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Published: October 18th 2018
I’ve just written two articles about the school where I began teaching: Old Swinford Hospital in Stourbridge, West Midlands, UK. The first article is inspired by a 1971 staff photo; the second, ‘A Barbarous Practice’, is a commentary on corporal punishment at the school. I still haven’t got the place out of my system; now I want to record some of the features of boarding school life there circa 1975.
Old Swinford Hospital was, and still is, essentially a boarding school which is also open to ‘day boys’ (i.e. boys from Stourbridge who attend lessons, then go home). When I joined the school in 1975 it was as a boarding master. Let me tell my story …
I was coming to the end of my PGCE year at Swansea University and was looking for my first teaching post. In those far-off pre-internet days, about the only way to get a job was to scan the columns of the Times Educational Supplement and then write a letter to a school. I saw an advert for an English position at a boys’ boarding school in Stourbridge and applied. The Headmaster invited me for an interview.
The night before the interview
I went drinking and woke up feeling dehydrated and rough. I barely made it to Swansea station to catch my train.
I arrived at the school, where I was interviewed by the Headmaster, Mr Sheppard, by his Deputy, Mr Charlwood, and by the Head of English, Mr Wood. I was struck by the antiquity of the school buildings and also by the antiquity of some of the teachers in the staff room. The job being offered was an English post – second in department - with boarding duties. I would have to live on site next to dormitories full of boys. The interviews went well, and it was obvious they were keen to hire me. I did not especially want to teach in a boarding school, but this seemed like a good school with well-behaved boys – better than the rough comprehensives so common at that time. And there was also the salary being offered:. as a boarding master, I would be given free food and accommodation. I was a penniless student, and it was the money that ultimately swayed me.
I got the job and began work in September 1975.
For seven out of my ten
years at Old Swinford Hospital I was a boarding master. I was attached to Founders Building, where three of us shared boarding duties. When it was my turn, I would be responsible for getting the boys up in the morning and seeing them off to bed in the evenings. Senior boys did much of the donkey work, but I was ultimately responsible.
There was also a day I came to dread: when I was in charge of boarding throughout the school from morning until evening. I had to supervise breakfast, dinner and supper in the dining-hall and ensure that ‘prep’ – the evening study session – ran smoothly. This day was especially irksome when it fell on a Saturday, because the boarders played sports on Saturday afternoons. Every boy was supposed to sign up for an activity, and I had to cross-check to ensure that no one was skiving. There were always skivers, usually sixth formers, and I had to deal with them. Then, on Saturday evening, a movie was shown in the Great Hall, which required tight supervision.
The boys of Old Swinford Hospital in 1975 were an ill-disciplined bunch. The Headmaster, Mr Sheppard, was on the
verge of retirement and had allowed the school to drift. As a raw young teacher, not much older than the sixth formers, I had great difficulty controlling the boys, especially on the days when I was in charge of the whole school.
The single worst part of being in charge for the whole day was supervising evening dinner. I had to supervise the queue and enforce good manners in the dining hall. Sometimes the boys were very naughty, throwing food at one another and yelling loudly, and I lacked the authority to cow them. More established boarding masters, like Peter Davies and Lance Naylor, were feared and respected, but the boys took full advantage of my relative youth and inexperience and gave me a hard time. The older boys were the worst. They took great delight in making a mess on the tables and leaving their used plates. My punishment was to call them up for ‘seconds’ only after the smaller boys, which made me unpopular. The dining hall was adjacent to the Oak Room, where the boarding masters ate, so my poor discipline was visible and audible to my colleagues. In the end I used to forgo eating
my dinner and spend the entire duty patrolling the dining-hall enforcing, or trying to enforce, discipline.
Another bad dining-hall experience was supper. After prep, before they went to their respective houses for showers and bed, the boys would line up in the dining-hall for biscuits and a cold drink. Invariably there would be no biscuits, because the senior boys had stolen them all. Try as I might, I never succeeded in stopping this malpractice.
