Saturday, 4 September 2010

Tom Butler's Schooldays - Charlie Butler


I’m not sure if Tom Brown’s Schooldays is much read now. It’s still in print, and I see it in bookshops, but suspect it’s borne along more by the momentum of its own classic status than by any great appetite on the part of readers – at least of child readers. Either way, most people are at least aware of it as the cornerstone of a genre that certainly does remain popular – the school story. (For anyone who thinks the school story’s day died with Angela Brazil, Antonia Forest, Frank Richards and Elinor Brent-Dyer, I invite you to acquaint yourself with the work of J. K. Rowling.) Many of us probably remember too that there is an autobiographical element to the book, Thomas Hughes having attended Dr Arnold’s Rugby just as Tom Brown himself did. Indeed, the first edition was published as being by “an old boy”.
I’ve found my interest in Tom Brown’s Schooldays piqued in recent weeks, as I’ve been reading a rather similar, but in this case wholly autobiographical, text. My great-grandfather, Thomas Butler, first went to the school of Christ’s Hospital as a seven-year-old boy in 1853. (The picture of him above, in the school's Bluecoat uniform, was probably taken a couple of years later.) He stayed until he was fifteen, first at the school for younger boys in Hertford, and afterwards in London. Almost seven decades on, as a retired clergyman, he was asked to record his memories of the place, and this he duly did, in a hefty manuscript. The manuscript was donated to the school in the 1950s, but in return they made a typed copy, running to some 94 pages, and that is the version now on the desk before me, on loan from a kind aunt.
Thomas was not a great stylist, but he had an excellent memory and a strong desire to tell the truth, which are more valuable qualities to anyone wanting to know what life at Christ’s Hospital was really like a 150 years ago. As far as discipline was concerned, it seems to have conformed to every lurid Victorian stereotype. Here, for example, is seven-year-old Thomas on his first day at school, arriving with some other boys at Hertford station:
The journey seemed long. We were met by Mr Ludlow, the Steward of the Hertford School, who spoke as roughly to us as if he had known us for years. From Hertford Station we were marched into the Hall of the Foundation. Several of the lads, to whom discipline was new, were at once caned by Mr Hannum, the head Writing Master, who now entered, to superintend. I was in a terrible funk for I had never seen caning before, and I feared that this ogre would fly upon me. It greatly surprised me that he should wear the same kind of clothes as those worn by my father and family friends, silk hat and frock coat, and it occurred to me that possibly these garments might have a civilizing influence over him and at last conquer his savage nature.
Thomas was soon to learn better:
Dinner was followed by after-meal duty [prayers], and then we were dismissed or occasionally detained to witness a brushing in public. That is a flogging with a birch-rod on the bare back of some sinful boy. The culprit was hung on the back of a beadle, and another beadle furrowed the flesh with the rod. ... During a brushing if the one who was chastised groaned from excessive pain, the boys who witnessed involuntarily cried "shame". The beadle in pity gave less vigorous strokes. Then Mr Ludlow called to him, "Do your duty, Sir," and if the beadle became loath, took the rod out of the beadle's hand and administered the strokes himself.
Mr Hawkins, by way of punishment, gave a great many titches, that is, canings on the seat of the trousers pulled tight over the form [bench]. Occasionally he gave a brushing (birching). Selecting one of the lads, he would cross-examine him upon some trifle in such a manner that the scholar would, through nervousness, unwittingly contradict himself and apparently tell a lie. Then the guilty one was strapped to a form, and brushed for several minutes, Mr Hawkins, throughout the performance, loudly bewailing his hard lot in having so painful a duty to perform.
That’s just a taster. Talking of which, there was also the food...
As to the quality of the bread, unhappily its flavour was not like that of the "luxent" (enjoyable) bread sold in the shops outside. Some of the breads contained cockroaches, and the search for them was not always successful. When not so, one's two middle upper teeth felt something slippery resisting their pressure. This was the thin but strong coat of a cockroach, and the teeth were set on edge. Once, only once, in my experience, a boy found a mouse in his bread. He took it to Mr Ludlow, thinking this the proper thing to do. Mr Ludlow, however, was waxy, and expressing no sorrow on account of the shocking death of late Mr Mouse, nor any pity for the poor hungry child before him, said testily, "I didn't make the bread, what do you come to me for?"
Mr Ludlow, during dinner, walked about the Hall, and if any Nurse or boy wished to speak to him, now was the opportunity. A lad, for example, complained to him that the meat was high. Mr Ludlow tasted it, spat it out of his mouth, and said it was very good.
The poor lads were always hungry. Some would beg for orange peel and even pick it up from the sandy Ward floor, make it clean, and devour it. ... Cold and hunger, caused by want of nourishing food, gave us various complaints. All the tips of my fingers festered, and were full of yellow pus, and a thumbnail came off; my eyelids stuck together in my sleep and when I opened my eyes several lashes came out.
But along with all this there were pleasures, such as the joy of being ill:
The boys were very happy in the Sick Ward, and would have liked to live there always. There was delicious wholesome food, kind nurses, a warm comfortable room, a long table at which I read Dickens' "Pickwick Papers" and some good evangelical tracts. I liked the tracts, and thought that "Pickwick Papers" was a charmingly amusing book. The title page was missing, and I wondered who wrote it.
And much that was frankly bizarre:
Dr Stone once gave me a sudden sharp pain, but I had no doubt that he did so for my own good, and I was interested in his treatment. According to the instruction of my nurse, I lay on my back on the counterpane of my bed with my body bare and near the foot of the bed. I compared myself to a little balloon. Dr Stone, as he passed, gave the front of my body a sudden vigorous smack, and without any pause, continued to walk on to the door of the Ward, and went out.
Mr Keymer occasionally preached a funeral sermon. That was when a boy died. It was called "a jolly sermon" for it pleased the children to hear him speak kind words of the departed. I never heard the word "jolly" used at Christ's Hospital except on this occasion.
Sometimes you must go questing to the Hesperides for the apple of inspiration: sometimes it falls into your lap. It may even, on occasion, be lent by an aunt. What’s to be done with Tom Butler’s Schooldays? I’ve been transcribing some of the highlights from the memoir, which can be read here; and further extracts will follow in the days to come. But I’d love to do something more with the world young Thomas has revealed, the children who inhabited it, and particularly the strange array of teachers, as odd and irascible a bunch as ever stalked the corridors of Greyfriars or Hogwarts.

