Boys confined to an institution will do the strangest things to or with each other. Sometimes, it is just a tradition passed on from one year to the next, such as playing pranks on newcomers. Sometimes it is horseplay which usually ends up in everyone getting detention, but wasn’t it worth it? Occasionally, bullying would raise its nasty little head with a focus on the younger boys or the dormitory scapegoat. Fortunately, there was not a great deal of bullying within the house system, and bullies always discovered that, within a year or so, the younger boys they tormented had matured physically and were eager to return the beatings they had once received.
Newchies or newcomers. Each house had a boot room, which was a square brick building in the backyard and housed some work benches and toilets. There were several rows of coat hooks along one of the walls. A newchie entering the boot room alone could be in for a nasty shock. As he placed his boots and cleaning brushes on the bench, he might find himself lifted skywards and suspended from a pair of coat hooks by the shoulder straps of his khaki uniform. It was a position from which escape was virtually impossible and the luckless fellow might hang there for some time until other boys came to his rescue. I remember one poor lad who hung suspended from the upper row of coat pegs throughout supper. Mind you, for the swill that was sometimes dished up, he wouldn’t have missed much.
New boys were soon introduced to the legend of the headless drummer. This was the ghost of a drummer boy who haunted various school buildings, notably the clock tower. It was a gospel fact that several boys had collapsed and died at the sight of his headless corpse! Honestly! Among the many tales and rumours surrounding the headless drummer, was his silent march to a muffled drum beat through certain houses or dormitories at dead of night. An inquisitive newchie would discover that the drummer’s favourite dormitory was the very one in which he now slept. That night, hearing the sound of a drumbeat, the boy would hide in terror under the sheets, forgo the call of nature and probably wet the bed.
Horseplay: During wet or cold weather, we would wear heavy army coats or greatcoats as they were known. We marched to the dining hall and hung our coats in a long narrow room to the side of the hall. After the meal, there should have been an orderly evacuation of the dining hall to collect our coats. More often than not, however, this would turn into a scrummage and we would fight our way to the entrance grabbing any coat we could find. It was sheer mayhem. Indeed, on one occasion, I carried a small bottle of joke scent called Wallflower and shook it over the assembled throng. It was far more powerful than a stink bomb and the ensuing stampede would have graced any African game reserve.
Other kinds of horseplay included wrestling in the mud on the sports field, wet towel flicking sessions in the bathroom ( not to be recommended) and maring up (aka tossing out). To mare up successfully, one person had to stay awake until the school clock sounded midnight. He then woke up the rest of the dormitory and we would tiptoe silently through the darkened house to a junior dormitory. Each member of the invading force would take the side of a bed and, at a signal from the leader, twenty unfortunate occupants would be tipped out onto the wooden floor. As we became more adventurous, we ventured beyond the house and attacked the dormitories of other houses. I loved maring up and always volunteered to be the dormitory alarm clock. I had no difficulty staying awake, it was a skill I had honed while rousing slashers (persistent bed wetters) from their slumbers and escorting them to the loo
For some reason, boys love to slide. When the ice lay thick on the paths and parade ground, we would form an orderly queue and take turns at running and sliding along the ice in our heavy army boots. The creation of slides was strictly forbidden as they were a danger to members of staff, and we couldn’t think of a better reason for making them. Back in the dormitory, smaller boys discovered a rather more comfortable form of sliding. With their highly polished floors, the dormitories were usually out of bounds during the day, but we would hide under the beds until the coast was clear. Then, by pushing off from the end wall, we would try to see how many beds we could slide under. One lad was very good at it and, on one occasion, slid the whole length of the dormitory’s wooden floor. It was a record and was probably never beaten. I can still hear his head cracking against the far wall. Sometimes, the house matron would discover us and shout ‘Numbers 2, 6 and 54. Get out of the dormitory immediately!’ In five years, I never heard her use our names; she knew us only by our laundry numbers. In fact, several years after leaving school, I went to see her and she greeted me warmly: ‘Hello No 2. Are you still at sea?’
Bullying: The laundry numbers mentioned above were used for other identification purposes and for one rather unpleasant tradition called ‘beats’. If you were number 54, then on the 54th day before the end of term, you were entitled to receive 54 beats or punches on the arm. This was hard on boys higher up the numerical order. The exception to this procedure was that the boy whose number was 2 would receive a ‘dorm bashing’ which meant that he could be punched an unlimited number of times by boys in his dormitory. But pity boy number 1, because he was entitled to a house bashing. In reality, within a day or two of the end of term, the boys were so excited at going on leave that they usually forgot. I was number 2 in my house but do not recall being on the end of a dorm bashing. Perhaps I was beaten unconscious?
