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Scenes from Life as a Boy Soldier Mudsailor
Boys Behaving Badly
Scenes from Life as a Boy Soldier
This is an account of life at the Duke of York’s Royal Military School in England which I attended between 1951 and 1957. The school was for sons of men who had entered the Army as private soldiers. Many of the boys’ fathers had been killed on active service, had fallen on hard times, or just gone AWOL. On Sundays, we wore our father’s regimental badges in the lapels of our khaki uniforms. I wore the pick and shovel of the Pioneers, a labour corps which had employed men and women from every corner of the globe including two thousand Germans. The memories are presented as a compilation of separate tales with no speciﬁc or chronological order.
Victor Ludorum RIP
Within a few days of my arrival at the military institution that was to be my home for six years, the new boys were given a conducted tour of the school buildings and grounds. I should add that it was the kind of place that if you absconded, you were severely beaten so we were quite apprehensive of the rather tall head boy who was our tour guide. In the dining hall, he paused under an imposing painting of orphans marching through the main gates and delivered a short history of the school. Invariably our attention began to wander and several of us noticed a panel on which were listed winners of the Victor Ludorum Trophy. ‘Who was Victor Ludorum?’ piped up a small voice from the restless throng. The head boy stared coldly at the youngster for several seconds and then replied, ‘Victor was a boy at this school who passed away under tragic circumstances. He was very popular and his heartbroken mother donated this trophy which is awarded each year in his memory.! Try to remember him in your prayers.’! We gazed in awe at the trophy before being ushered away to view the toilet block and the chapel.! As the days passed, however, some of us recalled the tour, and, needing to satisfy our curiosity, enquired about poor Victor and his untimely ending. Though memory fades, I think I was told that Victor had been searching for a master’s favourite dog on the cliffs overlooking the bay.! Stumbling around in the darkness on a wild, wintery night, Victor had fallen several hundred feet down the cliffs onto the shingle beach below.! His last resting place was in a nearby village. ‘The dog?! Sound asleep in its kennel the whole time.’ ! I had made friends with Joe, a boy who was later sent to work on a farm in Australia. Oh, how we envied him! When I!told him about Victor, he looked puzzled and said that there was no grave. During a particularly violent gale, Victor, with no thought for his own safety, had jumped fully clothed into the local harbour to rescue another boy who had fallen from the pier. Though the rescue was successful, poor Victor himself had been swept away and was never seen again. Some onlookers were sure they heard him singing the chorus of the school song until it faded away, drowned out by the howling wind. ‘Play the Game, Play the Game, Play the Game.’
Somewhat puzzled, we shared our versions with another friend who said that we were both completely wrong. He told us that during World War 1, brave Victor had rushed to the rescue of a German ﬁghter pilot whose plane had crashed on the sports ﬁeld. Having been dragged from the burning wreckage, the pilot stood up, pulled out his luger pistol and shot poor Victor through the heart. ‘Curse those dastardly Huns!’ we cried in dismay.! But it gradually dawned on us that we had been duped and, with the passage of time, yesterday’s gullible newcomers were to become tomorrow’s artful storytellers. Indeed, the ways in which our hero met his unfortunate end were limited only by the imagination of those whom the newcomer consulted. For example, you could hear how he had missed the bus from town and, not wishing to be late for prayers in the chapel, had taken a short cut through a tunnel and been run over by a goods train laden with pig iron. ‘A 1936 Silver Jubilee Locomotive - type 4-6-0 to be exact.’ You might even have heard how he had perished whilst rescuing members of the wealthy and well-connected Ludorum family who were trapped in a hotel ﬁre. ‘Unfortunately, the ladder caught ﬁre just as he hopped out onto the top rung.’! Then there was the sad tale of how he had taken the wrong turning during a cross-country run, lost his way in the snow and, not only missed his tea, but died of hypothermia within sight of the school’s gates. ‘They would have been locked, anyway.’
Sometimes, the causes of his premature departure beggared belief but the audience would listen spellbound. Apparently, Victor was keen on making large kites and was always willing to demonstrate their ﬂying capabilities to the younger boys. One gusty afternoon, during such a demonstration, he and his magniﬁcent kite were lifted by the wind and carried some distance away. Cheering his maiden ﬂight with enthusiasm, the young lads ran after him and then watched in horror as he plunged to earth and was impaled on spiked railings which bordered the school’s southern boundary. ‘You get a great view of the castle from there.’ Or, whilst suffering pangs of hunger, he crept out of the dormitory one night and broke into the kitchens where he choked on a stale piece of bread. Or did he fall into a vat of porridge? Anyway, whatever the cause, he met his maker that night. ‘Alone and in his nightshirt.’
My own contribution was quite modest. One wet afternoon, he had engaged in horseplay with friends and had accidentally been crushed. Unfortunately, no one took his cries for help seriously. ‘He was a very good actor for his age and would have made a superb Hamlet.’ The unfortunate fellow died in agony trapped between two iron bedsteads. By a strange coincidence, the scene of his tragic departure was always the very dormitory in which the story was told. ‘Which two beds? Well, to be honest,! it’s yours and that one next to it’
Was there a photograph of young Ludorum to be seen anywhere? There were literally dozens of them. Almost any boy in an old school or sports team photograph would do. Victor could be extremely tall or very short,! fair or dark haired, light or dark skinned,! exceedingly good looking or utterly repelling, studiously intellectual or grinning like an idiot. As sweets were rationed, a sharp lad could easily boost his week’s supply by offering to point out Victor’s desk, coat hook, favourite library book, seat in the dining hall, or even the euphonium he played in the school band, ‘Such a wonderful musician. Had he lived, he could have played !for the Royal Philharmonic.’! For an additional contribution, you could be taken to the exact spot where Victor fell.! Some attention to detail was required here; not much use showing a disused railway line to those eagerly anticipating a rusty spike. Had anyone seen his ghost? The ghastly third verse of the school song guaranteed it.
