In the 1980s, many state schools and some private schools were switching from being single sex schools to taking male and female pupils. For many girls the idea of entering a long established boys grammar school was extremely daunting. Pauline D reflects on her memories of her first term in the sixth form of such a school situated on the Sussex Coast.
Having just moved from London to the south coast at the beginning of August with my parents and younger sister, I obviously had to look for a new school. Since I had just completed my year in the fifth form of a local grammar school I was looking for a place in the lower sixth of a similar school in my new town.
W******* Grammar School had been and was still an all boys school, but in twelve months time it was being changed into one of the new separate sixth form colleges that were starting to be set up. Because they would then be taking both male and female students, they proposed to start taking a small number of girls into that year’s fifth and sixth forms as well as several boys from other schools.
It seemed a reasonable choice for me because then I could simply follow on at the same school for my second sixth form year and also because W******* Grammar School had very good Mathematics and Physics facilities which were my core subjects. Thus I became one of eight sixth form girls and about ten fifth year girls due to start that September.
The school authorities obviously had concerns over these changes because my parents and I were invited to at least two meetings at the school in the fortnight before I was due to start which also enabled me to meet several of the girls who would soon become fellow sixth form colleagues.
The school uniform was grey trousers and black and grey striped blazers for the first to fifth form boys and grey trousers with black blazers for the sixth form boys. The girls would be allowed to choose between grey skirts or trousers (obviously a very progressive school!) and the appropriate blazers.
I was a little nervous about the first day, although we had by then been fairly well briefed about it all. I approached the main gate and found a girl I recognised lurking nearby. Her name was Jane S and we had been introduced at one of the official meetings before agreeing to join the school. We had also had several unofficial meetings at the local pub with some of the others due to start.
W******* Grammar School was housed in a very large typical 1920s style building, brick built, and not so unlike the school I’d left behind me in London. It was a little daunting for a newcomer, hence Jane waiting outside for someone she knew. I also was glad to meet up with her. We waited together for some of the others to join us but as the time for arrival drew closer we thought maybe they had already arrived and gone in, so we did too.
The first day was very much a day for finding where everything was, meeting our lower sixth form masters, getting registered, getting our time-tables sorted and so on. There were around eighty of us in the lower sixth, so we were divided into lower sixth A and lower sixth B, each with its own common room, its own master, desks and separate metal lockers for books and other kit for each of us. I and, thankfully, Jane were both in lower sixth form B. Most of my lessons would take place in groups of no more than twenty-five to the class. When not in lessons we could spend our time in the library or our common room.
We took lunch in the refectory (what they called the dining hall) where separate tables were allocated for the lower and upper sixth forms. The teachers ate at large tables raised on a platform above the level of the rest of us.
After lunch Jane and I had a stroll around the grounds but we soon found the strange sight of two females amongst so many boys made us the centre of attention in a way that was not entirely comfortable. No-one made any really nasty comments for there were several teachers and even more prefects patrolling but even they couldn’t stop the stares. It was like being two goldfish in a glass bowl. We also wondered what had happened to the other girls that were supposed to start with us for we hadn’t seen them.
An early return to our common room seemed a good idea. This was situated on the first floor of one wing of the main building up some stone stairs and along a short corridor. We had taken no more than three or four steps along the top corridor before we were stopped by a prefect who told us he didn’t think it was a good idea for us to go back to the common room for another half hour at least, although he refused to explain why.
We had been told the prefects at W******* Grammar School had certain powers and that they could award a limited range of punishments even to sixth formers so it seemed a good idea to comply with his request even though he had not actually ordered us not to return to our common room.
Jane and I contemplated going back downstairs and into a small garden quadrangle where there were four wooden park style benches for use by staff and sixth formers only. Before we could, a boy who had also joined our lower sixth from another school emerged from our common room. He looked rather dishevelled and his white shirt stood out by being very inadequately tucked into his trousers.