The dining hall was often the venue for some strange bullying tactics. For example, a particularly unpleasant prefect would make us sit with our arms folded behind our backs when we had finished eating. Clearly, this worthless turd did not see the meal as a social occasion and we were glad to hear grace called and then escape. The calling of grace, however, could be the signal for a rather nasty and painful prank. We sat on heavy benches, five to a bench. and if one of the boys had offended the others in some way, they would secretly agree to knock the bench over as they stepped back over it to stand up for grace. The unsuspecting victim would then get the full force of the heavy oak bench as it toppled on his foot. It happened to me by accident one day and I can assure you that it was very painful and left me hobbling for a couple of days. After that, I always checked the fall of the bench with one of my knees, regardless of whom the intended victim was.
Suspect activities: Running a historical military institution with a strong moral and religious ethos, the school administrators were very concerned that the boys would not engage in any form of homosexual activity. In fact, they were obsessed by it and, under the pretence of a sociological survey, requested that we kept a ‘friendship’ diary. In these we recorded who our friends were and the kinds of thing we did to amuse ourselves. Most of us wrote things like playing chess and making model aeroplanes from kits; we knew what they would like to see. We would also reassure each other that we featured prominently in each other’s diaries. Having a friend in the same year group was perfectly alright. Having a friend in a group a year older or younger was reasonably acceptable, but having friends two years younger or older was definitely discouraged. A much younger boy once asked me to show him how to handsprings; the one gymnastic activity in which I excelled. We went to a quiet corner of the playing fields and I demonstrated the basics of handspringing until he could accomplish them like a circus performer. While we were cavorting backwards and forwards, we noticed a master hiding in a nearby copse and watching us very carefully. We stared at him with interest and, in a clumsy attempt to depart the scene, he became entangled in some brambles and stung himself.
I suppose we were quite a homophobic lot and made life quite difficult for boys who were chosen for female parts in the school plays. One of the master’s wives had been an actress and knew quite a lot about stage makeup, and when she had finished it was difficult to tell the reluctant actors from girls. They were subject to insults, name calling, gestures and taunts, but took it remarkably well. Mind you, there were one or two who enjoyed being ‘tarted up’ and flaunted their new found beauty; perhaps they are still cross-dressing. In the early years, the only parts I was offered were that of an orphan in Dotheboys Hall and a pirate called Snooks in Captain Cutlass or something. So not much chance of exploring any feminine side there.
Every so often, we would have an individual interview to review our diaries and, sometimes, the teacher interviewing us would ask rather awkwardly if we had seen any strange things going on between boys. As a newcomer, I had occasionally been made to run the gauntlet. This meant dashing up and down the dormitory in the altogether while being slippered across the backside by older boys. I believe that it has its origins in the French Army as a punishment for thieves. At school, however, it was an indoor sport organised by one of the prefects and he took great pleasure in picking on the boys who had lived abroad, for our white bottoms stood out against our tans and made an excellent target. Consequently, I remember volunteering the information that certain boys took an unnatural interest in our buttocks and the master stared at me with incredulity. I feigned embarrassment so he did not press me for further details.
My response, however, was not as artful as one of my friends. He was a smoker but could never afford them and, tired of being taunted by his nicotine stained and wealthier pals, decided to get his revenge. When asked the question about strange goings on between boys, he lowered his voice and confessed to the master that he believed that such activities did indeed take place. The master pressed him gently for more information. My friend explained that certain rather questionable activities took place on Tuesday evenings behind the rifle range. What took place behind the rifle range was nothing more than a smokers club and it wasn’t long before its members were disturbed by a posse of masters and the chaplain expecting to break up a rather different kind of activity.
I have often heard it said that young people should be encouraged to stay on at school in order to mature before venturing out into the great world. I appreciate that they may acquire more qualifications and will certainly be more physically mature and older by the time they leave, but have doubts regarding their emotional maturity.
To some extent, this is the theme of the following tale which concerns a school mutiny and the expulsion of the head boy. Several of my friends and I had left the school two years before the incident occurred. It involved boys we knew and had grown up with; members of an able year group that had made waves from the time they had entered as newcomers. A year group that, having risen to seniority, would be quite capable of running the school effectively or causing utter mayhem. When we heard the story, it amused us, but we had moved on to seek our fortunes, and the boys we left behind were still boys. Or perhaps we’d become old before our time?
Early one morning in March 1959, boys marching to the dining hall for breakfast were met with a strange sight. Laid out across the small parade ground by the dining hall was a complete classroom with desks and chairs, a master’s desk, a blackboard and easel, and several cupboards. Someone had removed them from the main teaching block during the dead of night and carefully created a classroom in the open air. On a small neatly kept lawn, not far from where the phantom classroom now stood, there was an even stranger sight. Balanced atop four dustbins was a Morris Minor car belonging to Major Double-Barrel Surname, RAEC, a housemaster.
