Life at the Home for Little Boys, Swanley (1935-1940)
by Hylton Dawson
My father had died when I was three years old and my brother was seven. When I was seven we were living with my mother in a remote village in Nottinghamshire. One evening we were sitting by the fire when my brother said, "You're going away to school". I turned to my mother and said 'I'm not am I?' She just looked embarrassed.
Some time later my Mother took me on the carrier of her bicycle to the station where we boarded a train to Grantham. We waited on the enormous platform until the express train, belching steam, screeched to a halt.
During the journey to what turned out to be London, Kings Cross, I was mesmerised by the clickety-clack of the wheels, then the sudden whoosh of trains coming the other way. Beside the track big telephone poles supported what seemed to be hundreds of wires. I was fascinated that as we travelled these wires swooped low, then soared up to the poles, down again, sometimes disappearing only to reappear and resume their dance. We arrived at Kings Cross — full of bustle and strange looking people. I was bewildered and kept a firm hold on my mother.
In the street there were many double decker buses with exposed stairs at the back. I had never seen a double decker. My Mother asked a policeman how to get to Holborn Viaduct and to my joy we boarded one and sat upstairs. At some time during our journey we passed the Old Bailey. My Mother pointed out the statue of Justice and explained the meaning of her scales. It all seemed majestic and frightening.
We arrived at Holborn Viaduct and went in to an office. After a short wait we were shown into a room where a small round, bespectacled man sat behind a huge desk. My Mother and the man had an earnest conversation during which both kept glancing at me. Eventually the man walked over to what seemed to be a high chest of metal drawers and pulled at the top handle. The front of the drawer came out, looming over my head. It was followed by a metal side bar and a wheel, then another wheel and complicated sliding mechanism. I knew it spelt doom for me and I was terrified. Even into adult life, filing cabinets still spelt doom, officialdom, bureaucracy and procedures.
We left the office, me feeling even more fearful, and went to another railway station where there were electric trains. We boarded one that seemed very empty and sat in silence for a long time. At intervals there came a terrifying noise, dugga, dugga, dugga from underneath the floor. It would suddenly stop and just as suddenly resume its sinister chatter. I had no idea what this (air compressor) noise was but it compounded my troubles in some mysterious way. As we journeyed into the unknown I kept asking God to make the journey never end. But we eventually alighted at Swanley Junction where we took a bus to Hextable.
Near the bus stop there were big gates and a long shrub lined drive that led to a group of imposing buildings. We entered the Headmaster's House, and then through green baize lined double doors into the headmaster's office. Another conversation with frequent glances at me. Then my Mother got up to leave. I asked if I was coming and she said "No you are staying here!" I asked when I could come home and she said 'In a year'. When I said that was a long time she replied that if I worked hard the time would go quickly! Then she was gone! So began my sojourn at The Homes For Little Boys (HLB).
I was taken to Morrison House to meet Matron. She asked me if I had opened my bowels! I didn't know what she meant! Then she left me in a deserted dayroom until the twenty-seven other boys thundered in from school. It seemed as though scores of eyes were watching my every move. Several of the boys asked me questions; name? Where from? Mother dead? Father dead? Both dead? That night I was quietly, so I thought, crying myself to sleep when a big boy came shook my shoulder and said, "We don't cry in this school!"
Within a few days I had acquired a cast iron carapace and never again showed my feelings.
In the morning the boy next to me showed me how to make my bed. But even I could see that it looked a mess compared to his impeccable layout. We went off to school and into very imposing assembly hall; great wooden beams, steps leading to an organ and around the walls enormous glass cases containing the most beautiful things I had ever seen. Model steamships complete in every detail. They filled me with awe and wonder. As I was the only boy out of a hundred and sixty not wearing uniform, I stood out like a sore thumb and felt very uncomfortable.
I joined the junior class that was taught by Mrs Johnson, whose husband was also a teacher. That and every other day commenced with us chanting our multiplication tables from two times two to twelve times twelve.
