Over a number of years, the headmaster, Commander Hicks, had established an end of term custom that was hated and feared by all the boys in the school, but which none of them could deny had a remarkable effect on their work-rate and discipline. Opinion about it amongst their fathers was divided, but they too could only admire the effect that it had on their sons.
Its workings were a little complex so bear with me while I try to explain.
Every three weeks the marks awarded to each boy in every subject were totalled and placed in rank order. The boy in each form who ended up at the bottom was caned by his form master. Obviously, this varied from a laughable irrelevance to a fearsome thrashing, depending on who happened to be the form master. At the end of term, these three weekly orders were aggregated and the two boys in each form who propped up the list were interviewed by the commander himself and soundly caned.
This would have been bad enough, but the bit that the boys hated most was that their fathers were invited to be present while this interview and caning took place. Not all fathers attended, and not all those who did felt that their duty involved extending the punishment with further caning, either on the spot or once the boy was safely home for the holidays, but enough did to make it a matter of dread that the commander's caning might only be the first instalment in a more lengthy fustigation.
Nor was that all.
Normal discipline was maintained by prefects who had the power to administer corporal punishment with a gymshoe. There were other punishments, like detentions or work details, but more than three of these in a week meant a slippering from the head prefect. In addition, masters had canes and used them for poor work or behaviour. The PT master, Petty Officer Donnelly, kept a large wooden paddle that he applied to the bare bottoms of boys who displeased him. All these punishments were recorded in the punishment book and when reports were written at the end of term the number of whackings in the book was recorded for the headmaster and the boy's parents to see.
Any boy who had been beaten more than ten times in a term also faced an interview with the commander and his father, and a sound thrashing – or two.
If, as sometimes happened, a boy was bottom of his form and had also received more than ten whackings, then he was caned twice.
If a boy's father could not, or would not, attend his son's interview, or if a boy had no father, the commander proceeded on the assumption that the absent father would administer extra punishment if he were there, and therefore gave the poor boy double the dose given to those whose fathers had come to fetch them.
You don't need me, do you, to tell you that many – though not all – of these canings were applied to the boy's naked backside. Nor that the commander felt that no great harm was done if the cane drew a little blood.
The commander's background had been in the navy. He had worked his way up through the ranks after graduating from one of the training ships where boys were taught how to be sailors. This involved frequent ferocious canings over the breech of a gun. In the commander's school the rule had been "any number of strokes up to twenty-four, at the discretion of the commander." Many of the boys in his care were the sons of naval officers, who recognised and valued the kind of discipline he offered.
Needless to say, the boys did not value it – though they were forced to respect it and, since they had no choice, to put up with it.