A History of Corporal Punishment

By Tim Lambert

Early Corporal Punishment

Corporal punishment is derived from a Latin word meaning body. It meant physical punishment and in the past, it was very common. In the past corporal punishment was by no means limited to children. It was used on adults as well.

Whipping has been a common punishment since ancient times. In England from the Middle Ages, whipping was a common punishment for minor crimes. In the 18th century whipping was a common punishment in the British army and navy. However, it was abolished in the army and navy in 1881.

Whipping women was made illegal in 1820. In 1862 the courts were allowed to sentence men to either whipping or birching. Birching was another form of corporal punishment. This punishment meant beating a man across the bare backside with a bundle of birch rods. In the early 20th century whipping was gradually replaced by birching or imprisonment. In Britain, birching or whipping was banned for civilian men in 1948.

But it was still used in prisons. Birching was last used in prison in 1962. Whipping and birching were abolished in British prisons in 1967.

In the USA whipping was last used as a punishment in Delaware in 1952 when a man was sentenced to 20 lashes. Delaware was the last state to abolish whipping as a punishment, in 1972.

Meanwhile for thousands of years until the late 20th century teachers beat children. In The Ancient World, the teachers were strict and often beat the pupils. In the Middle Ages discipline was also severe. Boys were beaten with rods or birch twigs. Punishments in Tudor schools were still harsh. Boys were hit with a bundle of birch rods on their bare backside.

Furthermore in Britain in the 19th century children were hit at work. In the early 19th century in textile mills, children who were lazy were hit with leather straps. Furthermore, lazy children sometimes had their heads ducked in a container of water.

Modern Corporal Punishment

Corporal Punishment in Schools

In Britain in the 19th century hitting boys and girls with a bamboo cane became popular. In the 20th century, the cane was used in both primary and secondary schools.

Meanwhile, the ruler was a punishment commonly used in primary schools in the 20th century. The teacher hit the child on the hand with a wooden ruler. The slipper was often used in secondary schools. The slipper is a euphemism. Normally it was a trainer or a plimsoll. Teachers (usually PE teachers) used a trainer to hit children on the backside.

The tawse was a punishment used in Scottish schools. It was a leather strap with two or three tails. It was used in Scotland to hit a child’s hand. Meanwhile, in the 20th century, the leather strap was also used in some English schools. Children were either hit across the hands or the backside. Teachers in Ireland and Canada also hit children with a leather strap.

The first country to abolish corporal punishment in schools was Poland in 1783. Luxembourg followed in 1845. Other countries abolished it in the 20th century.

Following a revolution in 1917 Russia banned corporal punishment in schools. The Netherlands abolished it in 1920. Italy banned it in 1928. Norway did so in 1936. Sweden ended corporal punishment in all schools in 1958. It was abolished in all schools in Denmark in 1967 and it was banned in Austria in 1975. In Ireland, all corporal punishment in schools was ended in 1982. Spain banned it in 1985.

Britain was behind most of Europe. In Britain, the Plowden Report was published in 1967. (It was named after its chair, Lady Plowden). It recommended the abolition of corporal punishment in primary schools.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the cane was abolished in most primary schools. As society’s attitudes changed the abolition of corporal punishment in secondary schools became inevitable. In Britain, corporal punishment was banned in state-funded secondary schools in 1987.

Corporal punishment was banned in private schools in England in 1999. In Scotland, it was banned in 2000, and in Northern Ireland in 2003.

Meanwhile, in Canada, the first province to ban corporal punishment in schools was British Columbia in 1973. Other provinces followed and finally, the Canadian Supreme Court banned it across the country in 2004.

Corporal punishment was banned in schools in New Zealand in 1990.

In Australia, New South Wales led the way. Corporal punishment was banned in government schools in 1990 and in non-government schools in 1995. All the other states followed except Queensland where it remains legal in non-government schools.

The first state of the USA to ban corporal punishment in schools was New Jersey in 1867. But it was more than a hundred years before any other state did.

In 1972 Massachusetts banned it in public schools. Many states followed but today corporal punishment is still legal in public schools in 19 US states. (It’s legal in private schools in all states except New Jersey and Iowa).

At the present time corporal punishment in schools has been banned completely in 132 countries.

Corporal Punishment by Parents

Throughout history, until recently most parents hit their children. In the 20th century, they sometimes used implements like belts, slippers, hairbrushes, and wooden spoons.

However, in the late 20th century and early 21st century, public opinion turned against corporal punishment and in many countries, it has been banned. The first country to ban parents from hitting children was Sweden in 1979. Finland followed in 1983. So did Norway in 1987 and Austria in 1989. Many other countries followed.

The first English-speaking country to ban corporal punishment by parents was New Zealand in 2007. In 2019 parents in Jersey were banned from hitting children. Scotland banned smacking children in 2020. Corporal punishment became illegal in Wales in 2022. However, it is still legal in England.

A Timeline of Corporal Punishment

1783 Poland is the first country to ban corporal punishment in schools

1820 In Britain whipping is banned for women

1845 Luxembourg bans corporal punishment in schools

1862 In Britain courts can sentence men to either whipping or birching. (A man was hit on his bare backside with a bundle of birch rods).

