A Grammar-School Boy Looks Back

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Reminiscences of a Grammar-School Boy


Jason Land

These are the reminiscences of a working class, grammar school boy in the years immediately following the end of the Second World War in May 1945 in the industrial north of England. My name is Jonathan David Robertson and I was born in June 1936 so that in 1945 I was eleven years old. For those of my readers who are not familiar with the then English state school system, let me explain to you that the age of eleven was then a critical, pivotal point in the life of any working class boy; or for that matter, now I come to reflect on it, for any boy or girl who was not fortunate enough to have parents who could afford to send him to a private school; that is to say, the vast majority of the population of the country. Of course to confuse things, private boys’ schools in England are known as public schools, whilst the true public schools in the normal sense of the word, to which the vast majority of parents send their offspring, are called state schools. Of course, aged eleven as I then was, and coming from the lower working class as I did, I had no idea of the importance of the exams I was about to take and how success or failure would condition my entire future life.

My parents must have married very young – children born out of wedlock in those long-gone days were a definite no-no – for when the war broke out in late 1939, my father was called up in the first wave of conscription. So from the tender age of three and a half, I rarely saw my father for the next six years. In summer of 1945 when he was demobilised and finally came home to live with us again, I have to say that I really did not like him very much: a feeling which remained with me for much of my adult life until shortly before his death, when we two came to an understanding and I discerned in him qualities which had, until then, escaped me. Prior to that we had been, from my youngest days, always at loggerheads with each other.

Like many working class families in the South West Yorkshire woollen district, both my parents worked in the mill; my father as a weaver and my mother as a spinner. We had been re-housed by the council, in the winter of 1938-39, from the condemned property where I was born, into a brand new council house on a modern estate on the edge of town. And it was in this house that I spent my entire youth until, aged eighteen, I left to go to University.

But to come back to 1945 and the fatidic age of eleven, I found myself at the local church-school taking what was then called the “Eleven Plus” exam. What made this examination so vitally important was that the results determined the entire educational future of those eleven-year-olds, boys and girls, taking it; pass it and you went on to grammar school and, hopefully to university; fail, as most were doomed to do, as there was a maximum of some 150 places for boys available in a town numbering 140,000 inhabitants, and you were condemned to stay at the elementary school for the rest of your school days until, aged sixteen, you were allowed to leave and seek a job. In a word, the door to higher education was slammed shut: there was no second chance.

Well, as title of this story tells you, I was lucky enough to pass the exam and was offered a place at a local boy’s grammar school. There were no mixed-sex classes then; boys went to one school and girls to another. At the elementary school boys and girls sat together in class, but at break-time were separated: boys in one play-ground and girls in another. I don’t think I realised the importance of my achievement at that time we received the official notification offering me place at one of the town’s grammar schools. I was the only person, boy or girl, that year at the church school, to pass the exam to which which I went, and I was more preoccupied with the fact that I would lose my present group of friends and would know nobody at my new school than with the opportunity it offered me. The fact that this was an important educational opportunity for me, never even crossed my mind.

A load of papers came with the offer and had to be filled in. I had passed what was called “the first list”, which was made up of the top pupils from the entire town; as such I had the choice between the two boys’ grammar schools which the town boasted: Bishop Edmund’s Academy for Boys, usually referred to as Bishop’s and Allerton Grammar School, Allerton being the suburb of the town where I happened to live. Along with the application came several pages of information, from which my father divined that the cane reigned supreme at Bishop’s. This fact was made quite clear in the blurb, which said: “Bishop Edmunds Academy is a firm believer in the beneficial effects of corporal chastisement on errant boys. Any parents not wishing to subject their sons to the use of the cane should therefore choose Allerton Grammar. All boys enrolled at Bishop Edmund’s are subject to corporal chastisement when merited. The School does not allow parents to opt out of this provision.”

“Well, that’s all very clear,” said my father, “I’ll put you down for Bishop Edmund’s. I really approve of places at keep lads in order and they seem to have the right idea. There’s nothing to touch a sore backside now and then to make a naughty boy mend his ways; it never did anyone any harm.”

