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Boarding in Beaminster

Derek Woodland describes life as a boarder at Beaminster and Netherbury Grammar School in the 1950s

Big Dormitory - Beaminster Boarding School
Big Dormitory, School House

– unchanged from 1914 to 1954!

In September 1952 my life changed abruptly. I had just had my eleventh birthday and until that time I had lived at home with my family in and around the small village of Rampisham, about six miles east of Beaminster. In the previous spring I had passed my eleven-plus examination and was subsequently awarded a place at the Beaminster and Netherbury Grammar School. There was no public transport available and it was the norm for pupils from Rampisham to board at the school: some were weekly boarders, coming home for weekends, and others termly, coming home only for the half-term and end-of-term holidays. I was to become a termly boarder.

On the first day of term I was delivered to the school in Hogshill Street by the village schoolmistress, who had taken me with my ‘trunk’ – a large wooden box – in her ancient Ford. The trunk, which contained all the worldly goods necessary for me to live at the school, properly labelled as instructed, was deposited in the boarding house. I joined the class of new entrants, thirty-two of us, and began my new life. After school I unpacked my trunk and the next day it was spirited away into storage, which signalled a kind of finality and a commitment to my new way of life.

Junior day boarders and resident staff on the lawn at Tucker House - Beaminster Boarding School
Junior day boarders and resident staff on the lawn at Tucker House in 1955. The author is second from the left in the back row.

Two bells controlled life at the school. One, the relic of an earlier school, hung outside the dining room in the boarding house and was used to regulate the boarders’ lives, signalling times for meals and other events in our daily routine. The other hung above the lobby of the school library and was used to signal the beginning and end of lessons throughout the day. We soon slotted into the routine of the school and learned not to be late. The days passed quickly, being full of activity, but between 4.00 and 4.15 in the afternoon fleets of buses and cars took the day pupils off to their homes and the school became the boarders’ home. Initially, the girl boarders were accommodated in Tucker House on the opposite side of Hogshill Street and they, too, vanished into their own world.

There were few facilities for boarders at the school. The girls had the benefit of a large recreation room in Tucker House, but there was nothing for the boys who lived in School House. We were not allowed into the boarding house during the day except for mealtimes, and we passed our time either in classrooms or, weather permitting, playing outside. After lessons, we were allowed out into the town between 4.00 and 5.15 with the permission of the duty master, provided that we wore our caps and ties. If we met members of staff in the town, we were required to raise our caps and greet them politely. With little pocket money there was not much to do in the town, but at least it provided a change of scene and an escape from the boredom of the classrooms. Later the girls moved to Woodlands on the Bridport Road and we junior boys moved into their superior accommodation in Tucker House.

After high tea on weekdays we were required to do ‘prep’, or homework. Seniors were required to do two hours study from 6.00 until 8.00 pm while the juniors attended from 6.30 until 8.00 pm. Normally homework was set by staff for three subjects each day, and often this filled the allotted time. But if no homework had been set, or if it took only a little time to complete, we were expected to study and we were not allowed to read any form of fiction during prep. After prep, junior boys went to their dormitories at 8.30 pm, seniors at 9.00 pm, with lights out half an hour later.

The Combined Cadet Force - Beaminster Boarding School
The Combined Cadet Force, the Headmaster’s particular pride, parades through the town

Saturday mornings invariably involved a mass exodus into the town, sometimes for a haircut or to take shoes for repair to Mr Head in North Street. Sport played a major part in the boarder’s life. Football and cricket, hockey and tennis were obligatory and generally enjoyed by the majority. The boys had to endure another trial in the form of the annual cross-country run. From Christmas onwards it became the practice for the duty master to send boarders on training runs on weekends when there were no organised games. It was a common sight to see groups of boys running through the town, usually into Netherbury Fields, sometimes up the Tunnel Road, and sometimes around Edmundcombe. The annual cross-county run in March was a town event, being started in the Square amongst a throng of onlookers and finishing at the Public Hall in Fleet Street. Junior boys (aged 11 to 13) were given thirty seconds’ start and, just occasionally, one of them would defeat the niggardly handicapping system and come in amongst the leaders.

Sundays followed a standard routine. After breakfast, we had to write a letter home before going to morning service at the church. Groups of boarders would be seen walking through the town to St Mary’s Church, where we occupied one side of the south aisle. The Headmaster and his wife sat in the main body of the church, strategically placed to spot any misbehaviour. I remember that there was a vault in the south aisle which was opened on one occasion to reveal a number of lead coffins, believed to be of the Strode family. After lunch we were expected to go on a walk during the afternoon and, when the Headmaster was on duty, he would set a destination (usually the Tunnel) and then drive to the spot to check us off. Woe betide any latecomers or non-arrivals! After tea we returned to St Mary’s Church for Evensong.

The former School House today - Beaminster Boarding School
The former School House today

As time passed, boarding became more bearable. At fourteen, boarders were allowed to keep a bicycle at the school, which greatly enhanced the scope for travel at weekends. From time to time it became fashionable to break bounds after lights-out, and midnight walks and cycle rides were not uncommon. The girl boarders sometimes joined in these escapades and on one occasion a boy took one of the girls to West Bay on the crossbar of his bicycle! Of course, getting caught breaking bounds was a major sin, and the Headmaster would lay the cane on the offenders’ backsides with military precision. ‘Six of the best’ produced a neat stack of parallel bruises on each buttock, and the recipients often displayed these bruises with great pride.

The Headmaster took a particular pride in the school’s Combined Cadet Force (why ‘Combined’ was never clear – we only had an army section) and all boys were encouraged to work hard to achieve a smart turn-out and drill. All the youth organisations paraded through the town on Empire Youth Sunday and we were always determined to be the smartest on parade. We also marched through the town regularly to and from field exercises and the Drill Hall on the Stoke Road.

Grammar School bell - Beaminster Boarding School
Nicola Chalkley, PA to the Head of Beaminster School, points out the former Grammar School bell, which now hangs in the school’s reception area

We had a number of thriving clubs and societies, for which the bulk of the organisation fell to the boarders. The dancing club provided welcome opportunities to fraternise with the girls and many a romance developed at the occasional Saturday night ‘hop’, especially when first skiffle and then rock ‘n’ roll appeared. There was also a Young Farmers’ Club, which did well in local rallies and provided opportunities to visit various farms and shows, and a Music Club. Monopoly, table tennis and chess also filled many an hour. A large shortcoming was the lack of facilities for any form of handicrafts such as model-making.

All in all, life as a boarder at the school was quite a Spartan existence, although we were generally well looked after. While the school gave a good education to all its pupils, the boarders received the additional benefits associated with being part of a tight-knit inner community, and many day pupils envied our position.

At a recent reunion one former boarder commented: ‘I think that Beaminster and Netherbury Grammar School must have been unique. I don’t know what made it so – perhaps the teachers were very considerate, particularly to those who were boarders, who were often boarding due to some family or associated misfortune; or perhaps it was us, a post-war generation, innately determined to shrug off any difficulties and to emerge triumphant despite life’s vicissitudes. After all these years we still journey from just about every corner of the globe to get together, and we still enjoy each other’s company.’

[Derek Woodland is the author of A History of the Beaminster and Netherbury Grammar School, available from him at 10a Putton Lane, Chickerell, Weymouth, DT3 4AG (01305 782429)]

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