David Riggall (BGS 1921-1931)

Part One | Part Three | Part Four | Part Five

Part Two - Boarding Life: Door Stops, Jam Days, Mortar Boards and Smuggling Marmite

It would be in my 2nd or 3rd year that I had impetigo of the scalp (a bacterial infection causing itchy sores) and had to be isolated in the sick room. This was a small dark room off the back (servant’s) stairs, which we called the ‘Black Hole’. My head was covered in ointment and bound up (and no doubt my hair was cut off) No-one could visit me but my only other recollection of that time was of the housemaster coming to see me and being sorry for my isolation and having nothing to do, asked me if he could get me a book. He asked who my favourite author was, but I didn’t think of myself as a reader of books, my limit would be comics and possibly parts of the children’s newspaper. I certainly didn’t think I knew any authors. I blurted out the only one I had heard of, ‘Beatrix Potter’. Hardly something to make public in a boy’s boarding school. I blushed with embarrassment for years afterwards when I remembered that I had asked for a book written for little children. Fortunately he never brought to my bedside, ‘The Tale of Peter Rabbit’ or ‘Mrs Tiggywinkle’ or ‘Jeremy Fisher’ or even the ‘Tailor of Gloucester’.

We would line up in the corridor 5 minutes before meals after ‘First Bell’ and the prefect on duty would check our hair had been brushed and hands washed and he had to try and keep us reasonably quiet. At the ‘Second Bell’ we filed in and stood behind the form used for seating, in our regular place, until the Master had said Grace and we could sit down. There was a short table, but most of us were on two long tables arranged according to the four dormitories. There was always a scramble to sit down and then an explosion of conversation, but when we were too noisy the Master would hammer on his table with his spoon and threaten us with ‘going on silence’. For a short while there would be an unnatural calm, and then gradually the noise level would build up again until sometimes it was as bad as ever and we would be put on silence. One of the games then was to try and make others laugh by pulling faces or doing silly things, always keeping one eye on the staff. In the fourth corner of the room was a smaller table where for a time the Housemaster and his family sat for meals. So we had the excitement of witnessing the naughtiness of their son Guy and occasionally some family upset when Mrs Shute would say something sharply and leave the room in tears. Later one or two Masters lived in and occupied that table, while the family disappeared. We didn’t like Mrs Shute or Matron very much, as they were often ‘telling tales’. But the maids were usually on our side. One solid red-faced one we called ‘Pickwick’ was very popular.

The menu at mealtimes was quite basic.
Breakfast consisted of very thick porridge, which had to be chopped up and thinned out with milk before it was acceptable. On Mondays and Thursdays we had one (or was it two) slices of hard smoked bacon. Half-inch slices of bread and butter. On Tuesdays and Fridays we had hard scrambled eggs on moist toast – this was one of our favourites. On Wednesdays and Saturdays, marmalade was put out in large soup dishes, and on Sundays we had both an egg and marmalade.
I had never had porridge or smoked bacon at home and it took some getting used to. Prefects at the end of the table dispensed the tea (from a large urn) and also the milk and sugar.

At the 11 o'clock break, we could go to our ‘tuck boxes’ which were kept locked in a shed, to get a slice of cake or something similar, brought from home or sent as a ‘tuck parcel’ during the term. It tended to get very stale but was much appreciated, even if sometimes there was a problem with ants!
We tried to ration ourselves to make it last as long as possible, but when it was nearly all gone there would be urgent letters home, pleading for them to post a Tuck Parcel.
As we had no gym, once or twice a week after the morning break we had to line up on the field or playground in two ranks for ‘drill’. After marching backwards and forwards and ‘wheeling’ military style, we spread out to do the usual physical jerks (knees bend, arms upward-raise, arms side-ways stretch etc).

I can’t remember clearly what we had for dinner, I feel certain we would have fish pie on a Friday, shepherds pie at least once a week and a nice joint on a Sunday. We definitely had bullet sago (‘frogs spawn’) once a week which was the most unpopular item during the week. We used to test its glutinous properties by turning the plate upside down, if the Master wasn’t looking!

For tea we had ‘door stops’ which were half inch thick half-rounds of bread, and butter and tea. If you brought your own eggs you could have one on Mondays and Thursdays. You would have handed them in to the kitchen when you got them from home and written your name in pencil on each. You then collected the boiled egg as you went into the dining hall. If you brought your own jam, you could have it on Wednesdays and Saturdays (‘Jam Days’). On Sundays jam would be put on the tables with buns and often this was nice, but sometimes it was fig and rhubarb. Tea was dispensed as at breakfast, and if you were a prefect or a friend of a prefect and sitting near the end of the table you might get hold of some sugar to put on your bread. We also occasionally experimented with other available materials such as salt, pepper and mustard to make the bread more interesting. We also became cleverer and smuggled in pots of marmite, and when the local pork butcher took over the tuck shop across the road, there were several possibilities when we had any money or had friends with money – eg Haslet or potted meat, but it would have been confiscated if found by the Masters.