It canlı bahis was totally horrified in the way that my father was consigning me to a place where I might get caned. I had not understood the meaning of the words “corporal chastisement,” but I had totally grasped the significance of the word “cane”. What I had, however, not grasped was that it would be my bottom and not my hand which would be the chief beneficiary of this “corporal chastisement”. I shivered with fright as I listened to my father extolling the virtues of the cane. I had been caned a couple of times on the hand by my present Headmaster for some minor offences such as fighting in the playground and I can tell you, I and not much cared even for that. Now here was my own father proposing to send to a school where the masters thrashed boys’ backsides, a practice he clearly understood and of which he approved.

“Dad, please don’t you think we should think about it a bit together before making a decision. After all, Allerton Grammar is not far from here on a direct bus route and I could get there and back without having to change buses. Bishops’ is on the edge of the town centre and it’s quite a hike, dad, from where the bus drops me; it really is, dad, you know. And another thing (a total figment of my imagination) I have heard nice things about Allerton; so please, dad, couldn’t you let me go to Allerton?” I looked pleadingly at my mother, who said nothing and simply smiled at me; as ever she left it all to Fred (my dad).

I somehow knew I was wasting my breath and that my father’s mind was made up. What I could not understand was that he suddenly wanted to send me to a place where I could get my bottom thrashed when he had himself never ever laid a finger on me. We had quarrelled many times but he had never once hit me. So perhaps it was payback time. He saw the teacher wielding the cane as a surrogate who would tan my hide in his place. And that was the bit that really worried me, as I could not begin to imagine what it would feel like as the cane landed across my bum. But then again, thinking on the bright side of things, it might never happen. I resolved that I would make no mistakes once I got to school; so easy to think but so difficult to realise as I found out to my repeated cost when I joined the school.

In late summer we got together all the paraphernalia which I needed as a new boy at Bishop’s. The main visible change was in my attire, for whereas I had gone to the elementary school in any clothes I wanted: there was no school uniform; here at the grammar school I had to wear the school blazer, with the town’s coat of arms emblazoned on the breast pocket, a white shirt and tie and short grey woollen trousers. This outfit was complemented by something I really hated: a school cap replete with neb and a coloured band indicating of my house colours. I dwell a little on this, as the cap was almost equivalent to the Holy Grail in the eyes of the Headmaster. Pupils were obliged to wear it at all times, weekends included if they were wearing the school uniform when they were outside the school grounds. To complete the “perfect schoolboy” image, we had to wear brightly polished black shoes and I can tell you right now that ignoring the prescriptions governing caps and shoes were a source of many sore bottoms, mine included.

The first Monday in September, we, the new boys, were told to arrive a little later than the normal starting hour of 8:15 am so that our form masters could see to our proper induction into the ways of the school. But before moving on to what my first day was like, it is worthwhile to take a look at the school buildings where I was to spend the next several year of my life.

The main building had been built in 1820 and was now totally inadequate to accommodate the number of boys who attended the school; so over the years, the school, had acquired several large terraced houses which stood a little way down the hill from the main building itself and had converted them into classrooms. The original 1820 building itself was an impressive baronial type of structure. Built directly on the edge of the road, it looked to all intents and purposes like a medieval castle. It had only two floors with the main classrooms and laboratories giving off a wide corridor which ran all around the building, which itself was basically a perfect square in plan. Entering from the main entrance on the road, an act strictly forbidden to the boys, one arrived ,via a short internal set of steps, at midpoint of one side of the upper floor corridor. Immediately to the right was the Headmaster’s study. A classroom completed the rooms accessible from that part of the corridor.

To the left, was the School Secretary’s office; Miss Priston was the archetypal old trout who seem to gravitate to such places and was the Headmaster’s principal aid. She it was who coordinated all the daily attendance and detention chits and prepared the lists of those boys whom the Headmaster wished to see (better put, to thrash) on Fridays at the morning break. Miss Priston was the only female members of staff other than the “dinner ladies”. Further along the corridor, beyond her office was a storeroom followed by another classroom.