And though our lonely grave be dug in some far distant land. Our spirits will return again and hover close at hand. And the boys will hear us whisper and the boys will understand. Play the Game! Play the Game! Play up Dukies!
It used to give me nightmares. It still does.! Many a newcomer must have spent an uncomfortable night foregoing the call of nature than risk seeing Victor’s spirit hovering close at hand. Oddly enough, though Victor generally departed on a wild
and stormy night, he never contemplated suicide. I don’t think the poor lad ever had the time to consider it.
And so, as the years rolled by, more newcomers arrived at the school and were taken on the grand tour. Another head boy would stand in the dining hall paying homage to the memory of our heroic lad, and more tales of his brief but busy life would unfold. I sometimes wonder just how many painful and tragic endings the poor lad suffered since that day nearly sixty years ago when I stood under the portrait of the marching orphans and gazed in wonder at the trophy. An award which we all eventually discovered was presented annually to one particular student: the school’s athletics champion, the winner of the games, or as they say in Latin, the Victor Ludorum. Now there is a curious twist to this stale. Years ago, I received a letter from an old school friend. It was from Joe, the one who had emigrated to Australia to enjoy life on a farm in the warm sunshine. Unfortunately, it wasn’t quite the paradise that he imagined it would be. For all the beatings he received, he might as well have stayed at the school. Anyway, he had returned on holiday to England and had visited the place for old times sake. Later, he went exploring the ﬁelds and villages of our youth. In a churchyard, he discovered a sad little row of long-forgotten graves. The stones were barely visible amongst the ivy and undergrowth, but he had managed to clear a path to them. To his surprise, he found they were the ﬁnal resting place of boys who had died at the school many years before we had arrived there. Gently brushing away the lichen, he found he could just about decipher some of their names and ages. The last one in the row was a lad called Victor Ludorum. For some reason that escapes me, I didn’t believe him.
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 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.
Top of the Form
Once a month, a local barber would call at Kitchener, our school house, and cut the hair of sixty boys. Needless to say, his visit was not a popular one. With the rock ‘n’ roll revolution, and the longer styles popular with teddy boys, long hair was in fashion and a closely-cropped boy would stand out like a sore thumb. The barber, a rather taciturn individual nicknamed ‘Sweeney Todd’ ignored requests such as ‘Can you leave it longer on the top?’ and sheared his way through our heads like an Australian sheep farmer. I certainly don’t recall him holding a mirror so that the victim could admire his work, or using that time-honoured expression ‘Anything for the weekend, Sir?’ Working at a speed of two minutes per head, there would have been a place for him in the Guinness Book of Records. A small room was set aside for his salon. As it was part of my daily duties or ‘fatigues’ to look after this room, I was responsible for keeping it swept and tidy throughout his visit, and would also ensure that he was regularly supplied with cups of tea. Indeed, I was quite proud of my role as his assistant and even toyed with the idea of becoming a barber myself. Later, in the Merchant Navy, I gave a few haircuts to shipmates but was never asked to repeat the procedure; my skills did not match my enthusiasm. Or perhaps I modeled myself too closely on the school barber? The barber liked to listen to a radio while he worked. There was an old wooden wartime radio on a nearby shelf and, with some gentle coaxing and a little violence, I usually tuned in something for him to enjoy. One evening, as he ﬁnished the last boy in the queue, a popular quiz programme called ‘Top of the Form’ came on the air. It was a weekly battle of wits for teams of schoolchildren. Although my duties were done and I should have been off to bed, he let me stay there to listen to it. Memory fades, but I recall questions like ‘What is the colour of puce?’, ‘Would you eat or admire a mosaic?’, ‘On what date do we celebrate the British Empire?’ etc. I think we both found the questions quite difﬁcult and spent some time engaged in a mutual exchange of ignorance. When the programme ﬁnished, we went our separate ways. Some days later, as a break from the usual lesson, the English teacher said that he would like to give us a general knowledge quiz. Though we liked the teacher and his lessons, we were delighted because life is too short to waste precious hours on syntax
and periodic sentence construction. Two teams were formed representing the left and right hand sides of the classroom. The rules were simple. He would ask one team a question and if they couldn’t answer it, or answered it incorrectly, the other team could have a go with the chance of gaining an extra point. Along came the ﬁrst question: ‘What is the colour of puce?’, which was shortly followed by ‘On what date do we celebrate the British Empire?’ I soon realised that the English teacher had lifted his questions directly from the Top of the Form broadcast which both the school barber and I had struggled to answer, and my joy knew no bounds. The questions had originally been set for an older age group, and the boys found them quite difﬁcult. Even Merry, who was a complete bonk (genius), struggled to cope, but I could still remember all the answers. All I had to do was wait until the other team failed a question and then put my hand up. I did this with monotonous regularity until I realised that someone might smell a rat. So, when it was our turn to decide whether a mosaic was to be admired or consumed, I insisted loudly that I had once enjoyed a delicious plate of mosaic in a ﬁsh restaurant. My wrong answer did the trick. Despite the groans, I soon made up for it and answered several questions effortlessly and without raising any suspicion. At this point, I should add that I was never one of the brightest in the form. To be honest, although I was the eldest of 32 boys, I was usually ranked 28th or 29th in overall academic performance. Indeed, throughout my school career, the only time I ever enjoyed an A+ on my record was the one given for my blood group. Towards the end of the lesson, I noticed the English teacher staring at me quizzically. He was probably thinking ‘Perhaps there’s more to this boy than meets the eye?’ Well there wasn’t, but I had no intention of confessing to any prior knowledge of the answers. In fact, I milked the situation by telling him how much we had all enjoyed the lesson. adding ‘Gosh! Some of those questions were quite hard, Sir’. He continued to eye me suspiciously and then we were off to enjoy two hours of Latin where I would once again revert to being one of the class dunces. Effortlessly. I have often wondered what it would be like to know all the answers in life, but that was as close as I ever came. Nevertheless, there was a small bonus waiting for me in my end of term report. Under English, instead of the usual C minus accompanied by ‘Could do better’, the teacher commented that I had made some effort to improve and generously awarded me a C.
