I grew up in the 1950s, when Britain’s canal network was still a place of work rather than a holiday destination. A canal ran close to the back of my home and I would often play next to ‘the cut’, watching the barges go past with loads of coal, ceramics and steel. To make things more interesting, there were a couple of locks close by, where the water level rose by around 20ft in all.
My parents were very much working class, but still considered themselves above the bargees and their families, who were very much looked down upon in society as the ‘roughest of the rough’. That being the case, I wasn’t really allowed to say hello to them or play with their children, and the bargees themselves generally preferred it that way too, as I guess they were used to the prejudice they might otherwise encounter.
One day, I was walking around the bend towards the bottom of the flight of locks when I came across a large coal barge, moored up on the towpath. The front of the boat was facing towards me, and the well deck on the bow was occupied by a woman and a boy who I judged to be just a little younger than me (I think I’d be around eight at the time).
What caught my attention was that the woman, presumably the boy’s mother, had him across her knee with his trousers and underpants down, and was vigorously smacking his bottom. The boy was crying and kicking as his mum gave it to him hot and strong. As I passed, I couldn’t help looking at this scene – my mum smacked me at home so I was no stranger to this position.
The boy’s small backside was red from the punishment but I also noticed that it was also quite bruised, suggesting that he perhaps sometimes got a smacking much harder than he was getting right now – I imagined his dad might belt him, as I knew some fathers did.
At this moment, the woman looked up from her labours and gazed at me distastefully. “What yer gawping at?” she asked sharply. “Clear off before I gives yer a skelping an’ all!” I felt myself blush and strode off towards the lock and out of her sight – the sound of smacking and the boy’s cries continued in my ears as I fled.
The locks were a constant fascination to me. You needed a key to operate them properly but that didn’t stop a small boy from mucking around with the machinery, and I loved to push the gates open and closed if the water was equalised either side.
I was doing just that when I heard a loud ‘oi!’ – and saw to my dismay that I had been joined at the lock by the same woman who’d told me to clear off a few minutes ago. I was very surprised to see her. Because of the way the boat had been pointing, I had assumed they had already passed through the lock.
“Your ma don’t take down your pants often enough, I can see that,” she said. And without further ado, she grabbed me by the ear and marched me over to the top lock gate. She sat down on it and to my amazement and embarrassment, she expertly took down my trousers and underpants. The woman was immensely strong (certainly enough to easily handle an eight-year-old boy!) and before I knew it, I was over her knee and felt the rough fabric of her skirt against my bare groin.
She began to smack me systematically and thoroughly. I howled as I had never done before – the smacking was much more severe than anything my own mother had ever given me at my naughtiest. My spanker didn’t say much as she administered the punishment, apart from the odd ‘bad boy’ or ‘naughty boy’ to drive her point home.
Finally, I was let up and for a moment I just stood before her, crying and holding my bare, newly-smacked bottom. Eventually the woman said: “Pull your pants up and scarper before I goes and gets the belt from the boat.” That explained the bruises on her son’s bottom and I felt sure now it was his mum, not his dad, who dished it out. I did as I was told and fled.
Just before bedtime, I went to the toilet and took the opportunity to examine my buttocks – they were still really quite dark pink, with a couple of very visible handprints. Although I was quite a big boy, my mum still bathed me every night and I was desperate to avoid her finding out what had happened earlier on.
With that in mind, at bath time I kept my underpants on until the last possible moment and tried to scuttle around sideways to get in the tub, hoping to hide my bum from the maternal gaze. But my mother had sharp eyes and I had barely plopped my bottom down into the foaming water when she lifted me up again and whisked me around.
“Has somebody smacked your bottom?” I tried silence, but it only resulted in a fresh smack to those still-tender – and now wet – buttocks. “Tell me what happened,” she commanded. Bit by excruciating bit, she got the story out of me.
Mum was really angry. “I’ve told you not to muck around by the canal, or get involved with those bargees.” The latter charge seemed rather unfair to me, as my only ‘involvement’ had been as the recipient of a well-smacked bottom. “Wait there!” Mum commanded.
I heard her moving around in my parents’ bedroom on the other end of the landing, and she eventually came back with one of my father’s slippers. “Let’s see if we can smack you into obedience, between us,” she said. She sat down on the high stool which lived in the bathroom and I was quickly placed back in the punishment position, over her knee, with a towel placed on her lap for protection.
It was my first time with a slipper and it hurt terribly, even more than the woman’s spanking earlier. The fact that I had a wet bottom probably made it even more painful. After a very thorough thrashing, I was stood up and left to have a cry while mum put the slipper back. Then she came back in, put me back in the water and gave me a very rough and ready bath. After she had dried me, I was ordered to clean my teeth and was then put down to sleep without my usual bedtime story.
I’d like to say the two punishments taught me never to play by the canal again but I’m afraid they didn’t. I continued to hang around that fascinating place – but I was a lot more careful in future!