Today, the small parade ground is a car park overlooked by a webcam and students (boys and girls) often line up to wave and reassure their parents that they are still alive. Traditionally, however, the regimental square represented a sacred area, a place of remembrance for the dead in battle, and just walking across it in a slovenly manner would arouse the wrath of a passing Regimental Sergeant Major. ‘Get off my square, you ‘orrible little man!’ That a whole pile of classroom furniture had been dumped there was almost a sacrilege, but no one would admit to the foul deed. It didn’t take the boys long to work out that this was a practical joke played on the school by the ‘Straw Boaters’ from Dover College, the local public school. It was a well executed piece of tomfoolery which deserved a response, and one was not long in coming.
Some days later, a group of third year boys decided to go for a midnight swim. They made their way furtively along the back road in the darkness until they reached the swimming pool (the building with a red door on the left of the photograph). A small circular window in the building was soon prised open. For the next hour or so, they swam, splashed and generally fooled about in the water, blissfully unaware of what was taking place elsewhere. Upon their return to the dormitory, they made a startling and puzzling discovery. The two prefects, whose beds lay at the entrance to the dormitory, appeared to be totally lifeless. When the boys checked more closely, the mound in each bed turned out to be a dummy made of a coat and bunched blankets. The beds were cold; no one had slept there for at least an hour. Where had they disappeared? Friends in one of the other dormitories reported the same mystery. Baffled, they climbed into their beds and fell asleep, but didn’t stay asleep for long.
At around 4 am, the house fire alarm sounded and sixty boys jumped out of bed and paraded for the obligatory roll call taken by the housemaster. It seemed a fairly straightforward fire practice. They were well used to these drills, both by day and night, but several of the swimmers were rather relieved that it hadn’t occurred a couple of hours earlier. There was, of course, an ulterior motive for the fire alarm on this particular night, though its purpose was not immediately apparent. Anyway, with everyone, including the missing prefects, accounted for, the parade was dismissed and the boys sloped off back to bed. Breakfast brought a flurry of rumours around the dining hall. An overnight practice fire drill had occurred in each of the eight houses. Prefects had been missing from their beds but miraculously appeared in time for the drill. Two of the prefects, however, were still missing. The rumours continued right up to lunchtime when the real story broke and spread like wildfire, especially when the police turned up with the two missing prefects who had spent the night locked in the cells.
In the early hours of that morning, small raiding parties of school prefects had ‘blacked up’ using burnt cork for camouflage, and secretly invaded the campus of Dover College. They took different routes through the outskirts of Dover, and converged on the grounds of the College from different directions. Oddly enough, the local constabulary had been warned that a retaliatory raid on the college was likely to be mounted by Dover’s ‘boy soldiers’, but the prefects knew nothing about this.
Unlike the raid by the college students, the mischief caused by the boy soldiers lacked a certain amount of style, and betrayed their humble origins. Toilet rolls were strewn all over lawns and vulgar slogans were painted on prominent walls. Some of the paint was splashed over a master’s car. All this was done in silence so the college students knew nothing about it. At the end of the escapade, everyone returned safely to base, apart from two caught by the law and they utterly refused to give the game away. It’s that character building thing, you understand; stiff upper lip and all that.
After school assembly, Jack Hobbs, the head boy, went alone to the Commandant and told him what had happened the night before. He apologised for the raid but felt that, following the visit by the ‘toffs’ from the college, it was his duty as head boy to have done something. Incidentally, the Commandant at the time was the son of Sir Lancelot Kiggell who had been one of top brass in WW1. Such leaders usually led their soldiers from the safety of a mansion many miles to the rear of the front line. So when inspecting the site of the battle of Passchendaele, he reportedly broke down and wept,’Good God, did we really send men to fight in that mud?’ Lancelot Junior, however, must have been made of sterner stuff for he expelled Jack on the spot.
On being informed of the expulsion, the prefects were furious and advised the Commandant that he could run the School himself and, to emphasise the point, they removed their badges of rank You reap what you sew and the administration was about to experience the consequences of allowing a school to be run by boys rather than masters. Indeed, with internal discipline left up to the prefects, the boys were usually rather wary of them, but with instant and heavy-handed retribution temporarily suspended, a certain amount of chaos reigned. Seeing the Union Jack on the clock tower lowered to half mast, several senior officers entered the Dining Hall in a rage. The tower was a government building and flying the flag at half mast just wasn’t on. The tower could be seen for miles and people might assume that our dear monarch had died. Inside the hall, they demanded silence and tried to speak but were drowned out by chants of ‘Bring back Jack!’. One of them stood at the end of a junior table and stared pointedly at the small boys sitting there. Brazenly, they stared back at him and then began to bang their empty tin mugs upon the table tops. This revolt was gradually taken up by the whole school, even the large metal teapots were banged on the tables in deafening unison! Eventually, the officers, furious and red faced, stormed out of the Hall to the resounding cheers of the mob. It was the first mutiny of boy soldiers in the care of the British Army since 1862.
