Anne O Nomis research on cat-o'-nine-tails (for Sky History channel)

Anne O Nomis research on cat-o'-nine-tails (for Sky History channel)

With my upcoming appearance on Sky TV's Sex: A Bonkers History, as a historian on the 17th-19th Century female flagellants, I have been busy undertaking research on the implements used by the women in the era, including the cat-o'-nine tails of famed historical Dominatrix "Governess" Theresa Berkley. 

The "Foreword" to Venus School-Mistress by Mary Wilson states that amongst Berkley's instruments - more numerous than those of any Governess, were "a dozen different sizes of cat-o'-nine tails". (page XII)

The name "cat-o'-nine tails" denoted a kind of whip which had nine tails to it. Its history goes back so far, that it is difficult to pin down its precise origins.

In 1695, the term "cat-o'-nine-tails" appears in English language text of Congreve's The Way of the World:

"If you should give such language at sea, you’d have a cat-o’-nine-tails laid cross your shoulders".

So by the end of the 17th Century, the term "cat-o'-nine-tails" was in usage and particularly in the context of punishment-at-sea.


The punishments

W.R "The Punishments" in Wellcome Collection (ref 43287i ) Image of a sailor being whipped with a cat-o'-nine-tails while four sailors are waiting for their turn to whip him. Reference: 


Why was the whip named a cat?

Many sources claim that it was called a "cat" because the whip's cut marks left behind were likened to the painful scratches of cats' claws. And many believed the nine cat's tails was to do with the folklore of cats having nine lives.

Cat's claws

However, it's more likely that the name "cat" came from the use of ropes to make the whips on board ships with ropes and parts of the ship with cat names. For example "cat-harpings" (for bracing the shrouds), and "cat-falls" - which pass over the "cat-head" - the beam projecting out which supports the anchor. (Ref: Brewer, E. Cobham (1898) Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, see: 

Above: The beam projecting out on the upper left of the image of a ship is the cats-head. Ref:

And what did a cat-head of a boat traditionally look like? The end of it was carved traditionally into... a lion or large cat. 

Here's an underwater shipwreck photograph taken of a cathead end carving which has been carved into a lion, from an 18th Century boat.  And below it, two other 18th Century lion-carved endheads of a cathead beam.



Above: 18th Century carved lion head from cathead on a shipwreck Gulf of Finland. Source: Below left: End carving of a cathead in form of a lion, mid-18th Century, from auction in MA, USA. 14" x 13" x 6". Source: Below right: Kohnt Lion plaque - carved end of cathead (1918) from George Glazier auctions

The iconography of a lion on the cat-head - according to the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich - "had obvious traits that made it especially suitable for Royal Navy warships: not only was it a fierce predator, but it was also a national symbol and formed part of the monarch's coat of arms." 

The rope that was used in hoisting an anchor to a cathead was the catfall rope. (Ref: The cat-head was furnished with a single or multiple pulley called "sheaves" at ts outer end, and the inner end was called the cat's tail, and this fitted down on the cat-beam. The process of securing the anchor is called "catting" and fishing it.

And so cat names were everywhere around the cathead and boat's anchor and entwined with the iconography of lions as large cats, carved on the cat-head beam's end. It is unclear if the lions came about from the cathead beam's name, or the cathead was named after the lions.

The number of tails being nine also likely related cable-laid rope technique. Three strands of laid rope formed the hawser-laid rope; and a larger rope formed by counter-twisting three multi-hawser-laid ropes to create cable-laid rope. Thus if a person unweaves a section of cable-laid rope, such as cat-fall rope from a ship to make a whip, they will end up "nicely" with nine "tails"; 3 x 3 = 9.



Above image: Alpheus Hyatt Verrill (1919)  Detail: Construction of cable rope; B is yarn; C is strand; D is rope; E is cable; from: 

English History Author blogspot reports: 

"A four-foot length was split into its three component strands to produce a two-and-a-half foot tail, each strand being separated again into three to produce the requisite nine ‘tails’. These were knotted at the free ends to prevent fraying and the handle part then back-spliced both to provide a good handgrip and stop it unravelling, though in later examples the nine lashes were bound to wooden handles. Once made the cat was stored in a canvas or baize bag ready for use, from whence the title of this post comes." (Jonathan Hopkins, 3 Nov 2012, )

What did the cat-o'-nine-tails used by Theresa Berkley look like?