Cross Country Running
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.
Green line = Junior Course
Red line = Intermediate Course
Pause, if you will, to the study the map above. Both junior and intermediate courses started together at the school gates (bottom left) 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!
Rupert was one of my best friends at school. Sixty years later, we still keep in touch and I was astonished when he told me this odd little tale. Rupert’s father had been a boy at the school in the early years of the 20th century when it was based in the Royal Hospital at Chelsea. He was also called Rupert and had the distinction of being photographed with King Edward VII and the German Kaiser when they came to inspect the school on a royal visit. After a career as a military musician, he left the Army and took a post as bandmaster with the Trinidad Police Force. Young Rupert was born in Trinidad and packed off to school back in England when he was eleven. He must have inherited some of his father’s musical talent because he was a very good trombone player in the school band. Although I only recall him visiting Trinidad a couple of times, it must have been quite an adventure for him for, during the holidays, he usually lodged in Coventry. His father lived to a ripe old age and when he died, Rupert went back to Trinidad to sort out his papers. Reading through some old diaries, he was amazed to discover that he had had an elder stepbrother who was also called Rupert! After this boy’s birth, the mother had refused to go to Trinidad with his father and stayed behind in England where she eventually married another man. Living in the Caribbean, with his busy job and his own family, Rupert’s father had gradually lost contact with them. He believed that they had all perished in the blitz on London during WW2. Intrigued by this discovery, Rupert returned to England determined to ﬁnd out as much as he could about his stepbrother. Despite searching through birth and other records, he drew a complete blank, and gradually gave up his quest. Then one day, just out of sheer curiosity, he ‘googled’ the boy’s name on the internet and out came a reference to someone who had served in the RAF. A few days later, with the help of the RAF benevolent organisation and a lengthy explanation, he had an address which led to a telephone number. And who should be at the end of that number but his long lost stepbrother, Rupert. A bomb had indeed fallen near the house in London, but they had all survived. It wasn’t long before the two brothers and their wives met up and they all got on really well. There was so much to talk about; so much to share. Did they have the
same interests, personality traits or mannerisms? Did they both enjoy music? There were many similarities but the older Rupert confessed that his had been a very unhappy childhood. His stepfather had been an aggressive man and the boy and his mother suffered much from his violent temper. In the end, he ran away from home and never returned. After drifting around the country for a while, he ended up in Kent where he found work with the East Kent Bus Company. He started as a bus cleaner, then became a conductor, and eventually trained to be a driver. Like all boys at the school, the younger Rupert knew the bus company well and asked him which routes he had worked on. It appeared that, during the late 1950’s, the older Rupert had worked as a driver between Dover and Deal. With the school perched on the cliffs just above Dover, it was a route which passed the school gates on the hour and every hour. Sometimes, the conductors would let us travel for free; they would push the 5d fare back into our hands, and move on down the bus. As the two Ruperts sat there chatting, it gradually dawned on them that they may have often been together on the same bus making the short journey from the school to Dover and back. Two brothers with exactly the same names and they wouldn’t have known each other from Adam. Indeed, the older Rupert might even have given his younger brother a free lift.
And the band played on........
Summer, 1980’s. Five musicians stepped onstage to the roar of an enthusiastic crowd. Strobe lights stabbed around the gym, brieﬂy illuminating the rows of parallel bars to which I had once clung precariously. Pausing to wave at a gaggle of girls, the lead singer and guitarist counted the band in to its ﬁrst number. What followed was just a wall of raw noise, a cacaphony of tinnitus to older ears but I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. The band was Ollie the Squid, winners of the BBC’s school rock band competition, and, at the risk of a ruptured eardrum, I was determined to hear their performance to the last nerve-stripping note. Well, I stayed for that ﬁrst number. Now wind the clock back about thirty years from that evening. There are ﬁve of us: two guitars, a banjo, a washboard and a tea chest bass. A rock ‘n’ roll revolution is sweeping like a tsunami through the moonlight and roses world of popular music. Elvis may be king but his music, which can only corrupt our morals, is forbidden at the school; apart from an hour on Sundays when we are permitted to play our 78rpm records quietly. So our band is a clandestine activity, but we managed to get quite a few bookings with the help of a small ad in the local newspaper. ‘Parties? Receptions? We dig the most for the least!’ What on earth was that about? But the ad worked and I recall a wedding reception where we too were surrounded by girls, a gig in the corner of a coffee bar, and an appearance in a variety show at the Leas Cliff Pavillion in Folkestone. Our limited repertoire was a selection of rock, country and skifﬂe, which was a DIY mixture of folk and blues accompanied by much enthusiastic strumming around three basic chords. And always the ubiquitous and tuneless thud thud thud of that tea chest bass. One Saturday afternoon, we asked a senior prefect if we could perform a couple of numbers on the stage in the gym before the evening cinema show. Our request was granted and we worked hard at polishing up our best songs for this groundbreaking event. We climbed up on the stage to rapturous applause from the audience and launched into our piece de resistance Worried Man Blues: It takes a worried man to sing a worried song Yes it takes a worried man to sing a worried song Oh it takes a worried man to sing a worried song I’m worried now but I won’t be worried long
As we reached the end of the song, into the hall strode the school’s deputy headmaster. Bristling with authority, he ordered us to get off the stage and leave the building. This was meant to be a ﬁlm show not some kind of noisy jazz club! Despite groans of dismay from our fans, we had no other choice than to do as we were ordered. Later, it was made clear to us that there was to be no repetition of this deliberate breach of rules or our instruments would be conﬁscated. Although we were amused by the thought of this high-ranking army ofﬁcer seizing and struggling away with our clumsy tea chest, it was a depressing time. As I said, that kind of music was limited to one hour per week on Sunday evenings when you could play your records quietly. I said quietly! Then fate stepped in and handed us the perfect recipe for revenge. The powers that be decided to hold an evening of culture surrounded by potted plants. A provisional programme was drawn up. Perhaps some piano or violin solos, a reading of Longfellow’s Wreck of the Hesperus, Jasper’s Dance by the school orchestra, and a medley of nautical songs from the school choir? The school’s music teacher, a kindly but gullible man, asked us boys to suggest anything we would like to include. Several us wondered if he would like us to sing some songs from the colonies. ‘What a splendid suggestion,’ he enthused, ‘Waltzing Matilda? A Jamaican calypso? Yes, do work on it chaps, and I’ll ﬁt it into the programme.’ And so the plot was hatched. Promising that we would turn up for the dress rehearsal, we hurried away to practise our colonial songs, but the colony we had in mind was no longer a part of the British Empire. Well, not since 1776. The main hurdle lay in avoiding the dress rehearsal but this proved easier than we anticipated. The music teacher, who was responsible for the event, was unwell so any rehearsals had to be organised independently, and, as you can imagine, we prepared our two songs most diligently. ‘It’ll be alright on the night,’ he reassured everyone from his sickbed, ‘Just make sure you’re ready to go on when called.’ We were. ‘Break a leg, chaps!’ We didn’t. The school assembled for the concert, which was attended by the mayor and mayoress, and other local dignitaries. The guests had cane and wicker chairs which seemed to complement the potted plants. The Headmaster gave a short welcoming speech, the lights were dimmed and everyone sat down to enjoy an evening of culture. On his euphonium, Jones Senior gave a splendid interpretation of Serenade by Drigo, and the junior boys choir sang Twankydillo followed by Bobby Shaftoe. Bobby Shaftoe? He’ll come back and marry me. Yes, it was a boys school, but that’s the kind of nonsense we had to sing sometimes..