Each month we had to write a letter home. Mrs Johnson wrote the letter on the blackboard and we copied it in our best handwriting. The letter never varied .It always started with the words 'Dear Mother, I hope you are quite well and happy as I am.... ; remarks about weather , working hard; Your loving son X'
Mr and Mrs Johnson took their summer holidays in Devon. When I got to his class he often regaled us with stories of cream teas, scenery and places such as Sidmouth. I also remember Mr Dickenson, Mr Scott and Mr Phaisey who on Remembrance Day filled us with awe about the Great War and our duty to be prepared to make the Supreme Sacrifice.
The first sign of Christmas came when Matron announced that she would make the Christmas pudding and every boy was to stir it. We queued to take our turn, Matron had put a silver three-penny bit in the mixture and it was fascinating to watch it vanish and re-appear as we stirred.
A few weeks later we made paper chains to decorate the dining room. For me Christmas day lost its magic at 6.30am on 25th of December 1935. The previous evening the big boys had told me that Father Christmas would come that night and that I should hang my stocking from the mantelpiece on the big range in the kitchen. Shortly after the 6.30 rising bell they took me down to the kitchen and pushed me through the door. There was my stocking apparently full. It seemed fairly heavy as I took it down, only to find it filled with coal. I turned around to see the group leering at me from the doorway. My blood ran cold and the memory chills me still.
Later in the morning they taught and made me perform a song whose words went:
There is a happy land far, far away,
Where we'll get bread and jam three times a day,
No more brick dust in our tea,
No more pain and misery,
Oh how happy we shall be far, far away.
At lunch we had Christmas pudding and one portion contained Matron's magic three-penny bit. Then it was time to open the parcels. There were twenty-eight boys in the house and to my astonishment each one got a parcel except for me. It turned out that the boys came from Devonport, Portsmouth, or (Nore) Chatham naval bases from where charitable organisations sent their parcels. I was an Admiralty boy. As there was neither Admiralty base nor charity, I was out of luck but later Matron handed me a parcel from my mother.
If your parcel contained sweets Matron would dole them out a few at a time over the following days. If you received a toy you could play with it that afternoon but then had put it in the dayroom cupboard. The next time you went it was usually either broken or else a bigger boy was playing with it. Domestic duties were a major feature of our daily lives. In the evenings we did our own sewing and darning. Before school every morning we cleaned, dusted and swept throughout the entire house. Each boy was allocated a specific job that would continue until matron ordered a reshuffle. Jobs that I found to be absolute purgatory were cleaning boots and burnishing the kitchen fender.
Boots were polished every evening with Day and Martin's black polish that was packed like slabs of toffee in greaseproof paper. We used spittle to soften it enough to get onto the brush. Two of us shared the task of cleaning twenty-eight pairs of boots. In wet weather they became sodden and dull but Matron insisted they had to shine sufficiently to pass her inspection. It was hell, took hours and made your fingers and arms very sore. I used to seek revenge by gritting my teeth and vowing that if ever I met anyone called Day or Martin I would kill them. The huge cast iron kitchen range had shiny metal doorknobs, hinges and other fittings that became stained and etched by spilt liquid. Each fitting and the top rails of the fender had to be burnished to a pristine shine by using emery paper: another soul-destroying task.
Every Saturday we spent the entire morning cleaning the house from top to bottom. The bath and sinks were cleaned with brick dust, grates black-leaded, steel burnished with emery paper. Furniture and some floor surfaces wax polished and everywhere else scrubbed with Hudson's soap. After lunch, invariably soup, we were allowed out to play.
Shirts and underwear were laundered weekly. In the laundry, situated behind the swimming pool, a number of buxom ladies toiled in the steamy atmosphere. Acres of washing were then hung on lines strung across the drying green behind Morrison House. There it billowed and cracked in the wind like the sails on a square-rigger.
