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What We Remember
Thought for the fortnight
It all began with the opening of an Indian luxury hotel in early 2017 in London, near Tower Bridge.
This hotel, rather strangely, was formerly a boys’ grammar (secondary) school, built in the late 19th century – and looked like it. The school had moved to outer London in the late 1950s and the building had fallen into a state of disrepair.
None of which would be relevant to anything, except that my husband attended that school in that building. As part of the launch of the new hotel, the owners put out a call for anyone who had attended the school. I happened to see a newspaper article about this and we made contact.
A change of use
As a friendly gesture on opening, and no doubt potentially good marketing, all alumni of the school and their wives were invited to a reception to see how it had changed. We were feted with champagne and taken around the building.
The old assembly hall had become a very elegant dining room with a striking blue chandelier and the ordinary school rooms had become well-appointed guest rooms. There were also the usual places associated with a hotel, including reception rooms, a bar and so forth. Everyone agreed that the renovation had been an excellent job and it was wonderful to see.
While we trooped around the premises, the men kept up a running commentary on the changes of use and other matters. There were memories of sporting events, exams, the way assembly was run, particular teachers and eccentric classmates. Conversations constantly started with “Do you remember…?”
But by far the most common – and most explored – memory was of the heavy physical discipline by the Headmaster. He went in for caning, known in England as ‘six of the best.’ This was not at all unusual at the time for boys’ schools. Comments came thick and fast when we entered the Headmaster’s room where such discipline had taken place.
One man remembered a stool he had to hold onto while he bent over to be thrashed. Another, presumably a bit of a tear-away, proudly claimed to have had over 150 lashings over his time at the school.
My husband said that he had had only one caning, for admitting that he had taken a second pudding (dessert) at lunch. He had not been the only boy to do so – just the only one to admit it.
Not surprisingly, nobody remembered the Head with any affection. Indeed, it was agreed he was probably a bit of a sadist.
An article about the visit
Shortly after this occasion, I submitted an article on the event to SixtyandMe, an online magazine for older women to which I was (and still am) a regular contributor. I wasn’t sure anyone would be interested; indeed, I wasn’t even sure they would publish such an off-piste discussion. But they did.
I argued that an equivalent group of women of a similar age, wherever they were in the world, were likely to have very different memories of school. Discipline might still be a component, such as tellings-off or detentions, but corporal punishment was not likely to be frequent.
I did, however, note that some physical punishment for women did continue in some pockets of the world. My daughter-in-law, who attended secondary school in a small town in Louisiana in the 1980s, had told me of her experience of this.
But my main assumption was that it was fairly rare.
What we remember
Well, it turned out I was very wrong.
The article was duly published and received an enormous number of comments from readers (mostly women), now presumably in their sixties or more. All were about the corporal punishments they had endured in school. Indeed, the article was re-published recently with even more stories from the past.
One after another, the women described how they had been punished – often with considerable pain. They had a ruler on the palm or on the back of the wrist or they were hit on the back of the legs. Smacked bottoms, over a teacher’s knee, also seemed to be common. In one school, this was done with a slipper, kept in a special cabinet where the girl had to collect it and then return it, presumably resulting in great humiliation.
One woman said she was ‘strapped’ every day in primary school and tended to wet herself in anticipation. Another said her teacher told the class regularly, “I’ll skin you and make lampshades from it”, which isn’t corporal as such but is highly memorable.
Some said they preferred the immediate pain to the possibility of the school telling their parents. Indeed, some thought the punishment had been appropriate and they behaved much better afterwards.
I don’t remember the men at the hotel reception suggesting it might have been reasonable or that it improved their behaviour.
But I realised I had opened a Pandora’s box of memories. We all remember the physical pain and accompanying humiliation.
The Indian hotel subsequently invited us to spend one night free of charge. I can recommend it as a very welcoming and comfortable place to stay if you need a hotel in the Tower Bridge area of London.
It still looks like a Victorian secondary school.
And it is possible to ask to stay in the Headmaster’s Room.
A version of this article was initially published by SixtyandMe.com