Jane and I looked at each other and then the boy hurried past us still trying, rather unsuccessfully, to stuff his shirt tails into his trousers. We two girls knew exactly what was going on and hurried down the stairs towards the quadrangle. We had encountered the first of many strange traditions of what was still, basically, an all boys grammar school.
Sitting on one of the two benches where we could look up and see the door to our common room, Jane and I quickly established that we had both worn grey trousers rather than skirts and what might be called ‘appropriate’ underwear because we had been previously warned about the aforementioned tradition – that of debagging new entrants to the school!
For the uninitiated (no pun intended!) this is the weird practice adopted by many boys’ establishments of several boys grabbing one boy and depositing him on the floor or on a desk or table and pulling down his trousers, and often his underpants as well. This was sometimes, but by no means always, followed by groping or pouring water on his genitals or other unpleasant follow-ons. It was done as an initiation ceremony or where a boy had offended against his form mates or sometimes just for fun.
After several minutes, Jane and I looked up and saw another boy emerge from our common room, also struggling to adjust his clothing. We speculated on whether the prefect had stopped us from going to our common room to spare our blushes at seeing boys with their trousers down, or whether it was to spare the boys from having their privates observed by girls.
We also wondered whether we were to be subjected to the same ritual, although it looked unlikely after being excluded from the common room. The next thought was, especially since we had dressed with this ceremony in mind, whether we should offer ourselves up for it to be done to us. In the end, we chickened out and went instead to the first of our afternoon lessons.
In the weeks that followed we caught sight of one or two debaggings being performed in classrooms as we walked past but the question of it being done to us was never raised. During the second week, several of the other girls who were supposed to have started with us actually arrived and Jane and I wondered whether it was fear of this custom being carried out that caused them to delay their start. Jane and I both got on well with most of the new girls in the sixth form with the only exception being a girl called Helen (who became known as the ‘goal post’ because she was very tall and thin). Helen was an ardent follower of the new fashion for equality between the sexes. Perhaps the powers that be thought she would help the switch from all boys grammar school to mixed sixth form college, or perhaps they just didn’t realise.
W******* Grammar School had, we discovered, a reputation locally for being a firm believer in the use of corporal punishment and, again as we walked around the school, we saw any number of instances of boys in the lower forms bending over while a teacher whacked them on the bottom with a large plimsoll or slipper as it was known. We also heard about several boys from these lower forms being caned within the privacy of the headmaster’s study. Although sixth formers were also subject to the same punishments, in practice it seemed never to happen to us whether boys or girls.
There was one exception in the first term when a boy from the lower sixth called David was sent to the headmaster, a short bald headed man who we really only saw at morning assemblies in the large hall. David was a fairly quiet type and Jane and I hadn’t got to know him that well. The rumour was that he had been caught with cigarettes on his person and even then anything to do with smoking was very much against the rules.
David was sent to the headmaster about half way through the morning and just after our mid-morning break. He was missing from the refectory at lunch time but Jane and I and a couple of other girls went out onto the playing fields for a stroll and found him in the middle of a few of his mates with his trousers and pants down showing off four nasty looking long narrow bruises that stretched right across his very pale bottom. I think we must have been staring for some time because eventually David saw us looking through the group of his mates and blushed almost as red as his bottom. He quickly pulled his clothing up which set us giggling although we discreetly turned away while he did his trousers up.
After Christmas, we were into our second term and it seemed that all the girls had settled in pretty well. We were no longer being regarded as strange beings from another planet and had even become friends with most of the boys in the lower sixth, many of whom would open doors for the girls and perform other such gentlemanly things. A couple of girls even had boyfriends although I was not one of them.
Naturally, feminist Helen objected most strongly to boys opening doors for her and the like, but that was just Helen. I think most of the girls had some sympathy with Helen’s views, possibly even some of the boys, but she had a rather antagonistic and demanding way of putting her views across and that more than anything left her with few real friends, and those few were all boys with a rather left-wing political persuasion.
