[© Ralph Gee, November, 2001]
The school was unjustly attacked as one where we did as we pleased, and need not attend lessons. This latter freedom certainly existed, but was rarely exploited, and I can recall only three times when I did so, each with permission. I was not untypical. The prejudiced may be surprised to know that, apart from an obvious paucity in resources, common throughout the nation at the time, the classroom teaching was thoroughly conventional. Boys addressed teachers by their Christian or nick-names, but were generally addressed in return by their surnames. Apart from a liberality in profane language, there was genuine respect and attention paid to the teachers; a high standard of presentation and unpredictable interaction. A Red Hill class was more moot than mute, but always relevant. It would have been obvious to an observer that being ejected was a punishment in itself, and at one time pyjama-clad (serious) debtors were denied access to class until their debts had been worked off to below 5/-. That peculiar sanction was lost when it upset the Ministry inspectors in 1950. The Seniors walked-out when PD was once indisposed, and Shaw took his English literature class. He was to have us recite Walt Whitman's poem beginning "I wish I could turn and live with animals, they are so pleasant and self-contained" and we were to write a critical essay. We left, braying, mooing, baaing, barking, miaowing and clucking. Rattled, Shaw put Leggett down 10/-. When Vic asked why pick on him, I said it was for bleating like a scapegoat. Overhearing, Shaw asked who had said that, and when I owned up, he said "Very good. I'll use that in my talk to the Chatham Rotarians tomorrow night. Be at my house at six o'clock, and I'll take you there". (I was, and I went!). At this time, Shaw took classes frequently, unaware that no-one was concerned with him. He once appeared in the Old Art Room, in motoring-coat and deerstalker, and taught a mystery in French throughout, in a pipe-clamping accent that made Franglais sound cosmopolitan. I bent over an essay for Gayton on the Lancashire cotton towns. Just having an audience was enough for Shaw, and when finished, he thanked us for our attentiveness, bade us good morning and left - swinging his open briefcase, puffing John Cotton No.1 over the Terrace, and delighted to have made such an important contribution to our education. We had all been writing something else, and none had paid him the slightest heed. For all we cared, he could have been rehearsing a talk to the Calais Rotarians.
Before incinerating the Old Art Room, allowing for the replacement New Old Art Room, we loaded its inefficient Tortoise stove with wet paper, green wood and cow-shit, for Baldy's (Ivor Holland) class. With look-outs to warn of his approach, (Bragg could get down the Big Fir quicker than Baldy could walk down the Back Drive) we closed all windows and the door, and waited outside for fug to blossom, until taking our seats with innocent faces and bursting lungs. It worked. He immediately cancelled the lesson and returned to his cottage, and the interrupted game of postal chess. The following week we tried it on Morley Gayton. He threw open the windows (it was a cold day), and put his chair by the open door. Having blocked our only escape, he set us an essay. Properly hoist by our own petard, polluted tears dropped from our cheeks onto our illegible scribbles, while Morley stuck his hands in his trouser pockets, tipped back his chair to rest his head on the wall and calmly chain-smoked throughout
The Senior Class of 1950/51 will remember Leslie Strevens and this Library classroom interchange with the new and apparently humourless French teacher, Roberts - whose tolerance needed testing. Strevens took him on:
"Roberts. Me knob 'urts!"
Roberts summoned Strevens to the front, grabbed one of his eminently grabbable ears, and marched him across the Square Landing to Moff's door. We heard him knock, and bellow:
"Marion, Strevens has an ailment".
Our views of Roberts changed immediately.