We slept on iron bedsteads in three dormitories. Underneath each bed was a wicker basket for our neatly folded clothes; one on, one clean, one in the wash. In each dormitory there was a communal chamber pot. Boys who wet the bed were severely punished. Persistent offenders had their noses rubbed in it, which probably made things worse. I remember one bed-wetter who was so miserable that he used to bang his head on the lavatory doorpost. Talking in the dormitories was not allowed. After we had folded our clothes and put them into the baskets we knelt, silently said our prayers and got into bed.
During their final year at HLB the big, fourteen-year-old, boys were moved into the Headmaster's House. There they seemed to be better fed. Occasionally one would put a left-over of his pudding into his pocket and give it to a younger boy. Before eating it you had to remove a coating of fluff and hair. It always felt gritty on your teeth.
Every morning a headmaster's boy rang the rising bell. Standing in the drive outside the front door he bent double to swing a large and heavy bell between his knees. We washed, dressed and set about cleaning. The boy cleaning the stairs outside matrons' room was always on the alert so that when she opened her door he bellowed "Morning Matron". The boy cleaning the hall repeated the call, followed by the kitchen, scullery and lavatory boys. Within seconds everyone knew that matron was on the prowl. Occasionally matron would creep out and attempt to silence the first boy. That never really worked because as soon as the boy cleaning the hall spotted some movement he raised the alarm. .
In all my years at Swanley our diet and the daily menus never varied. Breakfast was a bowl of porridge, two slices of bread and dripping and a mug of cocoa On Christmas morning we had a sausage and on Easter Sunday we had a hard-boiled egg. The lunch menu was Saturday- soup, Sunday — hot meat, Monday — cold meat, Tuesday — shepherd’s pie and so on. Thus for any future date we could predict what and how much we would eat. Tea consisted of two slices of bread and margarine and a cup of tea. On alternate Sundays we also had a slice of cake or a spoonful of jam. Grace was said before and after every meal. We were not allowed to speak in the dining room. We simply ate ravenously. Coming from the Belvoir Hunt country, I always thought we resembled a pack of hounds. When we had eaten we sat with arms folded behind our backs. If you did not eat quickly enough or you left something on your plate, the boy next to you would take it.
Sometime around 1938 a new health fad swept the country. Good health depended on good digestion that in turn depended in proper mastication. Matron became an instant convert and decreed that we must chew every mouthful of food twenty-eight times before swallowing. Twenty-eight chews seem to take an age but we quickly rose to the challenge. We divided the entire meal into three or four portions each of which stuffed our mouths to capacity. Then we relieved the interminable chewing process by pulling faces at the boy sitting opposite. If his expression was grotesque enough to make you laugh, this had to be suppressed by turning it into a sneeze. But half chewed food in your nasal passages is painful enough to bring tears to your eyes. It appeared that all twenty-eight of us were suffering severe head colds. We were very relieved when the fad was eventually abandoned.
Matron's table was in the corner near the fireplace. Having wolfed down our meal we watched fascinated whilst she breakfasted from a flowered tablecloth using silver cutlery and fine china. With surgical precision she would cut off a small finger of toast and delicately apply butter and marmalade. Then in a sweeping gesture it was transferred to her mouth to be daintily chewed. It was like watching some exquisite ballet performance and set our saliva flowing to the point of torture.
There were two large pictures hanging on the dining room wall; Turner's `Fighting Temeraire' and 'The Laughing Cavalier'. The 'Fighting Temeraire' always puzzled me because it seemed to change every time you looked at it. Sometimes it was a ship, sometimes two ships, sometimes it was just a misty scene. It was truly mysterious and seemed to have a life of its own.
The 'Laughing Cavalier' had a sinister quality. One mealtime, Matron left the room and a boy spoke while she was out. She stormed back in and demanded to know who had broken the silence. As no one owned up we were all punished. She pointed out that the culprit would be unearthed because wherever you were sitting in the room the Laughing Cavalier had his eyes on you. Later that day I wandered around the room and sure enough his eyes did follow. From then on I was very wary of the Franz Hals masterpiece and his sinister surveillance.
