Tradition!

Georgina Burnet (1906-1980) arrived at the School, as too many of the pupils did, following a family tragedy. Her father, Robert Burnet, was the County Medical Officer in Cornwall in 1911 having served his home county of Lancashire in the same way previously. He had qualified as a doctor at the end of the nineteenth century and when WWI broke out, he signed up to the RAMC and held the rank of Lt-Col when he died in 1915. But not, as you might imagine, as a direct consequence of war.

newspaper report
Newcastle Journal 30 January 1915

He left a widow (who described herself as ‘your broken-hearted Alec’ on the funeral wreath) and three children. He was buried with full military honours, the service being at Exeter Cathedral but with the interment following in Chorley.

funeral report
Exeter and Plymouth Gazette 03 February 1915

Burnet had been a member of two Cornish Masonic lodges and this made his daughter eligible as a pupil and she is listed on school roll by 1918, referred to as Nina. On leaving school in 1922, she first went for commercial training in Cheltenham, subsequently taking a secretarial post at a school in the town. However, in 1926 she followed her father into the medical world by training as a hospital nurse. In 1929 she combined two of things that she had experienced in her 23 years and became a nurse at a school in Oxford. It is not recorded when she first became a Matron but in 1939 we find her at Kilvinton Hall School in Enfield. The school had been founded in 1925 by Baron Mowll of the Cinque Ports. It later moved to Haywards Heath and was renamed Great Walstead. One of the school houses retains the name of the founder, Mowll.

GWschool
Image from the school website http://www.greatwalstead.co.uk/

In researching this former pupil of RMSG, and discovering her subsequent career in other schools, this rather delightful school tradition was uncovered. Kilvinton Hall School – now Great Walstead School – has something called “Q Day”. One pupil would have been told a secret code and when this code was spoken in a public place (the dining hall, chapel, sports field, etc.), he would shout “Q Day”, at which point the entire school (now the senior pupils) decamped to the woods in the extensive school grounds, to camps that each team had worked on all summer.

camp in woods
Image from the school website http://www.greatwalstead.co.uk/

‘For ‘Q Day’ the Seniors have the added excitement of spending the night in their camps and taking part in a Night Operation as well as a series of daytime challenges which might include orienteering, a treasure hunt, archery, swimming competitions and teamwork challenges.’ (School website)

Q Day may be unique to Great Walstead School but there are many schools that have their own weird and wonderful traditions, some more eccentric than others. For example, Abbots Hill School (not far away from RMSG in fact) has a uniform drawn from tartan and a clan system rather than a house system to reflect the founders who were Scottish. Christ’s Hospital, Sussex, still retains its original Tudor costume and pupils have the right to free access to the Tower of London – as long as they are wearing their uniform.

tudor uniform
Christ’s Hospital uniform http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-29047752

The Head Boy or Girl at the school is known as the Senior Grecian and has the right to address the monarch en route to or from the coronation. This, of course, has not been exercised for a considerable time given the longevity of our present monarch’s reign.

Other Head Boys’ or Girls’ traditions include keeping a pig in school (Blundell’s); riding a horse under the arch at Repton; allowing a goat to eat the grass at Strathallen. The Head Boy at Uppingham has the right to grow a moustache or get married but it is believed that, so far at least, none has exercised the latter of these.

https://www.oxford-royale.co.uk/articles/boarding-school-rituals-traditions.html gives a list of ten eccentricities attached to boys’ schools, such as the Eton Wall game. At Winchester, as the autumn term closes, there is something known as ‘Illumina’. At the end of afternoon school, pupils finish lessons to find there are candles illuminating the wall around the school playing fields. Westminster School has the very odd tradition of The Greaze which began in 1753. It is celebrated

… on Shrove Tuesday each year. It involves the cook tossing a pancake (which has been reinforced with horse hair) over a high bar, and the pupils then fight over the pancake for one minute. This activity is presided over by the Dean of Westminster Abbey, the Head Master and the rest of the school – sometimes even by distinguished Royal guests. The pupil who manages to get the biggest bit of the pancake is awarded the prize of a gold sovereign, and the Dean requests a half-day holiday for the whole school. Thankfully, one aspect of this tradition has now died out: in the old days, if the poor cook failed to toss the pancake over the bar, the pupils would throw their Latin books at him. Modern employees of Westminster School are no doubt glad that this practice is now no longer a feature of Shrove Tuesday! www.oxford-royale.co.uk

No doubt this was witnessed by two young Westminster pupils in the eighteenth century who happened to be the sons of Bartholomew Ruspini the instigator of RMSG in 1788.

Which brings us nicely onto some of the traditions of the Girls’ school. Of course, there is Drill (http://www.royalmasonic.herts.sch.uk/userfiles/rmsmvc/documents/AboutUs/History%20Trails/Drill%20history.pdf) and, until fairly recently there were Duos and Trios (eight pianos with either two or three pupils at each one, playing in synchronicity). There was also the curious belief, given the even more curious name ‘Dig Dipper’ (or sometimes Deeper), that the statue of Ruspini on the east exterior wall of the Chapel leaned on one leg in one year and on the other in the following, the changeover happening (natch!) at midnight on All Hallow’s Eve. [Sorting through photos of the statue and knowing this to be the stuff of childish imagination, for one blood-curdling moment, I noticed that in some of the images the forward leg had changed from right to left. Then I realised I was holding some of the slides back to front … ]

Statue doubled
Ruspini statue

One other ‘tradition’ that developed started life with every pupil’s wish for the end of term to arrive more quickly. The little rhyme they sang was ‘This time next week, where will I be/ Not in this RMIG’ and each girl mentally crossed off the pictures in the dining hall one by one (there are 14) until the last day arrived.

dining hall painting
Sacrificial lamb?

This morphed into the girls at breakfast pointing at each picture and silently marking a cross in the air. Somehow over the years, the ‘silently’ bit got dropped and the pictures were ‘shot’ with an imaginary finger gun. Inevitably perhaps this began to be accompanied by cries of ‘Bang!’ and on the final day, all 14 pictures were shot in turn on the same breakfast. Wise and experienced members of staff wore ear plugs.

So, shooting pictures, hurling pancakes, grazing goats and decamping to woods are all part of the rich tapestry of English boarding school life, some of which Georgina Burnet would have experienced.

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