John Hiorns was an epileptic, with magnificent fits so dramatic that David Almond shat himself and headed for the woods when one started. If Dai was around, Hiorns would leap madly into a simulated one. After a few of these Almond caught on, and became braver. One day in class Jack crashed writhing to the floor, and Almond, seeing the opportunity to use the bluff for revenge, jumped up and put the boot in. Hiorns grabbed Almond's leg and hung on. An epileptic's seizure strength can be far greater than normal, and as Almond found his leg violently shaken in a powerful and tightening vice, he was petrified by what he now recognised as a genuine attack, from which he knew he could not be released until Hiorns was unconscious. Meanwhile Gayton shoved a bundle of indelible pencils across Jack's teeth to stop him swallowing his tongue, but he bit through, dribbling toxic blue froth over Almond for over ten minutes. Oh, how we laughed.…
With a community of so few, there were never new classes. Unlike conventional schools, we had no simultaneous addition of one classful of new boys. They came in dribbles, no more than three a term, and stayed up to six years. Aged from 11 to 18, we were 45 members of a prolific family. Although there were a few transient black sheep, to apply the philosophy of schooling was a mistake - and one possibly made by Shaw himself. It is no surprise that as a school Red Hill is dead, but Charlton Court is again a home for deprived children.
I hereby cover smoking, which when it was allowed, was not in class nor such specified places as the Library and Dining Room during the day, except for the Court and the Meeting. In the early fifties the outside cost was 1/8d for ten Player's Medium Navy Cut or Senior Service, and 1/1½d for Park Drive or Player's Weights. A licensee, normally a Benchmember, could sell singly at 2½d and 2d respectively - allowing a profit of 5d to 6d on a packet of ten. Thus if only half the boys smoked just one fag a week, the monopoly was worth one week's pocket money. I never did discover how this jam pot was allocated, or even it was taxed in some way.
Most smoking was of the highly unhygienic dog-ends discarded by staff, who were always careful not to tread them out. One memory I have of Morley Gayton was his ability to smoke a complete untipped cigarette down to less than ¼" without taking it from his lips. This skill earned him the sobriquet "Dog End", and he was over 80 when he died. Incidentally, although forbidden us, most of the staff smoked in class. Clearly in such circumstances, to be seen with a whole and lighted cigarette was a boast of affluence. Some of us would save our only fag so that we could be seen smoking it in full assembly.
PD was more popular. He used a bamboo holder, but he smoked Piccadilly No.1, a rather sickly product. Moff's Craven "A" were the worst, because of the corked tip - and one of hers was my first, and unpleasant, smoke. It's ridiculous that I can remember what brands people smoked after 50 years! The most evil practice was collecting dog-ends and recovering the loose tobacco for filling fag papers wrapped round a withdrawn pencil. Ugh! I did that, and prepared my lungs for a lifetime of cigarettes, cigars, pipes and snuff. It took me fifty years to stop. My worst memory is of the temporary fashion for Heath and Heather herbals (real grass) during the 1948 tobacco shortage, only just below the awful Turf brand, with blue sports photographs on the box slide. I think they got their production idea from our recycled dog-ends. Health and hygiene factors apart, smoking severely taxed the very tight Red Hill economics, so it is no surprise that it was suppressed by the boys themselves some years after I left, having designed and analysed a complex survey, an intelligent solution to a problem that may otherwise have proved impossible to resolve.
Press coverage of Red Hill naively saw the Friday court as the cradle of our being, but to us it was just one part of a constitution we took for granted. What outsiders overlooked was the system of sanctioning imposed by Benchmembers and staff in the form of fines and on-the-spot punishments. In these cases the Court was not for retribution, but appeal. The Court allowed boys to bring charges against each other, a particularly effective control over bullying, not unknown, but very limited compared with other schools - then and today. Such charges tended to be over matters of nuisance or temporary temper than discriminate harrassment, but more difficult was theft - a gravamen in a boarding school, made more complex by inevitable denials and proof of ownership. Staff members were not immune to litigation, and once Paul Pollak appealed to the court to amend a decision made against him - but then, he would.
We were not beating, mutilating, imprisoning or executing offenders, so an error merely meant an apology and a return of money. Even where a debt ensued, and part of it worked off, all fines were reimbursible if wrong had been done, and if the timing of the appeal was clever, the wronged could show a little profit. Most important, there was no limit to access to the Court, however troublesome the offender appeared to be. It cost nothing to use it, and anyone who failed to take advantage had only himself to blame. A £1 fine could be appealed against, reduced to 15/-, and that decision in turn appealed, and so on. The subsequent challenge would not be against the original fine but at each later relevant decision. However, use of this device could raise a nasty counter-effect if the Court thought it was having the piss taken.
