steepholm (steepholm) wrote,
steepholm
steepholm

Tom Butler's Schooldays - Part 18: The Great Escape

... Whether or not it arose from ill-feeling between the Grammar School Wards and the Latin School Wards, I cannot say, but so it was that they behaved like foolish dogs, which Dr Watts tells children not to imitate. They fight for no discoverable reason. First for some time the opposed Wards saved up all the orange peel they could get, and had a battle with that. I did not join in the folly for I never liked anything ill-bred or rough. However I did not grudge the encounter to those who could enjoy it, for although ill-mannered it was almost harmless. I thought that if the English, Russians and French fought with orange peel, no great harm would be done. This idea led to another. If gentlemen and ladies who love to be cruel to foxes and even breed them to hunt them to death with hounds would have a meet for the purpose of stamping on cockroaches, their time would be better employed. But I was wrong. Such insipid and questionable cruelty would not thoroughly satisfy them. They would wish to destroy things more charming and graceful than cockroaches, to say nothing of the pleasure of glutting their brutal appetite with the sight of blood and pain.*

The orange-peel battle was not satisfactory, because it was not mischievous. The only result was that the combatants returned to their Wards with yellow faces. What was to be done? They must have a real cruel battle although there was no cause for it, and no sense in it. For some time in No. X I saw lads making most dangerous weapons. I recollect that there were sticks with leaden buttons and bullets attached to the end of them. Happily, the fight never took place. I was informed that the authorities of Christ's Hospital heard about the affair, and caused several of the big lads to take their oath that they would not fight, and so the matter ended.

One of the lads of this Ward, D., had a vile temper. He opened a pocketknife, and stabbed in the back a boy who had offended him. The wounded one fell down insensible and was placed on a bed by those near and was thought by them to be dead. A lad went to the Matron at the other end of the Ward, and told her, "Please, Mum, D. has killed a boy." "D.", cried she. "Yes, Mum." "Come here. Do you know, D., what you have done? Do you know, D., that you have killed a boy?" "I don't care, he shouldn't have aggravated me." "D. you'll be 'anged. I shouldn't like to be you, D., you'll be 'anged." Fortunately, after a while, the boys were able to tell her, "Please, Mum, N. is not dead." Then she said, "And a very good thing it is for you, D., that N. is not dead, for you would 'ave been 'anged. As sure as you stand 'ere, you would 'ave been 'anged." ...

Sometimes the monotony of School life was interrupted by attempts to run away from Christ's Hospital. Three lads of this Ward, M., L., and D. agreed to do so. Some time before the day they fixed, they made rope ladders to climb forest trees, and they purposed to buy a half-crown pistol to shoot rabbits and also to provide themselves with a tin pot in which to make blackberry-jam over a fire of forest wood. But it was essential that they should have towny clothes and these they were busy making every day, D. excepted, who gave no help at all. The trousers and coats were cut out of white calico, and the sewing was such as is seen in tacking. I thought that forest life would immediately tear them to pieces. I could not imagine how L., whom I had always known as a cripple, could climb rope ladders. It was true he was stronger than he had been at Hertford, where he required the help of surgical apparatus and crutches, but he was still somewhat lame.

The Matron and Monitors did not see the preparations: when they approached, everything was instantly hidden. Well, the time arrived for M., L., and D.'s departure. Antony, the Beadle who guarded one of the entrances of the School, was informed by a lad they sent to him that the Treasurer was walking round the corner of a cloister close by, and wished to speak to him at once. Antony turned his back to the gate-portal, and the runaways made their escape. In the evening, D. came back to the School with his pockets and arms full of good things. He had brought them from his home, which was a confectioner's shop. D. had deceived his companions. From the first he did not intend to go with them. He had schemed an opportunity of getting a day's outing. This was evident because directly he got outside the Hospital he left them and went home. In those days the quick discovery of the whereabouts of a person missing was not provided by electrical invention; however, after M. and L. had stayed away for two or three days, they were found and brought back by the police. The two runaways were "brushed" (birched) but not in public. The doctor allowed the authorities to give the lad with weak limbs six strokes not too hard. D., I think, was not punished at all. He was probably regarded by the authorities as a penitent who set a good example to his companions which they refused to follow.

I asked L. to give me an account of his excursion. He treated me to a long yarn, over which we both laughed, but which I secretly regarded as mostly fiction. The first night, he said, was spent under a cart turned upside down. He and his companion slept all right, and afterwards they trespassed on a farmer's field and were chased. They narrowly escaped a pitchfork which was thrown after them. They made some blackberry jam in their tin pot. This I did not believe, but I did not tell him so. I enquired whether or not he thought the pleasures of the excursion made amends for the brushing. "As to the brushing," L. replied, "the good breakfast I had at the police station, the new towny bread, hot coffee, good butter, and as much of all as we wished, more than made up for the brushing. I would gladly, if I could, go away again for such another breakfast." ...


* It may be worth mentioning that TRB was a vegetarian, following in this as in Esperanto the example of his son, my grandfather, who became a vegetarian in 1895 at the age of 12, after visiting a slaughter house.
Tags: family history, tom butler's schooldays
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