RGS scarf


RGS High Wycombe School Crest

Royal Grammar School, High Wycombe

Old School Photos and Memorabilia

The 1950s Snowball Battle: School vs Prefects

John Saunders writes: one topic which comes up time and time again when Old Wycombiensians of the cretaceous period (circa 1955) gossip with each other online and elsewhere is the day when the traditional snowball fight between pupils and prefects got out of hand and turned into a full-scale riot, resulting in actual damage to parts of the building. And, of course, the aftermath in which Messrs Tucker and Morgan took their revenge on perpetrators and non-perpetrators alike.

Given the stratospheric levels of RGS historical scholarship achieved by many boys from the school under the tutelage of such nonpareils as LJ Ashford and DG Jones, you would have thought that we could at least pinpoint the exact date when the atrocity happened, but you would be wrong. Sadly, like the oft-mistold tale of Mr TV Sheppard's car with registration plate TVS 149, it has passed into legend and some of the facts have become as opaque as the rheumy eyes of its narrators. The only thing we can be sure of is that it happened (which is where the story differs from that of the aforementioned car registration plate - which a crack team of ex-RGS history buffs has researched extensively and proved beyond all possible doubt that it never existed).

Andrew MacTavish, who was present on the battlefield as a senior prefect and survived to become a member of staff, wrote what must in most respects be regarded as the definitive version of events for the old boys' website in 2004, which was reprinted in the OW Annual newsletter in 2005. This newsletter can be found on the current RGS website but probably only by those who have a black belt in IT (it's not the easiest website to navigate), so I thought it might be helpful to reproduce the relevant text here. So, for ease of reference, here it is again...

The following article was kindly provided by Andrew MacTavish (RGS pupil 1948-56) and appeared on the Old Wycombiensians’ website in July 2004.

"It was 1955*, and it was winter. The snow fell, four inches of it, virgin, pure, transforming every roof and wall and bush. We arrived in excitement. The whole atmosphere at school was electric. At 9 o’clock assembly, the Headmaster, ‘Boss’ Tucker, laid the law down as he always did on such occasions. There would be no snowballing within fifty yards of the buildings, and he made ominous hints as to what would happen to anyone found breaking this edict.

"In those days, there was a tradition that the prefects would take on the rest of the school in a snowball fight at lunchtime. At about 1.15 pm, we emerged at the double from the Prefects’ Room at the end of the Gym Block. We knew our appearance would immediately encourage a flight of snowballs, and we wanted to get fifty yards away from the buildings as quickly as possible. We formed up in the middle of the field. The prefects were organised and relatively disciplined; there were about 40 of us. The rest of the school who turned out numbered about 300 and were totally disorganised. The other 300 - 400 boys kept well out of the way elsewhere.

"The pattern of the battle was standard. It was a clear lesson how a small team can survive against great odds. The prefects kept in a tight group, protecting the Head Boy, the Deputies and one or two other senior people who were obvious targets. Prefects had the power of slippering for minor offences - at least, the Head Boy and Deputies did - and a number of the middle school were on the field to get their own back. Small groups of them would try to isolate leading prefects and give them some fairly rough treatment. The prefects would sweep down in pincer movements in return and roll over known rogues in the fifth forms. Small boys would run about like gnats, occasionally scoring a hit on a prefect and immediately being swatted in return. It was all good-natured and the senior prefects intervened if anyone went too far.

"Afternoon school started at 2 pm. Ten minutes before that time, the Head Boy, Barri Jones, called his 40 men together and conducted a fighting withdrawal to the Prefects’ Room. As we approached the building, he called to our opponents that we had finished. Most stopped throwing snow and broke off. One or two persisted. We ran in, knocking the snow off our clothes, and slammed the door. Two snowballs thudded on the panels. That was outrageous.

"Barri threw the door open to see who had done this and a number of us prepared to follow him. At that instant a snowball arrived with a very fast, flat trajectory. It punched straight through the top centre of the six small panes in the door. The same door is still there today. Glass shards showered over us and the piece of coal, which had formed the centre of the snowball, skidded across the room. An instant later there was no one in sight outside the Prefects’ Room.