The court bench sat before the full school, by rota with a senior Benchmember Chairman, a second Benchmember and a more junior, but well-established boy, called a Citizen - on his way to becoming a BM himself. Before the matters were aired, boys held their fingers up for the number they wished to bring, and the sitting bench called and recorded them as they were spotted. The Chairman then read the complete list aloud to ensure that none had been missed, to allow last-minute amendment and for everyone to know whom they would be following. The list then stood, the only changes accepted being the dropping of matters. Apart from deviation insulting the Court, its control helped prevent counter-charges brought to matters already decided in favour of those heard earlier that day. For example, an offender found guilty and fined at the head of matters could not slam in an appeal against that decision by getting his name at the bottom of the list. A vigilant Chairman knew who always put up for more matters than they aired in their turn, and they were pruned accordingly. Our Court, although unminuted, was not a "Yah-boo" game, and trivialities were squashed.
Strevens was a notorious nuisance, beginning with his personal canon of signalling at least half-a-dozen matters, most of which he would dream up as the Court progressed. The Benchmembers' Meeting designed two solutions to this: put him up first to pre-empt him; or fine him ½d for every matter he dropped. He would appeal, of course. It may have been our latter solution that led him to the peculiarity of arraigning himself for picking up dog-ends in Hastings, on the school trip. The Court took him seriously, and fined him 5/-. He was appalled, and hit back the next week with an appeal against the high fine for a self-incriminating peccadillo. It was set back to 4/9d. He didn't like that, and was back again at the next Court, winning a further 3d. Still unsatisfied, he tried again. It was walloped up to 7/6d for wasting the Court's time, with a definitive instruction that there would be no further appeals unless he was looking for a debt of 15/-, gating him for weeks, and restricting gleaning dog-ends.
Court duties were just one of the Benchmembers' functions. Although also acting like traditional prefects in supporting the staff, they were not "teacher's pets", and only a poor BM ran to the staff for help. He had to be self-sufficient, and respected - else he was lost. BMs were expected to keep a discreet eye on new boys, allowing them to settle in and not attract bullying; and had many other rostered duties. These included supervising potato-peeling; landing-duty (getting everybody into bed, washed and brushed, by specified times); head waiter (not to be confused with the paid staff waiter); and any other activities felt appropriate by the Bench. A major task was supervision of debtors. These were assigned to BMs by name, on a revolving one-to-one basis, and it was the BM's duty to ensure his debtor had work and was properly paid for it, signing the work-chits that cumulatively expunged the debt. The system's weakness was the competition between BMs to keep jobs secret for their own debtors, and the obverse nonsense of seeing the "school swept through" every fifteen minutes. That heavy-sounding task was merely sweeping from the Square Landing; through the bathroom landings; down the Back Stairs, and the Back Passage and Sink Room. A ten-minute one-penny job that debtors always wanted a tanner for, and then kept putting in chits through the day for it. So it was imperative that BMs kept an eye on fiddles and conspiracies concocted by debtors, and all the tricks had once been a part of the BMs' past deceits, so they knew what went on. From these observations, you can see what could occupy the agenda of a typical BMs' fortnightly meeting.
