The birch and its domestic use

02Aug11

The birch has a long history as an implement of punishment. It times past, before the so-called Age of Reason in the late 17th century, the boundaries between home and the workplace were blurred and so too were the relationships and boundaries of the family.

Even into the 20th century in England, employees were sometimes described in legal parlance as servants, with the pater familias being head of the household with all the responsibilities and duties that entailed; including the corporal punishment of his dependents.

Indeed, as late as the 1950s, a charge of assault, which was brought against an employer who spanked his 19-year-old au pair, was thrown out on just such grounds. By then of course the birch, which surely would have dismayed the court, had fallen from favour everywhere but HM Prisons and the Isle of Man.

In earlier times it would have been different of course, right up to the First World War in fact, the birch had its place in many respectable homes. But before we focus on its domestic use in Britain between the Restoration and the Edwardian Age, let us look at what we mean by the birch.

The birch is named for the species of tree in the Betula family, which historically is most often used to make birchen rods for correction. Although not unknown in North America, the Betula Pubescens is most associated with the British Isles, Scandinavia and Northern Europe where it is still used in the sauna. However, other species of tree and shrub such as hazel, beech or willow can be used to make a ‘birch rod,’ so long as the withes (or twigs) are thin and supple.

The Nordic and Germanic peoples, who probably introduced the birch rod into Britain, usually contend that a birch rod must be ‘green,’ that is freshly cut before being put to use. Whilst this is undoubtedly true, the tradition in England was often to steep the rods in strong brine and vinegar for storage so as to be ready for use. This was largely because even by the 18th century England was largely urbanised and fresh birch twigs were not be had, especially in London where much of the well-to-do resided for most of the year.

The effectiveness of a birch rod for punishment is determined by the length and weight of the withes. The judicial birch, often known as a senior birch, was between four and sometimes six feet long and weighed at least one pound (450g), and consisted of up to 16 lengths. It was last used officially in England in 1960 and the Isle of Man in 1976.

In the domestic arena there were two grades of lesser birch.

Young women and maids were supposed to be dealt with by means of a standard or governess birch. The sometimes rather fanciful Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine suggested that a governess birch should be a minimum of three feet long, with six to nine withes and weigh no less than six ounces for application to the bared bottom of a 16-year-old girl. With three inches and approximately two ounces added for each year of growth, “saving that the rod should not greatly exceed 42 inches” in length or 10 ounces in weight.

A nursery birch as employed in the classroom; a merciful punishment by the standards of the time

The lesser or nursery birch was designed with children in mind and was supposed to be at least half the weight of a governess birch and considerably shorter. Although several readers to the EDM protested at the severity of using such harsh measures and one mother asked “what is wrong with a slipper?”

Indeed, as is illustrated in the top picture, most mothers preferred the nursery birch even for their adult daughters, given the severity of the alternative.

One of the reasons the birch went out of fashion however, is that it required the young lady to bare her bottom for chastisement and by the late Victorian Age, this seemed altogether too lude.

However this reluctance was not always the vogue. Often the humiliation of exposure was considered a vital part of the punishment. It is said that in Norfolk up until the 1930s it was the custom to send girls into the fields ‘dressed only in their shifts’ (blouses or shirts) to cut lengths of hazel ‘for the necessary.’

In the movie Lady Jane, the gentlemen are sent from the room while Helena Bonham-Carter gets her thrashing. But in actual fact in real life it was her father who birched the future Queen Jane. Indeed it seems that before the second half of the Victorian Era, the bare bottom correction of women before or by men was considered a necessary evil.

In the 1790s one lady wrote to her former guardian saying: “…you were such a beast. I was so often most dreadfully birched by you right there in parlour. I remember those times when you forced me face down on the divan with my skirts up around my ears for all to see after some mischief or other. Oh how I did rue the birch in those days, but I expect I deserved it. Oh happy days.”

A hundred or so years later in a ‘better home’ a governess might have been more careful of her charge’s dignity. One governess handbook suggested “for the older girl who thinks herself a woman, a public scolding then an open announcement of the chastisement to follow may be quite beneficial in bringing a spirited girl down a peg or two. However, one should on no account thrash an older girl before others. Better to send her to her room to await the rod.”

However once alone with her charge she was advised “not to stint with the rod, but ply it vigorously to her unprotected behind with as many strokes as it takes to bring her to her senses.”

A young woman preparing to receive the so-called governess birch

A contributor to the EDM took issue with this. She suggested that a birching should be “as prolonged, painful and humiliating as possible.”

There is much anecdotal evidence from prisons and orphanages where the birch was much in use until the middle of the last century. This suggests that as a punishment the birch was much feared and recipients might expect not to be able to sit down for some days after its administration.

The memoirs of one orphan girl who had the dubious pleasure of sojourn in an establishment for the orphaned daughters of gentlefolk reported: “At supper you could always tell the girls who had been up before the Directress as they were allowed, and no doubt preferred, to stand behind their chairs at table.”