"After the initial shock, we set to clearing up the glass. Barri went off to report the matter to Sam Morgan, the Deputy Headmaster. He returned to say that Sam had gone with him to Boss, and that Boss was absolutely furious. In fact, he was sending two of our number with a note round all forms telling the boy who had broken the window to report to his study immediately. We did not feel that this would achieve much. We felt that Boss’s anger had clouded his judgement. He would lose this one. But we underestimated Boss. He knew what he was doing. The stakes were high, but he was not one to blink.

"Twenty minutes later, I met a fellow prefect near the Library (now the Drama Room). He had been one who had taken the note round. “Guess what? Boss has sent for every form to report to the Hall (now the Library) in turn at five-minute intervals. Every single form except the Upper Sixth. He and Sam are coshing everyone!”

"Now that caning in schools is illegal, the RGS slang term “coshing” for caning has died out. Even then I could hardly believe it. I had to witness this unique sight. If Boss was in this mood and doing things wholesale, it was probably unwise to go past the Hall doors. One might get dragged in and given the treatment. I went up to the top corridor. In those days the top corridor was open to the old Hall. With books under my arm, drawing myself up to my full height, I walked slowly along until the Hall came into view. Without hesitating and as if in deep academic thought, I passed the opening, taking in an incredible sight. Boss and Sam were standing one on each side, near the stage. Two rows of boys were lined up from the doors below me. Each boy at the head of the column bent over and one or the other administered two sharp strokes, and the boy walked back down the Hall watched closely by those in the queue. Apart from the swish of the pairs of strokes, there was total silence, except for the odd quiet instruction from the teacher who had brought the form from the classroom. I realised afterwards that boys were trying to get in the queue for Boss. He might be furious, but he was not a golfer like Sam who had a very strong swing.

"Everyone was caned - boys who had been in the Library all lunchtime; boys who had been at music practice; who had been kept in by staff; who had avoided snowballing because they felt it was childish; who had gone home to lunch and were not on the premises. No one was spared. The estimate was that about 680 boys received two strokes. And the interesting thing is that there were no complaints. It was a different world then. Nevertheless such a mass caning was unusual enough to be reported in a brief news item in the Sunday Express the next week. And at the end of the year, on Speech Day, Boss referred to the business in his report to the governors and parents. He was speaking from the stage of the old Hall, where the canings had taken place. Speech Day then took place on an afternoon in the last week of the summer term. All boys were on the premises and there were many displays and demonstrations. The prize-winners were in the Hall with the parents and the speeches were relayed by a PA system round the buildings. Usually no one outside the Hall paid a great deal of attention. However on this occasion, Boss made a reference to an incident in the winter that had left Mr Morgan and himself with aching right arms - and a cheer went up from one end of the building to the other. It was a very different world..."

That's the end of Andrew's definitive text (he ended on an ellipsis). I have asterisked the date of 1955 as various people have since commented on this. I reproduce a few more comments from the thread which appeared on our late forum from 2011 onwards. In chronological order:

Dave Cox (7 March 2011) wrote: "Not sure which year this was, maybe 1957? The snow was deep and crisp and even: well it was till lunchtime. Then what seemed like the entire upper school attacked the prefects' room with snowballs. Eventually we were routed by a sally from within, but not before a window had been an unfortunate casualty. Retribution was swift, of course, but no-one could or would say whose snowball it had been, how could we? One other weird thing I remember from the following day was our whole class being punished by the appalling GAG (Grant of Art), who simply lined us all up and hit us with his stick. Hard to imagine now why we put up with it, but we did."

Later (on 7 June 2013) I interpolated the entire MacTavish account as above, prefacing it with my own précis, thus:

"Andrew MacT remembers it happening during the winter of 1954/55. The (almost traditional) prefects versus the rest of school snowball fight was coming to an end. The last snowball had a piece of coal in it and broke the window of the prefect's room. It could have caused quite a nasty injury so the head boy, Barri Jones, son of Emlyn, reported it to Boss who went ballistic. He sent a note round classes asking for the guilty party to own up. Whoever threw the stone didn't own up (surprise surprise) so he put 'plan B' into operation - which was to cane the entire school (except for the upper sixth). The mass execution was carried out that afternoon (or, according to some accounts, the following morning). Boys were led to the school hall, form by form, and made to line up in two queues, at the head of which stood Tucker and Morgan, giving each boy two strokes. It proved a Pyrrhic victory: the physical exertion from administering two strokes of the cane to about 340 bottoms each ultimately caused more pain to the right arms of the floggers than to the posteriors of the floggees. The mass caning was reported in the national press.