Unfortunately, the wreck of the Hesperus had sunk sometime before the concert but was replaced by something equally inspiring. Then it was our turn. In the wings, we stripped off our khaki jackets to reveal a dazzling array of football or rugby shirts. Indeed, I thought the blue and white stripes of my Shefﬁeld Wednesday strip were quite eye-catching. With our instruments tuned and ready for action, we stepped into the limelight and onto a low stage. Several guests were intrigued by our large wooden tea chest and clapped their hands with delight when they saw what it was for and how it was played. Did we really perform You Ain’t Nothin’ But a Hound Dog? To be honest, I don’t recall the songs, but they would have been known to the boys if not the staff. What I do remember, however, is the look of abject horror on the Headmaster’s face as we worked through our short programme. He was a tall man and sank lower and lower in his chair until I could only see his knees; his hands were covering his face in embarrassment. It was truly a moment to savour and no one was going to order us from the stage this time. Needless to say, the boys and most of the guests loved it and cheered us to the rafters. I think the music teacher got a ﬂea in his ear for our inappropriate contribution and we were meant to be reprimanded but nothing ever happened. The boys who formed Ollie the Squid wouldn’t have understood the fuss, and nor would anyone else today. Times have changed, but that’s how things were and we just had to put up with them. Nevertheless, when I heard that a group from the old school had won a national rock band competition, I just had to be there at their presentation.
The School Mag
I always looked forward to the arrival of the school magazine, which was very well produced and printed locally. It reported on the sporting activities and results against other schools. There were reviews of school plays, information about old boys, photos and general chit chat about school life. I awaited the arrival of the 1951 Christmas edition with eager anticipation because I had a poem in it and this is it:
The sky was dull and cloudy The wind began to blow The people in the graveyard Said it looked like snow. Some had come to tend the flowers Some had come to pray Others, if they came at all, Simply came to play. The sky was dull and cloudy The wind began to moan The people left the graveyard And we were left alone.
OK, counsellor, what do you make of all that?
School reports were the bane of my life. They always arrived in the middle of the holidays and they were always disappointing. My mother would look at them, shake her head, and say ‘I don’t know. You won’t amount too much if you keep getting reports like this.’ Now, what really got me about these things is that you could spend a whole term slavishly copying stuff from the board, wiping ink from your ﬁngers, and struggling to conjugate Latin verbs and all you got was a miserable grade with a brief comment: D+ Lacks interest. I’ve kept a teacher in employment for a term and that’s all he can say about my loyal support. On reﬂection, perhaps that’s all he needed to say. Anyway, what is the point of Latin? You can’t go there on holiday. It was obvious to anyone, that a few of the teachers couldn’t care less about writing reports and it really showed. On several occasions, I was graded for subjects I wasn’t studying. Did I really deserve that straight B for physics a whole year after I dropped it? And what about that C- for swimming? Hey, I’m the school swimming champion this year, remember? Perhaps it was the result of my keeping a low proﬁle and not making too many waves (outside the pool). But enough of this self pity. I still have the reports and there are some interesting comments. Has been a very useful member of the house this term, apart from one silly episode. Only one? What was that about? I couldn’t even recall it when asked by my mother. Was he confusing me with Mousey Drover? In fact, this is when those phantom grades come in useful because you can use them to convince others that the report is completely suspect. If you want to be a real bounder, get to the post ﬁrst and make some minor adjustments like turning minuses into positives. Then there’s the enigmatic He has surprised me this term. Exactly how is not speciﬁed, but I suspect the teacher wrote that for every boy. Perhaps we surprised him by staying awake? But it wasn’t all bad. Has been outstanding as Shylock in the school play! Applause!
‘Shylock’ in his ﬁrst year
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.