17 comments:

Anne Cassidy said...

Was there a teacher named Mr Squeers by any chance? This was so gripping. Perhaps this is the reverse side of Hogwarts and would make a very interesting book for modern children.

catdownunder said...

And I thought my boarding school experience was bad. (Well it was, but nothing like as bad as this!) If that was written as fiction who would believe it?

Charlie Butler said...

There really should have been a Squeers, shouldn't there? Though the physical description of Mr Keymer is uncannily like that of Alan Rickman playing Snape.

Cat - I know! And all the extracts above (with many more like them) are taken from the time he was at Hertford - i.e. in a school where all the pupils were nine years old or less. When he went to the senior school, bullying was thrown into the mix...

Katherine Langrish said...

Extraordinary account, Charlie - your poor little great-grandfather!

Penny Dolan said...

The poor brave little child, and how mesmerisingly terribly the pictures created by these simply written memories. What a wonderful piece of history to transcribe and what a gift for you, Charlie. (Am also feeling reassured that the school I created for A Boy Called Mouse isn't too extreme a picture.)

Lynda Waterhouse said...

What a wonderful apple. I find it haunting that he was able to recount and presumably relive those experiences so vividly seventy years later. I am curious to know how those experiences shaped his life
It reminds me of those first world war veterans who only felt able to speak about their experiences when they were in their nineties.

Leila said...

Fascinating stuff! There's nothing like firsthand accounts to bring a place and time alive. I'd love to read this some time - has it ever been published?

Charlie Butler said...

Leila, no it's never been published, but I do think it probably ought to be - via Lulu.com if nowhere else. As I mentioned above, I've already put some longer extracts on my blog, but I am intending to type the whole thing up and, if my aunt agrees, will probably make it more widely available. If that happens I will certainly come back and mention it on ABBA!

Aishwarya said...

I'm surprised by how gripping this is.

I've been rereading George Orwell's "Such, Such Were The Joys", and this feels much closer in tone to that than to Hughes' book (which I am not a fan of).

This is wonderful - I hope you'll be making the whole thing available soon!

Jan Markley said...

Wow! that's an amazing legacy and gift to the family and an historical document all in one. Very vivid recounting of daily life!

Elaine AM Smith said...

OMG that was amazing.
The voice was old, but the child and adult combined in some of the reflections on the actions of the Masters. Shocking but so absorbing.
Keep JK's hands off it, I want to write Thomas' story ;)

adele said...

You do have fascinating relations, Charlie! This is very interesting indeed. I've been reading a Noel Streatfeild book for adults called SAPLINGS ( Persephone. Very good!) where it was quite a routine thing for the middle classes to send their tiny children (7 years old!) to boarding school. Horrors. Having said which I must admit to being very happy at my boarding-school from aged nearly 11. The teachers though go on providing templates for various characters all one's writing life!

Charlie Butler said...

I'm glad you all found it so interesting! That's definitely encouraged me to type out the whole thing.

Adele - little Thomas was born in the Historical House! The family sold it the year after he started school, though, which can only have added to his disorientation.

Andrew Strong said...

This is wonderful stuff - "Mr Ludlow...spoke as roughly to us as if he had known us for years." I love things like this - when the language opens up a whole new world. Thanks for sharing it with us.

Savita Kalhan said...

I loved your post on Thomas Butler's terrifying school days. Your great-grandfather had a wonderful way with words. I look forward to seeing it in print!

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Thank you for sharing this Charlie. It's brilliant. Made more so by knowing its not fiction but a very real experience. How did they ever survive... each fingertip festering and a nail lost. No wonder they had to say some 'jolly' prayers. I'm surprised there weren't more deaths.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...
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