Posts tagged ‘town whipper’

December 19, 2017

The Whip Hand

dsc02672

Prison warder with a cat-o-nine-tails from Peterhead Prison Museum

On January 2, 1891 it was reported in an Aberdeen newspaper that the town’s whipper had resigned after his home was besieged by angry protesters.  

It was New Year and it may have been the occasion with all that involves that emboldened Aberdeen’s citizens to vent their disapproval not-so-much of the man but his chosen occupation. Whatever the stimulus that attracted a crowd to his door that particular night their actions unnerved him sufficiently that the town’s whipper got to thinking about his job and when he had done thinking he decided to quit it.

His appointment a year earlier attracted the attention of the London Echo which described his role as more akin to barbarous practices of earlier and ruder times. In response a Glasgow newspaper ridiculed the London Echo‘s reporter for getting, well – the wrong end of the stick – and imagining Aberdeen loons (boys) were being strapped to grills to be lashed to within “an inch of their lives by some brawny and brutal giant wielding the cat-o-nine-tails.”

The Echo was quoted in the piece –

“If the hardened burglar sinks into deeper degradation through the lash, what effect,” this tearful Echo exclaims, “will it not have upon the delicate and impressionable mind of a lad?”

The Glasgow reporter reassured the London Echo its imagination went far beyond the truth. It was pointed out that schools used corporal punishment through caning and there was no intention to treat Scottish youth to immeasurable agony and disgrace but only to extend the type of punishment commonly applied in schools to municipal whipping rooms. The alternative of a fine, the reporter argued, only punished parents not the lad.

Many will remember more recent controversies over the birching of youths, notably on the Isle of Man, for misdemeanours too inconsequential for custodial sentence. Edinburgh’s whipper was busy as late as 1927 birching around six boys aged between ten to fourteen accused of stealing money from gas meters and other articles. One lad was given twelve strokes while the rest got up to six.

At the Borders town of Hawick a public whipper was sought in 1889 when 17 boys were brought before the police court on charges which included the theft of turnips, handkerchiefs, a hammer, a tea-cup and maliciously breaking a ladder. Casting an eye towards parents and teachers Hawick’s magistrates insisted that if they could not restrain the laddies then the police and magistrates would have to take them in hand.

Whipping is the act of using an instrument to strike a person or animal to cause pain as punishment or instil fear to teach a lesson or encourage compliance. If I might divert a little – who would be a whipper? A bully or inadequate type of person surely and there’s a fine line between legally sanctioned whipping and violent assault against a person.

In 1868 in Milwaukee Wisconsin a man called Downer charged his neighbours with assault and intent to kill after he was attacked by them. He claimed he had been sitting peaceably at home when a group of women broke in and without a word set about him; striking him with clubs, sticks and guns. He was left soaked to the skin, his clothes torn, his face and neck badly scratched and missing clumps of head hair and whiskers and he angrily demanded the women be arrested and punished. In the subsequent court hearing a witness told how that evening Downer was indulging in his ‘usual amusement’ of whipping his wife when neighbours were alerted by her desperate cries and responded armed with a mop, a broom, fire shovel and pair of tongs. They struck out at Downer mopping his face with dirty water and beating him. He fought back punching at least one woman which only enraged the rest to thrash him more soundly till he was the one crying out and begging not to be killed.

Back in the UK there were references to the distinctive coats or robes worn by town whippers but I haven’t come across actual descriptions of any which is a pity as I would like to have an accurate picture of the men whose task it was to lash 18th century scallywags who cared so little for their passengers they carelessly let go when carrying sedan chairs propelling the unfortunate traveller inside tumbling out and meriting, according to the custom of the time, a sound thrashing.

dsc02671

Tripod to hold prisoner receiving a flogging from Peterhead Prison Museum

The 1880s appears to have been pivotal to changing attitudes towards whipping. At Peterhead’s fine prison museum there is a contraption that was used in the 19th century to flog prisoners with the cat-o-nine-tails. A designated prison warder took on this role until public pressure ended the practice and in Aberdeen the last whipper was engaged in September 1885. The following year magistrates tried to have all whipping or birching carried out in prisons because of the reluctance of the public to take on the role but the prison authorities resisted and the law was changed to allow the police birch youths in police cells or court rooms.