"Dave reports that 'Gaggy' Grant flogged the form for the same offence the next day (though it may have been another occasion). Being beaten more than once for the same offence was not unknown at the RGS. My brother remembers being beaten by three masters for one offence - the one who caught him doing whatever it was (writing something rude in an exercise book, I think), then 'Bulldog' Clark, then either ERT or Sam Morgan.

"This was not the only mass flogging on record. In his estimable autobiography The Old Time, John Comer mentions an occasion (early 1960s?) when a large number of boys were found playing poker and how they had to line up for a mass flogging. He thought there were upwards of 80 on this occasion. Geoff Gunning wrote of another mass flogging of a class (for something that was not their fault)"

Martin King, on 24 June 2013) contributed this: "I remember this incident (although of course I was not one of the guilty ones) but as I did not start at RGS until 1955, and it happened when I was in the Senior School, it cannot have been the winter of 1954/55."

On 26 June 2013, I attempted to make sense of the problem with the date: "Looking at Andrew MacT's account again, I see he says "It was 1955, and it was winter" so maybe he meant 1955/56 and I have interpreted wrongly. But presumably you're were not in the senior school (4th form) until 1957 - I don't think it could have been this late as my brother would have remembered it as he started then. Also, probably not 1956/57 as Barri Jones (named in AJM article as head boy) had left the school by then. I think we should probably assume 1955/56."

Tony Hare (26 Jun 2013) wrote: "My vote goes for 55/56. I remember the mass caning as I was present. My recollection is that the whole school was assembled in the hall and all those who took part were asked to come forward to be caned. In addition I seem to remember the guilty ones were fined sixpence. Boys claiming to be non-participants weren't caned or fined. February 1956 had lots of snow according to the Met Office 55/56 snow records although there was also plenty in the winter of 54/55 according to Met Office 54/56 snow records. Is there anyone out there who left school in the summer of 1955? If they were present at the caning then it would prove the 54/55 theory to be the correct one."

Geoff Warner (28 December 2013) wrote: "Tony Hare asks: "Is there anyone out there who left school in the summer of 1955" and who witnessed the mass caning? Yes, I did. The incident must, therefore, have taken place in the winter of 1954/55. As one of the prefects, I observed the whole thing, and at one stage during the course of it I remember hearing Boss Tucker say to Sam Morgan - or it may have been the other way round - something like "if this goes on much longer that old saying about 'this hurts me more than it hurts you' is going to be proved right", presumably because his caning arm was beginning to ache with the exercise! Corporal punishment was not abolished in state schools until 1987, and in the 1950s even the prefects were allowed to use the slipper, so I don't know whether there were a lot of complaints from parents about what happened. Although somewhat taken aback by it, I can't honestly say that I was shocked at the time. Andrew Mactavish did, however, tell me recently that the episode was reported in one of the tabloids, so it must have been something of a rarity even then."

In 2018 I provided a footnote to the incident, demonstrating that school riots were far from unknown and had in times past led to at least one very serious incident: "In 1797 there was a 'great rebellion' of boys at Rugby School which also began with a window being broken... https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1797_Rugb ... _Rebellion ... and ended with the army being called in to quell it. Mass floggings followed. Note the extensive use of gunpowder - I wonder how 'Boss' Tucker would have felt about having his study door blown off with explosives. The Wikipedia article also tells us that "between 1728 and 1832, there were over 20 large-scale school rebellions, including 7 in Eton, 7 in Winchester, and 4 at Rugby." A salutary reminder that the plot of Lindsay Anderson's 1968 film 'If' wasn't as far-fetched as we might have thought.