And I will never forget the dining-hall floor at night. If I turned on the lights at night, after the kitchen women had gone home and after the boys’ supper, the floor was a sea of cockroaches feasting on food scraps. When I had visitors from outside the school visit me in the evening, I would take them into the darkened dining-hall, switch on the lights, and the cockroaches would be revealed. So much for hygiene in those far-off times.
During my seven years of ‘boardingdom’, as I used to call it, I lived in a variety of places. I inhabited three different flats in Founders Building, a flat in Prospect Building (for two weeks), a house on Heath Lane (for a year),
a flat in Darnford Close for three years and finally a flat in St Mary’s vicarage (for five weeks). After seven years I had had enough. Boarding duties were financially rewarding but time-consuming, often frustrating and not conducive to a good social life. Therefore, in 1982, I left boardingdom and bought a house where I spent my last three years in Stourbridge.
My four years of living in Founders Building are unforgettable.
There were three flats in Founders Building, and I worked my way from the lowliest up to the best. When I arrived in 1975, I was given a two-room first floor flat. A year later I progressed to the slightly superior flat at the end of the corridor – it had more windows and was right next to the shared bathroom. Also, important for a music fan like myself, there was a deep and solid window sill on which my turntable could rest without fear of vibration from anybody or anything. Opposite my front door was a locked cupboard which became my ‘brewing cupboard’. In those days I was a CAMRA real ale fanatic and used to brew my own beer from malt extract and hops.
Sometimes I could not resist playing a practical joke on boys who came to my door looking for Neville Richardson, who lived down the corridor in the other flat; I would tell them to knock on the door of my brewing cupboard to see if Neville was at home. After a minute of fruitless knocking, they would go away none the wiser.
In my final two years in Founders I inhabited the large room at the top of the building which had been previously occupied by the school nurse. I turned the single room into a bedsit, eschewing the bedroom along the corridor, which I used only as a bedroom for my very infrequent guests (Freer Magnus and Steve Brindle spring to mind). I had my own private bathroom, which was nice. There were no cooking facilities in those spartan days; we boarding masters relied totally on the school kitchen for meals.
We ate our meals at an antique wooden table in the Oak Room, a distinguished old wainscoted room with a picture of Thomas Foley (the school founder) on the wall and a spittoon (no longer used) in the fireplace. There wasn’t much camaraderie. We boarding masters
had our set places (I always sat with my back to the door), and we ate food specially cooked for us - different from what the boys were eating outside in the dining-hall. The food was pretty average, except for the delicious kippers I used to have for breakfast. Lance, the epicure, was usually first to arrive for evening dinner, which meant he had first pick of whatever was on offer. I had no real friends among the teachers, so eating in the Oak Room was functional rather than enjoyable. And there was always a racket from the boys outside, which was not conducive to happy eating.
A frequent companion in my first year was Betty Welch, the school nurse (there was also a matron who lived in the Sanatorium). I used to climb the Founders stairs to her large room. She was a friendly soul, in her 50’s, who would ply me with glasses of sherry. Her successor was a pretty young nurse called Vicky with whom I had a brief fling. The boarding masters who lived on site in Founders, and shared duties with me, during those four years were Neville Richardson, Dave Griffiths, Mike Beal and
Dennis Haggett. Ray Milner, the Head of Founders, lived in a house on Heath Lane, a stone’s throw from the school.
Neville was a pathetic creature, a hopeless teacher and even worse than I was at maintaining discipline. The boys taunted him mercilessly. One of the downsides of sharing a bathroom with him was listening to his bizarre bowel movements. I would be sitting in my living-room, just a wall separating me from Neville enthroned on the toilet, and it was impossible not to hear the strange noises emanating from his guts. Neville was inoffensive and unassuming but in the wrong profession.
Dave Griffiths was strongly built, a fine sportsman who used to thrash me at squash and badminton. I took my revenge, though, at table tennis. He was rather too full of himself to be counted as a friend.
Mike Beal was even younger than me and not really my cup of tea. He was a decent chap but we had little in common. He was large and lumbering, so the students nicknamed him 'The Honey Monster' after the popular TV advert.
