John Allison walked through the gates of St Francis Independent Grammar School for the first time as a pupil.
All around him boys were hurrying along, anxious not to be late.
“Hurry along you tykes,” a senior boy, obviously a prefect, called to a group of eight or nine young boys, who were some way off from the gate. “Gates are closing. You don’t want to be up for a bowing.”
The boys ran at fall pace and as the last one made it through the ornate gates, the prefect slammed them shut. Any boy who arrived now would have his name taken and could find himself up before his housemaster for a caning.
John stood unsure where he was supposed to go. For a moment he paused to take in the splendour. St Francis Grammar School, Brocklehurst, reputedly could trace its roots back to the 1700s. It certainly was a splendid old building, but not ancient. John had never seen anything quite like it. His previous school had been modern in all respects: the buildings, the curriculum, the attitude of teachers to their charges.
Seemingly hundreds of boys streamed into the building. They certainly didn’t look too modern in John’s eyes. All the boys in the first, second and third forms wore grey short trousers. John didn’t know any eleven- to fourteen-year-old boys in the real world who wore short trousers to school. If it had been said that the boys should wear short trousers at Calmbury, his previous school, the boys – and the teachers too – would have mocked the suggestion.
John surveyed his new schoolmates. He didn’t feel quite so absurd now wearing his green-and-gold-hooped school cap: everyone as far as the eye could see wore the strange headgear. His mother had laughed out loud when she read the school’s regulations and teased him unmercifully: school cap; white Y-front underpants (how would they know?); short-back-and-sides haircuts and Ha! Ha! Ha! six-of-the-best-for-you-young-man if you are naughty. And, no girls!
His father did not join in the fun. Even now, more than twenty-five years after he had left behind St Tom’s forever, he still resented the canings he and his fellow pupils had endured.
John hated the school uniform. His green school blazer with gold braiding around the edges shrieked of self-importance. At least, aged eighteen, he would not be forced to wear the short trousers.
St Francis had a fine academic record. It was a traditional school: traditional teaching methods, traditional sports, traditional school uniform and traditional discipline. It was a boys-only independent fee-paying grammar school with delusions that it was an elite public school. This was such be a contrast to Calmbury, also an independent school, but it had girls as well as boys and attitudes were so informal the pupils were not expected to wear school uniform and corporal punishment was unheard of.
“Excuse me.” John was approached by a short, stocky boy, about his own age. “Are you by any chance Allison?” He seemed friendly and John was happy to confess his identity.
“I’ve been told to take you along to meet your form master. My name’s Anderson.”
And, with that he led John into the ancient building and his new life at St Francis.
His form master Mr Tatler gave him a lot of information about his lessons timetable and where the classrooms were. But, John couldn’t take it in. Tatler (the boys, John later discovered, called him ‘Tatters’) was dressed in a formal academic gown and resting nearby on a desk was his mortar board cap.
John didn’t know how to react; it was as if he had stepped into a time machine and travelled back; how many years? He had never seen a schoolmaster dressed like this. He assumed all the teachers, or ‘masters’ as he had better get used to calling them, wore something similar. He had never seen anything remotely like this in his life, except perhaps once when he had been a small boy and he went exploring in the attic at his granddad’s home. He had found a pile of old comics; the Magnet and the Gem he thought they were called. They weren’t very good, they were full of words with few pictures, but the drawings he did see were of schoolmasters dressed like Tatters.
Anderson was a good sort and he soon took John under his wing. At lunchtime he was given the ‘grand tour.’ And, ‘grand’ the school certainly was: ivy-covered walls; mullioned-windows in the library; a ‘clock tower’ with narrow stone steps leading to the headmaster’s study.
“You don’t ever want to go up there,” Anderson said cheerfully. “It can mean only one thing.”
He laughed at John’s puzzled expression. “A bowing from Dr Henderson-Smith,” he laughed as merrily he swiped his right arm through the air in parody.
John blanched. He was silent, unsure what he was expected to say in response. His mother had mocked the corporal punishment regime at St Francis, but John was not so offhand. This school gave him the creeps. Anyhow, he knew he was only nine months away from taking his final examinations and leaving school for good. He would just keep his head down. Besides, he was eighteen and far too old to be summoned to the doctor’s study for a ‘bowing.’
The tour continued through the passageways (as ‘corridors’ were called at St Francis) of the three main buildings.
“And around here is where the housemasters’ studies are.” They turned a corner into a long passageway, almost bumping into four boys standing in a line, facing the wall.
“Ha!” Anderson, chuckled and called over to the miserable looking youngsters. “Hello there! What’s this, the ‘lunchtime line-up’?”
Suddenly, behind him, he heard footsteps. It was Mr Durrant, the housemaster of Treacher’s.
“Quick!” Anderson grabbed John by the sleeve of his blazer. “Let’s go, we don’t want to get caught here.”
But, Mr Durrant was in no hurry; he had enjoyed a satisfying meal and was on his way to his study for what had become known among the boys as the ‘lunchtime line-up.’
Every day, almost without fail, one or more boys would be sent to him for a caning. St Francis Grammar was a traditional school and corporal punishment was regularly used. There were rules and if a boy got caught breaking them, he was punished, and very often that meant a beating.
One of Mr Durrant’s duties, and he took it very seriously, was to be impose discipline. That day he expected to find four boys waiting nervously outside his study and as he turned the corner he was not disappointed. They were an assorted bunch; two eleven-year-old juniors dressed in short trousers; most unusually, a prefect; and then Anthony Brewer, a fifth-form rebel who was becoming a regular visitor.
