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First Days at School

The first day at the school in September 1933 was awe-inspiring, as it was bound to be. From 'big boys' of junior schools we had become little ones, while boys who were almost adults walked the corridors. The masters swept about in gowns. There were 105 new boys, and we were divided alphabetically into three classes; I was in Form 1A, surnames from A to F. We had a late addition, a boy who had done badly the previous year and was being kept down in the first form. He was able to show us the ropes, tell us about the masters and what their nicknames were.

We could not help but notice the traces of public school life as we had read about it in The Magnet and The Gem. I think we were slightly disappointed that the masters did not wear mortarboard caps as well as their gowns, although the headmaster carried his mortarboard to assemblies in the mornings. In Greyfriars and Rookwood stories the boys were often in a mysterious place called 'the quad'; so were we now, as the school had a pair of quadrangles. We had a 'tuck shop', but it was nothing like the place where Billy Bunter gorged. It was a side window from which sweets were sold at playtimes (the favourite for a penny was 'a ha'penny Lyons and a doorstep' - a small bar of Lyons' chocolate laid on a thick strip of marshmallow the same size).

If those were coincidence, all through the schoolboys used terms which were deliberate aping of public-school language. The first year - more loosely, all the smaller boys - were called 'fags' by the rest. The warning word which meant 'Take care, a master is coming' was 'cave', and a boy stationed as lookout was 'keeping cave' (it was pronounced 'kavvy'). Illicit copying was 'cribbing'. We called the head 'the old man', sometimes 'the beak', and he alone could give us 'a whacking'. I remember one master threatening to send a boy to the headmaster 'for a flogging'. Perhaps the most socially revealing piece of school vocabulary was in our timetables. For the first three years we had a period of woodwork every week, but it was not named woodwork: it was 'manual work'.

The school was jealous of its reputation for having a high tone. We had to wear our caps and ties except in the summer term, and it was understood that overcoats and raincoats should be navy-blue to match the uniform. The prefects, 5th- and 6th-form boys of great majesty, had special caps which were presented to them at school assemblies (the school captain was Douglas Vicary, who is now a Canon at Wells Cathedral). Outside school, including in the holidays, when you saw a master you had to raise your cap to him, or in the non-cap months perform a forelock-touching action.

We quickly learned that a lot of the public judged Monoux boys' behaviour and, in school uniform, we were on show in the streets. I remember when another boy and I stood looking at saucy comic postcards in a shop window in Hoe Street; we were astonished and embarrassed when some passers-by chi-iked us - 'Look at the grammar school boys doing their homework!' Another time in my first year, a parent wrote to the school complaining because he had seen a Monoux boy eating chips out of a paper in the street. The head showed signs of amusement; nevertheless, he advised those who were 'prone to fish and chips' to save them for indoors in future.

We had to adapt ourselves in other ways. I still saw boys who had been at Gamuel Road and were now at Markhouse or the Central, and they asked me what it was like. When I mentioned the gym and the showers, they were incredulous: had you really to let all the others see you with nothing on at all? It was contrary to all the ideas of decency we had been taught, let alone any experience we had. The boys from middle-class homes, and those who had been to Scout camps, tried to be more blasé about it; but I think we were nearly all in the same boat, and the showers took a lot of getting used to.

I look now at the photograph of my form towards the end of our first year. We were all in short trousers. Taller boys, of whom I was one, went into 'long 'uns' at twelve, but a good many stayed in shorts until they were thirteen or fourteen.