Flogging at Eton in the 19th century


Each part of the school had its own flogging block, a wooden step on which the victim knelt with his trousers down to receive his punishment on the naked buttocks. In that position he was attended by two 'holders down' whose duty it was to lift up his shirt tails and keep him there until the full quota of strokes had been administered. The ceremony was referred to, accurately enough, as an execution.

The Eton birches were intimidating instruments consisting of three feet of handle and two of a thick bunch of birch twigs. A dozen new rods were supposed to be at hand every morning since there was no calculating the mrmber of floggings which might be inflicted in a day.

A boy 'complained of' by a master or tutor, for any one of a long list of possible offences and also for idleness at lessons, would be 'put in the bill' (the flogging list). Then, at the appointed hour, he would be birched by either the Head or the Lower Master, depending on his position in the school. In the Lower School the 'executions' were always fully public and the boys would gather to watch the fun, with Upper School boys also permitted to attend. It must have been humiliating, especially for sensitive victims.

Generally a boy endured the ordeal with fortitude, but sometimes there were scenes of screaming, howling and struggling.


In the case of the older boys there was some humiliation in being flogged publicly. A certain captain of the boats, a tall athletic young man, about to be birched by the Head, begged hard that he should receive his punishment in private and thus escape the degradation of being observed on the block by a large crowd of young boys looking through the open door. The Headmaster refused point blank, declaring that the publicity was the chief part of the punishment.



An eye-witness account
'A cry rose behind me. "Hullo, there's going to be a swishing! and a general rush was made towards the upper end of the schoolroom. The victim doomed to execution was a very white-skinned, curly-headed lad called Neville and several dozens of fellows clambered upon forms and desks to see him corrected. I got a front place, my heart thumping.

Two fellows deputed to act as holders-down stood behind the block and one of them held a birch of quite alarming size which he handed to the Lower Master as he stepped down from his desk. I had pictured a rod as nothing more than a handful of twigs but this thing was nearly five feet long, having three feet of handle and nearly two feet of bush. As the master grasped it and poised it in the air, addressing a few words of rebuke to young Neville, it seemed a horrible instrument for whipping so small a boy with. Neville knelt on the block and the Master inflicted upon his naked posterior six cuts that sounded like the splashings of so many buckets of water. I turned almost faint.