How strict is the new housemistress?
by Sally Cavendish
One of the peculiarities of old-fashioned English private schools, given a new lease of life in the Harry Potter stories, was the all-pervasive house system. You were allocated to a particular house at the start of your school career and remained in that house until you left the school. Each house had its own quirks, reflecting long traditions, and the general tone was set by the housemaster or housemistress in charge of the eighty-odd pupils who constituted a typical house in a boarding school of the period.
Some houses made a big thing of sport, others excelled at music or drama. And in the golden age of corporal punishment, which house you were allocated would often dictate how often, and how hard, you got whacked by your housemaster or housemistress. Each house had its own distinctive disciplinary regime, with only the most heinous offenders referred up the chain of command to the head teacher, who alone had the power to punish on the bare bottom. So, each housemaster and housemistress ran their own little fiefdom according to their own, sometimes eccentric, precepts. It was all a bit haphazard, but at least everyone knew where they stood.
At Abbey Grange in Kent, a traditional girls’ boarding school in a remote rural setting half way between London and Dover, the four boarding houses, named after well-known female writers, were Austen, Eliot, Bronte and Gaskell. And their respective housemistresses, at the time this story was set, were Dr Bartlett, Miss Hopkins, Miss Binks and Miss Bracewell.
How did they compare on the Beaufort scale of strictness? Precise data was scarce, in that the school did not maintain formal punishment books. But of course, there was no shortage of anecdotal evidence. Girls who had been punished by their housemistress would naturally compare notes with girls in other houses. It was also possible, during showers after gym, to glimpse the tell-tale marks of a strapping or caning.
The bottoms of girls in Austen house who had got the wrong side of Dr Bartlett were the object of particular ooh-ing and ah-ing in the showers. The cane was her weapon of choice and six of the best her invariable sentence. Those livid red stripes, and the tales associated with them, were part of the folklore of Abbey Grange.
Nobody would have dared use the term ‘sadistic bitch’ within earshot of the formidable Dr Bartlett but, behind her back, it was often whispered of her. Being allocated to Austen house was regarded as a very mixed blessing indeed. The house hockey and lacrosse teams might carry all before them in inter-house competitions, but there was hell to pay if you stepped out of line.
At the other end of the scale to Dr Bartlett was dear old Miss Binks, who had been housemistress of Bronte house for the best part of twenty years. She had started her teaching career in a junior school and had never really taken on board the fact that, if you want to administer corporal punishment to a 16-year-old, you need to put a bit more beef into it than when you are chastising a 10-year-old.
She never caned. It was not even sure she possessed a cane. And the slipper which she took to errant bottoms was so worn that, even if she had wielded it with maximum force, it would have done little damage. In the showers, a bottom had that been on the receiving end of the slipper from ‘Binksy’ never showed anything but a very slight pinkness, which faded within hours.
Another of Miss Binks’s foibles, which her pupils imitated pitilessly, was to give pupils a long, commiserating hug after punishing them.
“There, there, dear,” she would coo, patting their backsides in a motherly manner. “The sting will go soon. I just hated having to do that your poor bottom. Now off you go to bed, like a good girl.”
As for Miss Hopkins and Miss Bracewell, the other two housemistresses at Abbey Grange, there was little to choose between them. They were neither martinets nor softies; they just did their best, like so many other housemistresses of the period, to keep order, using the slipper, the strap or, occasionally, the cane, to see that school rules were respected and girls taught certain rudimentary good manners.
Then, quite suddenly, in 1969, Miss Bracewell retired, citing the need to look after her ageing mother in Devon. In her place, the headmistress appointed Jennifer Marshall, the head of physics, who, at just 33, was more than ten years younger than the three other housemistresses.
In the classroom, Miss Marshall was a popular figure, cheering up her physics classes with wacky little Blue Peter-style experiments to illustrate Newtonian principles of motion. But, as a disciplinarian, she was an unknown quantity. At Abbey Grange, only the head teacher and housemasters and housemistresses had the authority to administer corporal punishment.
But she would not remain an unknown quantity for long. Only a few weeks into her tenure, two girls from Abbey Grange, one from Austen house and the other from Gaskell, were caught visiting the village sweet-shop during the lunch-hour, contrary to school rules. The first girl, Stephanie Robson, was sent to Dr Bartlett for the inevitable six of the best. The second, Pauline Masters, was sent to see Miss Marshall.
Three hours later, after afternoon sport which, on that day, consisted of a cross-country run, both girls found themselves in the showers in adjoining cubicles. And it was obvious at a glance that Pauline was in a considerably worse state than Stephanie, with the traditional ‘tramlines’ of a caning taking the form of raised welts. It was almost like looking at a corrugated-iron roof.
“Crikey!” gasped Pauline’s best friend, Rachel. “You really got it.”
Pauline nodded grimly. “Yep. She didn’t hold back. I was blubbing by the end.”
If Miss Marshall had wanted to stamp her authority on her new charges in Gaskell house, she could hardly have done it in more vivid fashion. Rumours of her strictness with the cane spread like wildfire and, for several weeks, every one of the 77 girls in her house was on her very best behaviour.
But it couldn’t last, of course. As the stripes on Pauline’s bottom slowly faded, so did the sense of terror that the stripes had struck in others. At which point, by an unhappy coincidence, Founder’s Day loomed.
Founder’s Day, which was always held on the second Wednesday in June, to commemorate Lady Millicent Parker, the Victorian philanthropist who had decided to turn her private home into a select boarding school for daughters of the clergy, was associated, by long tradition, with high jinks’; everything from midnight feasts in the dormitory to bursting balloons in the chemistry lab. A little more latitude was allowed than at other times. A blind eye was turned to excesses. There was a holiday atmosphere.