The other classrooms and laboratories led off from the other three sides of this rectilinear corridor, which bahis siteleri ran all the way around the first floor. The classrooms on the opposite side of the building to the road were supported by an arcaded series of arches which were known as the cloisters. Along this side of the building were two classrooms and the chemistry laboratory. My classroom, Class 1A, was the corner room with windows on two sides. Its immediate neighbour was Class 1B with windows above the cloisters. On the internal side of the corridor was the gymnasium/assembly hall. This was a square, towering structure reminiscent of the keep of a medieval castle; with windows on the upper parts of all its four walls, it rose above the school building by quite some height.

Directly adjacent to door of my classroom was a wide staircase leading to the ground floor. It was matched by a similar staircase which arrived at the other end of the corridor. I am telling you all this as the staircases and the corridor were a constant source of what I came to think of as “cannon fodder” for the Headmaster’s cane. The staircase which was adjacent to my classroom was the up-staircase whilst its mirror-imaged twin was the down-staircase. So in the morning on arrival we all assembled in the cloisters in lines defining our classes and then as the entry bell rang, the doors were opened and we all entered the building, ascended the up-staircase to retrieve our classrooms, all of which led off from this square corridor system. But the sting in the tail was that the boys were obliged to walk (never even think of running if you valued your backside at all) clockwise around the corridor. It was strictly forbidden, under pain of a whacking, to circulate in the opposite direction. And so one had the ludicrous situation that the entire school, other than my class, the door of which was directly at the arrival of the up-staircase, had to walk around practically the entire length of the corridor. And even the adjacent positions of classes 1A and 1B were subject to this rule; if a boy from 1A wanted to go to 1B, then he had to walk all the way around the corridor to get there.

As you might imagine, boys being boys, the up and down and clockwise circulation rules were frequently broken. The most common infraction was that boys (me included) would, if they thought that the coast was clear rush down the up-staircase to avoid having to walk around what seemed then like a very long corridor. I say “what seemed then like a very long corridor” as the whole place seemed huge to me as a boy; but some fifty-odd years later, when I revisited my old school for the first time since I had left it to go to university, I was struck by how small it all actually was. But coming back to what might best be called the misuse of the staircases, we miscreants usually escaped punishment as no master was on hand to catch us. But occasionally the Headmaster would sneakily station himself at a strategic time at the bottom of the two staircases, out of sight from the top of the stairs, and try to catch errant boys. I was caught only once myself, along with five other lads and I can tell you that we deeply regretted what we had done, as the Headmaster applied the cane to our backsides with his customary vigour. But in spite of the Headmaster’s underhand strategy, boys still regularly broke the rules and risked a sore arse. I think that this one-way rule was one of the Headmaster’s most remunerative ideas in providing him with a regular series of arses to whack

But let’s get back to my first day at the grammar school. I quickly found that things were much much more regimented than they had been at my elementary church school. The first shock was that there were no female teachers. At the church school, other than the Headmaster, who was a man, all the teachers, both in the infants and upper school had been women. My form-master was a man called Mr. Allan: Mr A.G. Allan; we all wondered what his Christian names were (we could still refer to first names as Christian names in those days: the concept of political correctness and not been invented) but we never found out; along with all the other masters he always signed himself with just his initials before his surname. His nickname was Algy, as he was a slightly rotund, amiable-looking character who wore a pullover under his sports coat. Looking back on it, I think he was one of the few teachers who did not wear a three piece suite every day.

Amiable he may have looked, but appearances were deceptive, for he brooked no backchat from his pupils, had a sharp and sarcastic tongue and was not at all averse to sending any boy who crossed him to the Headmaster for a whacking. In addition to being my first form master, he taught mathematics: arithmetic, algebra and geometry, to the junior school.

That first day we were allocated our desks, all of which were formally arranged behind one another in rows: individual desks with hard wooden seats. Beneath the sloping top, which was hinged to lift up, was a capacious cavity in which we had to store our books. Each top was fitted with a hasp and clasp and we were all told to buy a padlock to ensure that no one stole any of our things. There was an inkwell and a grooved flat part for the dip-in nib pens which were then still in daily use; remember ball-points were still in the distant future and bahis şirketleri fountain pens were very expensive. I imagine these desks, all of which were ancient-looking, dated from the turn of the century or even earlier. That feeling of the past was reinforced when the various text books were issued. I can remember that the Latin Grammar and the French Primer were both dog-eared, soft, linen-bound books dating from well before the war. But remember that we were in 1945, and that the war had only just ended and everything was still in short supply.

