No. 186

OSB Logo The Old St Beghian
  July 2014


Robert Bodenham (F 40-43) continues his reminiscences of war time at the school.
Part 2:

“In a way St Bees School was run a bit like the army with the staff in the position of the officers but with the senior boys in the role of the non-commissioned officers. The orders came down from above but it was the prefects, who, as it were, ran the houses. They made up the exercise lists each day and organised working parties etc. Household staff were in short supply so we were all organised to keep our dayrooms clean and tidy. All the floors were wooden so we all spent a lot of time, I think it was Sunday mornings before chapel, putting polish on the floor and then bumping it with a great heavy polisher, which the operator would heave back and forth with a long handle. All would be inspected and if not satisfactory we would be made to do it again.

Misdemeanours were often punished by being beaten with a whippy cane administered by a strong young prefect. Occasionally four strokes but more usually six. The victim was bent over a chair in the prefects’ study with only the thin short trousers as protection. The administrator of the beating would retire to the end of the room and then run down the room and lay on the cane with full force. The pain was severe but just bearable to start with but left one with trembling legs and severe pain and bruising in stripes from one side of one’s buttocks to the other. The skin could easily be broken and the bruising took weeks to disappear. Naturally one would try not to show any distress as that would brand one a coward but it was distressing, especially as one was told to attend the prefects’ room 24 hours after the sentence had been given, so the anticipation was as bad as the beating. After the beating one would return to one’s day room holding back the tears and then drop one’s pants to show with pride the developing stripes on the buttocks. I was given six once. I had been taken short after I had gone to bed one night and was caught coming back from the loo and was out of bed.  Boys were seldom beaten by the housemaster and even less often by the headmaster; things had to be extremely serious for that to happen. Shades of Dickens and Dotheboys Hall!

The dominant, more "senior" boys in each day room used to control their juniors by unofficial methods of bullying. If a senior boy noticed a younger or junior boy watching him across the room he would pass his hand across his face and this was known as a message to ‘turn it off’. If the junior didn't respond quickly or if the junior did anything else to which the slightly senior boy objected, the junior boy could be summoned to appear in the changing room in the basement at some convenient time where there would be gathered a collection of the other boys who would administer a ‘Rooting’. This entailed bending the boy over the edge of a bath and then the others would queue up to kick his bottom. It was understood that only the flat of the shoe would be used but the odd sadist would use his toe which was dangerous. Everybody endured rootings during their first year. The threat was really worse than the actual experience but certainly I found this perpetual pressure from the slightly older dominant boys in the first year spoilt my introduction to the school and in a way poisoned my feelings for St Bees later on.

One rule was that all junior boys were to wear their blazers with all three buttons done up. Any buttons undone was referred to as ‘Gliding’. Only privileged boys were permitted to glide: prefects, members of the sixth form and certain others. For example, there was one boy who played the organ well and he played for the chapel services. He was allowed to glide. Disobeying this rule could result in trouble for the person concerned. It was the older, senior boys who enforced this rule. At first, in the sixth form, you were allowed to have one button undone and then at last you could relax with only the middle button done up which of course was much more comfortable. I'm sure there were other petty rules which all enabled the slightly more senior boys to control their otherwise equally senior fellows, but it's now so long ago that they are fading away in my memory.

Considering there was rationing, the food was not too bad on Foundation House. We were of course always ready for our meals and on the whole I now feel that the catering staff probably did the best they could under the circumstances. Unlike the people on the continent, in the occupied countries and later in Germany, we never really went hungry. The Ministry of Food under Lord Woolton really did an excellent job of feeding the country under hugely difficult conditions.  We grumbled all the time of course and I remember one dreadful occasion  when under orders from the usual boys at the top of the table, who decided the food was below standard, we were told  to pass the plates right round the tables as usual as the meal was being served, but the plates didn't stop at each boy as his arrived but were just passed on to the bottom, so Mrs Brown (known as ‘Hag Brown’), who did the catering and serving, found she was being slowly buried under masses of plates full of untouched food . She was furious. I cannot remember what the final outcome was. We probably went to bed hungry.

