Tuesday, December 13, 2016

From the Top Shelf - Teenage Shoplifters

I love reading the old letters published in Janus magazine, ostensibly written by mature women looking back on their punishments at school. Some of the letters are obviously fictional but there are others which, given the time the events occurred, have a ring of truth about them. This is such a letter and it takes place just after the last war when there was still a belief that naughty girls and boys could be punished by any adult who felt wronged by their behaviour.

I attended a girls boarding school, not too far from Oxford, from about 1951 to 1955. We were allowed into town each day dressed in our uniform of grey gym tunic with powder blue blouses and, in summer, straw hats. We used to roam the shops and I am ashamed to say that minor shoplifting was rife, particularly of sweets which had just come off the ration. One shop in particular was very easy to steal from and we always took handfuls of sweets when we we walked out of the shop.

One Friday at about 4pm, my best friend Jean and I did just this, the shop door closed and we were safe and free - until a firm, heavy hand landed on my shoulder, gripping the tunic shoulder strap. We both swung round thinking it was one of our chums, but we were wrong. We saw the shop owner in her white coat and knew the game was up.

A well spoken middle aged lady turned us both round and marched us back to the shop and up a side alley into a rear entrance to the stock room. The door was shut and locked, our two tunic pockets were turned inside out, revealing two large piles of boiled sweets and no money to pay for them. Jean and I both started to cry, never having been caught before. We both owned up, and asked her to forgive us. We begged her not to tell the school or our parents, and under her questioning we both admitted having stolen from her before, dozens of times, but of course she well knew this.

The lady had no intention of telling the police. She said she had been waiting for us to appear that day; waiting and watching carefully what we got up to. She suggested that if we wanted to avoid the shame of exposure to the police, the school and our parents that we accepted appropriate punishment from her. The alternative was awful so what could we do?

Jean was taken to the next room, a stockroom with bars at the window, and the door was locked. I was told to remove my tunic, and while I did so, the lady produced a long thin yellow cane. I felt sick and giddy. Only once before had I had the cane, as a nine year old at school in Egypt - three strokes across my bottom in front of the class for cheating in a test.

The lady looked long and hard at me. She asked me about my parents and what would they think of their daughter, and I was close to tears. "You bloody little fool," she said, "the trouble you will cause those who love you if you go on in this way." Then she ordered me to bend right across the table and hold onto the edges. Next I felt her grip my cotton school-regulation knickers and peel them down, inside out. I was completely bare-bottomed, my blouse right up around my neck, and I felt so ashamed I started crying again.

What followed next was the most awful experience of my life. Twelve cane strokes landed on my bare bottom, each one harder than the one before. If I leapt up then I was forced back down. She lifted the cane shoulder high. It cut like a knife and stung like a thousand hornets as the stripes criss-crossed my chubby teenage cheeks, and I shouted and screamed as she lambasted me. Eventually it stopped. I stood up, weeping and clutching my bottom, then she grabbed me by the hair, marched me to the door with my knickers still down around my ankles and threw me out, followed by my tunic, shouting "Don't you EVER enter this shop again!" and slammed the door. The cold air met my bottom and I saw people walking past the end of the narrow alley, looking up and giggling at me as they passed. I pulled up my knickers, and put on my tunic as quickly as possible. I was surrounded by boxes and piles of rubbish.

What should I do about Jean? Then I heard her cry out.

I heard all her strokes. I heard her shouting, begging for forgiveness at the top of her voice, sobbing and squealing with pain. I heard the cane land again and again. Suddenly the door flew open and Jean was pushed out, falling over, face down, with her knickers in a tangle around her ankles into the pile of cardboard boxes, the woman following her out and applying one final stroke across her scarlet bottom as she lay upended in the rubbish. Then the lady went back in and slammed the door.

Jean was almost hysterical and incapable of doing anything. She lay there looking indecent and I dressed her as best I could, and we both hobbled slowly across the road to a park where we hid behind a park-keeper's hut, both sobbing our hearts out, two very different girls to the two cocky shoplifters twenty minutes earlier.

We inspected our marks. We made ourselves presentable and regained some self-composure, then returned to school. No tea for us that night, we were too late. In prep after tea, we had to sit at our desks for two hours and it was sheer hell! Next day we were too stiff and sore to move, but we dared not tell anyone. We did gym and games, being unusually shy in the changing rooms, but thank God it was not swimming or the tell-tale marks would have shown. The marks lasted for almost two weeks.

We never told a soul, but the next term we both heard odd whispers of other girls being caught and punished when caught stealing, in that and other shops in the town.

I realised later that this was the shop-keeper's preferred way of punishing children caught stealing; far better than reporting us to the school where we would probably have been caned anyway as well as incurring a mark on our academic records, or to the police. But she was silly to lay the cane on so hard, she might well have damaged a younger child. I never stole anything again in my life so the treatment was effective. If ever I get married and have children then I would certainly cane them if I ever caught them stealing

Miss E.C.

Truth of fiction?
From Hermione's Heart


Hands63 said...

Truth, A female friend of mine from London told me a similar story of how she was disciplined by a merchant for shoplifting. Took place in the mid 60's. However in her case she was disciplined again when she arrived home and her mother discovered the stripes on her bottom and confessed what had happened. She wasn't able to sit comfortably for over a week

Roz said...

Thank you for another wonderful story Hermione, enjoyed this. My parents used to tell us how in their day any adult who caught children up to mischief would deal with the situation.


ronnie said...

I think there is some truth to the story. I do think the shopkeeper was quite harsh with her cane

Thanks Hermione.


Anonymous said...

When I was a boy of nine I wanted this kit to make an airplane. I asked my folks for it but Dad said it was
too expensive. A few weeks later i went to the hobby in shop in our neighborhood and slipped it under my
jacket. Mr G. the owner caught me. It was a neighborhood shop so he knew me at once and called my Dad
at his work. My Dad told him to hold me there he would be by shortly.
Mr G made me sit in the corner of the shop and as I waited I knew i was in for it. Dad arrived within the hour
and took me at once into the store room where without asking any questions took my over his knee and
took his belt to my bare bottom. He told me then to stand in the corner, while he spoke to MR G. I was humiliated
standing there jeans and underwear around my ankles as Mr G told Dan no harm was done. Dad thanked
him and then suggested that MR G apply a reminder to my all ready bruised bottom. I was shocked when Dad
handed him his own thick belt and I got the same treatment from Mr G. I NEVER STOLE AGAIN!


Hermione said...

Hands63 - Welcome! So this letter really could be true.

Roz - I've heard that too.

Ronnie - I agree, she was too harsh. There were parts I didn't approve of.

Thomas - Welcome! What a lesson you learned!


Anonymous said...

Fiction. Bare bottom thing sort of gives it away, but other than that, the girls went along with it too easily, the women would have been prosecuted if the police had found out, she knew nothing about the parents or how they felt and would have reacted to the beating, use of a cane. Nothing about it rings true, it all sounds like somebody's neat and tidy fantasy.

The shop keeper would have been much better off if she had gone to the parents and asked for the money owed, as it is she got nothing. If she had done that others would have found out and perhaps been discouraged from stealing, as it is she just stopped these two.