In the summer of 1978, at the age of 11, I spent what should have been my school holiday at a ‘boot camp’ for wayward girls. I’d been spanked before, of course – what child in 1970s Merseyside wasn’t? – but generally it was a few smacks on the seat of my knickers that left a little ‘tingle and burn’ for a few minutes.
I didn’t know what I was about to experience – my mam told me that I was going on holiday with the Girl Guides. I was in a foul mood about even this prospect, as I hadn’t been actively attending Guides since shortly after my 10th birthday. But even after I kicked up a fuss about the plans, my mother didn’t change her mind.
We drove down to Gosport, a town on the south coast, which took hours and hours. We drove up to a squat house near the harbour, and Mam banged on the door. A tall skinny woman opened it and let us in.
It was then I was told properly about the programme. It had actually been recommended by my primary school, to ‘whip me into shape’ before secondary school. I had some behavioural issues and it was felt that should they continue, I would go down a path with no redemption.
The programme lasted the entire school holiday, and my parents paid several hundred pounds for the pleasure, though I believe the council subsidised the cost somewhat.
It involved alternating weeks of ’heart work’ (written work, speeches, silence, worksheets) and ’body work’ (hiking in and around the local area, sleeping in tents, eating only raw food).
Then the skinny woman, who I learned was called Maggie, told me about punishments. “For low level infractions, you earn lines, essays and loss of free time. For higher level infractions, we use the cane and a cricket bat.”
I was horrified by the whole thing, and told Mam I’d run away as soon as I had the chance. Maggie laughed and replied: “You won’t get very far, sunshine – and you’ll get six of my cane for your trouble!”
The other girls on then programme were all older than me, between 13 and 15. These were truly tough girls – girls who smoked cigarettes, who stole from shops, who had ‘hand poke’ tattoos. I felt very out of place, even in my pre-teen rebellion. There were eight of us, and we were sleeping in four sets of bunk beds in a small bedroom.
The first corporal punishment I heard of was later that very day. One girl, Miriam, climbed out of the window and tried to escape over the back fence. Before she’d even got out of the garden she was caught and dragged back in.
We heard talking and Miriam shouting, and then six sharp strokes. When she reappeared a few minutes later, she was in floods of tears and lay face-down on her bunk. I was fascinated. My primary school used the slipper, but very rarely and only for boys. The sounds of the cane (and later, as we changed into our pyjamas, the sight of the puffy reddish-brown stripes on Miriam’s bottom) captivated me.
In reality, the boot camp was very firm and at times aggressive, but it was fair. Punishment didn’t come out of nowhere and the staff didn’t try to trick us into trouble. It was just that the rules were very comprehensive, and so opportunities for punishment arose frequently.
My first beating came the next day. We were sat in the ‘classroom’ (the dining room, which had a large blackboard on one wall) and the man leading the class was talking about how we were wicked and broken. We weren’t all transformed into good girls overnight, and protested heartily, and were immediately assigned a punishment essay to be done during the afternoon free time. I protested further, and the man called Maggie in and said: “Toobah.”
I was very confused. Toobah? Maggie led me out of the room to the ‘office’ (a large walk-in cupboard containing a small table, two chairs, and a small chest of drawers).
“Bend over the table, hips aligned with it.”
“Bianca, you can either bend over by choice or you will be restrained. In future, I won’t warn you again.”
Reluctantly, I bent over the table as ordered. I heard some rustling and clanking behind me and then felt something hard tap my bottom (over my trousers and knickers). Then a tremendous whack, followed quickly by another.
“Up you get!”
It hurt a lot. My whole bottom was burning, with two lines stinging more deeply where the edge of whatever had hit me had dug in. I turned around and saw Maggie tucking a cricket bat into the chest of drawers. Ah – Toobah was ‘two bat’. Two strokes of the bat.
By the end of the first week, we had all been beaten. I received three with the bat later that first full day, two of the bat twice on the next day, and then four with the bat on the fifth day. I also received seemingly endless punishment essays and lines.
Miriam, the escapee from the first day, proved the hardiest and most rebellious of us all. She got the cane every day up until the fifth day, when she finally broke down and began to obey somewhat. My own bottom wasn’t bruised at all – just very sore and rough for about 24 hours after each beating.
The ‘body work’ week was worse. We were given huge knapsacks filled with all sorts of camping gear. I was so small and slight that I couldn’t pull mine on by myself, and other girls had to help me. I hated hiking up and down the same hills day after day, in complete silence, being shouted at for the slightest infraction. I protested on the second evening of body work, and the staff member wrote something in a small Woolworth’s notebook from his own knapsack. I asked what that meant, and he wrote something else.
We found out what this all meant once we got back to the house for the second week of ’heart work’. A woman named Nora – a short, plump woman who cooked most of our meals and oversaw punishment essay writing – read from the book. Everything we’d done wrong during ‘body work’ week was to be punished during ‘heart work’ week, when we were inside and could be given privacy.
We were each assigned a punishment based on our performance during the previous week. I was given several hundred lines, a punishment essay, and eight strokes of the cane – to be administered in two sets of four on two separate days. I was both horrified and fascinated.
The first caning came later that day, after we had each had a bath and washed away the dirt from a week of hard exercise and outdoor activities. I was in my nightie, packed by my Mam in tissue paper to stop it from creasing, and an ordinary pair of knickers.
Nora and Maggie took me to the cupboard and told me to bend over the table as before. I obeyed immediately this time, scared of being restrained and also curious as to what the cane would feel like. When I felt my nightie be pulled up, I jumped up in protest but I pushed myself back down quickly.
Four strokes, across my knickers. It stung terribly, burning deeply and sharply, and I immediately knew that my fascination with the cane was misplaced! I could cope with the bat, but the cane was another thing entirely.
The second caning was administered three nights later, when my previous stripes had mostly gone. It was less all-consuming, but still deeply painful. I remember that this was the moment when I felt broken – that I was ready to go home, obey, do my work and listen to my Mam. I still had four weeks left!
The rest of the program went relatively smoothly. The other girls all came to the same point of obedience in time, through a mixture of punishment and intense emotional work. I got the bat several more times, and the cane once more, and found them both very motivating to be good!
Once I was finally back home, and starting secondary school, my behaviour was much improved. Mum was thrilled, and I did an interview for a childcare special supplement in the Liverpool Echo about how much boot camp had changed me and how beneficial it had been for me.
The camp had issued my Mam with a guide for ‘handling’ me when I returned home – including a 50% discount voucher should I need to return next year, which I didn’t. Part of these recommendations was more severe punishment at home. Mam got herself a strap, heavens knows where from, and began applying it to the back of my thighs whenever I got into trouble, though that was far less common than it had been before!
Years and years later, my children found a packet of photographs taken of me during the boot camp. They asked what was happening in them, and I found myself telling my story. They were in disbelief that such a place could even exist, and it was only because their granny was telling them about it that they believed.
This conversation then inspired me to track down the girls with whom I spent those intense weeks. Three were already dead, one is a local councillor, and Miriam and another girl are both completely normal, typical women. We all credit the boot camp with saving us from a bad track.