Denis was a very decent chap, in his 50’s. When his marriage collapsed,
he came into Founders as a boarding master. He used to visit me for a smoke and a chat and enjoyed listening to my LP's. He was proud of his physique and a keen golfer, so it was tragic when he contracted multiple sclerosis.
Ray Milner was a strict disciplinarian feared and disliked by the boys. I was a soft touch compared to him. He was a small man with a loud voice. If he was seen approaching Founders, the word would go around that he was coming, and the boys would tidy up their mess and be on best behaviour. I have to say Ray treated me with kindness, and I was sad to hear of his death not long ago.
Looking back, those were lonely days. I had no great friends at school, and I had no girlfriend. However, I was very bookish and used to sit in my armchair devouring literature. A book that I will always remember was Barclays World of Cricket
from the school library. It was a massive tome, and I read it from cover to cover. My knowledge of old cricket derives mainly from reading that excellent book. Another great literary
experience that I associate with Founders Building was buying Seamus Heaney’s collection North
from the local bookshop, Mark and Moody’s, and being thrilled by it. Collecting secondhand books was one of my passions, and I often visited John Sparry’s little shop in Wall Heath as well as the secondhand bookshop near Stourbridge library and an excellent shop in Lichfield.
When I was not marking books or doing duties, what were the highlights of my boarding school life? There was my Saturday morning pilgrimage to The Jazz and Swing Centre in Birmingham, where I bought countless jazz albums. I often met my friends Freer (with whom I trained as a teacher at Swansea University) and Maurice Bradley (an Oldbury accountant) for drinks, and I sometimes joined them in Birmingham for a classical concert or a play. There was my Monday night excursion to the Bull and Bladder pub in Brierley hill to listen to jazz. There were the drinking sessions with Lance Naylor, Phil Price and Jeremy Christian-Brookes. There was my free afternoon (all teachers received a free afternoon in lieu of the obligatory Saturday morning), when I would explore Worcester or Malvern or Lichfield or go for a
solitary country walk. I played table tennis, squash and tennis with the boys and other teachers. Not much of a life, really. Quite unnatural to be living in an all-male community (except for the nurse upstairs). When I swapped all-male Old Swinford Hospital for co-ed BISC in Cairo, I realized what I’d been missing. Oh, the delights of teaching girls for the first time and of living overseas! I should have baled out of Old Swinford after five years instead of spending an entire decade there. Still, I suppose ignorance was bliss. And I had a lot to be thankful for. Seven years as a boarding master with free accommodation and free meals enabled me to stash away plenty of loot. When I used to talk to my friend, Freer, about his comprehensive school in Birmingham, I realized what a cushy number OSH was in terms of discipline.
Living for seven years in close proximity to the boarders and having to do frequent boarding duties had a crippling effect on my social life. I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I had people visit my flat (apart from old Denis Haggett). Our preferred
meeting place was the pub. There were exceptions to the rule, however. One evening Phil Price and Jeremy Christian-Brookes came back to my flat (my second flat) in Founders. We drank home brew and became very merry. In the corridor outside my door, a boy had parked his euphonium. In our cups we decided to play the instrument and ended up pouring home brew inside it. I remember spending a very long time the next day cleaning the boy’s euphonium, ridding it of all traces of alcohol.
I was quite a heavy drinker during my Old Swinford years. I loved real ale, especially the Batham’s served at The Bull and Bladder in Brierley Hill. One morning in Founders, after a boozy session the previous evening, I woke up late for school. A boy was knocking on the door telling me my English class had started. Without dressing properly – just putting on trousers and a combat jacket – and without washing, I dashed downstairs to my classroom, which was two minutes away, and proceeded to teach. Nobody reprimanded me for being late.
Another booze-related memory is of sending a boy – one Martin Roper – to the Plough
and Harrow on Heath Lane to buy me some Ansell’s bitter. I gave him money and a plastic container to fill, and he obliged. Nowadays I would surely be sacked for taking such a liberty.
