As a former grammar school lad, the idea of boarding school, neither entered my head nor my parents’ means. Having spent time in Nottingham during my teaching year, the idea of ‘moving away’ became attractive. However when applying for my second teaching post the idea of breaking free of Tyneside could only be achieved if I could get a job with accommodation provided. Although, at that time, some local authorities reserved council houses to attract staff, I was finally attracted by a ‘mixed’ boarding school in Slough and it was to that destination that I took my wife of one year and my son of two weeks, by night-sleeper on our big adventure.
The Licensed Victuallers’ School, then in Slough, now in Ascot, was adjacent to Slough railway station where a Tesco supermarket now stands. It was built as a ‘charity’ school for the children of publicans in the licences pub trade, to get them away, from the pubs and particularly away from London.(More of ‘charity’ schools later) Slough at that time, the late 1960s, was not the urban mess I find it to be now. Windsor, Eton, Burnham Beeches, and other green oases were within a short and safe walk or bus ride. However this is not meant to be an autobiography and as the accommodation was newly built, we really enjoyed our six years there’ and the friends we made.
The school itself had moved to Slough from Vauxhall in London to the site of what once was The Royal Hotel. A small digression here: Eton College would not allow the railway too close as boys might abscond; consequently Queen Victoria had to travel by coach to Slough to board the train. Her coach was housed at the hotel along with staff and visitors I guess. Once the branch-line to Windsor was built then the hotel fell into decline and although the staff quarters became the hotel I frequented, the main building and grounds became the school.
Because it was a mixed boarding school, and always had been, the accommodation was in two separated ‘wings’ above the ground floor teaching rooms, dining hall and kitchens. The accommodation for the younger boys was separate. There were always more boys than girls, which I suppose is not surprising. It had it’s own swimming pool, sports hall, labs and workshops with playing fields two stops down the line at Taplow.
The term ‘charity school’ is a misnomer as the parents of the children of licensees paid into a kind of insurance, which in the case of death or illness preventing the parent being able to continue in the trade, the child or children would be housed, fed and clothed until they left school. It was known as the best insurance policy of its kind. There were not many such pupils in my time, although originally they were the majority. The funding for the school in my time there, came mainly from the fees paid by the other, mainly ‘day’ children and by donations from the brewing trade at large. The LV is known as a ‘minor public school’ and although I don’t know the details of many other charity schools, I do know that sound investments, endowment by various guilds and religions with the land and property they own supports most of what is not covered by the, sometimes enormous, fees.
When I was learning my trade we visited a Borstal (look it up if you are too young to know what it is), but basically it was a young offenders institution. So when I first entered a dormitory at the LV and indeed later in Devon, it came as no surprise. A ‘dorm’ was a big room with beds down both sides, sometimes double bunks, exactly like those in HM prisons as seen on TV. Each child would have a locker and perhaps a wardrobe. The floors were wood, the showers/baths limited, and lights-out depended on the age, but never later than 11 pm for the oldest. There were recreation rooms with table-tennis, pool/snooker and TV. The overall supervision came under the care of the various house-masters and their assistants, but daily routine was administered by the prefects. I, like many of you, have read Tom Brown’s Schooldays, but in my experience I have seldom encountered serious bullying by prefects on younger boys. In neither of the boarding schools have the prefects been allowed to physically punish a pupil.
As you may, or may not know, I was/am a physics teacher and whether you like it or not, it is seldom a subject enjoyed by girls, although good ones are often very good. By this time I had been teaching mixed classes for nine years and decided that teaching boys was my way forward. I moved to Devon, lock, stock and a family now grown to two, a girl actually born in LV school (I like to think in the wines and spirits section of the, now, Tesco’s, but I never went back to check.)
The school, in Devon, was boys-only and administered by The Methodist Board of Management. That didn’t bother me as I had been a C of E agnostic most of my life. The school was about as remote from civilisation as it is possible to be in England. The adjoining village housed about 400 souls, the nearest town 8 miles away, one or two buses a week, so you see what I mean. On a good day you could see Dartmoor and could understand why they built the prison there!
When I started, pupils were mainly boarders, although local farmers’ sons came daily and Devon CC paid the fees for local boys rather than ‘bus’ them elsewhere. At the start of term the Paddington – Exeter train had reserved compartment(s) for the pupils from all over the country and indeed the world. Each boy would need a ‘trunk’ as he would not be leaving for some time. Tuck boxes were deposited with house masters to be doled out at intervals, before they ran out and the village shop, and finally school tuck-shop filled the need. Initially the dormitories were still ‘Spartan’, but gradually they were, subdivided, carpeted, adequately heated until the numbers sharing got smaller as they got older.
As I said, the pupils came from all over the world. There were arrangements with missionary schools in Africa and The West Indies; the sons of some members of the armed forces stationed overseas were entitled to fully-paid boarding fees, initially even when the parents returned, but this was later withdrawn. As the forces stationed overseas diminished the income fell quite drastically.
It seems a suitable time in my ramblings to get to the point. Boys who for whatever reason live together for most of the year develop bonds which last them throughout the rest of their life, which I see in those members of ‘The Establishment’ in government or business. The ‘Old Boys’ reunions of such establishments were and to some extent still are well attended. We took over a prep school and some pupils will have lived together for up to 13 years with only the school holidays with their parents. I was housemaster to one African boy who did not go home for seven years: he stayed with guardians in holiday time as some Hong Kong Chinese did. Can I say, as you will probably be asking yourself, in all that time, in both schools, I was never aware of any (homo)sexual relationships between boys/girls, although some masters disappeared without saying goodbye!
It was at about the time of the declining income from boarding that the increased proportion of day-pupils grew and pupils who would once have been boarders, were ‘bused’ in from surrounding towns, leading to a further decline in boarder numbers. Finances were getting desperate and we like almost every similar establishment decided to allow and encourage the entry of day-girls.
We had for many years an arrangement with a sister school a few miles away. They visited us once a week for such worthy events as debating and drama and of course an occasional ‘disco’. It became increasingly evident to me that the boys then, particularly those without sisters, were not exactly sure what a girl was; how to speak to them or to behave socially in any way. The girls were no better, and these occasions were like two groups of animals circling round unsure what to do. It was all a bit weird. Once integration in the classroom was decided upon then it all sorted itself out. The shortcomings some girls in physics was still there, but far outweighed by the ‘softening effect’ of their presence in the classroom on the behaviour of the boys.
At the start, girls were introduced year, by year until the school was fully mixed. Now of course both schools have boys and girls boarding, although still more boys than girls. Whether the changes in boarding, plays it’s part in changes in the old-boy network or the make-up of future cabinets of political parties only time will tell, but it played an interesting part in my life.