There’s a place that I recall, where we would go to swim It wasn’t at a swimming pool down at the local gym. And though the water was too deep, too muddy and too cold. We all loved skinny dipping at the old swimming hole We didn’t have a lifeguard watching from a little boat Just a tractor tyre that would keep us all aﬂoat. We learnt to do the backstroke, the breast stroke and the crawl The butterﬂy was silly, never did that one at all. Like monkeys in the jungle, we swung from tree to tree hanging from a piece of rope and every ride was free Leaping from the tallest rock, I did a cannon ball and landed on Fat Louie, thus cushioning my fall One day a stranger took our clothes, and then away did run At ﬁrst we didn’t miss them, ‘cos we were having fun. We had to wait till sundown and all the folks were in, then sneak back home in darkness, dressed only in our skin For no particular reason that we could understand, A law enforcement ofﬁcer told us that it was banned We grabbed his arms and legs, and everybody took a hold and he went skinny dipping at the old swimming hole! The other day, I passed this way while on a business trip The weather was so warm I thought I’d have a skinny dip But a restaurant and a parking lot were all that I could see My dear old swimming hole was just a part of history.
Boys behaving badly
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 madding crowd. 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. Boys love to slide; we are born that way. When the ice lay thick on the paths and parade ground, we would form a very 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?’
Phwoah! 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 spare a thought for 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 airplanes 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 younger boy once asked me to show him how to do handsprings; the one gymnastic activity at which I excelled. We went to a quiet corner of the playing ﬁelds and I demonstrated the basics 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 somewhat 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 a lot about stage makeup. When she had ﬁnished her work, 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.
Put yer fags out lads....here come the Goons
The Woolworth’s Incident All the boys liked Woolworth’s or Woolies as it was affectionately known. It had a wide range of goods, cheap prices and pretty girls behind its long counters. It was way ahead of its time with the introduction of self service; something that is commonplace today. It made such a change from having to stand in an orderly queue patiently awaiting your turn to ask for a tin of black shoe polish or whatever. In Woolies, you just picked up what you wanted and paid the sales assistant. One person who did not approve of this newfangled sales technique was Regimental Sergeant Major Jones. If he could have had his way, we would all have be banned from entering this temple of temptation. In his book, self service would only lead to, and encourage, shoplifting. I cannot imagine what he would have thought of today’s generation of supermarket shoppers as they swept past him to ‘grab it cheap and pile it deep’. Theft of any kind, however, was very rare at the school and we refused to believe that any of us would steal from the shops in Dover. The shopkeepers sometimes knocked off the odd penny here and there from our purchases and they trusted us; it was a trust we were determined not to lose. Then, one day, news spread like wildﬁre that two boys had been seen stealing by a customer at Woolworths. I remember that we were very upset by this and wondered if RSM Jones would now get his way and we would no longer be able to patronise this wonderful emporium. Later, that week, we marched to the school dining hall for supper. The dining hall was a large imposing building with a clock tower that could be seen for miles. At night, the hall was ablaze with lights but the meals they illuminated did not reﬂect the grandeur of the oak panelled surroundings. Supper consisted of a piece of mousetrap cheese, a pickled gherkin, a hard biscuit and a mug of cocoa. Accompanied by a senior master, the man who had witnessed the crime paced up and down the ranks of seated diners in an attempt to identify the culprits. Now when you are surrounded for several years by boys wearing identical khaki uniforms, you become very sensitive to minute differences in appearance. It is a basic survival skill that is essential for identifying one short-haired khaki blob from another but there are many clues to be had. For example, the way a boy holds his head, shufﬂes along a corridor, hitches up his trousers, scratches his ear and so on. One assumes that convent school girls similarly enhance their powers of observation from the need to identify one wimple clad nun from another, particularly when they are about to embark on some mischief and need to know who is sweeping down a
draughty corridor towards them. Our visitor that evening, however, may not have beneﬁted from a military or convent school education, and wandered up and down the rows of boys shaking his head in utter bewilderment. Now I don’t think that we deliberately set out to confuse him, but there was something about that unpleasant situation that made us bond together. Perhaps it was the herd instinct for self preservation, but the result was an identity parade of 400+ boys all smiling at him in wide eyed innocence; army issue margarine would not have melted in our mouths. As he passed, a few of the bolder boys crossed their eyes and slackened their jaws like idiots, but that was going beyond the call of duty. Unable to ﬁnger the two culprits, he departed with his mission unaccomplished.
It wasn’t me guv, honest!
There were no further incidents of this nature and, despite RSM Jones’ misgivings, we were not banned from shopping at dear old Woolies.
After lights out, we were sometimes allowed to read or tell stories to each other. This was known as ‘spinning out’ and some boys were very good at it. Ghost stories were always popular and here is one of my own contributions to an evening’s entertainment. Read it by the light of a torch, if you wish.
The Crossroads at Hangman’s Hill
When I was a kid, I lived in Egypt in an army camp near the Suez Canal and joined a troop of cub scouts known as the 5th Cairo though we were many miles from Cairo. Each year, we would camp in the desert along with scout troops from other parts of Egypt. At night, we would lie outside our tents, staring up at the stars, and telling ghost stories. One evening, a scout leader from Ireland sat listening to our yarns, and when we had ﬁnished, told us this rather eerie and disturbing tale. The scout leader, whose name was Matt, came from Dublin and loved cycling. As a teenager, he and his best friend Jamie would often ride across the moors outside the city to a cottage which they used as a base for a weekend’s cycling around the countryside. One day, Matt set off for the cottage alone because Jamie had some work to ﬁnish and planned to follow later. After a long tiring slog up a steep hill, known locally as Hangman’s Hill, Matt reached the crossroads at the top and was glad to freewheel down into the valley below. When he reached the foot of the hill, however, he had the misfortune to collect a puncture and sat by the roadside to ﬁx it. As he ﬁnished mending the puncture, he saw his best friend pedalling furiously down the hill towards him. Matt was pleased because it meant they could ﬁnish the journey together. He stood up to greet him but Jamie did not stop. Matt shouted at him and Jamie looked back brieﬂy but kept on cycling and disappeared around a bend. Matt continued on his journey to the cottage. He’d have something to say when they met later. It was unusual for Jamie to ignore a fellow cyclist in distress, particularly at such a deserted spot. And why did he cycle past him like a demon? When he reached the cottage, it was deserted; there was no sign of Jamie or his cycle. Matt assumed he had gone to the nearby village to collect some stores, so he made himself at home. By evening, however, there was still no sign of Jamie, and as the cottage had no telephone, Matt cycled to the phone box in the village.