“Good afternoon, gentlemen,” he always called the boys he was about to thrash, “gentlemen.”
“Stand up straight all of you. Keep facing the wall.” The boys did as instructed, but the housemaster detected some resentment from James Axford, the prefect. Well, if he did misbehave and break rules he shouldn’t be surprised that he was treated the same way as the first-form boys; in every respect.
Mr Durrant unlocked the door of the study and beckoning to the prefect, said, “Come with me Axford.”
Showing no enthusiasm, the eighteen-year-old prefect followed behind the gowned master. James Axford entered the study, splendid in his smart green blazer with gold braiding. He looked a little apprehensive as well he might; senior boys, particularly prefects, were expected to set an example to the younger pupils, not to break the rules themselves.
“Stand there, in front of my desk.”
It was a large room, gloomy, with dark oak bookshelves around three walls. A large desk, also made from oak, dominated the room and there were a number of small wooden chairs. Two large padded armchairs were arranged around a small coffee table. The chairs were called ‘comfortable chairs,’ but to the boys who bent across their backs routinely during the lunchtime visits they were far from comfortable. In the corner was a tall, thin, cupboard that housed the implements that were responsible for that discomfort: Mr Durrant’s vast collection of canes.
He sat behind his desk and surveyed the boy. Mr Durrant knew he should have sent the boy to the headmaster, but he was certain Dr Henderson-Smith would have given Axford a special thrashing because he was a senior boy and also withdrawn his prefect status. Mr Durrant thought that punishment was too harsh for Axford’s crime.
He had been spotted in town during school hours: the school uniform was very conspicuous. Mr Durrant suspected prefects sometimes left the school premises during their free periods: the only thing Axford did differently was to get caught.
He selected a longer, thicker whippy rattan cane from his cupboard.
James had been expecting this and had a speech rehearsed, “You can’t cane a prefect, Sir; it’s not allowed.”
The barrack-room lawyer! Mr Durrant was more amused than angry, but tried not to show it.
“Prefects aren’t allowed to be beaten. No prefect has ever been beaten, that is,” he trailed off a bit as he realised his housemaster was in no mood for this.
Mr Durrant knew Axford was both right and wrong; no prefect had been caned in recent memory, the boy would have the privilege to be the first in a very long time; but there was no rule that said he could not be beaten.
The housemaster was beginning to wish he had sent the brat to Dr Henderson-Smith. All he wanted was for Axford to bend over and take his Six and they could both move on.
Then he had an idea. “Take off your tie, Axford.”
The boy was genuinely puzzled by this order. “Tie, Sir?”
“Yes Axford, take off your prefect’s tie.”
The boy hesitated, trying to work out in his mind what was going on.
“Please do it now Axford, I have others waiting outside to visit me.”
Still unsure what this meant, the boy loosened his tie and pulled it from under his shirt collar.
He held it in his hand, wondering what he was meant to do now. He didn’t have to wait long to find out.
“Hand me the tie, please.”
The housemaster took the tie and put it on his desk.
“Now, Axford, you are no longer a prefect. Please bend over that chair.”
James was indignant; he was to be beaten and lose his prefect’s status; just for being out of the school. The other guys did it all the time.
The housemaster swished his cane impatiently.
“The chair, Axford, the chair.”
James took a deep breath and stood close to the back of the armchair. He had been in this position before, but not for at least three years, when he had been caught smoking; it had been the first time he tried cigarettes and after the whacking he got then from Mr Durrant, it was also the last.
“Bend over please.”
James leaned forward and reached out to grasp the front of the seat cushion.
“Let’s have your bottom a little higher please.”
James had to stretch on tip toe before he satisfied his housemaster.
“Legs further apart.”
James screwed his eyes tight and gripped the cushion for dear life.
Mr Durrant whipped six stingers into the boy’s submissive buttocks: rat-tat-tat- rat-tat- tat. The strokes were a little more vigorous than he had originally intended and the cracks of his rattan cane against the tightly-stretched grey Terylene trousers rang around the room like machinegun fire.
James groaned as the whacks pounded into his buttocks, but stifled his desire to yelp out loud. He could feel moisture behind his eyes and prayed he would not cry; not at least until he was far away from the housemaster’s study and the boy standing outside waiting his turn.
Mr Durrant had not yet allowed Axford to stand. He put the cane away and watched the boy from a distance; Axford was breathing heavily and his head was so low he was almost kissing the seat cushion. The caning had hurt; Mr Durrant knew it but he also understood the importance the boys placed on their dignity, it would not matter how much agony the caning caused them, they would not want to let their punisher know.
The housemaster saw the boy wanted to get out of the study without delay, so he put him out of his misery.
“You can remove yourself Axford. You took that well.”
James stood and despite himself, his hands shot to the seat of his trousers to hold his throbbing buttocks tightly.
Mr Durrant pretended not to notice and turned to his desk and picked up the tie.
“Take this Axford, you are now reinstated as a prefect.”
Despite the agony in his buttocks and his original resentment, James was genuinely pleased to be restored to the prefecthood.
“Thank you very much, Sir.”
He signed the punishment book and Mr Durrant offered his right hand and they shook; like gentlemen do.
As he painfully shuffled towards the door, Mr Durrant called after him, “Ask the next boy to come in please.”
Other St Francis Grammar School stories you might like.
More stories from Charles Hamilton II are on the MMSA website
Charles Hamilton the Second