Boys confined to any kind of institution will do the strangest things to or with each other. Sometimes, it is just a tradition passed on from one year to the next, such as playing pranks on newcomers. Sometimes it is horseplay which usually ends up in everyone getting detention, but wasn't it worth it? Occasionally, bullying would raise its nasty little head with a focus on the younger boys or the dormitory scapegoat. Fortunately, there was not a great deal of bullying within the house system, and bullies always discovered that, within a year or so, the younger boys they tormented had matured physically and were eager to return the beatings they had once received.
Newchies or newcomers. Each house had a boot room, which was a square brick building in the backyard and housed some work benches and toilets. There were several rows of coat hooks along one of the walls. A newchie entering the boot room alone could be in for a nasty shock. As he placed his boots and cleaning brushes on the bench, he might find himself lifted skywards and suspended from a pair of coat hooks by the shoulder straps of his khaki uniform. It was a position from which escape was virtually impossible and the luckless fellow might hang there for some time until other boys came to his rescue. I remember one poor lad who hung suspended from the upper row of coat pegs throughout supper. Mind you, for the swill that was sometimes dished up, he wouldn't have missed much.
New boys were soon introduced to the legend of the headless drummer. This was the ghost of a drummer boy who haunted various school buildings, notably the clock tower. It was a gospel fact that several boys had collapsed and died at the sight of his headless corpse! Honestly! Among the many tales and rumours surrounding the headless drummer, was his silent march to a muffled drum beat through certain houses or dormitories at dead of night. An inquisitive newchie would discover that the drummer's favourite dormitory was the very one in which he now slept. That night, hearing the sound of a drumbeat, the boy would hide in terror under the sheets, forgo the call of nature and probably wet the bed.
Horseplay: During wet or cold weather, we would wear heavy army coats or greatcoats as they were known. We marched to the dining hall and hung our coats in a long narrow room to the side of the hall. After the meal, there should have been an orderly evacuation of the dining hall to collect our coats. More often than not, however, this would turn into a scrummage and we would fight our way to the entrance grabbing any coat we could find. It was sheer mayhem. Indeed, on one occasion, I carried a small bottle of joke scent called Wallflower and shook it over the assembled throng. It was far more powerful than a stink bomb and the ensuing stampede would have graced any African game reserve.
Other kinds of horseplay included wrestling in the mud on the sports field, wet towel flicking sessions in the bathroom ( this is not to be recommended) and maring up. To mare up successfully, one person had to stay awake until the school clock sounded midnight. He then woke up the rest of the dormitory and we would tiptoe silently through the darkened house to a junior dormitory. Each member of the invading force would take the side of a bed and, at a signal from the leader, twenty unfortunate occupants would be tipped out onto the wooden floor. As we became more adventurous, we ventured beyond the house and attacked the dormitories of other houses. I loved maring up and always volunteered to be the dormitory alarm clock. I had no difficulty staying awake, it was a skill I had honed while rousing slashers (persistent bed wetters) from their slumbers and escorting them to the loo
For some reason, boys love to slide. When the ice lay thick on the paths and parade ground, we would form an orderly queue and take turns at running and sliding along the ice in our heavy army boots. The creation of slides was strictly forbidden as they were a danger to members of staff, and we couldn't think of a better reason for making them. Back in the dormitory, smaller boys discovered a rather more comfortable form of sliding. With their highly polished floors, the dormitories were usually out of bounds during the day, but we would hide under the beds until the coast was clear. Then, by pushing off from the end wall, we would try to see how many beds we could slide under. One lad was very good at it and, on one occasion, slid the whole length of the dormitory's wooden floor. It was a record and was probably never beaten. I can still hear his head cracking against the far wall. Sometimes, the house matron would discover us and shout ‘Numbers 2, 6 and 54. Get out of the dormitory immediately!' In five years, I never heard her use our names; she knew us only by our laundry numbers. In fact, several years after leaving school, I went to see her and she greeted me warmly: ‘Hello No 2. Are you still at sea?'