The next morning, some of the national daily newspapers covered the story, and the Times even placed it on page 4. In those days, newspapers were regularly censored before being placed in dayrooms or the school library. Indeed, when the Soldier magazine featured an article about Sir Lancelot Kiggell and his distress upon seeing the battlefield mud, the item was soon snipped out. Naturally, the staff confiscated any newspapers which covered the mutiny and sent any reporters away with a flea in their ear, but cleaners and caretakers smuggled copies in for the boys to read. Sometimes, you just have to laugh at the crass stupidity of the military mind.
But the mutiny was short-lived. It occurred in the last week of term with the boys eagerly awaiting the holidays. An ultimatum was issued: No rail warrants would be issued unless this foolish behaviour ceased forthwith. Things quietened down, the boys got their rail warrants and the school was left in peace for Easter. And what of Jack Hobbs? Originally accepted for officer training at Sandhurst, he was rejected and had to enter the army through a different route. Interestingly, he eventually became manager of the London Dungeon, but wasn’t allowed to join the Old Boys Association for many years, neither was he permitted to enter the school grounds. In fact, it was not until the death of the long retired Commandant, 46 years later, that the establishment finally forgave him.
A Darker Side
One of the less obvious advantages of attending a school governed by a military code of behaviour was that you were, to some extent, shielded from certain excesses of corporal punishment. In theory, the Commandant was the only person entitled to award strokes of the cane and these would be administered by the Regimental Sergeant Major. Retired company sergeant majors supervised us during out of school hours and it was inconceivable that they would beat or abuse us in any way. A cuff around the back of the head was to be expected now and then, but their bark was always worse than their bite. They were generally kind, caring and considerate and we were their lads.
Throughout the 1950’s, with less need to cater for boys orphaned by the war, the school gradually altered from a mixed ability setting to one with grammar school ethos. The change to a military public school brought some rather unpleasant public school baggage with it. Initially, there were minor irritations as when football was abandoned in favour of rugby. The reason given was that none of the local public schools played soccer which was considered a game for ruffians. The fact that most boys came from cities and working class backgrounds, where football was hugely popular, was ignored. On a more serious note, however, was the introduction of career officers from the RAEC on short term contracts. Unlike the sergeants and instructors they replaced, these officers were not qualified teachers but obtained their commissions by virtue of a university education. They accepted posts at the school to further their own careers but had no special loyalty to it. Most of these officers were pleasant enough and made the best of their stay, but among their number were some sadistic bullies. They were a law unto themselves, and many instances were reported of their gratuitous brutality and other forms of abuse. Within a short period of time, the character of the institution changed considerably. Unchecked by a weak administration, corporal punishment and bullying crept into the curriculum.
In the dining hall, at three adjoining tables, sat the boys of another house. They always appeared very subdued and the house never seemed to achieve any awards. The boys rarely mentioned their experiences but it was clear that there was something very wrong going on. Their housemaster was known as Fritz and he held nightly caning sessions. During his morning inspections of the dormitories, after the boys had left for school, he made a list of those to be caned for the most menial offences, e.g. a toothbrush out of line when laid out on the bed for kit inspection. Returning from school, the boys would find the names of those to be punished posted in the day room. The canings took place in his private quarters after supper and before lights out. He summoned the offenders from a queue in the lobby by shouting ‘Next!’. His wife was well-liked by the boys and, hearing their cries of pain, would sometimes enter the room where the beatings took place and implore him to tone them down. Rembered with affection by only one former pupil, the house’s senior prefect, Fritz was generally considered to be a grossly unfair and sadistic bully who should never have been left in the care of children.
Boz was ex-RAEC and was a rather strange character. In my first year at school, as a punishment for inattention in class, he ordered me to attend his science laboratory on the following Saturday. At the back of the laboratory was a store room and he told me to go in there and remove my clothes. I had to stand in the middle of the room and, although he didn’t touch me, he kept coming and looking at me through a small window in the door between the laboratory and the store room. I had never been so frightened in my life and, after standing there for two hours, eventually wet myself. He then let me go and I never told anyone about it. Later, I discovered that he did this regularly with young boys; it was an eccentricity to which no one paid much attention. In addition to teaching science, he ran all the swimming events which gave him ample opportunity to study little boys even more closely.
This behaviour was not the prerogative of the warrior class. Killer was a civilian history teacher who regularly inflicted ‘chap’ inspections on younger pupils who would be dressed in short trousers. This involved rubbing every boy’s thighs to look for chapped legs, though there could be no possible reason for a teacher to conduct such an examination. Boys whom he thought had chaps were told to report to the house matron. Killer had a fascination with mummies and was fond of demonstrating how they were embalmed; this merely being an excuse to rub his hands all over an unfortunate victim. He could terrorize classes with an acerbic manner and occasionally resorted to corporal punishment using a cylindrical map holder, which he nicknamed ‘Percival the Persuader’, as a baton. His principle teaching method was to write the answers to essay questions on the board and get students to copy them laboriously word for word. The method apparently worked, for he got excellent results! He once accused me of stealing another boy’s stamp collection and interrogated me for over two hours. I refused to plead guilty and the culprit was eventually caught and expelled. There was no subsequent apology from Killer and I didn’t expect one. I saw him years later, but avoided him; he still made me shudder.