Whilst most of us were able to not take Helen too seriously and largely ignore her aggressive stance, inevitably her views led her into conflict with the staff. What was really surprising was that it should be as a result of a row with Mr P****** who was a sweet old chap getting quite close to retirement. The row must have escalated to the point where the headmaster became involved because Helen and three boys, all lower sixth, were called to his study.
We know the boys were caned with six strokes each because they told us so; by now the girls were regarded as classmates with similar status to the boys. We didn’t actually get to see the marks but they told us it was a standard ‘trousers and pants down’ caning applied with them bending over the headmaster’s desk.
What we all wanted to know was; what happened to Helen? She was certainly gone for quite some time. The headmaster managed to cane the three boys in little more than fifteen minutes but Helen still had not returned to our common room after nearly an hour. We even checked the toilets to see if she was in there crying her eyes out or something, but she wasn’t. After another twenty minutes, during which we began to speculate she might even have been expelled, Helen finally reappeared just as most of us had to leave for our lessons. By the end of the day, no-one had been able to discover exactly what Helen’s fate had been. She was extremely quiet and hardly spoke to anyone, but there was no sign of obvious discomfort either in the area of her bottom or, as someone suggested, her hands.
Naturally, this set the rumour mongers into their best and most inventive action. The following day, everyone was talking about Helen and asking what had happened to her. I even had boys from the lower forms cheekily coming up to me and asking me for any details that I’d been able to discover. Several lower sixth boys asked Helen directly but she just shunned them. All this gossip must have got to her though because at the end of the day, when we were all together in our common room, Helen asked for everyone to be quiet. She announced that she, like the boys involved, had been summoned to the headmaster and dealt with for her offensive behaviour towards Mr P******. For those of us interested, she said with attitude, she had received corporal punishment from the headmaster and the matter was now concluded.
That was it! No mention of what corporal punishment exactly she had received, and no matter how hard we pressed her Helen refused to say any more on the subject. Of course we all speculated and discussed, and several of the girls, myself included, even considered grabbing hold of her and pulling her trousers (Helen always wore trousers!) and knickers down to check on the state of her bottom. Several boys also supported this course of action although felt they shouldn’t be present when we did it. In the event, we did nothing and after a couple of days the matter was more or less forgotten.
For the rest of that year there were no major incidents of any note. Boys in the lower forms continued to be slippered in class and the headmaster caned some of the more serious transgressors but so far as I know there were no incidents involving anyone in the lower sixth.
Almost a year after Helen got her mysterious ‘corporal punishment’, we were now in the upper sixth and beginning to be awarded extra responsibilities like becoming prefects. By April, I had still not received ‘the call’ and so remained a humble sixth former. I was now well settled into the school and my only regret at this time was my friend Jane having to move away from the area because of problems in her family. I got on well with the boys and so it wasn’t unexpected that I was asked down to the local pub one lunchtime for a drink with a boy whose birthday it was and three of his mates.
Of course we all knew drinking alcohol in the middle of the school day was not allowed, but we were all eighteen by this time so it wasn’t actually illegal. We were also very careful not to overdo things and in the event we each only had one pint of lemonade shandy. We were, though, spotted by a member of staff and on our return to school told that we should report to the headmaster at eleven o’clock the following morning.
Naturally we discussed the situation at every free moment during the afternoon. I thought the fact that we had to see the headmaster in the morning rather than that afternoon was a bad sign, but was assured that he always dealt with pupil matters during the mornings and would be doing other things in the afternoon. I think my biggest worry was that I would get expelled because that would seriously disrupt my studies, therefore my exam grades, therefore my chances of the university place I wanted. The boys were again reassuring, telling me that a reprimand would be the worst that could happen. I still had lingering doubts though, and chose grey uniform trousers rather than skirt for the following morning.