The boiler behind the kitchen range provided both central heating and domestic hot water. It had probably been installed in 1883 and was very inefficient. It could only refill the bath once. Therefore fourteen of us shared each charge of water. Starting with the smallest, we bathed in pairs. This meant that the smallest had clean water that was slightly too hot. Middle-sized boys had cool water covered in dark scum. Slightly bigger boys again got clean water while the biggest lads got cool dirty water. The Hudson's carbolic soap had a very pungent smell and left thick black scum around the rim of the bath. No one dare run additional hot water because the boiler would pulsate at something like 5.2 on the Richter scale bringing Matron thundering in. We dried ourselves on a roller towel that seemed wetter than we were. We were not allowed to drink after teatime so learned to suck water from our toothbrushes.
After breakfast on school days we assembled in the hall where Matron inspected us individually. Clean behind the ears, all buttons firmly sewn on and properly fastened, stockings pulled up, garters in place, and handkerchief in pocket? We were usually dismissed with the phrase 'Cleanliness is next to godliness'.
One day a very young boy was admitted to Morrison House. He was just below school age. When we went off to school he was left to play alone in the yard and I remember his overjoyed expression whenever we reappeared.
Our uniform consisted of black boots, long stockings ringed with house colours at the top, heavy serge short trousers, jacket with brass buttons, shirt with detachable stiff collar and a tie. We had a school suit and a work suit. Every year we were issued with a new school suit. The existing school suit was demoted to work and the work suit went into store. On a given day each summer we paraded in the assembly hall before Mr Lowe and the traveller from the uniform supplier. They divided us into three groups; little, middle and big boys, usually about fifty in each group. Some weeks later each group was issued with identical size new suits. This resulted in some rather curious fittings. When the suits arrived we always looked to see if some kind soul had left a penny in a pocket but we were always disappointed.
Apart from organised outdoor games we also had weekly physical training in the assembly hall. It made a welcome break from schoolwork. PT, as it was known, became more structured when the authorities arranged for female students from Dartford Physical training college to conduct the activity. The first of these was a Miss Thompson. It seemed very strange to be instructed by a young woman and the fact that she wore a gymslip provoked much lively discussion at playtime! However the greatest impact came from the fragrant aroma of lavender that she trailed, whereas everything in our lives smelt of carbolic soap. At Christmas six of us were chosen to attend the student's Christmas party at Dartford where I was dumfounded to find many more like her.
On Sundays we attended both morning and evening services in the assembly hall. While we lustily sang hymns a big boy pumped the organ. I was mesmerised by a needle that danced up and down in a slot to indicate the air pressure. The service gave us time to study the beautiful scale models of merchant ships in their glass cases around the walls. We also gazed with trepidation at the organ stool over which boys would by bent to be beaten before the whole school; a lesson to them and a warning to all others. Mr. Lowe the headmaster preached fearsome sermons that reinforced a sense of our own worthlessness. I always left evening service feeling smaller than when I went in. The sermons made it obvious that if neither Matron nor the Laughing Cavalier were watching me, then God certainly was. Worse, as I was in no doubt that God worked for matron, the surveillance loop was complete and continuous.
A sermon I particularly remember was when the life of King George V was drawing peacefully to a close. Another, when Mr Lowe recalled his last conversation with Miss Davidson who had run the infirmary. He had asked if she knew she was dying and she replied that she did.
A popular closing hymn at evening service was 'Now the day is over, Night is drawing nigh.' At the November remembrance service we thundered 'O God, Our Help in Ages Past'.
For the coronation of King George VI we had a day off school and were given a coronation mug. Various sports were organised and some civilians attended. On the field was a sweet stall. I remember three of us standing near the stall but of course we had no money. The maid from our house came along, and bought a quarter of sweets in a paper bag. She extracted one, put it in her mouth, closed the bag and slowly walked away. None of us said a word. We just dispersed in different directions.
Visiting day came twice a year. A relative was allowed to take a boy out between two and five o'clock in the afternoon. Needless to say there were few such visitors.
