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Bonzer Words!: Boarding School In The 1950s

...Some of the school staff were caring and interested in helping the boys, but generally we were expected to cope on our own....

Rodney Gascoyne recalls his days at a Kentish boarding school in the 1950s.

Rodney writes for Bonzer! magazine. Please visit www.bonzer.org.au

More than anything beforehand, seven years at Bethany School were to make me who I am.

I was interviewed by the Headmaster the term before, whilst visiting my brother for sports day, and only remember being asked to spell 'fork' and 'knife' and do a few quick sums. Because of my age, I was probably only taken for the family connection.

Still only eight years old, I now joined many much older boys, in 1B, just one year below my brother in form 1A.

Some of the school staff were caring and interested in helping the boys, but generally we were expected to cope on our own. I fitted into the agenda and atmosphere that I found there, finding it no problem to adjust.

Most of the other pupils were the sons of farmers or local businessmen, in Sussex or Kent, where the school was located. We were out in the middle of nowhere, two miles from the nearest village, although we were part of a very small hamlet with a post office-cum-shop. The school sat on top of what is known as the Weald of Kent.

My first day I still remember. We had taken ration cards with us and after supper that evening, each of the new boys was asked to stand, to be introduced by the Headmaster. The juniors had moved in from the lower dining room and I was sat on the end of a bench on Table 2. As I stood facing the Head, the bright setting sun shone through the big window, directly into my eyes that I had to shield with my hand. I remember being excited and welcomed the chance to enter a more grownup world.

Earlier that day, our mother had delivered us to London's Charing Cross Station, Platform 6, under the big clock, and handed us over to the Headmaster for the trip down to Marden. We 'train boys' then shared the supervised journey with a few high jinks up and down the corridors, before being finally transported to school by coach. Most years there were no more than 20 of us.

The days settled into a regular pattern and at least I always had my older brother handy, even though we never met up or spoke to each other. That wasn't done either. A few lone, new boys were heard quietly crying at night early on but only once did anyone disappear in the first few days, suffering from excessive homesickness. Most of us were sympathetic in the short term. I had been well honed, from being boarded out weekdays at my nursery school, before I was 4 years old.

We woke at 7:15 and breakfasted at 8am followed by morning assembly, comprised of a hymn, a reading from the Bible, a prayer and then morning notices and sports results. Early on, each Monday, the top marks were announced for each form from the previous week's work.

Weekdays we would have five lessons in the morning, separated after two by a break, then lunch at 1pm and the remaining two periods, each about 40 minutes. The rest of the daylight or afternoon was then employed in sports where everyone was meant to be involved the whole time. On a Wednesday, afternoon lessons were replaced with cricket or football fixtures with other schools.

Following supper we had a period of 'prep', the length depending on your form, ranging from half an hour to two full hours, then a bath once a week and shortly after, bed and lights-out.

Almost all boarders were housed in South Wing or the main dormitories, moving up over your years there. Each dormitory room housed from five to seven juniors, or two to three more senior boys, with an ever open, uncurtained window and a bare bulb. Fire escapes went down outside ladders and stairs, over the roof, meant to be used only during fire drills.

In between, for short intervals we would get small breaks of free time. Major changes of pace and mealtime warnings were announced by a bell, high up on a chimney, rung by a rope from the Lobby, that could be heard as much as quarter of a mile away. Final calls to eat and lesson changes were signalled with a hand bell in the Lobby, next to the dining rooms. That took care of most of our time and we had none left to get bored or be at a loss for something to do.

Rodney Gascoyne


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