When the war ended, the school resumed in some measure the habits of 1939. Traditions returned. It did its best to maintain the character of a public school. Most PUBLIC SCHOOLs are by no measure at all public. They are the large collection of ancient foundations whose head teachers belong to the Head Masters Conference. They include Eton, Harrow, and Winchester. But in the same bundle are or were the lesser establishments such as St. Olave’s. These lesser establishments, when I was young, were most certainly public schools. The only constraint on entry was that one needed to be intelligent.
Several aspects of this ‘public school’ approach to school life are remembered….
1. The School boy’s Cap.
When was the last time a schoolboy wore a cap? This symbol of discipline(?) or loyalty (?) . Was it worn out of pride or fear? In 1944 it was instilled into us that we must wear this odd headgear all the time when going to and from school. One became so attached to it that I would wear it on holiday. I wore to go to the shops, If I left the house for any reason at any time, I would absolutely need to find my cap. I felt naked without it. If one did not wear it, you could be called before the head teacher and reprimanded. It was a SCHOOL RULE!
With shame, my endless shame, I was responsible for the suspension from school of a younger boy for this very crime of not wearing the cap. I still cringe inwardly at the incident. In the last year or so of my school career I was a ‘prefect’. That position gave one a certain prestige and a certain power. Oh dear, ‘power corrupts’. My prefect’s cap was a glory. It was made in black velvet and had a purple front rim. Just above the rim it carried a solid silver badge. One evening getting on a train to go home, a certain youth who was always a rebel, gave me his ‘lip’, that is to say made some derogatory remarks about me. He was very often in trouble over some misdemeanour. I told him to put his cap on. He refused. The next morning I reported the incident to the Headmaster and the youth was suspended.
However, some days later this same youth was on the school playing field, no doubt in search of me. He approached me and wrenched the cap from my head and stamped on it. I said nothing but when I retrieved it, I saw that the tiny silver cross which was normally there had been lost. That grieved me, but I said nothing. There was a lesson in this for me. Authority carries Responsibility.
The junior boy’s cap was similar in shape but was entirely of black cloth with purple ribs. Later on when silver badges were reduced to a small store, the badge was embroidered onto the cap by machine. But at our first arrival in 1944 we were all permitted to buy, for the huge sum of two shillings and sixpence a silver badge.
Is it possible that today this school badge still exists? The badge on the school blazer was changed to (if I recall well) a representation of an early seal of the charter of the school at some time about 1950. And school caps universally seem to have disappeared many years ago.
That which crosses my mind is the Christian symbolism of the badge. Undoubtedly the cultural basis of England is Christianity. The institutions of Britain are founded on it and without this base, Britain cannot retain its identity.
2. The School Playing Fields – Play up and play the game!
The school long ago abandoned its site at Tower Bridge, and moved to Orpington. This move was necessary. There were no playing fields at Tower Bridge. It was necessary to travel to Dulwich to the playing fields there. This was a chore. I detested sports. They were for me an unnecessary intrusion into my life. I avoided them as though they were an illness. Fortunately I found that many of my colleagues actually enjoyed them. When in the latter years, lists of teams were posted on the school notice board for the game the next Saturday morning; I found that some one would be only too happy to replace me. I simply crossed out my name and replaced it – (the replacement always agreed!). It worked for months. The teaching staff eventually became aware of my subterfuge, and I was appointed as ‘Rugby Secretary’. The intention was of course to encourage my attendance. It did not. I did the job pretty damned well and corresponded with the other ‘minor public schools’ and I believe all was smoothly organised. I never attended any organised Rugby match!
These wretched playing fields were quite difficult to reach from home. Either one had to take two train journeys or a long slow bus ride. I had other things to do with my time. My time was beeter spent cycling from home towards the countryside or walking in the woods which surrounded Eltham.
There was perhaps an (un?)fortunate lesson which I learned from my activity on the playing fields. It was that with all bureaucrats (amongst whom I could class many a schoolteacher – you must obey the rules!), one needs to present to them enough to keep them happy and to avoid a closer watch on what else is happening. It is a bit like giving a kitten a ball of wool to distract it.
There was the occasion when my brother, home for a short stay from his other home in Glasgow, decided to find me at the school sport’s day. He found me, and encouraged by his persuasion we slipped out by a back entrance and my departure was never noticed.
I find all sports incredibly boring. Cricket must be among the leaders of boredom. When bound to attend as a player, I got some delight in being appointed long-stop, a position on the ground which was fairly proximal to the allotments which edged the fields on one side. These garden allotments were managed by nearby residents to help food production during the war years. The position of long stop gave me the chance to steal a few radishes.
Physical activity is undoubtedly necessary for health. But when the physical activity demands a life of its own and takes over the person’s life to become the reason for existence, then it seems to me to be a distortion. So, I avoid the enthusiast of sport. I tend to avoid the enthusiast in anything! I once shared a room at Officer Training School with an ardent cricketer. He appeared to know the pages of Wisden from cover to cover. He was so boring. I have an acquaintance who knows the detail of every aircraft from the year dot. Yawn with me. At school there were those who knew the make of every motor-car. I was moved enough, but also uncertain of myself and my own character, to try to emulate them – to be ‘one of the boys’. It was futile. I even joined with those who collected the sightings of steam engines. There were little booklets published for the steam train enthusiasts and later the diesel engine enthusiasts and also the double decker buses enthusiasts. One marked off the number or name as one waited on the platform or at the bus depot for the machines to appear. Dear God! Is this the way to spend one’s life?
St. Olave’s had its own Steam Engine name (Southern Railway Schools Class) A grand model of it was owned by the school, though it set rather forlorn and dusty in its own glass case on a window sill. Does it yet exist?
-to be continued --