A recollection of life as a boy at S. Ronan’s in the 1950s
The day began at 7.30 with the morning bell. At 8 o’clock there was breakfast in the Dining Room. Cereal and bread & butter. Afterwards, and before Chapel, we had to line up in a passage that led to a row of lavatories – this was to keep us regular! Anyone with a problem was not only late for Chapel, but was usually given a dose of malt by Sister, who managed the sick wing. The morning was taken up with lessons until 12.10. After morning lessons we were allowed outside to play. Lunch was at 1.00, a cooked first course, e.g. stew, followed by rice pudding, or similar. We had to queue up to have our hands inspected by, usually the Headmaster, and if dirty were sent away to wash them. A Master would sit at each table to keep order. After lunch we had to sit in the Great Space, quietly reading, in order to let our food digest. “Rest”. Sometimes a master, usually David Urch or David Duttson, would play a classical music record. There was just time for both sides of an LP before we changed for games. Tuesdays were different – that was “Utility”. We changed into dungarees and were put to work to collect logs from the grounds and transport them to the wood store. After games we went to an outbuilding and washed our feet and knees in “foot tosh” being an enormous concrete L shaped bath with a few inches of cold water where we dangled our feet and everyone got verrucas as a result! Then there was more play, followed by lessons and supper. Wednesdays and Saturdays were half holidays. In the summer term, parents would often pay for a Fruit Tea, which made their son very popular and got them a mention in the magazine. Juniors went to bed at 6.20 (lights out at 7.00) but older boys had prep and went to bed at 8.00. We weren’t allowed out of our dormitories at night, so there was a potty under each bed. Before lights out, Lady Vas used to read to the two junior dormitories: Kennel and Merry Go Round. Sir Richard often read to the senior dorms, mostly “improving” books such as Kipling, Buchan, and Sapper. Baths, (supervised by young women) were on a rota: twice a week – Mondays & Thursdays, Tuesdays and Fridays or Wednesdays and Saturdays. Even then the water was only changed after every second boy! No one seemed to bath on a Sunday! Clothes were changed once a week. Our hair was washed once a fortnight and was dried in Lady Vas’s sitting room, where we would sit around reading old S. Ronan’s magazines.
Sunday, we got up an hour later. In the morning we had to write our letters home. I have no idea if they were censored, or not, but as my first letter started, “I do like this school”; it clearly got through! Then we had to queue up in the Headmaster’s study to collect our money for the Chapel collection, (yes, really!) which was usually 1d and was entered into a ledger and I suppose was added to our parents’ bill. The queue was A-Z and Z-A on alternate Sundays. After lunch the rest of the day was spent in play. Play areas were generally the upper school grounds; a sandy area called “The Drones” where we could dig holes, tunnels and runways for our toys; an allotment in “The Garden where we could grow vegetables. Not everyone was allowed in the Rockery, but I forget the rule about that. However, on Sundays, prefects were allowed in the rowing boat and of course on the island, whilst everyone could go into Tongswood. It was a wonderful carefree existence, with incredible freedom, and I suppose the school knew we would all reappear after a few hours when we got hungry.
There around 80 – 90 boys, no girls, and we were taught by masters. Some lived out, but the bachelors were housed in Orchard House. There was a curious custom that, on encountering the Headmaster, you would slap him on the shoulder. ”Harry” when I came, followed by Sir Richard (“Srich”). Both of them and Lady Vas (or Lady Dawn) ensured that a family atmosphere made the school a home from home. Sir Richard taught Divinity and Greek mythology. Mr Jevons, “Jevvy” arrived at S. Ronan’s in 1912 and taught Latin; “Rev Sens” (Revision Sentences) every week, Elegiac Couplets, “Gender Slimes” (rhymes) will be remembered by the generations he taught. Fred Poole, “Pooley” had taught maths since 1922 and in my time from textbooks he called “Yellow bellies” (they were yellow) and he had rather ill-fitting false teeth, which meant a soaking especially when he got angry, (which he frequently did). Richard Crofton, “Crofty” or Monsieur” (1948) taught French and was a delightful man and tried to improve our French with a game called, I think, French lotto. Mark Portal, “Bumper” (initials BMP) taught me for a short time, but stayed until 1990; he was strict! Just as well when teaching me! Masters of a shorter duration included, David Urch, “The Urch” who taught history by writing everything down on the blackboard and then getting us to copy what he’d written into our exercise books. A surprisingly effective way of teaching and one that has given me an enduring love of history ever since. Guy Clark: Geometry; we had to learn and recite “Defs” (Definitions), a tall, very strict man and we were all frightened of him! James Bailey who married the Matron. David Duttson “Dutty”, who I am still in touch with and has told me that I am his oldest pupil! I was also taught by Johnny Vas, and “Eggy” Gilbert (initials EGG). I don’t think any master was qualified as a teacher, but it was very rare for a boy to fail Common Entrance and many Scholarships were awarded.
Punishments were few and far between. I never once heard of the cane being used. Order was usually maintained simply by a master’s presence. For minor infractions a “dot” was given. That meant that for each “dot”, the offender had to walk up and down the path below the steps to the left of the terrace for 10 minutes during the play time before lunch. For a more serious misdemeanour a “black mark” was given and the offender had to stay indoors working on a Sunday afternoon. If one’s schoolwork was bad, one was put on a report card for a week. At the end of each lesson the master would write, “Satis”, “Vix Satis” or “Non Satis”.
Some random rules. Any sweets brought into school had to be handed over and went into individual boxes with our names on, kept in a locked room. Twice a week we would queue up and the prefects would give out our rations up to a certain number of units, I think six. E.g. individual sweets were one, a packet of refreshers three etc. We were not allowed up the front stairs. Books had to be approved. I think the same went for comics; we certainly all read “The Eagle” which clearly was considered on a par with “The Times”!
Treats. In the summer term an ice cream van came once a week and we were each allowed to choose one ice cream or lolly. At the end of the autumn term there was The Feast, (everyone banged their knives and forks on the wooden dining tables when the turkey ceremoniously entered the dining room), followed by wild and loud games in the Great Space at which the masters also took part. On Guy Fawkes’ night, families were allowed to attend and it was celebrated with a set piece fireworks display let off by Sir Richard, then a bonfire was lit, followed by a general free-for-all in the grounds as everyone was allowed to set off their own fireworks at will. The Choir treat usually involved a picnic on the beach at Hastings. Parties of boys were often taken to London to see a rugger match or Test match. On occasions, in the summer, at the start of a lesson, the master would announce that we were going swimming instead. Cue shouts of glee and the sight of a dozen excited boys running for the (uncovered) swimming pool. Despite the water always being cold, we enjoyed swimming, but because the pool was near a holly hedge, we had to careful where we trod. Dinner for the term’s leavers was held at a hotel, complete with party hats and whistles. Sometimes we watched films on a Saturday evening in the Great Space from the Wallace Heaton Film Library.
There were two “Going Out Weekends” a term, except when the Easter term was short and then there was only one. We were collected by our families at 12.10 on Saturday, then had to be back to sleep at school; then we were allowed out again on Sunday morning, but had to be back for Chapel in the evening, which parents etc. were allowed to attend. Often the hymn was “The Day Thou Gavest Lord has Ended”, which provoked tears in some of the younger boys and their mothers who would not see each other again for several weeks.
In an age when schools could be cruel and spartan, S. Ronan’s was an enlightened place. Bullying was not tolerated; boys of all ages mixed; every new boy was given a nickname and a boy of eight, away from home for three months, could hardly have ended up at a better or a happier place.