Goodnight, Sleep Well

by M. Davies (College Porter)

[CW: corporal punishment]

Before prayers at Friday’s house assembly, my name had been called; I was being summoned to be ‘on the carpet’. So, after the assembly, we would change for bed, but I would be having to answer for my misconduct before the House Master. The announcement was often the first indication that you may be due a beating and at best it meant a telling off. Corporal Punishment (CP) for ‘being on the carpet’ would happen there and then in the privacy of his study. If you had broken the rules it meant up to six cane strokes. The dormitories were just within earshot for listening out for the strokes and half the boys would count them as if mentally giving the situation a score-card total. You would be considered a ‘little prick’ if you cried from just two hits, and most of the twelve-year-olds seemed to manage four strokes without openly shedding tears. But being brave and holding your tears inside was not just pecking order stuff between the boys. Occasionally, if the House Master wanted to humiliate someone further, the results of the on-the-carpet hearings may get mentioned at the next assembly.

‘Two beatings from last night on the carpets and Cameron blabbered like a baby, if I recall.’

The ‘carpet’ referred to was quite literally a small Persian carpet in the House Master’s study where you stood dressed in pyjamas and dressing gown waiting to hear why you had been summoned. Once I was standing on the carpet, I could see my house file (the contents of which was never known to me) and the cane was ready on the coffee table.

‘Davies, you have eight prefect’s crosses against you from Ford. Eight!’

‘Er, yes, Sir.’

In similar institutions, though before my time, prefects had the authority to cane junior boys themselves, provided they had the House Master’s permission to punish at their discretion. However, in my day, the system was that you needed six ‘prefect’s crosses’ against you in a week to appear on the carpet (crosses were awarded for minor misdemeanours rather than an actual breach of the rules). It seemed to be a fatal mistake to question the awarding of the crosses. If you disputed, the prefect would be summoned, and it was common knowledge that prefects testifying against you normally guaranteed a more severe punishment. It was possible for prefects to recommend CP, though in practice that was rare, and within a few years, this too was formally stopped. Often the House Master would beat the boy anyway (usually only one or two strokes for six prefect’s crosses) for having a number of ‘infringements’ (worth two crosses each), and ‘infractions’ (worth only a single cross) for being on the carpet in the first place. The whole thing was a kind of kangaroo court with a semblance of process all purely at the House Master’s own whim, as he was literally the judge, jury and executioner. As for the prefects themselves, if I even looked at one in a way he didn’t like, that could literally get me an infraction. Put in plain English, from where I saw things in the food chain, if a prefect wanted you beaten, it would happen, and it was merely a question of when and how often.

‘The Careers Master tells me he thinks you didn’t take his meeting seriously and that you need sorting out, boy. Also, something about you wanting an ice cream van … I note your father’s a vicar, Davies. Is there some sort of a problem with you joining the military or the cadets?’

‘No, Sir.’

‘Good, so at least we are all clear on that one then … I also note you’re the boy a year below your age, aren’t you?’

To me, his question made perfect English and I confirmed, ‘Yes, I’m ten, Sir.’ What he meant was that I was younger than my contemporary new boys. In fact, I was by a long way the youngest, not just in my house but in the entire institution, being admitted a year younger than the official starting age of eleven years old. (Their own rules! – Dyslexics aren’t criminals, so the institution was outside of the 1933 regulations regarding Approved, Reform or Remand schools which offered their residents some protections, including minimum age and formal record keeping in official punishment books, which were occasionally inspected by the Home Office.)

This time there was a slight smile as he pondered … ‘Must be you dyslexic boys rubbing off on me. Well, at least you are not before me for dishonesty, and I do want to give boys a chance. This is your first time on the carpet and in view of that, Davies, and your age, I have decided on this occasion not to cane you. But you can think yourself extremely lucky …’

The relief was automatic but short-lived, as I was jolted into a sense of panic. I interrupted, ‘I was going to make a recommendation, Sir.’

He stopped and waited for me to continue. However, I was desperately trying to gather my thoughts rather than pick my words. I just hadn’t anticipated walking out unscathed, and it never occurred to me that he could let me off. I had spent all day psyching myself up to face this moment serenely, but what came out was closer to anger despite being in no position to demand anything.

‘Two strokes please, Sir, would be some justice. I don’t want to be considered a “prick” by the others for being a “chicken”. If you don’t cane me, Ford will continue watching me like a hawk, and I haven’t got away with anything for weeks. I do have eight crosses, Sir, rather than just the required six. The Careers Master wants me straightened out and I don’t know if I could take four strokes if he speaks to you again. Besides, haven’t I at least earned two with it all combined? I may not have broken any really important rules but regardless of my age, Sir, isn’t two strokes nearer to being fair? … I am sure I can think of things I won’t like about the cadets if it helps?’

After my outburst, as it turned out, my instinct was correct. The handful of new boys who had not been beaten by the end of that first term, along with those who were so scared of being caned that they ‘grassed’ on others, all paid an extremely high price. Also, those who had ‘turned chicken’ by pleading their way out of due punishment suffered for it from amongst their peers and, of course, the prefects. It wouldn’t do me any favours with the Careers Master either, though I wasn’t due to see him again for some time. It was also inevitable that I would be back on the carpet again if something didn’t satisfy Ford’s lust for finding fault in me. Maybe it was as much about my pride, too, or just me playing it my way rather than theirs.

In any case, CP wasn’t new to me, as slipperings happened regularly at my previous school. About a month earlier as well, the House Master had slippered our entire dormitory (four hits each) for not being up to standard compared to the others. This was considered soft compared to the cane that he applied at severely brutal full strength. The first time I had actually seen anyone beaten was just earlier that term. A public example was made of five boys, each given six mighty strokes. They were two years my senior and only one of the five didn’t shed a tear.