You would imagine that the return of a popular boy to the school as a teacher would be a matter of some rejoicing. Initially it was. Alf married the school secretary and was seen as a sporting hero. Alas, he soon adapted to the new regime and rapidly fell from favour, indulging in behaviour that would have been considered alien during his time as a boy. On one occasion he caned an entire rugby team for losing a game. His party piece, however, was to get boys to form a line and lift one foot six inches off the ground. He would then go down the line with a cane and strike any boy whose foot was less than six inches above ground. He is remembered as a despicable man who terrorised the entire house and individuals; a worthy successor to the lovable Fritz who had managed the same house some years earlier. It was truly pathetic behaviour from a man who was a commissioned officer in Her Majesty’s Army and had so much to offer. He is now best remembered for invariably ending up with a bloody nose in the annual Boys v Masters rugby match.
But retribution was not always administered in such a covert manner. There were two housemasters who would occasionally cane every member of their house in a mass punishment parade. By a coincidence, they were themselves on the receiving end of a beating by older boys during one of their orgies. Interestingly, they both responded to their Nicholas Nickleby attackers by dismissing the rest of the waiting queue, and beating a hasty retreat. Later, the boys found pornographic materials in one of the master’s desk and he was compelled to leave, but not before someone had crashed his car into the school war memorial. The other master went on to rather more rewarding career in the Army, achieving the rank of a brigadier and being awarded the OBE.
From records assembled by school chroniclers, these brief examples are just the thin edge of a rather nasty wedge that has come to light with the passing of the years. Today, with increased concern for child abuse, such teachers would have been ejected so fast that their feet would have scarcely touched the ground.
Unlike most schools in the area, the school had a swimming pool and was able to send teams to compete in the various county and national competitions. Naturally, the pool had plenty of rules and regulations, and times when it was off limits, so we went for secret night swims. These were fun but you ran the risk of being caught and banned from the pool, or worse.
Occasionally, we took our swimming togs to the harbour at Dover and, after hobbling painfully across the shingle and pebbles, paddled around shivering in the oily water. Then one day, someone discovered a route down to the beach from the cliffs which were near the school. The cliffs contained tunnels, store rooms and lookout posts, but with the ending of the war, these had been abandoned by the military authorities. The route we discovered was not a gentle stroll but a scramble down a steep zig zag pathway with a 20 feet drop at the end to the beach. The ZigZag, as we called it, became our private beach and we spent many sunny hours there at weekends. The drop to the beach was a bit tricky but we managed to get hold of some rope and scramble down as best as we could. Close to the drop, there was an abandoned gun battery and cave which we could explore and where we could indulge our military fantasies. It had a great echo. When returning from the beach, we often pulled up the rope before the last person could climb it and then watch their frantic struggle up the chalk face. This was particularly good sport when the tide was rising.
The ZigZag overlooked the last resting place of the largest sailing ship in the world at that time. In 1910, the 4765 ton five-masted Preussen had collided with a steamer near Beachy Head and, towed by a tug, had almost made it to Dover harbour. There was a storm, the lines broke and the ship foundered on the rocks beneath the cliffs. There were other wrecks visible from the cliffs as well. The cliffs were up to 300 feet high in places and supported a rich variety of wildlife including lizards, insects and butterflies. Skylarks rose above us in the skies and, safe from predators, kittywakes, fulmars and peregrine falcons nested in the chalk. Apart from the spectacular views and the birds, the cliff top also provided us with some free confectionery. We would pull bunches of red clover florets, and suck on the ends to taste the sweet nectar. Later, we discovered that we were hoovering up many small strange creatures which inhabited these flowers and our enthusiasm waned, but the clover still tasted a lot better than plush nuggetts.
OK, but what about Health and Safety? Lets check out some current guidelines for group participation in ‘outdoor actitivies at the water margins’ and see how we measured up. I have awarded us a score out of 10 for each item.
Surroundings: Are there cliffs above or below you? Could someone knock loose stones down? How close to the edge are you? Set physical boundaries beyond which the group should not venture. (7/10)
Weather: Always get a local weather forecast on the day of your visit, and know how this will impact on your plans and your location. (5/10)
Clothing: You should take some spare clothing and extra towels with you and keep your footwear on at all times during the visit. (1/10)
Communications: Make sure that an adult back at your usual base knows where you are going, what you will be doing and when you expect to return. (0/10)
Cut-off criteria: Identify marks which will indicate that the river or tide has risen above a certain point. (10/10)
Behaviour: The group need to be aware that pushing, dragging or ducking others into water are unsafe and unacceptable practices. (0/10)
Changing: If your group need to change their clothing, normal sensitivity should ensure that neither you nor they are put in a vulnerable position. (0/10 but anyone touching us would be chucked over the cliff edge.)
