It all began with the opening of an Indian luxury hotel in early 2017 in inner London, near Tower Bridge.
This was situated in the former premises of a boys’ grammar (secondary) school, which my husband had happened to attend in the mid-1950s. The school itself had moved to outer London a few years after he left, and the building had fallen into a state of disrepair.
The hotel owners wanted to reach out to the local community, and, as part of their efforts, they had put out a call for anyone who had attended the school in its former life. 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 splendid 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. “This used to be the physics lab,” they noted, and exchanged memories of being there. There were memories of sports 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 having been caned by the headmaster. This is known in England as “six of the best.” Comments came thick and fast when we entered the Headmaster’s room where such canings 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 thought that he was undoubtedly a bit of a sadist.
An Article on the Subject
Shortly after this occasion, I submitted an article on the event to Sixty and Me, arguing 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 strong component, such as tellings-off or detentions, but corporal punishment was not likely to be frequent.
I did note that I was aware that physical punishment for women had continued in some pockets of the world. My American 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, followed by an enormous number of comments from readers. All were about the corporal punishment they had endured in school.
These came not only immediately after publication, but have continued over the six years since.
One after another, they described how they had been punished – often with considerable pain. They had had a ruler on the back of the wrist or were hit on the back of the legs. In one school, the girls were whacked with a slipper, kept in a special cabinet where the girl had to collect it and then return to deposit it presumably with great humiliation.
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 in the circumstances or that it improved their behaviour.
But I realised I had opened a Pandora’s box of memories. We remember the physical pain.
The Indian hotel subsequently invited us also to spend one night free of charge. I can recommend it as a very welcoming, 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 stay in the Headmaster’s Room.
Let’s Have a Conversation:
Were you punished at school? Did this include corporal punishment? What form did this take? Do you feel it was appropriate?