Jamie’s brother answered the phone. His voice sounded strained. ‘I think you better come back.’ he said. ‘Why?’ queried Matt, ‘Is there anything wrong?’ ‘Jamie is dead.’ came the shocking reply. ‘What? When? For God’s sake what happened?’ cried Matt. The brother was brief. Jamie had been killed that afternoon whilst cycling to the cottage. A lorry had knocked him down. ‘But,’ protested Matt, ‘I saw him just after three o’clock. He was cycling down Hangman’s Hill. I had stopped to ﬁx a puncture and he cycled past me so I followed him. It was deﬁnitely Jamie and there was no sign of an accident anywhere on the road to the cottage.’ ‘It must have been someone else,’ said Jamie’s brother sadly. ‘No it was Jamie. I swear it was. I’d know him and his bike anywhere.’ ‘But he was killed just before three o’clock. You see, according to the police, he collided with a lorry on the crossroads at the top of Hangman’s Hill.’
"OK that's enough for tonight, boys. Woods Junior, put the torch back in the prefect's study and everyone settle down for the night." Just enough time to place a rubber, but lifelike, killer scorpion on Wood's pillow and sneak back under the blankets. Here he comes now!
Throughout the world, there are countless, pointless and mindless rituals which people have to observe, and we, at the school, were no exception. The school had its own peculiar traditional rite which we were required to follow on a daily basis. Unlike a religious observation, it did not cater to our spiritual needs or provide any kind of emotional pleasure, unless the participant was slightly unhinged. The ritual was that of ‘sweating on’ and it took place some time between tea and supper. I should explain that supper was not something warm and nourishing but merely a piece of mousetrap cheese, a lump of yellow pickle, a hard biscuit and a mug of doctored cocoa. If you are still interested, I shall now show you how to ‘sweat on’, so please follow me to the boot room. You will need to bring the following items: One pair of army issue black boots or shoes A tin of Kiwi shoe polish A worn yellow duster One small shoe brush One large shoe brush Some Plush Nugget sweets Some Woodbine cigarettes.
1 As you enter the boot room, check that Thorpe Junior and his friends are not waiting in the shadows to hang you by your shoulder straps from the upper row of coat hooks as it is very difﬁcult to get down without assistance. 2 Remove any dried mud, loose dirt or doggy do from the boots, paying particular attention to the soles and the welts. If necessary, bang them against the walls of the boot room. 3 Spread Kiwi polish over the shoes using the small brush, making sure that the area underneath the boot between the heel and the sole is also covered. Incidentally, avoid school issue Day & Martin polish like the plague. The fact that it is mentioned in Dickens is no recommendation, and only use Cherry Blossom if there is nothing else available.
5 Brush away the dried polish vigorously using the larger brush. 6 Cover your index ﬁnger with a smooth layer of duster and smear a small amount of polish on it. Work your ﬁnger in small circles around each of the toe caps at about a rate of 150 circles per minute. Pause, occasionally, to replenish the polish and add a touch of saliva. The polish must not be allowed to stick to the duster 7 Be prepared to spend at least 30 minutes on this routine and, eventually, you will see your face smiling back at you from the toe caps. Polish them both up lightly with the duster. 8 Commiserate with boys who have just been issued with new boots and need to build up thin layers of wax polish. Suggest that they bribe a junior member of the house with Plush Nuggets to sweat on the boots for them. You could avoid stages 6 and 7 above, by doing exactly the same thing. 9 As you leave the boot room, make sure that Thorpe Junior and his friends are not waiting to ruin your evening by stamping on your hard work. That’s why you brought those woodbine cigarettes, remember? A tour guide once told a party of visiting Americans that the highly polished boots worn by the mounted sentries of the Household Cavalry shone because they were made of patent leather. One of the sentries leaned down and shouted in her face. ‘Madam, You are a liar!’, an action for which he was severely reprimanded. Nevertheless, I still ﬁnd it quite incredible that we wasted so many precious hours of our young lives ensuring that a small patch of leather would reﬂect the sky.
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. Veterans of the ﬁrst world war, 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.
The Gammy Leg
During my ﬁrst week at the military school, I started to get stabbing pains under my right kneecap. Occasionally, I felt them on the left as well. After the hot dry sands of Egypt, where we only attended school during the morning, and ran around in shorts and sandals, the change to a damp climate, cumbersome clothes and heavy army boots probably had something to do with it. When I asked to be excused from marching to meals, I was sent to run around the playing ﬁelds and then made to stand outside the dining hall in the cold. Eventually, someone with an IQ sent me to see the medical ofﬁcer. The RAMC doctor was quite concerned about my problem. I was stretched out on a brown leather bound couch while he asked questions and prodded around my knees. Suddenly, from his pocket he produced a tape measure; I couldn’t have been more surprised than if he had produced a tape worm. Then he started to measure the length of my legs and came to the conclusion that one was longer than the other, though he didn’t say by how much. ‘I think you have a gammy leg, old chap,’ he announced, and thought it would be a good idea if I were excused from drill and sports while he held a ‘watching brief’ on the situation. On the following Saturday, the whole school assembled for drill on the large parade ground under the watchful eye of the Regimental Sergeant Major. Bristling with complete authority, he bellowed ‘PARADE...wait for it...wait for it....SHUN!’ In unison, every boy lifted his left foot a couple of feet in the air and stamped it down next to his right, while forcing his arms stifﬂy to his sides. The RSM continued: ‘By the left, Quick March! Keep those arms up. That’s the way. Bags of swank.’ I stood to the side of the parade ground and watched the young troops march up and down, wheel left and right, turn left and right, turn about, double march, change step, slow step, salute, halt, and ﬁnally stand at ease. Short of marching backwards and doing an Irish jig, they must have performed every known manoeuvre, I had seen soldiers drilling in Egypt so this was nothing new to me. In fact, we used to ﬁre our catapults at them from the safety of trees around the barracks square, but these were children on parade and it did look rather strange.