Check water quality: Water quality is important and can be affected by a number of factors such as rainfall or hot weather. It may also be subject to contamination by chemicals, sewage or dead animals. (3/10)
First aid and emergencies: Take an adequate first aid kit and make sure that any wounds are cleaned and covered quickly. Remember that mobile phones may not work in remote areas. If you have been trained, and are skilled in the use of throwlines, you may wish to take one with you. (1/10 and that’s for our rope.)
Today, our ZigZag has become a tourist attraction. There are hand railings, proper steps, and the drop to the beach has a safety ladder. There may even be a rest room and a takeaway. I’d like to return there one day and go for a swim, but I may check on those health and safety issues first. For, as social workers like to say, mistakes were made, lessons were learned, improvements have been introduced, and the situation is much improved.
The Cross Country Run
If you are blessed with the legs of a gazelle and the lungs of a leopard, cross country running is a superb pastime. A wonderful sport in which you pound relentlessly along country lanes, dash across fields, leap through hedges and brambles, and hurl yourself joyfully across the finishing line to the ecstatic applause of the onlookers. If, on the other hand, you have an average small boy’s physique and a natural tendency to avoid excessive or unnecessary exercise, than it is nothing but sheer hell.
At school, there were three cross country courses and the one you took depended on your age. The junior one skirted the school boundary and was about two miles long. Initially, the intermediate route followed the junior course and then branched off along a road called Hangman’s Lane in the direction of a disused windmill. Some boys boasted that the mill provided the ideal cover for having a quick smoke before striking for home. The senior course, which meandered across the cliffs of Dover, remained a complete mystery to the day I left. I don’t ever recall completing it.
The junior course was more of a gentle stroll and followed a pleasant grassy path outside the school railings. Rabbits ran from their burrows and larks soared above the fields of Kent. Today, the path has disappeared under six lanes of the A2 from Canterbury to Dover, and is home to a fast food restaurant, a car park and a petrol station. The intermediate course, however, followed a dusty country lane which still remains untouched by progress. Spurred along by the enthusiasm and superior fitness of your peers, cajoled by senior boys, and hectored by elderly masters on push bikes, there was absolutely no escape. How anyone could find the time to light up and enjoy a Woodbine on that crowded route, beggars belief. Any rabbits pausing to admire the athletes would have been trampled to death. Gasping for breath, you eventually staggered back through the school gates and collapsed gratefully onto the floor of the changing rooms. What some of us would have done to avoid this torture.
Occasionally, two of my friends and I would discuss strategies for coping with the intermediate course. We tried different kinds of footwear, shortened our pace, lengthened our pace, varied our pace and so on. Nothing worked. We just weren’t physically designed to perform this kind of ridiculous activity. Then, one day, a solution gradually dawned on us. It was so obvious that you will wonder why we hadn’t thought of it before. The fact that none of us would be invited to stay on for the sixth form, might suggest why. Both junior and intermediate courses started together at the school gates and coincided until they reached the corner of the school boundary. At this point, the junior course continued around the boundary, whereas the intermediate course had an additional three miles to the mill and back before meeting up with the junior course again. All we had to do was find a way of disappearing from the intermediate course, and taking the short cut offered by the junior course, without being seen. This took rather more planning than you might imagine.
The first thing we did was observe how different boys performed along the course. The true athletes and keen runners were well known and soon showed the rest of us a clean pair of heels. Then, of course, there were the slow coaches; the ones who would one day become obese lorry drivers or ruddy-faced butchers. Strangely enough, one of them became a bishop in the Church of England. There was no point in hanging around with them, because they would be followed by a master on a bike or an older boy with a stick. It was the ones in the middle order that occupied our attention. Where was the best place to position ourselves within this group so we could veer away from Hangman’s Lane and scuttle down the junior course without being seen?
Eventually, we noticed that a large gap opened up fairly quickly between the best runners and the rest of the field. By running with the hares (who had no reason to keep looking behind), then falling gradually back to the tortoises (who were always looking behind), we would find a gap in which to make our unofficial departure from the prescribed route. To put it simply, we made our escape when nobody could see us. Mind you, running with the hares was exhausting but worth it in the long run.
Returning to the fold was a relatively easy matter because we could watch the runners from the security of the trees as they huffed and puffed back in small groups. With good timing, and pretending to tie our laces, we neatly dovetailed ourselves back into the pelaton and made suitable marathon men noises as we galloped back to the school gates for our tea.
Did it work? Yes. Did we ever get caught? No. Well, there was an occasion when we had paused to rest and admire the field of runners making its way in the distance along Hangman’s Lane. All of a sudden we were overtaken by a group of junior boys who threatened to inform on us. What foolish lads! They came very close to ending up beneath the car park that now adorns the route and we had no further problems from that direction. Had our deceit been discovered, we would have been snubbed by our comrades. Well, it was rather incompatible with the true spirit of the school song: Play the game! Play the game! Always play the game!