1867 New Jersey is the first US state to ban corporal punishment in schools 

1881 Flogging is abolished in the British army and navy

1917 Russia bans corporal punishment in schools

1920 The Netherlands bans corporal punishment in schools

1928 Italy bans corporal punishment in schools

1936 Norway bans corporal punishment in schools

1948 In Britain whipping and birching are banned for civilian men (but not for men in prisons). Romania bans corporal punishment in schools.

1952 In the USA whipping is last used as a punishment, in Delaware when a man is sentenced to 20 lashes.

1958 Sweden ends corporal punishment in schools

1962 Birching is last used in a British prison

1967 Denmark ends corporal punishment in schools. In Britain, the Plowden Report recommends the end of corporal punishment in primary schools (but not secondary schools). Whipping and birching are made illegal in British prisons.

1972 Massachusetts bans corporal punishment in public schools. Delaware is the last US state to abolish whipping as a punishment for criminals. In Britain, on 17 May 10,000 schoolchildren go on strike against corporal punishment.

1973 British Columbia is the first Canadian province to ban corporal punishment in schools. The state of Hawaii bans corporal punishment in public schools.

1975 Austria ends corporal punishment in schools. The state of Maine bans corporal punishment in public schools.

1977 The state of Rhode Island bans corporal punishment in public schools. So does the District of Columbia.

1979 Sweden bans all corporal punishment, including by parents

1982 Ireland ends corporal punishment in schools

1983 The state of New Hampshire bans corporal punishment in public schools. Finland bans all corporal punishment, including by parents.

1985 The states of Vermont and New York ban corporal punishment in public schools. Spain bans corporal punishment in schools.

1986 China bans corporal punishment in schools. The state of California bans corporal punishment in public schools.

1987 In Britain corporal punishment is banned in state schools (but not private ones). The Philippines bans corporal punishment in both state and private schools. Norway bans all corporal punishment, including by parents.

1988 The states of Nebraska and Wisconsin ban corporal punishment in public schools

1989 The states of Alaska, Connecticut, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, Oregon, and Virginia ban corporal punishment in public schools. The state of Iowa bans corporal punishment in both public and private schools. Austria bans all corporal punishment, including in the home.

1990 New Zealand bans corporal punishment in schools. Western Australia is the first Australian state to ban corporal punishment in government schools (but it is not banned in non-government schools until 1995). The state of South Dakota bans corporal punishment in public schools.

1991 The state of Montana bans corporal punishment in public schools

1992 The state of Utah bans corporal punishment in public schools

1993 The states of Illinois, Utah, Washington, and Maryland ban corporal punishment in public schools

1994 The state of West Virginia bans corporal punishment in public schools. Cyprus bans all corporal punishment, including in the home.

1997 Denmark bans all corporal punishment including in the home

1998 The United Arab Emirates bans corporal punishment in schools. Latvia and Austria ban all corporal punishment.

1999 In England corporal punishment in private schools becomes illegal. Croatia bans all corporal punishment, including by parents.

2000 In Scotland corporal punishment in private schools becomes illegal. Germany and Bulgaria ban all corporal punishment, including in the home.

2002 Turkmenistan and Israel ban all corporal punishment

2003 The state of Delaware bans corporal punishment in public schools. In Northern Ireland corporal punishment in private schools becomes illegal. Iceland bans all corporal punishment, including by parents.

2004 The Canadian Supreme Court bans corporal punishment in schools. Ukraine and Romania ban all corporal punishment, including in the home.

2005 The state of Pennsylvania bans corporal punishment in public schools. Vietnam bans corporal punishment in schools. Hungary bans all corporal punishment, including in the home.

2006 Greece bans all corporal punishment

2007 New Zealand, The Netherlands, Spain, Portugal, Togo, and Uruguay ban all corporal punishment

2008 Costa Rica, Liechtenstein, and the Republic of Moldova ban all corporal punishment 

2009 The state of Ohio bans corporal punishment in public schools

2010 Kenya, Tunisia, The Republic of Congo, Albania, and Poland ban all corporal punishment.

2011 The state of New Mexico bans corporal punishment in public schools. Pakistan bans corporal punishment in schools. South Sudan bans all corporal punishment.

2013 Honduras and North Macedonia ban all corporal punishment

2014 Brazil, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Argentina, Malta, San Marino, Andorra, and Estonia ban all corporal punishment

2015 Ireland, Peru, and Benin ban all corporal punishment

2016 Greenland, Slovenia, Montenegro, Paraguay, and Mongolia ban all corporal punishment

2017 Lithuania bans all corporal punishment

2018 Nepal bans all corporal punishment

2019 Jersey, South Africa, Georgia, Kosovo, France, and French Guiana ban all corporal punishment

2020 Scotland, Guinea, Seychelles, and Japan ban all corporal punishment 

2021 South Korea, Colombia, and Venezuela ban all corporal punishment

2022 All corporal punishment becomes illegal in Wales

The Case Against spanking – American Psychological Association

A WHO factsheet about corporal punishment and the harm it causes

Endhitting USA

Last Revised 2022