I was grinning with amusement when I noticed the RSM making a beeline in my direction. Towering above me, he demanded to know why I was excused his drill parade. I told him and he stared at me in disbelief. He then asked me to follow him to the centre of the parade ground where I faced 409 boys. ‘This boy is excused drill,’ he bellowed. ‘And do you know why?’ No one dared answer. ‘He tells me that he has one leg shorter than the other!’ The whole of the parade collapsed in a sea of mirth. With a prod of his swagger stick, I was dismissed and returned to my place as a spectator feeling somewhat aggrieved at, what we might now call, his ‘lack of pastoral care’. Right then, I could have done with that catapult, but there were no trees convenient to the action. After further visits to the medical ofﬁcer, I was reassured that my legs were of equal length and that the problem was some kind of inﬂammation. Thereafter, the pain subsided and didn’t reoccur for another three years. When it did, I had to drop out of sports which was really disappointing. Once a week, I was sent to a military hospital near Folkestone for infra-red treatment. These lamps are commonplace now, but, in those days, it meant having two large metal plates clamped either side of your knee. A corporal in the medical corps, with a cigarette dangling from his mouth, would sit reading comics and occasionally switch the current on or off until I had received the correct dose. The best thing about these visits was that I got to travel on the bus to town with one of a pair of attractive sisters. Their father was a PE teacher and they were both very popular among the boys at school. My travelling companion was older than me, but she was a friendly, cheerful girl and I looked forward to our brief but pleasant weekly journey together. The knees soon recovered but I was in no hurry to inform the medical authorities. Fast forward a couple of years and it is time for the school’s annual boxing competition. I had done my bit in the past for the house team but, after two disqualiﬁcations for low altitude punching, never expected to be called upon for my services again. But there was my name on the list and I was up against boys who might one day earn their living as nightclub bouncers or military police. They were all taller and heavier than me. This year, the favourite for the senior medal was a strapping lad called Herbie and I was going to be his ﬁrst victim! Like a scaffold, the boxing ring was gradually erected in the main assembly hall. Each time I passed it, I felt my heart sink, but knew there was no escape from the ordeal which lay ahead. Would I be in the red corner or the blue corner, or end up in both? There were only three rounds and each round would last two minutes, but an awful lot can happen in that ﬁrst round, or in that ﬁrst minute. Actually, Herbie was a
really nice guy, but I couldn’t take any chances, so I did some roadwork and skipping, and even spent a couple of hours whacking at a punch bag. All this was of little comfort, however, when close friends offered to say prayers for me in the school chapel prior to the contest. The day before the competition began, all the boxers were required to report to the school hospital for a medical. Herbie was there, as was Hobo, his nearest challenger. They look well-matched and were eyeing each other up; possibly thinking ahead to the ﬁnal. When my name was called, I went in to see the doctor and he checked my blood pressure and all those other important things. Suddenly, completely out of the blue, he asked, ‘How’s that gammy leg of yours, nowadays?’ I had completely forgotten about it, but like a true hero replied, ‘Well, Sir, it does play up now and then. In fact it’s twitching a bit even now.’ The doctor prodded gently around my kneecap and I winced painfully. “Mmmm,’ he mused, ‘We can’t have you going into that ring and damaging yourself, can we?’ Actually, it wasn’t self damage that I was worried about. The next thing I knew was that I was holding a slip of paper stating that I was unﬁt for sport until further notice. As I went down the path leading from the hospital, I had to restrain myself from skipping with joy. I thoroughly enjoyed watching the ﬁnals. Despite being the favourite, I think Herbie was knocked down (or out) in the third round by a swift uppercut from Hobo. In fact, Herbie put up a rather disappointing show and, had it taken place, I might have won the earlier match against him. Indeed, but for the misfortune of my having that gammy leg play up again, I could have been a contender.
Play the Game!
High on the cliffs above Dover, the playing ﬁelds were an inspiring, if windy, setting for nearly any kind of sport. What we too once called soccer, unfortunately, was banned because it gave the wrong message from an institution wishing to nurture the image of a public school. Those cliffs stretched for miles and on a clear day, you might see the coast of France across the other side of the Channel. The ﬁelds were also the setting for, and rather swamped, the annual Trooping of the Colour. Also known as Grand Day, it was a parade in which a bigwig from the War Ofﬁce would inspect the colour guard, take the general salute, and tell us we were all ‘jolly ﬁne chaps.’ And, of course, we were. On the western edge of the school, in this expanse of lush greenery, there was a wooded area, a cricket pavilion and a disused wartime pillbox. They made the perfect site for one game that was not to be found on the curriculum but which gave us hours of fun. Kick the Can! This wonderful game of hide and seek required no umpire, fancy sportswear or expensive equipment, just a tin can or, preferably, a battered football. We could play it for hours and the rules were fairly simple. Kick the Can
• A home base is selected and the ball is placed there • One player is chosen to be !It" • Another players kicks the ball as far away as possible • While !It" retrieves the ball, the rest of the players go off and hide. • !It" replaces the ball at base and goes off in search of the hidden players. • If he ﬁnds a hidden player, he races back to the ball, and calls his name. • The captured player must remain !in jail" by the ball, but if he reaches the ball ﬁrst, he can kick it and go and hide again. • An uncaptured player can release anyone in jail by running and kicking the ball, but !It" has to watch out for this and never stray too far from the ball. • If he sees an uncaptured player making for the ball, he must try to get there ﬁrst and call out their name. • This player now becomes !It" and another game starts.