Charabanc Day in late July was when we left for the summer holiday. Several charabancs arrived outside the Headmaster's House. Some took boys direct to Portsmouth and Chatham. Another took boys travelling farther afield to the main London stations; I was taken to Kings Cross to be put on the train to Grantham. Boys who had nowhere to go were billeted out with civilian families.
By the time I went home for my first school holiday I was completely institutionalised and found civilian life very strange. I never told anyone about school. If asked if I was happy, or if the food was good, I always replied 'Yes', and adopted a neutral attitude to any query. The staff at an institution like HLB seemed to have absolute power over your life. As you were fearful of them it seemed prudent to always keep a low profile.
Official wisdom decreed that the key to good health was efficient bowel movement. On Friday evening we lined up in the hall to be dosed by Matron. One week it was two cascara tablets taken with a sip of water. Matron examined your mouth to ensure they had been swallowed. On alternate Fridays it was a draught of foul-tasting ginger salts. Saturday mornings, particularly on ginger salts week, saw frequent scuffles for vacant lavatory seats.
Behind each lavatory door was a box containing interleaved sheets of crinkly paper bearing the legend 'Impregnated with IZAL germicide'. One day when Matron was standing in the hall, a paper aeroplane swooped gracefully from the landing outside her bedroom. It skidded to a halt at her feet with the starboard wing proudly displaying it's origin. Matron was incandescent. At breakfast the next morning she announced that in future we would be rationed to two sheets of paper. We had to request her permission to do a 'number two'. We then scurried off with the precious commodity and quickly became expert in origami! It was not long before Matron tired of the repetitive chore, but by then we had all become thoroughly conditioned!
Our lifestyle gave rise to some recurrent ailments. Running around on the roads and gravel paths in clumsy boots we often fell and scuffed our knees. There always seemed to be several boys wearing bandages. As we had no overcoats our heavy serge uniforms became sodden in bad weather. Particularly in winter the hems of our short trousers chafed our thighs, which often became chapped and sometimes bled. In winter many of us suffered from chilblains on fingers, toes and heels. They swelled until the skin cracked and wept. Chilblains were miserably painful. Matron used to paint them with gentian violet that seemed pretty ineffective. Another clothing induced ailment was boils. The inside of our shiny collars became worn and exposed a crisscross of mesh cotton threads that were hard like sandpaper. The resultant chapped skin frequently became infected causing painful boils. The pus had to be extracted by applying a cloth soaked in very hot water.
If Matron decided you needed more expert treatment you were sent to the infirmary to be dealt with by Miss Davidson. With her ample proportions, white uniform and flowing nurse's cap, she resembled a galleon in full sail. Sometimes you were admitted for a few days and seen by a visiting doctor. But regardless of whether you presented with injury, illness or affliction, Miss Davidson asked if you had opened your bowels. She then gave you a medicine glass full of slimy foul tasting castor oil. It always made me retch. Every winter we had quite heavy snowfall. The bigger boys made long slides in the playground by stamping the snow into ice. All the boys queued up to run at these slides that seemed to go on forever. We also enjoyed snowball fights between the various houses. The fun we had more than compensated for the odd minor injury.
Once a month we had our hair cut by a visiting barber who seemed incredibly old. He made evening visits to the joinery workshop. We sat on a workbench to await our turn. The floor was usually littered with interesting shaped wood shavings from the joiner's plane. I used to put one into my pocket but after a few days it always disintegrated.
When our boots needed mending we went to see kindly Mr. Dafter in his small but cosy cobblers shed. He usually continued working at his bench while he spoke to you. He conversed through a row of nails held between his lips. We were sure he must have swallowed many more nails than ever went into the boots.
Having neither toys nor hobbies there was little to occupy our spare time. I read anything I could lay my hand on; labels, litter, tins, anything bearing text. I also read upside down text on the teacher's desk. Thus I developed a love of words that made me very articulate. When the boys needed a spokesman I was pushed forward. If Matron needed to show a 'typical boy' to visiting dignitaries or officials, it fell to me. In the late thirties when Hitler was annexing Austria and Sudetenland, Matron could not listen to the one o'clock news because she was serving lunch. It was my duty to go to her room, hear the news and to give her a précis.