We assembled just before eleven and checked our dress for neatness before approaching the headmaster’s study. Ignoring the line of six chairs positioned opposite his door, one of the boys knocked discreetly and we were gruffly summoned in.
The study was impressive with oak wall panelling throughout, rich ruby red carpet and dark walnut furniture. The headmaster didn’t beat about the bush but gave us the expected reprimand; sixth formers are not exempt from school rules, yes we are legally able to drink alcohol but it’s still against the school rules, not setting a good example, we should know better, etc, etc.
The headmaster paused and looked up from his desk, studying each of us in turn. Then he announced his verdict. The boys would receive six strokes of the cane each. I was to go next door to his secretary’s office and ask her to take me to a vacant classroom. Then we were told to get to it.
I hesitated for a moment, really wanting a little more detail about what was to be done with me, but I could sense the boys wanting to start stripping off their blazers and trousers and keen for me to be gone. I left the room and went next door where Mrs B****, a middle-aged dowdy woman sat tapping away at an electric typewriter. I told her what the headmaster wanted her to do and she led the way just along the corridor to the next door classroom.
It wasn’t just to make conversation that I asked Mrs B**** what she reckoned would happen to me, but she simply suggested I wait and see and told me to sit down at one of the desks. I chose a desk behind the front row and sat in silence.
Within a minute or two, the first of the boys went past the window between classroom and corridor, one hand rubbing his bottom, the other carrying his blazer, and the tails of his shirt untidily hanging out. A few more minutes passed and the second boy fled past the window in much the same state as the first. In just another few short minutes the third boy went past, struggling to keep his trousers up, and I really started to worry.
Within a few moments, the headmaster appeared at the door and came into the classroom whereupon I got to my feet and stood next to the desk where I had been sitting. I had two choices; four strokes of the cane or two weeks suspension. I got my brain into gear and considered as quickly as I could. It wasn’t quick enough, though, and he pressed me for my answer. I told him I would take the four strokes. He wagged a finger at me, beckoning me out from behind the desk.
As I passed the front desk, I automatically turned towards the door on my way back to the headmaster’s study. He called me back and, as I turned, produced a short thin looking cane from the right sleeve of his grey suit jacket. I presume it must have been about the same length as his arm because I hadn’t noticed it when he came into the room, and I guess he had his hand cupping the crook handle so it didn’t fall out.
I was invited to bend over the front desk and I realised that we weren’t going back to his study. I was going to get it here and now. I bent over and clutched onto the sides of the desk, then felt someone folding back the tail of my blazer. I glanced to the side and saw that it was Mrs B****.
The headmaster told me to keep very still, then I felt the cane being tapped gently against the seat of my grey trousers. It was all happening so quickly I found it difficult to focus but still knew enough to worry when I no longer felt the cane tapping me.
With a brief whoosh the cane cracked across my bottom and believe me it really, really hurt! In what seemed just a second or two, I heard that whoosh again and the second stroke cracked across my bottom. The third and then the fourth strokes followed in rapid succession and needless to say I had never before experienced such a stinging, smarting pain.
The pace of the proceedings continued though and I vaguely heard the headmaster telling me to get up and get back to my lessons whenever I felt ready. By the time I eased myself up from the desk, the headmaster had left the room and I was alone with Mrs B****. I queried the bit about getting back to lessons and she told me bluntly that a smacked bottom didn’t warrant an afternoon off.
In fact I didn’t go back to my lessons. I went to our common room instead and found the three boys who had been caned ahead of me. They didn’t query why I had only received four strokes and they had got six, nor did they show one jot of resentment. I bet arch feminist Helen would have had something to say, had she known.
After that, it was a hectic year with final exams and everything, and it all passed so very quickly.
Reader’s Comment: Ten out of ten to Pauline D for her schooldays memories. I can vouch for the practice of ‘de-bagging’ – though at my school a boy would think himself lucky if he kept his shirt respite being stripped of his pants! Pauline, thanks for rekindling my memory of the ritual. Jh 3/11/2011