Bullying: The laundry numbers mentioned above were used for other identification purposes and for one rather unpleasant tradition called ‘beats'. If you were number 54, then on the 54th day before the end of term, you were entitled to receive 54 beats or punches on the arm. This was hard on boys higher up the numerical order. The exception to this procedure was that the boy whose number was 2 would receive a ‘dorm bashing' which meant that he could be punched an unlimited number of times by boys in his dormitory. But pity boy number 1, because he was entitled to a house bashing. In reality, within a day or two of the end of term, the boys were so excited at going on leave that they usually forgot. I was number 2 in my house but do not recall being on the end of a dorm bashing. Perhaps I was beaten unconscious?
The dining hall was often the venue for some strange bullying tactics. For example, a particularly unpleasant prefect would make us sit with our arms folded behind our backs when we had finished eating. Clearly, this worthless turd did not see the meal as a social occasion and we were glad to hear grace called and then escape. The calling of grace, however, could be the signal for a rather nasty and painful prank. We sat on heavy benches, five to a bench. and if one of the boys had offended the others in some way, they would secretly agree to knock the bench over as they stepped back over it to stand up for grace. The unsuspecting victim would then get the full force of the heavy oak bench as it toppled on his foot. It happened to me by accident one day and I can assure you that it was very painful and left me hobbling for a couple of days. After that, I always checked the fall of the bench with one of my knees, regardless of whom the intended victim was.
Suspect activities: Running a historical military institution with a strong moral and religious ethos, the school administrators were very concerned that the boys would not engage in any form of homosexual activity. In fact, they were obsessed by it and, under the pretence of a sociological survey, requested that we kept a ‘friendship' diary. In these we recorded who our friends were and the kinds of thing we did to amuse ourselves. Most of us wrote things like playing chess and making model aeroplanes from kits; we knew what they would like to see. We would also reassure each other that we featured prominently in each other's diaries. Having a friend in the same year group was perfectly alright. Having a friend in a group a year older or younger was reasonably acceptable, but having friends two years younger or older was definitely discouraged. A much younger boy once asked me to show him how to handsprings; the one gymnastic activity in which I excelled. We went to a quiet corner of the playing fields and I demonstrated the basics of handspringing until he could accomplish them like a circus performer. While we were cavorting backwards and forwards, we noticed a master hiding in a nearby copse and watching us very carefully. We stared at him with interest and, in a clumsy attempt to depart the scene, he became entangled in some brambles and stung himself.
I suppose we were quite a homophobic lot and made life quite difficult for boys who were chosen for female parts in the school plays. One of the master's wives had been an actress and knew quite a lot about stage makeup, and when she had finished it was difficult to tell the reluctant actors from girls. They were subject to insults, name calling, gestures and taunts, but took it remarkably well. Mind you, there were one or two who enjoyed being ‘tarted up' and flaunted their new found beauty; perhaps they are still cross-dressing. In the early years, the only parts I was offered were that of an orphan in Dotheboys Hall and a pirate called Snooks in Captain Cutlass or something. So not much chance of exploring any feminine side there.
Every so often, we would have an individual interview to review our diaries and, sometimes, the teacher interviewing us would ask rather awkwardly if we had seen any strange things going on between boys. As a newcomer, I had occasionally been made to run the gauntlet. This meant dashing up and down the dormitory in the altogether while being slippered across the backside by older boys. I believe that it has its origins in the French Army as a punishment for thieves. At school, however, it was an indoor sport organised by one of the prefects and he took great pleasure in picking on the boys who had lived abroad, for our white bottoms stood out against our tans and made an excellent target. Consequently, I remember volunteering the information that certain boys took an unnatural interest in our buttocks and the master stared at me with incredulity. I feigned embarrassment so he did not press me for further details.
My response, however, was not as artful as one of my friends. He was a smoker but could never afford them and, tired of being taunted by his nicotine stained and wealthier pals, decided to get his revenge. When asked the question about strange goings on between boys, he lowered his voice and confessed to the master that he believed that such activities did indeed take place. The master pressed him gently for more information. My friend explained that certain rather questionable activities took place on Tuesday evenings behind the rifle range. What took place behind the rifle range was nothing more than a smokers club and it wasn't long before its members were disturbed by a posse of masters and the chaplain expecting to break up a rather different kind of activity. '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 local shops. 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 haven 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.There were no further incidents of this nature and, despite RSM Jones’ misgivings, we were not banned from shopping at dear old Woolies.
Tony Crowley (c) 2009