over to my hefty punisher who resumed position behind me. The tenth stroke landed viciously. It hurt atrociously, the most painful one yet and I yelled. the intense sting of that well-soaked birch was indescribable and made me squirm. My bottom ablaze..... I gasped out "ELEVEN" and awaited the stroke with deep dread. Now I knew why big Ron hadn't fancied a repeat taste; and now I knew why the birch was prescribed to punish serious offenders. It hurt far more than anything I'd ever had before, and I still had another eight! The officer applied the next stroke to my bare and still writhing backside will all his weight. I howled as the ferocious bite of those wet twigs penetrated my sore bottom, sending me into violent contortions, though limited by those tight straps. I didn't want to call the next stroke, in fact I couldn't for some time; the whole of my bum was on fire. After a considerable pause, a voice commanded; "CALL THE NEXT STROKE!" It was the last thing in the world that I wanted to do; I wondered what they would do if I refused. But presumably the punishment would still be given, and with all the lads watching I thought that failing to count might strike them as weakness; so at last I called....... "TWELVE". I waited for the birch to come down, my buttocks flinching in anticipation. "THWACK!" The wet twigs lashed my bottom with all the strength of the officer's powerful arm. I screamed with the unbearable sting, desperately twisting and writhing.
The medical officer was looking at me intently and I had a sudden hope that he might intervene and halt this appalling punishment. I felt even more hopeful when he stood up and walked round behind me, evidently to inspect my bottom. Then I heard him murmur "O.K. Carry on" and he resumed his seat..... So there was no mercy for me. I wasn't going to dodge a single stroke of my punishment. I wondered is I would ever be able to sit down again, still six to come.... How could I stand anymore? I managed to say "THIRTEEN" and after the pause and a terrifying swish, the next stroke flamed across my blazing, throbbing bottom. It hurt abominably, even more than any previous stroke; not surprising, it was landed on an extremely sore, raw target area. I howled at the top of my voice, at the same time squirming and pleading for it to stop. Any pride or attempt to show toughness had fled; my bottom was in flames. But the scolding birch continued to hiss and lash, flogging my bare buttocks unmercifully. Five more to come.
The gymnasium was a deathly hush apart from the swish and crack of the twigs and my howls and sobs. I painfully gasped..... "FOURTEEN" and at last came a savage lash that made me scream. Twisting and writhing against mt restraining bonds, my bottom ablaze, sobbing, I knew for the first time in my life the meaning of PUNISHMENT. It was sheer agony, torture, beyond endurance. The birch more than lived up to it's reputation, in fact it was much more painful than I could have imagined. I'd long since had more than enough to persuade me to conform, but the punishment had to be completed..... I sobbed "FIFTEEN", And yet again that brawny arm brought down the birch twigs viciously across my bottom. The sting was impossible, excruciating, and my buttocks reacted to it with more desperate squirmings. I was howling continuously now sobbing "STOP! STOP!" but it made no difference; the flogging continued.
Through the haze of unbearable pain, I wondered what state my bottom was in; it must be cut to ribbons - it certainly fet like it. There was no fight left in me, I'd been broken at last, Finally tamed.... "SIXTEEN"....... A really wicked stroke swished my bum, the impossible sting once more taking my breath away. When I got back I was again screaming at the top of my voice for it to stop. I was bucking and twisting frantically; it was all too obvious why they had secured me so firmly.........Yet again I was very slow to call out the next stroke and in the end had to be ordered to do so...... "SEVENTEEN" and eventually the angry birch screamed down across my tortured, raw, squirming bottom. I continued howling as another dose of scorching sting spread through my bare and suffering buttocks. Yet again those cruel twigs had fanned out to contact the whole target area, imparting an unbearable sting. Still sobbing and pleading I croaked...... "EIGHTEEN". And although still threshing about, or at least attempting to, the final stroke scorched down; a savage slash to end my punishment. I lay over that dreadful vaulting-horse, writhing, sobbing, defeated. So THAT was what a birching felt like! Small wonder that no lad had been known to return for a repeat session.
I had mounted that horse still a defiant youth, stubborn and rebellious. I dismounted it, staggering, a changed lad. Neither at that moment nor ever again had I the slightest desire to buck the system and challenge the powers-that-be. And it had only taken about twenty minutes to cause that transformation! The magistrate who had sentenced me would be pleased: I HAD learned respect for authority. No way ever again did I want to bend over for a birching. It had been unbelievably severe, and the punishment had certainly been effective. I had learned a terribly painful lesson. My straps were unfastened and an officer helped me climb stiffly from the horse.
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