In the late 1950s and early 1960s, I attended a boarding school in the Midlands region of England, close to the Cheshire border. It remains a boarding school to this day with a similar name, so I will not mention that name, despite the school having gone through a number of changes.
When I attended it was a progressive, privately-run, fee-paying school and for the first two years my dormitory was mixed, containing girls and boys age seven through to nine. In their last two years, as seniors, girls and boys were segregated.
In my class, there were usually 24 pupils (not students as they would be called now), up to eight of whom were day pupils and the others, like me, were boarders housed in a single dormitory. Boarders arrived at least two days before the school term began, usually on a Friday or Saturday, since all terms began on a Monday.
The school was considered progressive partly because from day one in the dormitory we were taught to respect each other’s differences, including that of our bodies. Nudity wasn’t especially encouraged as we had separate showers and toilets, but it wasn’t frowned upon and no attempt made to prevent it. Cleanliness and hygiene were considered far more important.
At that age, we had little or no inhibitions and as a result, we simply accepted each other and got on remarkably well – so there was no sniggering by a boy if he caught sight of a girl’s knickers, or shock from a girl if a boy walked around the dormitory wearing only his underpants.
Besides the normal lessons, we also had a healthy dose of outdoor nature activities. Attached to the estate was a working farm, a section of river and landscaped gardens. We would work on the school’s garden and sometimes take long organised walks in the grounds, as well as the usual sports activities. Outside sports activities were always given precedence of those in the gym, which some preferred and others hated.
It was school policy that the Head was a male, and that has always remained the case since the school formed. Teaching staff in my time were all female but what made my school interesting, at least to me and a few others, was that each dormitory was under the care and guardianship of a Housemother. Later, years after I had left, the name of the role changed to Dormitory Matron before later reverting back to Housemother. I don’t know if this is still the case.
The Housemother looked after our health and well-being but did not teach. Early in the proceedings, she informed us that whilst were were boarding she would carry out the same role as a mother or guardian would. I still recall the murmuring in our dormitory group as we sat on the floor around her when she said this. No doubt some, unlike me, had experience of parental discipline.
Our Housemother would have been perhaps in her mid to late 30s and tended to dress in light, cream or white blouses, and dark skirts, favouring various coloured cardigans that she would wrap around her shoulders.
The girls soon noticed that she wore a wedding ring, so it was assumed her husband was perhaps connected in some way with the school. Quite a naive thought really – but we were young children. We later learned that there was no husband and that she wore a ring to give parents the impression that their child was in safe, maternal hands – which indeed we were, and she stayed as our Housemother until our year left that boarding school.
Of course, she had a name but I don’t feel it necessary to mention it here. We called her ‘Housemother’ and that is good enough. Although she was a stickler for hygiene, her other main role was taking care of discipline among those in her dormitory, and for the others in our class who left every afternoon to go home with whoever collected them.
The teachers also had this same responsibility of care and had the same authority to use corporal punishment but to my knowledge only one teacher exercised that latter prerogative. Having to write lines or attend a detention was not part of the school’s disciplinary regime.
We had what was termed a ‘meritocratic’ points system operating in school. This meant we earned merits for good work or good behaviour, and demerits for poor work or bad behaviour. Each merit or demerit would be shown on a slip which would contain a pupil’s name, a score of between one and five, and brief reason for the award.
These slips would be posted into one of four boxes near to the entrance hall and collected at the end of Thursday mornings by each of the school’s four Housemothers. The process was simple and fair, and it was not possible to tamper or interfere with any aspect or with the outcome.
School on Thursday had an early finishing time of 3.30 instead of our usual four o’clock, even though day pupils could not be collected until four onwards from the school library.
By 3.30, at the entrance hall, a list of those pupils each Housemother wished to see was posted next to her box. This was mainly for the benefit of the day pupils since the same list was also posted on the noticeboard outside each dormitory door. Usually it was in alphabetical order – the one exception to this rule was that any day pupil’s name would appear first and above boarders.
It wasn’t possible to determine from the list whether praise or punishment would ensue. That would only become apparent on entering the Housemother’s room, which was at the head of our dormitory just across a short landing. Some may have had a reasonable idea but one could never be absolutely certain, and so thoughts of all possibilities would cloud one’s mind.
During my four years at boarding school there were few Thursdays when the list contained no names at all – although it was exceptional for more than three or four pupils to be on the list. Most often it was just one or two. Those on the list would form an orderly queue, corresponding to the list order, on the landing seats that separated the Housemother’s rooms from our dormitory. She would open her door and invite the first (or only) pupil in.
Once inside Housemother’s room, we were asked to slide a small brass bolt across the door for privacy and then stand next to the Housemother as she sat behind a writing desk. Dependent on the slip or slips that would be lined up on her desk, Housemother would then discuss the merits and offer suitable praise and encouragement, or discuss any demerits attempting to determine the reasons and then suggest remedies. Sometimes, she had both merits and demerits to talk about with the same pupil.
It’s important to remember that only pupils with either a merit, demerit or both would be on the list and required to visit the Housemother’s rooms. Now, if the overall net score was zero, or better still a plus number, the pupil would leave her room with a smile or at least a sense of relief. For minus scores (a net demerit score), the form of punishment she employed would depend on the actual total.
We knew a little of these details in a vague sense, but there was a girl in our dormitory whose older brother was in his last year, and so before long we could work out the tariff more accurately.
Spankings were given either by hand or with an old gym slipper, always six strokes, and the scale of the demerit score determined whether pants or knickers were kept on or lowered.
For a score of minus one or two, Housemother used her hand on the seat of our pants or knickers. For minus three or four, you got a bare bottom hand spanking. Minus five or six meant a slippering on the seat of the pants or knickers, while minus seven or eight resulted in a bare bottom slippering.
For any score of minus nine or more, it would be six on our bare bottoms with Housemother’s hand and another six with her slipper. This did happen though it was exceptional. Just as in life, we all had good weeks and bad weeks, but to exceed minus nine demerits was more difficult than it might seem.
No-one objected at any time to this regime, as we simply accepted the rule and authority adults had over children. Our parents must have known but only one of the pupils in my dormitory was aware of the role of Housemother and her disciplinary role, because of the aforementioned older brother. There was no favourable treatment towards the girls either – they got exactly the same punishments as the boys.