The Bench watched its members closely on the diminution of debts, intervening if they moved too quickly or too slowly - or the debt system was not seen as fair. It was as wrong for a Court's swinging fine to be overridden by a generous BM as it was for a small debt to be stretched by a mean one. Obviously the worst debtors and hardened criminals ended up with the toughest BMs for longer periods of time, but most BMs were not happy to be left such burdens. A debtor could be a millstone at the weekends, often making it difficult to leave the place without ensuring there was sufficient work and a colleague to supervise for you. The debtor may have been pleased to be free, but he was also keen to work off his debt, and an absent BM did not help. The last thing any of us wanted was to label permanent debtors, with all the unpleasant supplementaries that went with it. Our general approach was continually changing the debtors' roster for the roundabouts and swings to operate between generosity and harshness, and so that no BM found himself either sympathising with, or biassed against, his debtor. If a debtor was displeased with his BM, he could raise it in Court, as I did against Vony (Albert Frederick Ludwig Van Beeste). His payments for backbreaking tasks could have come from Van Tromp's navy, and he lived in a world of his own, paying me one farthing per bucket to clear all rubbish, including stones, from the Parapet Ditch - from the western steps, past the Nutpatch, to the rubbish dump at the bottom of the Ploughed Field. I carried my one bucket to the dump each time I filled it, and when I activated an adders' nest, I revolted. The Court released me from Vony, and took 6d off my debt. I sold the adders for 6d to Vic Leggett, who scattered them around some beds - for which I got the blame, and put down 9d by Betty Pollak.
The Bench had a permanent voluntary secretary, for minutes and rosters, and a small rota of senior BMs as meeting chairmen. There was never a "Captain-of-the-School" nor was any one boy more powerful than another, whatever his age or seniority in time. BMs could be called on by the staff to undertake serious responsibilities, from stewarding juniors out-of-grounds or superintending classes. Boys who had taken GCE took classes if there was an unexpected time-table problem, particularly if they had seen teaching as a career. Once or twice I taught French, with no complaints. Paying jobs like washing-up, staff-waiter and staff-skivvying were only for BMs, and the possible reason was that it was a bad idea to have real money in the hands of non-BMs. Since selection for such was made by the staff, there had to be some reason for making washing-up an elite caper. For some other reason, though, most of those in charge of the boiler were not BMs, but it was a prestige cash-earner - with comfortable but encoked cubby-hole.
Filling the Bench was automatic progression, although some boys were bound to be excluded. The body of twelve was topped-up when a senior left. The new name came unanimously from the staff, and was to be accepted with a two-thirds majority. We took that to mean 2/3 the number of the voting Bench: i.e, not 8:4, but 10:2. [10 -2=8 = (2 x 12) /3]. Although we condemned them, with abstentions there was always elasticity, and a narrow rejection would soon be reversed. Although the secrecy of the BMs' Meeting was sacrosanct, rejections would get known, causing possible unnecessary hurt - but I do not remember us asking anyone whether he wanted to be a BM! On the other hand, I cannot point to a refusal either.
Before 1951 the name went before the school for an election requiring 2/3 in favour, but this was abandoned immediately after Bragg, Pridmore and I faced an election from which only two were to be chosen. From within the Bench I then helped to argue that it should not be a popularity poll, and there would always be that point of the year when up to half-a-dozen boys left together. Although we should have provided some way for the non-Bench to object, the Citizens could make reservations, but no veto, and they had no notice of the new selection. I suppose the event of a new BM was one of success, not failure.
Obviously the outside behaviour of Benchmembers was exemplary, but the secret was not to get caught when otherwise. BMs were not goody-goodies. They just knew the ropes, like NCOs in the services - respected, capable, knowledgeable and inscrutable. As in the same body, there were some BMs who were lazy, indifferent and negligent - but we all knew who they were. More important, we sensed there were reasons for what we expected to be merely a temporary lapse, because at any time it could be each of us.