That brings us up to date as regards what has appeared previously in newsletters and the now-defunct forum, but I now have another account, written by another pupil, CSJ (Steve, "Pongo") Mardell (RGS 1951-58), from a slightly different standpoint. Alan Crease kindly forwarded this to me and I have transcribed it from Steve's original manuscript:


"During the early 1950s, in the aftermath of war, there was still food rationing. If you wanted your ration of, say, sweets from the school tuck shop you needed coupons. Again, at breakfast and at tea-time (I speak as a boarder) you were allowed so much butter and no more: butter was rationed. The portions were carefully cut and put on your plate, before the meal.

"One thing which was not rationed, which was indeed superabundantly available to every boy, was Discipline. Until the arrival of protest movements with the behavioural permissiveness of the 1960s, government of all bodies, in all spheres – national, local, institutional, family – was hierarchical and authoritarian. 'Good Schools' existed to teach able boys that their futures depended not only upon their attainments, but also upon their ability to come to terms with Discipline – including being bullied and beaten by bigger boys – and in due time imposing the same on their own subordinates. Those who would lead must first learn to serve. This was traditionally believed to be the proper grounding for a career in some form of government or institutional service.

"One winter's day at the RGS, it might have been in 1953, all that changed. There had been heavy snow the night before, but the day dawned bright. It was cold, but the sunshine touched the crisp surface of the snow with the faintest warmth. Few boys learnt anything from sitting in that morning's classes; most minds were bent upon the possibilities afforded by what they saw outside.

"When lunchtime came they spilled out onto the school field, which they always did, but today they stayed rather closer to the buildings, since going farther out meant dispersal, and you can't hit anyone with a snowball if you are too far from him, or he from you.

"After some spirited minutes spent in individual encounters it was not noticed that some Prefects had begun tentatively to emerge from their Room, which looked out onto the field, with the apparent intention to engage or at any rate intervene. This was a bad mistake.

"A few despised representatives of Authority, tricked out in all the fatuous impotence of gold-tasselled caps, had come forth to challenge the mob,who were by now enthused with an aggressive relish for the hard-packing quality of the snow, the accuracy with which it could be directed, and the pain it would inflict when it hit its mark.

"The ensuing massacre was reminiscent (for students of French history) of the attack on the Tuileries Palace in August 1792. The prefects were cut down. The mob, having disposed of the human, now turned on the structural targets. By the end of the lunch break most of the windows in the north elevation of the Prefects' Room had been smashed and the terrified occupants driven back in a storm of flying glass.

"The assailants returned to their classrooms well satisfied.

"At Prayers the following morning up stepped Authority in the dual shapes of ER Tucker and Sam Morgan, worsted, shaken, still defiant but, lacking a list of the names of the miscreants, compelled to resort to the expedient of appealing to the boys' better nature by calling for the perpetrators to come forward and receive condign punishment – an endearing association of diminished magisterial power with Welsh fair play – which the culprits could comfortably afford to humour, being still flushed with the heady stimulant of yesterday's overwhelming victory.

"At the close of Prayers, during which for all one is able to recall the congregation may very properly have been enjoined to beseech the Lord with more than customary fervour – et dimitte nobis debita nostra – some 200* boys remained behind in the hall to receive two strokes of the cane and a fine of one shilling. To this end both pairs of double doors from the corridor into the hall were opened, a desk placed inside each doorway, each manned by a deputy to receive and record monies, while Tucker and Morgan, each at his door, accoutred with cane, cap and gown, having caused two queues to be formed along the corridor, administered the beatings as the boys filed through. * "Not, of course, the whole school which had some 750 boys at the time."

"I believe there are still in the world some barbarian communities where the penalty for certain offences is a public flogging, of a ceremonial rather than a brutal nature, intended to inflict not pain so much as humiliation. The caning aforementioned was, or very quickly became, something of that kind. Tucker had more power in his address than in his arm; Morgan's consumption of cigarettes might have qualified for shipments direct from Imperial Tobacco. Both were very soon exhausted. Probably the first two or three fundaments from each queue felt the sting, but certainly no more.

"This episode was immediately recognised as a follow-up victory for the boys. To have suffered the caning and paid the 1s. were instantly matters of pride; for there was general acknowledgement of two circumstances: that not one single boy, knowing his share in the siege, but did not stay to pay his penalty; and that those who really had no part in it did think themselves accursed they were not there. I know. I was there." CSJM 12/07