Right, I hope you got all that. It is a multi-skilled game requiring agility, observation, memory and cunning. Players were usually just as happy to seek as they were to hide. There were rarely any arguments, the game practically ran itself and was quite absorbing. Indeed, I can only recall two events that interfered with a game of Kick the Can. The ﬁrst was the famous FA Cup Final of 1953 when Blackpool with the immortal Stanley Mathews recovered from a 1-3 deﬁcit to win 4-3. We had no radio but took turns at going back to the nearest one for an update on the score. The other incident was closer to hand and very dramatic. In the midst of a game, we were distracted by a USAF jet ﬁghter whining above our heads and then ignored it; they often came over the school from the US air force base at Manston. But then we heard the engine spluttering and, looking up, saw two parachutes descending from the sky. The plane swerved uncontrollably in one direction and then the other, until,with a deafening roar, it plunged directly into the ground and exploded in a huge ball of ﬁre and black smoke. The pilots were both safe though one sustained a broken limb. The crash site was about two miles away and we almost abandoned our game to go and look for souvenirs, but thought better of it. Lacking the need for expensive hi-tech equipment, sponsors or a high altitude training camp, Kick the Can is unlikely to feature in a future Olympics. On the other hand, there have been some strange activities introduced over the years, e.g. synchronised drowning by numbers, and that curious combination of skiing and shooting which seemed ideal training for an Eastern European border guard. So, who knows, we may see Kick the Can grace an Olympic stadium one day and, having beaten the Germans in the ﬁnal, members of a victorious UK team will return home to be awarded their OBE’s.
Treten sie die Dose!
Boy Soldiers and Straw Boaters
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. 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 Dining Hall in 1909 and 2009
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.
When I think back on my ﬁrst few days at the school, I recall waking up at 6.30 to the sound of three light switches being ﬂicked on in succession. Click! Click! Click! The hand at the end of those dormitory switches belonged to Froggy, our housemaster . He was a dapper man with a military bearing and sported an Adolf Hitler moustache. He was always immaculately dressed with a handkerchief tucked up a sleeve of his blazer, and had a beautiful wife called Lavinia who was a professional actress. One role for which she was not cut out, however, was that of the housemaster’s wife. We saw very little of her and she had a number of admirers. They had no children. Though his ﬁrst name was Neville, Froggy had several other nicknames including Nutty Nev and Typical Tom. The reason for the former will soon become apparent, but the latter referred to his overuse of the word ‘typical’ during his geography lessons. Boys used to keep a count and take bets on the total. In his younger days, he had been a keen amateur footballer and played for the Corinthians and for Hertford Town Football Club. He often wore his old Corinthians shirt when he coached us at football. When the school commissioners, in order to foster a closer association with public schools in Kent, banned football in favour of rugby, Froggy didn’t put up much of a ﬁght. I supposes that he was reaching a stage when his football coaching days would soon be over. On my ﬁrst Saturday, we lined up for our pocket money, which was 2 shillings a week, or 10p in today’s money. For some boys, this was the ﬁrst time they had ever received any pocket money and we all looked forward to spending our new-found wealth. On the table, next to the payment register, was a pile of bagged sweets called Plush Nuggets. I was one of the ﬁrst in the queue and had just taken ownership of two shiny shilling pieces. ‘Would you like a bag of sweets?’ asked Froggy. ‘Oh yes please,’ I replied in innocence. The next thing I knew was that he had snatched away one of my shillings and handed me a bag of pink and white Plush Nuggets. Losing half my pocket money was bad enough, but to discover, later, that the same sweets could be bought cheaper in town, was too much to bear, and I never bought sweets again at the school. Incidentally, I found the Plush Nuggets quite sickening.
One day, when he found that a boy called Dennis Long and I had lived in Egypt, he called the rest of the house into the dayroom. The two of us were asked to sit crosslegged opposite each other and conduct a conversation in Arabic. I can hardly remember it now but Dennis recalls us exchanging a torrent of vulgar abuse which we had picked up from the soldiers stationed along the Suez Canal. We were, of course, the only ones who knew what was going on, but Froggy and the rest of the boys were totally captivated and warmly applauded our linguistic skills. When asked to translate, we explained that we were just engaging in some pleasant banter and that the dramatic hand gestures were a normal but crucial part of such an exchange. It was in his geography lessons that Froggy showed us much of his eccentric nature. He managed to convince the more gullible amongst us that he had a secret payattention-meter, which he said went red when the class was not paying sufﬁcient attention. In the 21st century, with developments in hi-tech surveillance equipment, a meter of this kind might be quite feasible, but this was 1952. Sometimes he would ask us which country would, one day, lead the world in scientiﬁc and technological advances. Our suggestions included the USA, China or Russia. ‘No,’ he would reply whilst shaking his head, ‘Look to India boys, look to India.’ We would laugh but he really meant it and he may yet be right. One day, shortly after the Coronation in 1953, he breezed into the classroom barely able to contain his excitement. He told us that our class had been selected from the whole of Britain to accompany the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh on their tour of the Commonwealth. In fact, we were to join them on their Southern Hemisphere leg when they would be aboard the Shaw Savill liner, Gothic, and visiting many Paciﬁc Islands, New Zealand and Australia. Of course, it was just a cunning ploy by an imaginative teacher to get us involved in collecting newspaper reports and photos as the tour unfolded, but some of us actually believed him and shared his excitement. But we were not alone, for a year or two later he managed to convince a similar class that they were going on a trip to the Amazon jungle and that they should all write to their parents seeking permission to undertake this arduous journey. Some of them did.
Here we come!
Later, I moved to another house and to another geography class, and saw less and less of this quirky teacher. As he grew older, he used to stumble a lot which caused people to suspect that he might be hitting the bottle. The truth was rather more serious and he ended his days in a wheelchair with motor neuron disease. An old boy went to visit him in retirement and it was clear that he was lonely and missed the school and the boys very much. He wasn’t exactly a Mr Chips ﬁgure, for he was sometimes rather remote or aloof, but I still recall Froggy with affection. Some years after leaving school, I was working on a cargo ship berthed in Auckland when the Gothic steamed in. One of the dockers said, ‘That’s the ship that carried the Queen here.’ I recalled its contribution to the Royal Tour, the excitement in the geography room, and smiled at the memory of our foolishness.
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