Up to about 1950 these middle-order arms of our law were called "Jurats" (from the French Revolution) because they constituted a one-man jury on the Court bench. There were eight of them, with membership dictated solely by the Benchmembers' Meeting, although the Citizens recommended names for the BMs to consider. In return, practically all BMs came from the Citizens, but not in my case. I was neither Jurat nor Citizen, perhaps because my elevation to the Bench coincided with the change from one to the other, and no-one knew what was going on. After all, they were an invention of the adult world, and had yet to be moulded by us. Apart from providing a junior member of the Court tribunal, they supported Benchmembers. They could not put down, but could forward fining matters to BMs for action, and ask for a BM when they wanted a gruffer voice. A lack of response would be made known at the BMs' Meeting - the last few minutes of which opened to them, immediately following their own. They could be deputed to the rotten tasks BMs wanted to offload - like supervising spud-bashing, the least popular burden on a BMs' rota, having to be done by 9.30 am. That, naturally, was thought of as essential management training for the Citizens. Unlike the BMs, they reported back to the fortnightly Community Meeting, but like BMs, few were ever kicked out. Selection of both Bench and Citizens was always very careful, and invariably right.
If you add the number of Citizens to the Bench and staff, it can be seen that nearly 50% of the school had disciplinary responsibility over the other half, and that was supported by the Court allowing contribution from everybody. The deliberate wrongdoer was heavily outnumbered, and although justice appeared to begin conversely from a situation of "guilt", the outcome had a very democratic contribution to it. Thus there was no autocracy, and the staff's disciplinary contribution was within this framework and not imposed in ignorance of it. At the same time, the school's self-control showed itself. I think the staff also met on the same alternate Sunday morning as the Bench and Citizens, so every fortnight our entire constitution was polishing its image behind closed doors, letting an uncivilised dichotomy off the leash. Nothing ever happened. If we ran on too long, our privilege got us to the front of the dinner queue.
The BM's greatest power was his right and duty to impose on-the-spot punishment for any offence or anti-social activity that came his way, and a Citizen could request a BM to do that. Once the fine-chit was passed to Gayton, it stuck until an appeal modified it in Court. It was not up to Morley to question it, and no member of staff would intervene. However, the fine did not count until the Friday of reckoning, after Court. A good BM fined selectively, and then only low, leaving the occasional high put-down as an indisputable weapon respected by the Court. Any new BM rushing around throwing out fines in all directions to prove his manhood got his knuckles rapped at the BM's fortnightly meeting, from which staff were excluded. We all did it, but matured in time.
The power of fining was wider than might be supposed. Teaching staff could fine for classroom nonsense, although such sanction was rare, possibly because the class and the home were kept discrete. Wonbon made boys buy back items confiscated in class, and Davies fined me ½d an incomplete line in an imposition, totalling 1/8d altogether; but he may have let me off later, or let me earn it back. I remember the crime and the punishment, but not the final application. Non-teaching staff could also put down, provided they were prepared to be present in court. Betty Pollak was fine-happy at some stage, but few stuck on appeal because she would not attend court - excluding, of course, my 9d. MoF's main weapons were fining and reward by cigarette, and it can now be revealed that half a century of nicotine intake came from my first cigarette from the matron after blistering my whitlow with an over-heated poultice. Fining was available to kitchen staff; teachers' wives; Ted Brown in the garden; Phyllis, the school secretary; or indeed anyone in the community who occasionally needed us at arms length. Although this was very rare, it was an important threat, particularly to new boys who did not know from where the next blow would fall!
Anyone could be fined, and when necessary the Court was not deterred from having staff contribute to the Community Fund, where real money went. False fines, i.e. from negative accounts, had to be worked off. Being in debt brought with it supplementary automatic punishments, like being gated, or loss of Library, Dance Room (for billiards and table tennis) and Senior Common Room passes. These sanctions were normally applicable according to the size of the debt, since a small one could be cleared before the nasty machinery came into play. Heavy debts could involve loss of lessons, working all day in pyjamas, denial of any perks and a minimum target of signed work-chits before allowed a meal (1/-).
My early life was much sterner than later, and with food sanctions and pyjamas, the place was a cross between the Victorian workhouse and Belsen. The 1949 HMIs changed much, but the subsequent softer approach did not diminish the effectiveness of our discipline. Fining by itself was not the punishment, but a token of things far worse, the least of which was Morley Gayton reading out all debts at the end of Court. It was often a surprise to discover some debtors' names, as much as it was to not hear those always fined but somehow never below Morley's red line.