Everything was rationed and we each had small lidded cans with our names on with our own personal sugar rations filled each week. The cans were about 3 ½ inches high and about 2 inches in diameter. They didn't hold much sugar and it was difficult to last the week. I ate a lot of unsweetened porridge at St Bees. As usual, there were thieves among us and several times I got to the table to find my tin had been raided and I had lost up to half my ration for the week. One day we had strange sort of round pieces of meat. Eventually, after much enquiry, it turned out we had had conger eel. Horse meat was available in horse meat shops and I'm sure some of our beef was really horse. I remember eating whale meat once or twice at home but don't remember eating it at school.

We all had our own tuck box in which we would bring from home a few edible things, rationed sweets, the odd fruit cake etc for which our mothers and fathers would collect their rations for us during the term for us to take back to school. Often these goodies would be their own short rations, which would be great treats for us during the term. As I said above there was an accepted culture among some of the less sporting boys that a new boy's tuck box was fair game. Once or twice I got into my box to find it had been raided, the lock having been picked, and some precious cake or toffee removed. There would be complete silence from the community so one never found out who had stolen from you. I never actually raided another's box but I became quite a dab hand at picking simple locks with a bit of wire. So I learnt something useful at St Bees! After my first term my father and I fitted a false bottom to my box, but I cannot remember if it helped much. My own son took my old box to school with him for a while about thirty years later.

Only the wealthier boys ever seemed to have enough pocket money, so the staff had a ‘Saturday Sixpence’ scheme. Knowing that some boys either ran out of pocket money before the end of term or had some stolen by other boys, they decided that every boy should have a little pocket money each weekend. So they would have a member of staff equipped with a supply of sixpences (About 2.5p) for every boy. I think it was after lunch each Saturday when we would queue up for our sixpences. You could, I seem to remember, allow your sixpences to be saved until a small sum had added up. In those days this miniscule sum would buy you a couple of bars of chocolate or toffee provided you had the coupons.

St Bees had its own semi-official Tuck Shop. There was another sweet shop further up the village, which was patronised by the Mill Hill boys, which was out of bounds to us; I understand because they would sell boys cigarettes. It was a small general store just over the level crossing on the left hand side. It was owned and run by a sweet lady called Mrs Hailes. I think she was helped by her daughter but I may be wrong about that. Mrs Hailes knew many of us by name and I think she was fond of us boys. Her shop was a refuge for many of the younger ones and when I first arrived, just before sweet rationing really bit hard, there was a wonderful thing called ‘A Bun and Bar’. This was a twopenny bar of chocolate put into a split bread roll and then placed in Mrs Haile's oven for a few minutes. The result was a hot crispy roll with a centre of hot runny milk chocolate. It was absolutely fabulous after a cold game of rugby or a run in the cold and sleet that seemed to be the standard St Bees’ weather.

We were obliged to undergo some sort of exercise every day except Sundays. I'm one of those people who cannot do anything much with a ball, hence I was always rather a nobody at St Bees. At the time rugby football was the be all and end all of everything. Soccer was only to be tolerated in icy conditions and as for cricket, it was considered a joke, and the only reason for some of the senior boys to indulge in a game was to try to hit a ball through a chapel window! I understand one boy did manage this once. We certainly had an excellent first fifteen, who were only defeated once, I seem to recall by Stonyhurst. If we did have a first eleven I don't remember them playing anybody but I suppose they must have.

I showed promise with long distance running, swimming, shooting and so on but I do not remember these being considered worth coaching for except when sports days were approaching.Those not put on a game of rugby as the exercise for the day were put on a run, say round the triangle or up the road to the top of the valley and back. I loved these runs but because I and other good runners showed up some of the less able ‘senior’ boys, who were then taken to task by the prefect supervising, the run could be followed by unpleasantness later.