Well let's start with what they didn't look like. Which is like most of the cat-o'-nine-tails which appear on TV and film - many of which don't seem to have had a historian adequately influencing their construction. They are made more as dramatic props to add scene excitement (rather than necessarily historically accurate).

What I know about the craft of the female flagellant "Governesses" (Dominatrices) is that those accomplished in the art are documented as having had a "a quick and intuitive method of understanding the aberrations of the human mind, and be ready and willing to humour and relieve them". As documented in the Venus School-Mistress, Theresa Berkley studied every "whim, caprice and desire of her customer", and had her equipment to match. (Venus School-Mistress, p. XI)

The customers of Governesses (Dominatrices) were recorded as including generals, admirals, colonels and captains; bishops, judges, barristers, lords, commoners and physicians, as well as many young men educated at institutions where the masters were fond of administering birch discipline. (ibid. p. X)

While birch rod discipline was the most popular implement that the Governesses catered to, the cat-o'-nine tails appears to be the next favoured and mentioned.


Above: Putti whipping from Frontispiece to Index Librorum Prohibitorum (1877) 

It is likely Theresa Berkley, with her dozen cat-o'-nine-tails, sought to accommodate everyone from judges who in their job ruled and handed out punishments, to admirals and those who may have been involved with commanding discipline on ships. To those who may have received punishment at the receiving end of a scourge, whether as a form of institutional discipline, military, admiralty or prison punishment, magistrate-ordered punishment, or that meted out by a parent or disciplinarian who went through the same punishment themselves, and so on. 

And so it is to those sources and surviving implement examples - that we should properly be looking to, to inform what Theresa Berkley may have also herself had as a savvy erotic entrepreneur of the early 19th Century (working around 1820s).

Modern-day Dominatrices have implements authentic to specific fetishes of their clients from their childhoods - crooked school canes used at boarding schools in England, Scottish Lochgelly tawses used in schools, as well as more "fantasy-based" and in some cases "masochistically-intensified" implements.

Turning to historical sources of museums, admiralty and prison collections and so forth, the following are thumbnail images used under Fair Public Usage for historical reference, in which I've cited all the weblinks to make the sources and larger image originals accessible for those interested.

Type 1: Standardised issue cat-o'-nine-tails (solid wooden cylinder-shaped handle)


Anne O Nomis Type 1 Cat-o'-nine-tails

Top left: Cat-o'-nine-tails from Hyde Park Barracks Museum early 19th Century from: Top right: Cat-o'-nine tails from Te Ara New Zealand, with label saying it was authorised for use by Minister of Justice A.L Herdman on 6 October 1913: Bottom left:  Cat-o'-nine tails from Royal Museum Greenwich collection (ID TOA0066). Dated 1866-1878 (dated from The Naval Discipline Act) Wooden and green braize covered handle with red braize zig-zag covering ends, and label with Admiralty foul anchor seal. Bottom right: Hyde Park Barracks Museum Collection (ref #HPB2003/12) 


Type 2: Handmade cat-o'-nine tails made from admiralty drum sticks and wooden spoon handles

Anne O Nomis Type 2 Cat-o'-nine-tails


Top: Cat-o'-nine-tails from Littledean Prison Centre left: Cat-o'-nine-tails (1850-1900) from Admiralty collection of Folkestone Museum (ref #F7450) which was likely cut short its ends in deaccession process Centre right: Cat-o'-nine-tails from Littledean Prison Bottom: Cat-o'nine tails (1700-1850) from Sir Henry Wellcome Collection (ref #A34184), reputedly British Navy, Overall length 1240 mm; handle: 465 mm x 75 mm x 20 mm.