So don’t for a second think that I was not scared of what I was asking. The truth is that even in that pumped-up state of mind, standing on the carpet, I was terrified of what was about to happen. He eventually stood up and ended the long silence by finally giving his verdict: ‘Very well, Davies; dressing gown off and bend over the chair. Two strokes for the prefect’s crosses and not taking the Careers Master’s meeting seriously.’

I obeyed and was able to walk out from his study, past Ford’s smirking gaze (from the prefects’ room) and into the dormitory, where all had heard the beating being delivered. Under the scrutiny of many watching eyes, I got myself into bed all thankfully without shedding a tear. Almost as I did, the House Master turned the dormitory lights off.

‘Goodnight, sleep well,’ he announced into the darkness.

Astonishing now to think that we all answered instantly, myself included.

‘Goodnight, Sir.’

I was at the limit of my endurance, so the pain was not cheap, but I had earned my first stripes. When my face touched the pillow (to lie on my front), hidden by the darkness and in the privacy of my own thoughts, I considered that the day had gone better than expected. Rather than the anticipated ‘four’, it had been only ‘two’. All I had to do now was get to sleep (no easy matter) and, in the morning, I would see the two bloodied blisters. They hurt like hell for days, but by the time I returned home for the holidays, they were virtually invisible. Like most new boys, I was both slippered and caned within my first term. My House Master’s report read simply: ‘Despite Mark’s younger age, he appears to be settling in well.’

In my case, the very last time I received CP was when I was fourteen while in my senior house. The cane’s stripes were so deep and vicious, it still bled the next day. I do understand how many people get broken by fear or beatings, but thankfully that never happened to me. I also appreciate a disbelief from our modern generation as times have moved on so far from such regimes of our recent past.

Student on Student Corporal Punishment

The photograph above fits the article Goodnight, sleep well, though actually shows a junior and a school prefect rather than a Master. I was younger than the boy and the Master would be older than depicted in the photograph. In my article, the junior house prefect mentioned was about fourteen or fifteen. They had no power above their peers within the senior houses though being a junior house prefect would put them in the running to becoming senior house prefects later as they progressed through the Institution, until the pinnacle of school prefect. I have no doubt it attracted more than its fair share of sadists. Before my time it was literally possible for fourteen- or fifteen-year-old boys to cane children only two years or so their junior by means of this system of house prefects and Junior house prefects. ‘school prefects’ were a different matter and as they were allowed to dress like the Masters and behaved like Masters, new boys often could not be sure of the difference (as in the photograph). Every house including junior houses had a pupil of school prefect status. In all cases as a new boy you would only speak to school prefects or Masters if they addressed you first – with few exceptions. The photograph is from the 1960s it seems likely that school prefects were allowed to continue to use Corporal Punishment (CP) after house prefects had this power eventually withdrawn. This picture is a reasonable representation of the last of an era where what is being depicted is effectively the last of formal student on student CP in Britain. This was the situation in the famous film if…, set in early 1960s, where Malcolm McDowell’s character is beaten by student prefects of the same age. The actual canings differed in modus operandi, in that the school prefects had a run up in delivering their blows, making a large room preferable, hence the film scene takes place in the school gym. The film depicts the viciousness of such formal beatings. If I remember correctly the offence the boys were caned for was that their ‘attitude was wrong’ – which must sound fanciful grounds to today’s world for such severe punishment but it has some real resonance to me.

What is also intriguing about this photograph is that it comes from the school archive where author Roald Dahl went as a pupil. He would make many comments and stories based on his childhood experiences. He was first caned at the age of eight along with four others at his local school. He went on to public school and eventually Repton at thirteen from where the photograph was taken.

His Wikipedia page states:

Dahl disliked the hazing and described an environment of ritual cruelty and status domination, with younger boys having to act as personal servants for older boys, frequently subject to terrible beatings. His biographer Donald Sturrock described these violent experiences in Dahl’s early life.[27] Dahl expresses some of these darker experiences in his writings, which is also marked by his hatred of cruelty and corporal punishment.
According to Dahl’s autobiography, Boy: Tales of Childhood, a friend named Michael was viciously caned by headmaster Geoffrey Fisher. Writing in that same book, Dahl reflected: “All through my school life I was appalled by the fact that masters and senior boys were allowed literally to wound other boys, and sometimes quite severely… I couldn’t get over it. I never have got over it.” Fisher was later appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, and crowned Queen Elizabeth II in 1953.

I accept totally that my experience was not normal for 1970s England and when I returned to mainstream comprehensive school education (at the age of fifteen), the school I went to had the highest caning record in Warwickshire – a school four or five times the size of the institution caned a handful of pupils a year and they topped the publicly available yearly statistics – always only done by the Headmaster, only boys, only in private and without any such comparative severity. Two totally different worlds in so many ways (and one also had girls in it). As for my dramatised account of my first caning, Goodnight, sleep well, the Master that the story is based on went on to cane me more than any other but was not one of the House Masters that I despised. I appreciate I was lucky; the added fear of formal student upon student CP which never befell me is still in many living memories of some who experienced a British education.

A scene from if… (1968) showing student on student CP

The Poor Print

Established in 2013, The Poor Print is the student-run newspaper of Oriel College, Oxford. Written by members of the JCR, MCR, SCR and staff, new issues are published fortnightly during term. Our current Executive Editors are Siddiq Islam and Jerric Chong.

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