Our rugby teams regularly played other schools and whatever the weather we were all driven out onto the pitch side to support our own team. We would stand there shouting ‘school’ if we were entertaining visitors. If it was another house we were up against, the Foundation boys would yell ‘hostel’ for Foundation and ‘school’ for School House. I never found out where the ‘hostel’ business came from.

Some boys played a little tennis but not many. Fives was played but we were not allowed to use gloves so I lost interest very quickly. Anyway I usually missed the ball so spoilt the game for everybody else!

Because so many young men were away in the forces, labour both outside the school and in was scarce so we tended to be roped in, usually in lieu of exercise or sport.  In the school grounds there always seemed to be lots of soil or gravel or ashes to be moved about and scattered. The school had two or three hand carts, which could be filled and then dragged by the boys hither and thither. If the beck was in danger of blocking we would be issued with great big rakes and sent out to clear that. The local farmers were also short of casual labour so I was certainly one of several parties sent out to pick up potatoes. The potato harvesters then were quite primitive horse-drawn things which just uprooted the spuds and left them on the surface. We were then given round wicker baskets and we followed the machine picking up the crop. This was backbreaking work when we were not used to it but we were paid a few shillings, which was a huge boost to the pocket money. I much preferred working parties to anything involving balls. I mentioned above the working parties sent out to clear the roads of snow.

When I arrived at St Bees I looked forward to joining the scout troop only to find it had been discontinued for the duration of the war. Instead we were issued with tickly scratchy army battledress uniforms. The previously named OTC had been renamed the JTC (Junior Training Corps), unlike the scouts, this training was compulsory .We used to drill on the terrace in front of Foundation House under the guidance of an ex-army sergeant major, who in spite of being an old man was as upright and smart as a man much younger. I cannot remember his name.

We had regular parades on the terrace, drill, marching and so on. Just before I arrived the corps still used, I was told, to do the old drill of forming fours etc., which I suppose persisted from the Napoleonic Wars, but we were trained with the drill movements which prevail now, marching in threes etc. We were soon familiar with the basic workings of ex First World War .303 rifles, mills bombs etc. We soon had limited training with later weapons like the Boy's Anti-tank rifle, sten guns and so on. Half way through my time a load of boxes arrived containing more modern rifles from the USA. They were buried in heavy thick grease to protect them and some of the older boys were set the task of cleaning them so they could be used. The corps at St Bees was attached to the Border Regiment and we all had to take certificate A to show we had a basic training and knowledge of military matters ready for when we were nearly all called up for military service. I think it was common knowledge that in the event of invasion by the Germans that certainly the older boys would be drafted straight into the armed forces. This certainly happened in Germany when their resistance was collapsing. Once or twice each term we would have Field Days when we would march off into the countryside complete with rations in our haversacs and humping man-sized rifles, which I for one found absolutely exhausting. Because we hated the tickly battle dress trousers on our skinny young legs, which were not used to being covered up, we used to wear our pyjama trousers under the uniform trousers. Needless to say on a hot summer’s day humping all our equipment about and banging off blanks at the enemy, who wasn't really there, was a very hot and uncomfortable business. Stopping for lunch was bliss.

Everybody in the country was issued with gas masks just before the war started because the government thought that the Germans wouldn't hesitate to use poison gas.The civilian masks were simple flexible rubber things which fitted the face closely and were held on with adjustable straps round the back of the head. There was a window across the front which tended to fog up. On the front was a filter to clear the gas from the air as it was breathed in and the whole thing was effective but frightfully floppy. They were obviously designed for someone sitting or at the most walking about. We were made to run in them when we had gas drill in our battledresses and to do anti-aircraft drill with the heavy army rifles. This usually happened on the shore road along the triangle. My mask kept falling off.”

(Part 3 - next issue).



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