steepholm (steepholm) wrote,

Tom Butler's Schooldays - Part 5: Dinner, Birch and Beadle

After morning school was over, there was an hour to spend before dinner, either in the playground or in the Ward, and then the Hall bell rang twice, and all the scholars and Nurses ascended the Hall-staircase for the midday meal. As we were ascending, I heard Mrs Graham of No. VII Ward and Mrs Meredith of No. VIII Ward talking and laughing about my hair. It was very long, and in time past at my home had been curled with curling-tongs, and in a day or two would have to be cut short. I myself had no objection to part with my curls, but I did feel grieved when, on Sunday Evening, the girls of the Bluecoats Girls' School close by, came into the Hall, and I saw that their heads had been cropped like those of the boys. ...

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.

After dinner at a separate table, beer was given to delicate boys, of whom I was one. In old-fashioned times beer was believed to convey strength just as nowadays meat is supposed to give it. And indeed for those poor little wretches, whatever may be said now, a stimulant seemed to be necessary. "Give strong drink, says King Lemuel, unto him that is ready to perish, and wine unto the bitter in soul." A small mug of sweet ale was a slight comfort to such a one, and did him no harm. When the beer was flat and sharp, it was a disappointment. Flesh is also a stimulant. There was always in each Ward one boy who got nothing of it, and that was the unfortunate to whom was laid the bladebone. No one ate the bladebone, or what was on it, for it was considered unclean. If one ate it in ignorance, he was "poled" (polluted) and no boy spoke to him. ...

The belief was held [among the boys] that everyone dies from slow poisoning. For all food, said they, contains poison except carrots, and gradually produces death. And it would be of no avail to eat nothing but carrots, even if one could do so, for then death by starvation would follow, carrots not having by themselves sufficient nourishment to preserve life.

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. ...


Note - the birch is quite different from a cane, and designed to break the skin.

It was the duty of Mr Crossman [a friendly beadle] nightly to walk about Christ's Hospital with a bell and a dog and at each half hour to proclaim loudly the time of night. The boys imagined that he guarded the Hospital from highwaymen, and sometimes it was rumoured that he had shot one of them. The boys greatly admired this faithful beadle's valour and bore no ill will against him because he was employed by Mr Ludlow to do the birching. He was a kind-hearted man and evidently did not like that business, for it was horribly cruel and especially for young children.

There was a shop in one of the playgrounds which was kept by Mr Allen, a very stout man. He was a beadle, but not liked as Mr Crossman was, for he took no interest in the children, was irritable and devoid of humour. The scholars were obliged to buy from his shop, for there was no other. Nothing was allowed to be bought outside the school, and housy coin alone was permitted, the sixpence of which was copper and in shape a hexagon. ... Unfortunately Mr Ludlow also had no sense of humour. A child, sent by his companions to the shop for some "pigeon's milk" was reported to the Steward, and mercilessly punished. Another lad requested Mrs Allen to sell him a pennyworth of what she hadn't got: whereupon Mr Allen rose in great anger to seize him. The little boy got fairly away, but the fat man fell forward over the door-step, and was laid up for some time. The children of Christ's Hospital did not pity him and regarded his accident as a punishment for his stupidity. ...
Tags: family history, tom butler's schooldays
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