For supper we had watery cocoa and a slice of bread and margarine (later it became bread and dripping some days and this I did not like at all). On a Friday they started giving us horrible watery soup, which took me a very long time to finish up as I hated it. In winter there was a rush after supper to get a seat on the form nearest to the day room fire, and to ‘bag’ a seat for a friend. We could roast chestnuts on the bars of the open fire.

After meals we had House Prayers, whilst still in the dining hall, which consisted of a hymn, a lesson read by a prefect and prayers. Sometimes we didn’t sing well enough and the Housemaster, Mr Shute, would make us sing some of it again, only louder. On one occasion he stopped at the end of a verse and accused me of not singing when I thought I had been. I had enjoyed singing up until that time, but I vowed never to sing again, although I had to pretend when I thought he could see me.

On Sunday evenings I always felt that everyone seemed a bit more subdued than usual and the hymn sadder. A touch of home-sickness maybe? Occasionally, horror of horrors, Mrs Shute would sing for us after the service. It always seemed to be the Cornish Floral Dance, sung in a very ‘affected’ manner, and we were pleased to be released from that ‘treat’.

Matron rang her hand-bell at half-hourly intervals to call us up to bed, one dormitory at a time, starting at 8pm. Matron and her helper fussed about with juniors seeing that necks and ears were washed, cutting nails and giving a final inspection before we were passed fit for bed. Medications were administered - quinine for colds, senna tea for mild constipation, the dreaded gritty liquorice or a cascara pill for more severe constipation, the very nice cough mixture for the lucky ones, tincture of iodine for cuts and the necessary re-bandaging. Once or twice someone was found to have ‘nits’ and then the individual fine toothed combs came out and each person’s hair had to be closely examined.

Sundays gradually improved during my school days. There were two ‘crocodiles’ of boys, youngest in front, making their way through the town two by two, to their respective places of worship. One went to church (to hear the Rev Burgess) and the other to the Methodist Chapel. There were about the same number in each. If there were any Catholics or Jews they didn’t declare themselves (although I remember a Jew who was allowed to excuse himself Assembly) There was also the compulsory walk of a mile or two in the afternoon with some competition to walk with the Master taking it, because it led to interesting conversation. Every now and again someone would have to run ahead to tell the boys at the front to slow down before they got out of sight. If Shute took the walk we never usually went far, Sometime during Sunday we had to write the compulsory letter home and hand it in during the evening for stamping. As time went on we found more and more things to do to fill in the rest of our time at weekends. It was then we could indulge in our hobbies (swapping stamps, cigarette cards, playing ‘patience’ etc) We had homework to finish, impositions to do, comics to read (like the ‘Rainbow’, ‘Boys Own Paper’ and ‘Meccano Mag’ We also had a small billiard table which was popular and in constant use. Then somebody gave us an old wind-up gramophone and parents were encouraged to give us discarded records as well as books for the library. But we tended to tire of hearing the same records every Sunday night (For example ‘Tales of Hoffman’ and ‘The Sinking of the Troop Ship’) Gradually dance records began to arrive and Mr Morris taught us some dance steps, which was quite popular with some (including me)

There was a strange tradition amongst the boarders concerning the last four Sundays of term, which was summed up in the following rhyme:

Unbutton one
Unbutton two
And ‘gog’ in the pew

We wore tight fitting Eton jackets which only went as far as the end of the backbone (‘bum-freezers’) and long black trousers, black waistcoats and black mortar board on Sundays with hard starched white collars about 3" deep which came over the outside of the jacket. Those stiff collars really cut into your neck by the end of the day, especially when getting a bit worn on the edge. Those were the only times we wore long trousers until we were about 14. Four weeks before end of term we were supposed to have one button of the waistcoat undone all day if we could get away with it, but particularly going to church. Three Sundays from end of term we tried to have two buttons undone.
Two Sundays before the end of term we were supposed to put our mortar boards on the wrong way round, which meant that the wide back part came to the front and the flat top sloped back at a rakish angle. This could only be a brief token gesture as we wouldn’t get away with that for long. The last Sunday of term required a more unsavoury ritual. A large ‘gob’ of spit had to fall from our mouths onto the floor of the pew in church.

In the next instalment - home for the holidays, dorm feasts, Main School, spare time - and "Times I had the Swish".

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