Birching is a corporal punishment with a birch rod, typically applied to the recipient's bare buttocks, although occasionally to the back and/or shoulders.


A birch rod (often shortened to "birch") is a bundle of leafless twigs bound together to form an implement for flagellation.

Contrary to what the name suggests, a birch rod is not a single rod and is not necessarily made from a birch tree, but can also be made from various other strong but flexible trees or shrubs, such as willow. A "hazel rod" is very tough, and therefore particularly painful; a bundle of four or five hazel twigs was used in the 1960s on the Isle of Man, the last place in Europe to use birching as a judicial penalty.

Another parameter for the severity of a birch rod is its size - i.e. its length, weight and number of branches. In some penal institutions, several versions were in use, which were often given names. For example, in Dartmoor Prison the device used to punish male offenders above the age of 16 - weighing some 16 ounces and a full 48 inches long - was known as the "senior birch".

There have been differing opinions as to the utility of soaking the birch in liquid before use, but as it takes in water the weight is certainly increased without compensatory air resistance, so the impact must be greater if the operator can use sufficient force.

In the 1860s, the Royal Navy abandoned the use of the cat o' nine tails on boy seamen. The cat had acquired a nasty reputation because of its frequent use in prisons, and was replaced by the birch, with which the wealthy classes were more familiar, having been chastised with it during their schooling. The judicial system followed the Navy's example and switched to birches also. In an attempt to standardise the Navy's birches the Admiralty had specimens according to all prevailing prescriptions, called "patterned birch" (as well as a "patterned cane"), kept in every major dockyard, for birches had to be procured on land in quantities, suggesting some were worn out on the sore bottoms of miscreant boys.

The term judicial birch refers to the severe type in use for court-ordered birchings, especially the Manx hazel birch. A 1951 memorandum (possibly confirming earlier practice) ordered all UK male prisons to use only birches (and cats-o'-nine-tails) from a national stock at south London's Wandsworth prison, where they were to be 'thoroughly' tested before being supplied in triplicate to a prison whenever required for use as prison discipline. []

By contrast, terms like "Eton birch" are used for a birch made from birch tree twigs.


The recipient, if small enough, can go over the spanker's lap or knee but would often be bent over an object (as in the expression 'over a barrel') to raise the buttocks, and even tied down if likely otherwise to move about too much.

In some prisons a wooden apparatus known as birching donkey or birching pony, referring to the silhouette of an equid, was specially constructed for birchings. As there were no detailed rules, prisons and police stations over the empire devised, adapted and used many different contraptions under various names that juvenile and adult offenders were bent over to have their bare buttocks professionally lashed; some models also allowed a standing or leaning position for other implements.

A simple alternative position known from school discipline is horsing, where the person to be punished is held by the arms over the back of another person (e.g. a classmate), or on the shoulders of two or more colleagues.

A particularly ingenious device was a flogging table with two holes in it through which the offender's arms were inserted but otherwise left free and untied. When the offender's feet were tied into position and a strap fastened immediately above the waist, the offender would be immobilized but, having free (but useless) movement of hands and arms, would thrash about in the upper body in futile attempts at escape. This imparted a particular sense of helplessness to the offender as correction was applied.

If the offender's legs were held apart, the inner thighs would be vulnerable. The back of the scrotum would also be vulnerable if – as in most cases – the offender was male. Careful arrangements were made to avoid this, by keeping the offender's legs close together, when the birch was used in British prisons.


, likewise on the naked posterior), the 'adult' cat to the back or shoulders of adults -- although in the 20th century judges increasingly ordered the birch rather than the cat, even for robbery with violence (the only offence for which adult judicial corporal punishment was ordered in the latter decades of its use in mainland Britain).

Corporal punishment as whipping was especially popular in French Revolution. Fact|date=May 2008 For example one of leaders of revolution Anne Josephe Theroigne de Mericourt went mad, ending her days in an asylum after public birching. On the 31 May 1793 the Jacobin women seized her, stripped her naked, and flogged her on bare bottom in the public garden of the Tuileries. After humiliation shameless and bloodthirsty in delirium she started to live naked - refused to wear any garments, in memory of the outrage she had suffered. [Roudinesco, Elisabeth. (1992) "Madness and Revolution: The Lives and Legends of Theroigne de Mericourt", Verso. ISBN 0-86091-597-2. p.198]

Judicial birching in the 20th century was used much more often as a fairly minor punishment for young boys, typically for petty larceny, than as a serious penalty for adult men. In this juvenile version, the birch was much lighter and smaller, and the birch was administered by the police, usually immediately after the magistrate's court hearing, either in a room in the court building or at the nearest police station.

In the United States, the paddle and whip-type implements including the prison strap have been more prominent.

Today birching is rarely used for judicial punishment, and has also almost completely died out as a punishment for children. In Britain birching as a judicial penalty, in both its juvenile and adult versions, was abolished in 1948, although it was retained until 1962 as a punishment for very violent breaches of prison discipline. The Isle of Man (a small island between Britain and Ireland with its own legal system as a British Crown dependency) caused a good deal of controversy by continuing to birch young offenders until 1976. [] The birch was also used on offending teenage boys until well into the 1960s on the Channel Islands of Guernsey and Jersey. In the Caribbean Commonwealth republic Trinidad and Tobago the 1953 Corporal Punishment Act allows the High Court to order males, in addition to another punishment (often concurrent with a prison term), to undergo corporal punishment in the form of either a 'flogging' with a knotted cat o' nine tails (made of cords, as in the Royal Navy tradition) or a 'whipping' with a 'rod' [i.e. switch] of tamarind, birch or other switches and allows the President to approve other instruments; in 2000, the original minimum age was raised from 16 to 18, the legal threshold of adulthood; corporal punishment in schools was completely banned, but there is reportedly wide support for a controlled reintroduction as recommended in 2004 by a government-initiated study.

Non-punitive uses

*It remains as a sadomasochistic practice, mainly in Northern and Eastern EuropeFact|date=September 2008.
*In Scandinavia, Estonia, Latvia and Russia but mostly in Finland there is also a tradition to strike one's body with soaked birch twigs in the sauna to increase blood circulation, opening the pores and as a form of massage. As these birch rods do not have their leaves removed, and are often softened by keeping them in water prior to use, there is no pain involved.


External links

* [ references on CorPun website (on all corporal punishments) - search also for birch]
* [ illustration of widely different sizes of birch at Eton and Christ's Hospital schools, on the "Corporal Punishment Archive" website]

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • Birching — Birch Birch, v. t. [imp. & p. p. {Birched} (b[ e]rcht); p. pr. & vb. n. {Birching}.] To whip with a birch rod or twig; to flog. [1913 Webster] …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

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  • birching — birch·ing || bɜːʃɪŋ n. whipping, beating bɜːtʃ n. type of tree; bundle of birch twigs used for whipping v. whip with a birch rod …   English contemporary dictionary

  • birching — noun ( s) : a beating with a birch : caning, whipping …   Useful english dictionary

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  • Birch — Birch, v. t. [imp. & p. p. {Birched} (b[ e]rcht); p. pr. & vb. n. {Birching}.] To whip with a birch rod or twig; to flog. [1913 Webster] …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

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