Type 3: Leather split into 9 tails affixed to wooden handle (used predominantly for juveniles and women prisoners)

Anne O Nomis type 3 cat-o'-nine-tail

Type 3 Anne O Nomis cat-o-'-nine-tails

Top Left: Hyde Park Barracks Museum titled as "Whip or cat-o'-nine-tails, leather and wood, 1850s"; from  Top Centre: Hyde Park Barracks Museum (ref #HPB2003/11) from Top Right: Cat-o'nine-tails (1880-1889) used on female convicts. Museums Victoria image ref #259690 Bottom: Hyde Park Barracks Museum (ref #HPB2003/11) from 

Note: There are a number of similar examples which have also come up at auction houses, such as dating from c1840 with a supporting document called "Point Puer juvenile punishment record, 11 August 1838" - see "Corpun" World Corporal Punishment Record:


Type 4: Rope cat-o'-nine tails (which were made both with and without a wooden handle - some with a rope handle)

Type 4 Anne O Nomis cat-o'-nine-tails

Type 4 Anne O Nomis cat-o'nine-tails

Top: Fannie Bay Gaol Cat-o'-nine-tails (c 1900) from Museum and Art Gallery Northern Territory (ref # 2016.014.001). Believed to be used on prisoners of Fannie Bay Gaol from 1882 - 1911. 

Bottom: Undated Cat-o'-nine-tails from a Charles Miller Auction 24th Nov 2020, with a ropework handle and Turkshead knots retaining nine knotted cords; 81 cm. 


Modern replicas made for the shoot

I have had 2 makers - one in UK and one in USA - who have kindly been working away on making recreation cat-o'nine-tails for my Sky TV History of Sex recreation of Theresa Berkley's equipment and as teaching examples. (On my sourcing birch rods, I found someone who was going to assist only to pull out for other reasons - not related to any sex negativity but just other life commitments - and the same occur with a second source, and so for the cats I was pleased to have two makers in case either pulled out or couldn't complete the work for any reason.)

It's always a balance honouring historical styles but also within restraints of available modern-day materials, and limited timeframe for the TV shoot. Both have done an amazing job - taking a slightly different approach each of them to the crafting of these implements. 

Mike in the UK from Ouch! (Twitter @ouch_uk_com) has made me 3 cat-o'-nine-tails, using actual vintage drum sticks, and also specializes in historical paddles and so has made me recreations of battledores from thick sole-leather with inch nails run through to docket (based on historical description in Venus Schoolmistress). Battledores were not only historical racquet game but was also a generic term from French for "to beat", and included laundry bats called battledores, and objects we would today describe as paddles. It is likely these were made from actual leather shoe soles - sourced from shoemakers and repairers in the era.

Cat-o'-nine-tails by Mike of Ouch

Battledores by Mike of Ouch UK

Images above: Modern replica cat-o-nine-tails - two made of vintage drum sticks, and reconstruction of battledores made of thick sole leather - one with inch nails run through to docket. Made by Mike of Ouch! (UK)

Meanwhile over in the USA, Demitrio Monteverde (Twitter @nola2nyc1) in the USA has made me 9 cat-o'-nine-tails and recreating cod line of admiralty cats by pain-stakingly recreating the material qualities using long-forgotten techniques. 

Monteverde cat-o'-nine-tails       
Detail of cat by Monteverde

Images above: Cat-o'-nine-tails by Demitrio Monteverde in USA


Theresa Berkley c1820s equipment & female flagellant salon 

The cat-o'-nine-tails arrived in time for the shoot at the Freud Museum London on 22nd Novmbeer 2022, which I set up as part of the reconstruction of historical Dominatrix Theresa Berkley's equipment. 

Here is a sneak peak at part of the historical Governess Dominatrix salon:

Equipment at the Freud Museum

My reconstructed equipment for salon of Governess female flagellant (Dominatrix) and based on Theresa Berkley's equipment (listed in the Venus School-Mistress "Foreword" by Mary Wilson), laid out in the Freud Museum, London on November 22nd, 2022, for Sky History channel shoot.

I hope this page may serve those seeking to do historical research on the topic, as well as those with a lifestyle interest in historical corporal and judicial punishment. I can recommend also the Corporal Punishment site: for information on historical corporal punishment.

And big thank you to the two makers - Mike from Ouch! (UK) Twitter @ouch_uk_com ; and Demitrio Monteverde (USA) Twitter @nola2nyc1 for their hard work with me through this period on recreation of the historical implements.



Anne O Nomis


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