Experts uncover 'barbaric' public punishment used on young children in Paisley

New information uncovered at Paisley Museum <i>(Image: Renfrewshire Council)</i>
New information uncovered at Paisley Museum (Image: Renfrewshire Council)

RESEARCHERS have uncovered new information about a "barbaric" form of punishment for children as young as eight in one of Scotland's cities.

Renfrewshire children in the early 1900s would be tied to a "whip post" outside Johnstone Police Station where they would be flogged with a birch rod as a sentence for minor misdemeanours.

Newspaper reports from the time detail how these floggings would cause wounds so severe that they left permanent scarring on children's bodies that lasted through adulthood.


The story of how children, often from poor backgrounds, endured punishment beatings has been unearthed by researchers working on the £45 million refurbishment of Paisley Museum.

READ MORE: First look inside the £45 million new Paisley Museum

Sarah Cartwright, the project’s Social History Curator, who looked into the practice, said: “It was quite barbaric and it was used mainly as a deterrent.

"There are newspaper accounts which detail how many stripes, as they called it, were meted out.

"People were employed to execute the punishment and some parents were happy that it was the court dishing out the punishment, instead of them keeping their children in check.”

Modern Scotland had a heated public debate on whether to ban parents from smacking their children before becoming the first part of the UK to outlaw physical punishment of under-16s.

That legislative decision, in 2020, changed the convention that parents and carers were allowed to use physical force to discipline their children if it was considered "reasonable chastisement".

It is the sort of protection from state and parental violence that children in Renfrewshire in 1903 could never have imagined.

Ms Cartwright said: “It was barbaric - brutal and violent assault.

"Many of these poor boys really weren't doing anything for any kind of monetary gain, a lot of the time, often they were simply trying to survive.”


Older Scots will still remember the threat of getting ‘the belt’ for misbehaviour at school, and some retired teachers may remember meting it out, the punishment from a leather tawse or wooden ruler pales.

The practice of corporal punishment only ended in Scotland in 1987.

In Renfrewshire, children as young as eight would be tied to the ‘whip post’ for sustained flogging after being convicted on relatively minor misdemeanours.

READ MORE: Ex SNP trans councillor is censured by watchdog 

Juveniles were hit with a birch rod – a flexible wooden stick – which caused significant injuries.

The original whip post, used at Johnstone Police Station and installed in 1903, will be part of a new display which is sure to ignite debate among visitors, as they discuss punishment of children through the ages.


It is thought that a whip post was also used at Paisley Police Station, with the level of punishment in 1903 determined by the courts.

Ms Cartwright said it was mostly poor children who were on the receiving end.

One contemporary story discovered by researchers details a young boy who was whipped at the age of 11 and features in the display.

As a young man, aged 22, he joined the navy and his medical records state he had marks across this buttocks, back and elbow.

She added: "It wasn't, like, really well organised gangs of bank robbers or anything like that.

"It was very much poor boys stealing apples from orchards and selling them for food or stealing small amounts to survive.

“It was truly brutal. It wasn’t just a smack."

The Herald exclusively told in April this year of the scale of the project to refurbish Paisley Museum, a scheme billed as Scotland's biggest cultural heritage project that will create a "radical" world-class space to preserve and celebrate the town's history and international impact.

Last month a report detailed how fees associated with the flagship £45 million regeneration project are growing, with Renfrewshire Council councillors updated on a series of increases to already approved consultancy contracts.

Teams of researchers, such as Ms Cartwright, have worked on more than 100 story displays, featuring 1290 objects to more than double what was on display previously.

With eight new public spaces, the revamped Paisley Museum will be filled with 60 digital displays and be home to a new garden gallery, public courtyard, cafe and picnic areas.

Thomas Coats Observatory, the oldest public observatory in Scotland, will be open for people to learn about its history as both civic timekeeper and 150-year-old weather station.

Contractor Kier Scotland is on site, where the entrance building in red glass will be one of the first design features the public will see.

Paisley Museum is billed as crowning a significant investment by Renfrewshire Council in the town's regeneration through new and refurbished cultural infrastructure.