The Great Escape
Of all the crimes that a boy could commit at the school, there was nothing worse, and nothing carried a more severe punishment, than that of running away. I am not talking about being absent for a few hours but the act of escaping, doing a bunk, going awol. Today, in similar circumstances, a boy would be brought back by a kind master, given a nourishing meal by his wife, and then provided with several counselling sessions to help him manage the reasons for his unhappiness and explore strategies to overcome his difficulties. But not in the 1950’s. The police, and any armed forces stationed in the vicinity of the school, were asked to keep an eye open for a boy in military uniform. Having no other clothes to wear, and dressed like an advert for the army surplus stores, he would have stood out like sore thumb as he attempted to hitch a lift from an occasional passing lorry on the road from Dover to London.
Apprehended, he would be brought back to the school and immediately interviewed by the Commandant, a crusty old colonel who had probably served in the Raj, on the Western Front, in the Boer War and at Waterloo. ‘Boy, do you realise that you have let the school down? Indeed, you have let me down, you have let the memory of your brave father down, you have let your country down and you have let your Queen down.’ From the commandant’s office, it was a short walk to that of the Regimental Sergeant Major’s. Entering the doorway, the lad would notice a rack of canes displayed above the RSM’s desk and possibly wonder which one he was soon to become closely acquainted with. The ungrateful reprobate would then remove his shirt from inside his trousers in case any protective textbooks or thick sheets of cardboard were secreted therein. Then, bending, or held down, over the RSM’s heavy oak desk, he would receive six strokes of the cane across his buttocks. Swish! Swish! Swish! Swish! Swish! Swish! The punishment was usually prefaced with something like ‘This is going to hurt me, lad, far more than it will you.’ or similar twaddle. The school medical officer was usually in attendance at the flogging. I wonder if he brought some salt with him? The boy would leave the administrative block and head for his house with tears streaming down his face. It would have hurt him a lot more than the ancient khaki clad warrior who administered it, but later he would proudly display the painful blue/black wheals across his backside to his pals in the dormitory. After lights out, he would whisper how his adventure had unfolded and would probably embellish some of the facts that surrounded his short-lived bid for freedom.
Another punishment would await him at the end of the week when the official weekly orders were printed and distributed around the school. On them, he would see his name, his crime, and his punishment posted as a public announcement. If he were a ‘pension boy’ (a euphemism for an orphan), he would discover that he would forfeit a ‘dodger’ or good conduct chevron from his uniform and one penny a week from his state provided pocket money. In addition, he would be confined to the school grounds for the rest of the term. In eight houses, boys would gather round to read the notices and discuss the flogging with bated breath. Swish! Swish! Swish! Swish! Swish! Swish!
Though there were two or three ‘Great Escapes’ each year, I can hardly recall any of the boys who took the short walk to freedom. There are, however, two who had an interesting experience and I’ll call them Little and Large. Large, as you can imagine was rather overweight and clumsy, whereas Little was just a small underdeveloped waif. They were the best of buddies and I knew them well. When news broke that they had done a bunk, it was the talk of the school, for, of all the boys who might be tempted to escape, they were the least likely, and least promising, of candidates. Yet, one night, they had somehow mustered the courage to get up and go. Those heavy army boots were made for walking.
What is remarkable about their absence is that it lasted for over a week, a record by school standards. Indeed, after a few days, boys were exchanging wagers (bags of rationed sweets) on how long would elapse before the two were either caught or handed themselves in. How far had they got? Where were they living? How were they surviving from day to day? Would we ever see them again? Even the masters began to show a keen interest in our deliberations, though we knew they were just trying to glean information about the escapees’ whereabouts in order to curry favour with the school’s senior administrators. Artfully, we led them astray. ‘Last week, I heard them whispering something about Folkestone, Sir.’
Well, all holidays must come to an end and they were eventually returned to Dover looking none the worse for their experiences. It appeared that they had hitched their way to London and had spent several nights sleeping in parks or churches, which were rarely locked in those days. By day, they scrounged food from market traders and probably helped themselves to a few goodies too. Eventually, needing some hard cash, they did a most curious thing. Though it showed some initiative, I think today we would call it a no-brainer, They stood on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral and collected money from the handful of passing tourists using a tin marked ‘St Paul’s Collection’. Perhaps their military uniforms gave them an air of respectability; it would not have been their spelling or writing. They seem to have been quite successful and had collected enough for two bacon rolls when who should appear on the steps of the cathedral but one Rev. Chad Varrah.
