Of course, the work was always presented as an act of charity, a great kindness on the part of the trustees who had invested their own money in the establishment of the schools. It would have seemed almost querulous to have pointed out that the fees paid for each pupil by local education authorities up and down the country equated to the annual pay of an ordinary worker, around £2,000 p.a. in the mid-1970s.
The principal, (who was also the principal trustee) was someone for whom we were expected to demonstrate a constant deference and gratitude, she lived in a pleasant detached residence in the school grounds. Her munificence towards those of us sent to the remote cluster of buildings in a Dartmoor valley seemed generously rewarded – every two years there was a new Saab car. A member of the staff said this was an economical way of having such a car – changing it regularly meant it did not lose too much money from its price when it was new. It was a piece of logic that escaped me then and escapes me now; spending a large sum of money instead of a very large sum of money was not how “economical” would have been interpreted in our family.
Perhaps the worst thing of all was not the new house and car, but the obeisance we were expected to demonstrate. The principal’s nickname was “ Queenie,” probably because her name was “Elizabeth,” perhaps also because she assumed an almost regal air.
The worst moment of all was always when you had to go to her office about some trifling matter and at the end of the conversation she would stand and say, “now, give me a kiss,” and there was an expectation that you would step forward and give her a peck on the cheek.
The staff seemed always content to play their part in the exultation of the principal. There is an abiding memory of one of her birthdays. Every pupil had their pocket money levied to make a “contribution” toward a birthday present from the boys. On the morning of the birthday itself, we would be marched up the lane that led to her house and formed into lines to sing “happy birthday.” The principal would come to her front door and say how lovely it was and what good boys we were.
The particular birthday is memorable because, in the large card which we were all expected to sign, a boy had written his name and added his nickname in brackets, as if the card were intended for a classmate. The teacher responsible for the card was incandescent, showing the nickname to everyone in the room, as if some great act of desecration had been committed.
Decades later, there is a lingering admiration for the boy concerned, a wish to have had the bravery required for such a piece of casual iconoclasm.