1950s Prefects
William Wood 1954-62 Cornwallis
It must have been a doddle being a schoolmaster in the 1950s. All they had to do was teach lessons and referee games. The boys it was who ran the school. This was done through the prefect system. The prefects ensured that the rules were observed and lessons attended. The prefects kept order and the masters turned up for lessons.

As in every walk of life there were good and there were bad prefects. They had no training. Their unwritten duties were learned on the job. Some had a natural authority and were liked and respected, some could never keep order and this made their own lives and those of their victims a misery. For example, when pupils were not in set lessons they had free periods. This meant going to sit in Big School and getting on with homework or with some specific project. There could be up to fifty boys doing a dozen different subjects during a free period. Talking was not allowed and of course no one was allowed to leave his desk until the bell rang. This was as it should be. Most of us wanted to study.

A good prefect sat up in front like a teacher facing his class and got on with his own work, looking up occasionally to see that all was quiet and well. A bad prefect was unable to relax. Boys misbehaved, played him up, passed notes, threw rubbers, flicked ink soaked pellets of blotting paper from elastic bands or made rude noises. As a result everyone lost hours of study time. Those who enjoyed this disruption were in a minority. Yet a scholar who remonstrated at a jab in the back from a compass point was just as likely to be punished as any real miscreant actually caught out by the despairing prefect.

Between the good, natural law-keepers and the no-hopers was another kind of prefect: the vicious, malicious bully, the cruel, unjust tyrant. We had one such, named Draco, an apt name since it means dragon. He was worse than JK Rowling’s Malfoy. He liked to catch boys out on some minor infringement simply for the pleasure of inflicting punishment. All prefects could give detention and school prefects were allowed to beat boys with a cane.

There were plenty of petty rules to exploit. We were supposed to do our jackets up on the middle button, never to put our hands in our pockets (though prefects could wear their jackets open and put one hand in their pocket). We had to wait at doors for masters and for prefects and we had to acknowledge them in the street with a kind of sloppy, two-fingered salute. Neglect of these formalities was punished. As for talking or eating in class, fighting or queue jumping, retribution was severe. Even at mealtimes talking was forbidden until the announcement, “you may talk.” How the school would have coped with mobile phones and fidgety texting is unimaginable.

A decent prefect would remind offenders of the rules and give a warning, perhaps. Draco actually looked out for misdemeanours and dragged the poor child into his study for a brutal dressing down. He tried to provoke his victims to tears, or better still to “insubordination” ie to protest, so he could then administer two strokes of the cane.

On the whole, though, the system worked well. The experience of being a prefect, if it did not destroy him, was character building for the individual. It was a steep learning curve and he got no help, other than to follow the example of the better prefects under whom he had grown up. At the end of it he was ready to go out to the colonies and rule the natives, albeit fifty years too late.

The downside of the prefect system, especially for the juniors, was the fagging. This was unpaid labour and humiliation and it was very much the luck of draw what kind of prefect you worked for. For every prefect had a personal fag. The regular duties, which had to be fitted in between the rising bell and the breakfast bell, were cleaning the prefects’ shoes and washing up the dirty mugs and plates left overnight in their studies. Given that the plates had formed a crust and the water was cold this was a time consuming chore.

If, like me, you drew the short straw and your prefect played in a school team, you were more than a drudge. My prefect was scrum half for the Ist XV. These are the guys who throw themselves in the mud as they pass the ball from the scrum to the backs. When there was a match, which was most Wednesdays and Saturdays, I had to clean his kit. The boots were the worst. I had to remove the laces, rub them with soap and wind them round the central tap spindle, pulling them back and forth until they looked clean. Several days a week, therefore, not only my early mornings but several of my breaks found me in the basement cleaning and washing and threading. I was never thanked or complimented on the result.

At the end of term, prefects were supposed to tip their fags. Most fags, however light their duties, got half a crown which was the equivalent of a week’s pocket money. I was expecting a more generous gesture at the end of that wet winter term but on the last day, as we were all packing up to go home, every fag but me had received his tip. My prefect seemed to be avoiding me. At the last minute I knocked on his study door. He opened it, looking guilty, and looked at me. I waited. He did not ask me what I wanted. He knew. “I suppose you want a tip,” he said. “Well, look here…” He was at a loss for words, then plunging a hand into his jacket pocket he fished out a torn paper bag half full of peppermint sweets and handed it to me without even a word of thanks for twelve weeks’ toil. That was the last I ever saw of Rxxx (yes that was your name, you b******) and I have no idea what became of him.

When five years later I became a prefect in my turn I gave my fag very little to do. Fortunately it would be several years before we had to face the whole school and read the lesson and only then if we became prefects. Before that we had the humiliation of fagging for those very prefects to experience.
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