A popular game, played almost incessantly, was Five Stones. Four pebbles were placed on the floor in a square pattern. The player then threw a fifth pebble in the air and before catching it on the descent, tried to pick up the other stones: first one at a time, then two, then three and finally all four together. If he failed or missed the flying pebble his turn ended. Some boys became very skilled but I remained hopeless.
As we had nowhere to keep any personal possessions everything had to fit into our trouser pockets; always simple artefacts, such as a curious pebble, a dead frog or a piece of bent wire.
The school had a large orchard. Occasionally during the autumn the head gardener Mr Tolley brought a basket of apples to the playground during our morning break. He threw apples into the crowd. As there were 160 of us I got few apples but many a bruising encounter.
Occasionally a boy would run away; known as 'doing a bunk'. Invariably they were caught by the police and returned to HLB. At the next assembly we watched as they were severely caned over the organ stool. Fearing Matron's wrath, no one ever did a bunk from Morrison House.
After war was declared changes in routine caused interest and some excitement. All windows were taped to minimise flying glass and blacked out at night. We were issued with gas masks that we had to carry at all times and we received a National Identity Card, which I still have. At the edge of the playing field an air raid shelter was constructed. It was a deep trench fitted with slatted seats and a timbered roof topped with a substantial earth mound. On day and night air raid practice and real alerts, we found the trench pretty inhospitable. The school was not itself bombed until after I had gone to Holbrook.
In a tough environment like HLB you quickly adapted a coping strategy, Firstly you became your own man. If you had a problem you either solved it or kept quiet. You never cried or showed any feelings apart from amusement.
Some boys has a gift for merging into the background; very useful if Matron was on the warpath. Others never did learn to cope and they had a very miserable time. If you spoke to them they flinched, and if you got too close they cowered. I always lived absolutely in the present, never looking forward or back, even for a few minutes. If things got really unpleasant I was able to mentally withdraw from my body and observe myself from the outside as though looking at a complete stranger. There was a hill near the school and I used to think, if that has been there for thousands of years and is still alright, then I shall be alright too.
One Friday I was warned that I was to sit an examination the next day. Three or four of us were taken to Dartford Grammar School to sit the entrance exam. Afterwards we had to walk back to school. I heard nothing more until I went home for the summer holidays. My Mother told me I had been offered a place there but she had declined, as she wanted me to follow my brother to the Royal Hospital School (RHS) at Holbrook.
It was a surprise when Matron told me I would be leaving school in a couple of days. I put on my best uniform and with two or three other boys was taken on the bus to London's Liverpool Street station. On the platform there were a number of civilian boys with their parents all clustered around a porter's trolley. On it was standing a man in uniform who called out our names and when we responded he ticked us off on a clipboard. We were then herded on to a train and set off to Ipswich and the Royal Hospital School at Holbrook.
I did feel a twinge of regret because when the fourteen-year-old boys from the headmasters house left HLB to become cadets in the merchant service, we used to line the drive and cheer them on their way. By comparison my departure had seemed somewhat low key!
Throughout the years I spent in Morrison house at HLB the routine was unvarying, the discipline rigid and punishment severe. Hence the place ran like clockwork. By the rather effete standards of 2012 it may be regarded as unduly austere but I simply accepted things as they were.
My family think that it left me scarred but arguably these scars have served me in good stead. Compared with Swanley everything in life has seemed easy. HLB made me self-contained, self-reliant, extremely polite, and with an inherent sense of duty first. I still live in the 'now' and never cross bridges until I get to them. A minor problem is my somewhat exaggerated sense of responsibility. For instance if I go the theatre and the curtain jams I have an uneasy feeling that it is my fault!
Now some seventy years on I am enjoying the childhood I never had and as I wrote to my Mother 'am quite well and happy'. Amusingly I still occasionally find myself trying to please Matron.
Oh, and I still feel a twinge of guilt as I reach for a third sheet!
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