A question I am asked is whether or not there was homosexuality among the boarders of OSH. It is a commonly held belief that in boys’ boarding schools homosexuality is rife or, at least, present to some degree. My unequivocal answer is that during my seven years in boarding I did not come across, or hear about, a single example of homosexuality. On the contrary, the boys were aggressively heterosexual, seizing every opportunity to meet girls in town. One school disco, held in the sixth form common room, was deserted after an hour. It was summer, and the front sports field was covered in writhing couples – our boys with their local girlfriends. I remember Ray Milner saying he would never again organize a disco for the sixth form if that was how they behaved. And a sixth former attached to Founders Building confessed to me, just before leaving the school, that he’d been in the habit of slipping out at weekends and spending
the night with his girlfriend. I have to congratulate the boys of OSH for being so normal - unlike some of the old fossils who frittered their lives away there.
No hint of homosexuality, but there was plenty of bullying at OSH circa 1975. I have written elsewhere about the use of corporal punishment by teachers – itself a form of bullying in my view. It was also normal for sixth formers to physically bully smaller boys. Life in boarding was very much survival of the fittest, because the law of the jungle prevailed. While living in Founders, I came across a protection racket: older boys extorting money from small boys, who were beaten if they didn’t pay up. I told the culprits that if I reported them to Mr Potter – the new Head, who was cleaning the place up after the previous slack administration – he would almost certainly expel them. I told them to pay back all the money they had taken, which they duly did. I blame the school leadership for this bullying. Old Sheppard, who had joined the school in 1951, turned a blind eye to it, perhaps regarding it as character-building, but I
think bullying was a serious problem. I wish now I had voiced my concern at a staff meeting or in a letter to Sheppard, but being a raw young teacher I just went with the flow, accepting things as they were.
I have written in another blog about some of the teachers who stayed put at OSH for their entire careers. Imagine – to be living next to dormitories full of boys for decades, teaching every Saturday morning, doing boarding duties in the mornings and evenings. As I said before, ignorance is bliss; those teachers did not know what they were missing. I only realized after I’d left for Cairo what an oppressive, stultifying institution OSH was – especially for a boarding master. My three years outside of boarding - commuting every day from my Stourbridge house - were my happiest years at OSH.
I revisited OSH in 2015. I wanted to see Founders Building, walk around the central courtyard, inspect my former classroom and rekindle dormant memories. What a shock to find that Founders Building, constructed in 1667 and for centuries the core of the school, is no longer a boarding house. The once cockroach-infested dining-hall is now the school library, and the Oak Room has become the Headmaster’s study. Walking upstairs to the first and second floors, I saw that the ancient banisters were intact, but everything else had changed. The dilapidated old flats I had lived in were now modern offices; the boys’ showers and dormitories had been converted into offices too. Founders, above the ground floor, was a suite of offices!
Another disappointment was the missing cricket bat. Outside the Great Hall during my time at OSH, the bat belonging to the legendary R.E.Foster of Worcestershire was displayed in a glass case. Among other achievements, ‘Tip’ Foster scored 287 for England against Australia in Sydney in 1903. This was the highest score in Tests until Sandham's 325 in 1930. As a student of cricket, I used to look at this bat all the time; you couldn’t miss it - it was on the wall as you walked into the Great Hall. But it wasn’t there any longer, and when I enquired what had happened to it, nobody knew.
Judging by comments on the Facebook OSH Alumni website, many former boarders still think fondly of OSH. I put this down to nostalgia for their lost youth. My own attachment to OSH is also largely the product of nostalgia – nostalgia for a time when I was physically fit and care-free, when life was full of exciting discoveries. Looked at dispassionately, OSH circa 1975 was a rum old place. The boarding side, in particular, was full of holes – which the new Headmaster, Chris Potter, succeeded in plugging. When I left the school in 1985, Potter had been at the helm for eight years, and the place was almost unrecognizable from the sinking ship he had inherited in 1978.
I have taught at nine different schools in my career, but the one I remember most vividly is Old Swinford Hospital, especially the years I spent in Founders Building as a boarding master between 1975 and 1979. If you would like to know more about the school back then, about the teachers and the corporal punishment, please read my other two OSH blogs.
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