The morning routine, which was very important, was that we all arrived in the cloisters for the start of the school-day at 8:15, at which time the entry bell rang and we all trooped up the “up-staircase” to our form-room for roll-call. Algy called the register and ticked off the presence of each boy who answered. He then wrote out on a printed chit with the number of boys present, and the names of boys absent. And then came the sting in the tail, for if you were not present when your name was called out and crept late into the class-room, then your name as a late arrival was noted. I did not realise at first but each time any boy arrived late, as I, for my sins, did, he received what we would today call a demerit. One of us was then required to deposit this chit in a letter box outside the school secretary’s office where they were assiduously recorded and analysed by Miss Priston and led later to some painful meetings with the Headmaster. But we live and learn- sometimes the hard way!

Following roll-call, we all then trooped into the central gymnasium/ assembly hall were we stood in serried ranks, the youngest of us to the front and the sixth formers to the rear and awaited the arrival of the staff and the Headmaster. Next to the main entry door was a slightly raised dais on which stood a tall wooden teacher’s desk on which the Headmaster deposited his papers. The teaching staff, all fully gowned, arranged themselves along the wall to each side of this dais, to the left of which, in the corner, was an upright piano. When we were all assembled, the Headmaster made his entry, always a somewhat dramatic affair, as he was a larger than life individual who totally dominated everyone, boys and masters included. My first assembly was on the Tuesday, my second day at school, as the first day we had all arrived later in the morning after the assembly had been completed.

For my non-English readers, the daily assembly was a ritual in all English schools and had a more or less standard format. We sang a hymn, heard a lesson read from the Bible and said a prayer. England was then still essentially inhabited only by English people and there was no need to make any allowance for any other religions. The only deviation as that Catholics were allowed to miss the religious bit of the assembly, which was based on the teachings of the Church of England and could come in when the Headmaster came to his announcements of the day. But as I remember it, there were no catholic boys at all. One master was a catholic and always came in after the religious ceremony was over.

But to come back to “Basher”: Mr. B. A. S. Barton, the Headmaster; as I said, his entry was always somewhat dramatic, for he wore not only a voluminous back gown but also a mortarboard complete with tassel. He also wore a monocle, a three-piece suit and a white shirt with a stiff high wing collar, complemented by a very sober tie. His shoes, always black Oxfords, were always very highly polished. In short Mr. Barton was an anachronism, for he looked more or less like a late Victorian or Edwardian gentleman; post-war England in 1945 was anything but modern, but Mr. Barton looked truly antique. He seemed very old to me on first sight, but I guess that he must have been in his late fifties as I saw an announcement in the local newspaper that he had retired, aged sixty-five, just a few years after I had left the school and was at university.

A gentleman he may have looked, but there was nothing at all gentle about Mr. Barton, for he ruled the school with a rod of iron, or rather with a selection of painful rattan canes and the occasional birch, which he had not the slightest hesitation in applying to the backsides of the boys throughout my entire school career. All punishment was always applied to a lad’s backside and never to his hands. As the notes we had received had said, Bishop Edmund’s was a school where “corporal chastisement was used when merited”. Well let me tell you they were not kidding, for you did not have to do much wrong to merit a visit to the Headmaster’s study. There can never have been a greater believer in the beneficial effects of the cane on a boy’s bottom than Mr. Barton. He used the cane regularly; not a week went by without several lads getting their arses whacked; the cane was used liberally for no one was exempt from his percussive ministrations: from the first form right through to the final year boys aged eighteen in the upper sixth, Mr. Barton had no hesitation in thrashing backsides vigorously, for he never ever held back with the force with which he applied the rod to the unfortunate miscreant’s arse. For the most part, boys were whacked with their trousers on; but even so, Mr. Barton was such an expert with the cane that he could take any miscreant to hell and back even fully clothed. Rumour had it – and it turned out to be true – that occasionally lads were required to present their naked backside to him and I can tell you that we all shuddered at the thought of what that might be like.

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