The series of pictures below depicts the misadventures of one hapless young woman and the punitive operation she had to endure.



19 Responses to “The birch and its domestic use”

  1. 1 fatherjim

    Love these Historical accounts, which I have no problem believing were probably much worse than purient society chose to record! Well written and well presented. The drawings were excellent!

    Thanks for sharing!

    Jim

  2. 2 alembic

    A fine and learned piece of research, Damien, for which my sincere thanks. You write these fascinating historical pieces with the same devotion to detail as that you pay to your stories, which, and I often say this, are among the very best I have come across.

    I think there could be no greater accolade than to say ‘Alex would have been proud to have written this’.

    Thank you again, Damien, and may your excellent site continue to thrive!

    hedgehog

    • 3 DJ

      Very nice of you to say.

      By Alex, do you mean Alex Birch?

      DJ

      • 4 alembic

        Was there another Alex who was so into the fine art of strict discipline for young ladies, and who wrote so eloquently and lovingly of it?

        Alex Birch was the very finest and is sadly missed; you, however, are following his steps so well. The time may yet come when the student outperforms the master — we shall have to wait and see!

        Best wishes,

        hedgehog

      • 5 DJ

        apparently not ;)

        Thank you

  3. DJ, this is the submissive’s (if that is what girls like me are) version of a camp fire tale, half terrifying (“they did what??”) and half enticing- it is perfect for creating girls who are very quiet with wide, wide eyes.
    I read it with wide, wide eyes and with beating heart. The pictures are beautiful (the 1790s one is my favourite) and the facts enough to keep a girl like me awake when she ought to be sleeping.

    • 7 PeeJay

      but does it keep you awake with fear or with desire?

  4. I might be a male of submissive tendencies who is in an FLR and punished regularly by Mistress but I love this piece and love the illustrations. Just look at the expressions on those faces. Delightful.

  5. Gary, what is a FLR?

  6. 10 Lars

    Very interesting and well written,

    In Norway the birch has been used widely for a long long time. Naughty children, wifes and servants would normally be birched or receive handspankings on their bare bottoms. Other implements like the cane, the tawse or the paddle were almost unheard of,

    I am a norwegian male in my mid forties and the birch was not uncommon in the seventies and early eighties. At that time maybe 60% received spankings and probably 15%-20% was birched.

    Being a spanko as long I can remember, I have tried to gather as much information about spanking practices as possible. It was quite normal to speak about spankings when I grew up and as an adult I have found it quite easy to have females speak about their spankings when they grew up.

    At least five of my friends (three of them were females) got the birch on the bare bottom. They would always be put over the knee and receive the birch on their bare bottoms. Interesting enough it was always the mothers who gave the spankings. The reason might have been that the women either was at home or had part time jobs.

    Normally the birches used would be the equal to a nursery birch.

    In the home of one my friends there was always a birch hanging on the wall in the kitchen to remind naugthy children what would happen if they did not behave. I remember I found it quite exciting.

    The birch used was normally fresh, and one of my female friends had to cut her own birch, put it on the kitchen table, pull down her trousers and panties and wait for her mother.

    One of my girlfriends told that the birch was kept in the attic and her mother would fetch it and take her or her sister to master bedroom were the punishment always took place.

    My mother would threaten me with the birch however it did not happen. However I got my share of bare bottom handspankings.

    These days the birch is probably still in use, but between consenting adults. I have tasted the birch as an adult over the knee of my wife, but so has she over mine.

  7. Being on the receiving end of a birch is an interesting sensation. I love the the whole historical things going on too. But in my experience you end up with loads of buds, bark and bits of twig all over the room you’re doing your birching in, which is a bit of a proactical problem. I guess you could make vacuuming the carpet (bare bottom, of course) after the swishing part of the punishment.

    • 12 DJ

      Yes that is a problem and one that is often ignored in literature. ;)

      thanks for the observation

      DJ

    • 13 PeeJay

      so, how were you able to try that out? Who made the birch and was it as good as those experienced in making them in times long ago?

  8. 14 K F Banhart

    What no-one mentions is unlike a beating a birching is a skin effect and not a bruising. The hard little bits dig in and strip the buttocks as the twigs wrap and draw across them. Hence the various weights and lengths. A birching is a variation of the torture known as flaying which is why the punishment is so painful. A severe birching is a terrible thing and can lead to disfigurement, which I hope is one reason the practice has fallen out of favour. Blood flows and raw flesh is exposed. No-one sits afterwards,

  9. 15 PeeJay

    would love someone to show me practically how this was done – i want to see a birch being used and what can be done with one – especially if there was a mirror in the room and it was done on me!

  10. After the cane, my second choice of a spanking implement is the birch rod. It’s stinging swishes when applied to a naughty woman’s bare bottom, is music to my ears.


  1. 1 Off Twitter, on the blogs | The Spanking Writers
  2. 2 For lovers of the birch | | All Things SpankingAll Things Spanking
  3. 3 DEVIL IN THE MAKING « ~VICTORIA 'S TITILLATING TIDBITS~

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