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Published: October 9th 2018
Chris Crookes, a former student of Old Swinford Hospital School, has just sent me an email describing a beating he received from Peter Davies, aka ‘Noote’, the legendary boarding master who ran Foster House. I knew Peter well, because we worked together for ten years, but Chris’s detailed description of his encounter with ‘Noote’ surprised and shocked me. Here is an extract: Noote gave us the choice of forfeiting our next 'Sunday out' privileges or getting three of the bat. We were told to wait outside of his room for a minute and decide. Spike and Chewy decided to take 'the bat'. I decided I wouldn't take either as I had not done any shoplifting. They each went in and came out stoically silent but with tears in their eyes. When I went in, Noote asked me for my choice. I expected him to hit the roof when I answered "neither", but he merely looked surprised and asked me to explain. When I firmly, unapologetically and rather challengingly explained I thought his punishment excessive and inappropriate for my involvement and therefore refused to accept either alternative, he referred to me by my first name for the first and only time.
"Chris, Chris, Chris." To my surprise, instead of getting angry he invited me to sit down and tried to reason with me. "The other boys have accepted their punishment. I cannot now excuse you. If you don't choose one of the alternatives, I will have no option but to report you to the headmaster and he will punish you much more severely than I would." "Then I will refuse to take his punishment also," I calmly replied. I was angry and fed up with what I saw as the many injustices and excesses of the teachers. He thought for a moment, then with kindness said, "If you do that he will have no alternative but to expel you. Be careful now Chris, you are on thin ice. It’s past time for the evening meal, so go and eat. I will give you time to think it over. Come back immediately after you've eaten and let me know whether you will accept one of my punishments or not". When I came out of the room Chewy and Spike were amazed at my recounting of the discussion. We walked down to the dining room and by the pet
shed met Nutty Naylor coming the other way. "Why aren't you boys in the dining room?" he asked. Spike explained we had just received the bat from Mr. Davies. I remember vividly Nutty's reply. He seemed quite amused by the explanation, did one of his characteristic noisy intakes of breath then cheerfully exclaimed "Well, I expect you deserved it," and walked on. During my meal I decided I would take the bat but with precautions. So before returning to Noote's room I went to my dorm, put on my two extra pairs of pants, my swimming trunks and my gym shorts under my trousers and then felt ready. I knocked and entered Noote's room. "Ok. What's it to be?" he asked. "I've decided to take the bat, sir". "Wise decision," he replied and instructed me to lift my blazer and bend over his armchair. I felt the first blow. It made a very dull 'thwack' but didn't hurt much thanks to my extra padding and I braced myself for the second strike. It didn't come. After an inordinate pause I looked over my shoulder to see Noote staring with an exaggerated bemused expression
at the bat and then he loudly murmured "Hmmmm. How peculiar"? Then he struck twice more, and told me, "Now get out".
Chris’s account has stirred up memories of Old Swinford, the school where I began teaching in 1975 and quit in 1985 to take up a new job in Cairo. It has made me feel ashamed of the corporal punishment which was prevalent at that time and, in particular, ashamed of my own liberal use of the slipper to punish naughty boys.
When I arrived at Old Swinford in 1975, it was a ramshackle school presided over by a Headmaster, Mr Sheppard, who had been there since 1951 and was about to retire. Student discipline was poor, and some of the teachers were hopeless. The classrooms were ancient and badly equipped. In short, it was an old-fashioned school badly in need of modernization and new leadership. A saviour arrived in the shape of Chris Potter, who succeeded Mr Sheppard and took this quasi-Victorian and declining school into the 20th
century. I was there during Mr Sheppard’s final two years and Mr Potter’s first eight and witnessed some dramatic changes. However, corporal punishment persisted.
Between the years 1975 and 1985, when I was a teacher at OSH, it was perfectly legal to cane or slipper a boy. A few teachers, like Lance Naylor, never administered corporal punishment, preferring instead to control students through force of personality or words, but most teachers indulged in caning or slippering. I often slippered; it was an effective deterrent for ‘talking after lights out’.
I shudder now at the memory of those evenings in Founders Building when I would order three or four talkative boys out of their beds, line them up in the corridor, tell them to bend over and give them one or more strokes of the slipper. The following day I would record my handiwork in the punishment book, which was in the Headmaster’s study. I had to state the punishment given and the reason for it. ‘TALO’ was my abbreviation for ‘talking after lights out’. I remember Mr Potter once commenting: “You were busy last night, Kevin
” or words to that effect. I wonder if that book still exists? If so, it is a testament to two things: to a bygone age when corporal punishment was normal and to my own immaturity.
I have to admit I took a sadistic pleasure in those punishments. I was considered to be pretty good – a hard and skilful slipperer. I had excellent hand-eye coordination, which served me well in racket sports, and I suppose I regarded slippering as a sport too. Nowadays, as a mature teacher aged 66, the thought of physically hitting a student seems utterly repugnant to me. If I have a problem with a student, I talk to him or, as a last resort, summon the parents. Times have changed, though; back then, in 1975, corporal punishment was not considered wrong (just as slavery was the norm in the 18th
century). Peter Davies, who taught Religious Education (!), made a sort of game out of hitting boys with his wooden paddle and then giving them a glass of sherry (so I’ve heard); he probably considered it character-building. On the other hand, Lance Naylor never used the cane or slipper. He did not have to because his personality and presence were enough to cow any boys contemplating mischief. But he may well also have been ahead of his time, deeming corporal punishment a barbarous practice.
I wince with embarrassment now at my younger slipper-happy self. One day in ‘The Bird in Hand’ Mike Beal and I were joking over a pint or two about our slippering exploits. I made a light-hearted comment about taking care to aim straight and not damage the testicles of the boy being slippered – a comment which was overheard by some young women at an adjacent table. They were scandalized. Come to think of it now, it was pretty crass for so-called professional teachers to be joking about smashing little boys’ private parts.
Another embarrassing memory is of the time I returned to Stourbridge and bumped into a former student, now grown up and with his family. “Mr Mulqueen
,” he said, “I remember you. You used to slipper me every Saturday morning.
” He said this without anger, just stating a fact.
And I’ll never forget when my good friend Chris Henry mentioned my name to a young man at his office in the UK. The young man, Bruce Tandy, had been taught by me at Old Swinford and remembered me chiefly for my prowess with the slipper. Chris found this awfully funny, but I was acutely embarrassed. Bruce Tandy remembered me more for my sadistic use of a plimsoll shoe than for my brilliant English teaching.
On Facebook recently I posted a photo of some teachers – myself, Lance Naylor, Ray Milner and others - eating Xmas dinner in the Oak Room at Old Swinford in 1975. My photo elicited a comment from a former student: “Only Ray Milner rings a bell with me – he was a hard man when crossed - remember seeing the results of one of his canings – not a pretty sight – after what must have been a very brutal flogging
.” Shameful, really, the way teachers in the old days were allowed to brutalize little boys.
Corporal punishment in UK schools was outlawed in 1986, by which time I had gone overseas. In the country where I now live, Vietnam, corporal punishment is still alive and well in public schools, where naughty students are routinely chastised with rulers. I recently watched a video of a Vietnamese teacher attacking students with his hands and fists; he did so with relish and apparent impunity. There may be a case for parents having the right to discipline their children with corporal punishment, but it is surely wrong for school teachers to use it. I deeply regret all those slipperings I gave to Old Swinford boys. Even if it was legal and the norm in the 1970’s, it is cruel – a grown-up bullying a smaller human being because he is entitled to and because the smaller human being cannot fight back. Kevin Mulqueen October 9th 2018
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