Chad Varrah was a padre working for TocH, an international charity aimed at easing the burdens of others. Indeed, that organisation’s iconic symbol of a brass lamp has made an odd contribution to the English language; we occasionally refer to someone as being ‘as a dim as a TocH lamp’. Chad, who was in the process of setting up the Samaritans, had seen the two boys working the crowds near the cathedral and asked them about their money raising mission. It didn’t take him long to realise that they were just a couple of hungry runaways and he organised their return to the school that evening. I doubt whether he had any idea of the kind of reception that would be awaiting them when they reached the school’s administrative office. Little and Large knew only too well what to anticipate and they took their punishment manfully before hobbling back to the dormitory to satisfy our inquisitive demands. We listen enthralled to their description of the back streets of London and the odd characters they met, but we never really discovered why they did it. Perhaps it was just for the sheer hell of it, but they really rocketed in our estimation as a result of their record breaking escapade.
Years later, I heard that one of the two pals had joined the Medical Corps as an orderly and was believed to have died whilst serving in the Malayan jungle. If he had once let his school, country and Queen down, well he certainly made up for it. But I shall always remember him as one of the lads who actually made it all the way to London. Their Toc-H lamps have never dimmed.
Expulsions from the school were few and far between. This one concerns a boy whom I remember well for I inadvertently contributed to his downfall.
Sam was a tough little Eastender. He had a round face, a shock of jet black hair and dark piercing eyes. We joined the school together and were in the same dormitory. Within a week, Sam started to bully the smaller, weaker boys and became very unpopular. The housemaster entered him for the junior boxing tournament in the hope that some of this aggression might be knocked out of him. Unfortunately, this did not work, for Sam won the competition and became even more disruptive. He could now push the other kids around with a certain amount of swagger.
Then things started to disappear from our lockers. Some of the boys found that packets of sweets or small amounts of money were missing. There were no locks or security devices in the house for we were encouraged to trust each other, but there was clearly a thief in our midst. A trap was laid with the help of a marked Mars bar, the popular chocolate treat which in 1951 cost about 5d (2p). As soon as it was known to be missing, the boys told the housemaster and he made everyone leave the dormitory while he inspected their lockers. The empty and crumpled but marked wrapper was found in Sam’s.
Although there was always a possibility that the wrapper had been placed there by someone else, some money that Sam couldn’t account for was also found, and he was given a severe warning. It didn’t seem to worry him one bit and he just carried on as if nothing had happened. Thereafter, although items kept disappearing, no trails led back to him, and boys became mistrustful of each other.
On 6th February 1952, I was walking along a path when Sam came strolling in the opposite direction. I was always wary of him and wondered if he might punch or push me off the path as he passed by. He stopped in front of me and said, ‘Got any sweets, mate? Ere d’you know the King is dead?’ I expressed my sorrow at the news which was just starting to leak out around the school. ‘Well, it doesn’t bother me,’ he said and carried on down the path. When the King’s wife had visited the East End during the Blitz, Sam’s mum was probably one of those loyal subjects who stood in the rubble of their homes and shouted ‘God Bless you Ma’am. You’re one of us.’ During the King’s funeral, we were made to sit in the large day room and listen to a radio broadcast of the service, described in poetic detail and with bated breath by Richard Dimbleby. We all tried to look deeply moved and upset by our monarch’s untimely departure, but in reality we were rather bored and started to fidget, so were given serious books to read. Had it existed, ‘Where’s Wally?’ would not have featured in the selection of approved literature.
In Westminster Abbey, the King’s coffin had been lying-in-state and guarded by four soldiers. They stood like living statues with their heads bowed at the four corners of the raised platform or catafalque. ‘My dad’s one of those soldiers,’ announced Sam suddenly. ‘He’s in the Life Guard regiment and that’s his job.’ The Life Guards were certainly on duty that day but whether they included Sam’s dad, we shall never know. He often came out with strange statements and we didn’t know what to make of them. We weren’t even all that sure if he had a father.
Spring beckoned and his brief school career was nearing its end. Each house had a large airy day room where boys could relax, read newspapers and play billiards. It was one of my duties to keep our day room clean and tidy. Various regiments had sent the school framed prints of glorious campaigns or soldiers on horseback. ‘The 3rd Madras Light Cavalry trotting past the Viceroy of India’, and that sort of thing. Each frame usually had the regiment’s cap badge attached to it. In a military school, cap badges were often collected like valuable stamps. We had quite an impressive collection of prints and I kept them aligned on the walls and dusted. It was while I was asking the housemaster a question about one of these prints, that I noticed its cap badge was missing. When I pointed it out to him, he stared at the print for a few seconds, then turned on his heels and left the room. He went immediately to Sam’s locker, emptied it and found the missing cap badge hidden amongst some clothes.
It seems such a harsh price to pay for nicking a metal cap badge, but the school had clearly had enough of Sam and his pilfering ways. He was sent to pack his battered case and was soon on his way to London. Many of the boys were glad to see the last of him. Later, we often wondered what became of him. What did his mum say when he turned up on the doorstep? Which school did he go to? Did he get a proper job or end up in prison? There were so many unanswered questions but we never heard of or saw him again.