To Clare Irwin, Florence Garforth and Susie Bell, three notorious pranksters, Founder’s Day was an excuse for some jolly jape that would live on in school folklore. The previous year, in a typical stunt, they had introduced a piglet from a neighbouring farm into a biology lesson, causing complete pandemonium. They had been gated for a week, and made to write a hundred lines each, but thought it a price well worth paying.
This year, they had been scheming away since January and were counting the days till Founder’s Day, when they could put their master plan into action. The idea was to set off the fire alarm in the gym at the precise moment when the headmistress rose to her feet to make her Founder’s Day address to the dignitaries gathered in the main hall. And it worked a treat. The fire alarm went off, everyone ran around like headless chickens for the next twenty minutes and, best of all, the three culprits escaped undetected. It was Clare who set off the fire alarm, while Florence and Susie kept watch. Seconds later they were hiding in a broom cupboard, giggling at their cleverness. By the time they emerged, the coast was clear.
It was nearly six hours later when their sins caught up with them. Miss Marshall was in the habit of going around the dormitories in Gaskell house before going to bed, to wish the girls goodnight and check that all was well. When she reached C dormitory, the one containing Clare, Florence and Susie and nine other girls, she delivered her bombshell.
“Irwin. Garforth. Bell. My study. Now. Come on, look sharp.”
Seconds later, the three sixth-formers were trotting disconsolately behind Miss Marshall as she marched downstairs to her study and shut the door behind her.
“Well?” she said, looking straight at Clare, whom she had identified in her own mind as the ringleader.
There was a long, tense silence. Carefully avoiding her friends’ eyes, Clare pondered her dilemma. Assuming that Miss Marshall, for whatever reason, suspected them of having been responsible for the fire-alarm going off, did she actually have any proof that they were the culprits? It would be silly to confess if there was no need to confess. To protest their innocence, on the other hand, carried its own risks. As she stayed rooted to the spot, she became conscious that she was trembling.
“What’s the matter, Irwin?” Miss Marshall asked sarcastically, and her sarcasm was the most worrying sign yet. “You’re not normally short of things to say for yourself.”
“I’m sorry, Miss. That is to say, I don’t mean, I-I’m very sorry.”
“You will be sorry.”
Miss Marshall had heard enough. She had known exactly which three girls had been responsible for setting off the fire-alarm for the simple reason that, two hours after the incident, she had overheard the trio talking and giggling about it. If she had doubted the evidence of her ears, there was no doubting the evidence of her eyes. It was hard to imagine three guiltier-looking faces than the ones now facing her.
“I realise that larking about on Founder’s Day is something of a school tradition,” she said, speaking slowly and deliberately, like a judge summing up at the end of a trial. “And I do not want to pour cold water on that. But the simple fact is that letting off a fire-alarm is grossly irresponsible. Just think about that for a minute, girls. Suppose, God forbid, there were to be a real fire at the school tomorrow. People might remember today’s little prank and not respond to the fire alarm with the necessary urgency. The consequences do not bear thinking about.”
The homily over, the judge pronounced sentence. “You were obviously all on this little caper, so you will each receive six of the best. Take off your dressing-gowns, put them on the sofa and line up against the wall. You will be caned in alphabetical order.”
There was a sharp intake of breath from Susie Bell as she realised that she would be first to be dealt with. Once dressing-gowns had been removed, the thin summer pyjamas in which she and the other two were standing were no sort of protection against the evil-looking cane which Miss Marshall had taken out of the corner cupboard. Like her friends, Susie had never been caned before, although there had been a close squeak in the fifth form, when they had been strapped, along with six other girls, for messing about in maths.
Miss Marshall had now pulled out an upright chair from the corner of the room and placed it centre stage.
“Right, Bell. I want you to bend over the chair and rest your hands on the seat. If you move your hands from their position, you will receive extra strokes. You are to stay quite still while you receive your punishment. I trust that is clear.”
Clare and Florence hardly dared watch as their partner in crime assumed the position, her pale pink pyjama bottoms stretched tight as a drum across her pert backside. But there was something hypnotic about the purposeful way Miss Marshall set about her business. Having kicked off her shoes to help her keep her balance, she now took up her position, with her feet slightly apart, tapped the cane a couple of times against Susie Bell’s bottom, then whipped it back before lashing it down on its target.
The sound of the cane was followed by a low grunt from Susie who, in the estimation of her friends, had done well not to scream out loud. It had been a real stinger and there were five more where that came from.
The fourth stroke was a couple of inches below the others and did produce a shrill yelp from the prostrate girl. By the sixth, tears were streaming down her cheeks and her shoulders were shaking uncontrollably.
“Now let that be a lesson to you,” said Miss Marshall, in an icy voice. Now go and stand in the corner while I deal with your friends. Garforth, I think you’re next.”
Florence endured the same purgatory as her friend, and was even more voluble in her reactions. Her screams, it was later discovered, had been audible in the dormitory, where they had occasioned near panic. Then it was the turn of Clare, whose plump little bottom was covered by baby-blue pyjamas of such wafer-thin material that, as Miss Marshall’s cane descended, with punitive force, the other two girls could clearly see red ridges forming. It had been, by any standards, a chastening experience.
“Right, girls,” said Miss Marshall, replacing her cane in the cupboard, like a smoking gun, and allowing herself a wintry smile. “That concludes the evening’s proceedings. There will be no more nonsense with fire alarms at this school, Founder’s Day or no Founder’s Day. Now put on your dressing-gowns and get back to your dormitory.”
As the three sixth-formers hobbled bed-wards, clutching their throbbing rumps, Clare whispered to Florence: “Well, at least nobody died.”
Her friend was too traumatised even to smile.
© Sally Cavendish 2020