 

In August of 1886 Exeter was the last cathedral in England to take on a dog whipper and so mercifully vanished another ancient occupation used to keep dogs from wandering into open churches and devouring communion wafers, or whatever. It was in the 1880s that the British Navy notorious for its floggings largely gave up the punishment although it wasn’t formally removed from the statute books until 1949. I suppose schools were the last stronghold of the whipper in a physical sense with the term whipping giving way to birching or belting and punishment confined to particular institutions.

43-Scotlands-tawse

The Lochgelly, belt, strap, skud, tawse

In Scottish schools the 2-foot long piece of coiled leather known as the tawse, strap, belt, skud or Lochgelly (the town where they were made) continued whipping by another name and on another part of the body, except perhaps in public schools. The strap was banned in state schools in 1987 while public schools hung onto it, or a cane, for a further ten years. The ban came after years of campaigning against corporal punishment in schools. In 1961 Aberdeen’s redoubtable Trades Council secretary James Milne, in response to a council plan to permit only headmasters administer the strap, said corporal punishment in schools was no business of the Trades Council but that of teachers alone. Headteachers complained they were to be made into public whippers – turned into ogres who would be feared instead of regarded with affection and trust by their pupils. The Trades Council called on the education committee to impose a headmaster only rule as first step towards abolition of the strap in city schools and suggested parents should be forewarned when their child was due to be strapped – a view rejected as daft by at least one headteacher for drawing out the punishment.

For those of us who don’t saddle up to terrorise our native fauna whipping now conjures up its symbolic form – in the Westminster parliament. There MPs are frequently ‘whipped’ to vote along party lines although there is no physical assault involved, as far as I’m aware, more the application of something akin to strong persuasion and even blackmail. The parliamentary whipper-in was initially appointed to make sure enough recalcitrant members of parliament would abandon their appointments with horse racing, women and bottles of claret to ensure sufficient were available to carry on the duties of government. Without the whipper-in it was doubted parliament would meet one day in seven during the earlier 19th century. Whippers-in made it their business to know what was happening in London’s social scene – gatherings and parties; and who was invited where. London clubs around Westminster were often the first port of call when bodies were required to back a vote.

“The whipper had to get to know new members and flatter and cajole them if they were gastronomic he dines him, operatic then attends opera with him, the sport lover, foxhunter, literati, Soyer with the epicure, John and Jesus men of Exeter Hall with the devout member, admirer of women with others, informed on cotton twist with the manufacturer, of guano with top boots and breeches… he lures radicals with a ticket for the Speaker’s dinner, introduces him to Court in a bobwig, sword and ruffles and makes him a member of some safe committee, like that upon petitions – after a session or two he is no longer a flaming radical but a mere whig, a ministerial driveller and a safer voter than even Lord Tom Noddy.”

The parliamentary whipper had learnt the art of subtle people-handling at the smooth and oily school. And for their great service to the state the whipper-in might expect fine reward – a plum job in a position quiet, well paid and respectable or a sturdy pension. 

Whipper-in was first applied in parliament when in May 1769 that giant of 18th century politics Edmund Burke referred to Treasury officials ‘whipping in’ members for the final parliament of the session. The term caught on and was soon abbreviated to whips.

ed ramsden hunt whipper

Captain Edward Ramsden convicted of animal cruelty

The whipper-in title came from fox hunting as I hinted above – but you probably knew that and to Westminster’s shame it still hasn’t loosened its attachment to that particular appalling pursuit. One whipper-in who caught my attention when researching this piece was one Captain Edward Ramsden, master of the South Durham hunt, who in 1935 was found guilty of cruelty to animals after he entered a house in pursuit of a terrified fox that had sought shelter there. The conquering hero emerged dragging the fox by a leash wrapped around its neck and tally-ho’d to the hounds who set upon the distraught animal tearing it to pieces. He was fined £10. Personally I would have had him publicly whipped.