Life in Blackmores
Posted Thursday, July 16, 2020 07:38 AM

Life in Blackmores...




Life in Blackmores in the sixties definitely had its challenges. I remember our dorm prefect reading pages of rules on the first night which we were given a two weeks’ moratorium to learn before being subjected to the cane for infringements. An initial experience of the DHS culture, regime is probably a more accurate term - was a brief  conversation with a sympathetic fourth former - Year 10 student in today’s jargon. I was standing on the brick plinth which formed the basis of the war memorial, when this empathetic fellow - I’m reasonably certain it was Richard Dickens, warmed me that I was standing on the war memorial - a lack of respect for which I would be caned. Just as I was thanking him, he mentioned that carrying a book in the side pocket of my blazer was also a serious offence. Once again I thanked him, only to receive yet a further warning that my blazer had to be buttoned by only the middle button of the three that were in vogue at the time; and yes, that too was an offence for which I could be ‘claimed’ ( DHS-speak for being apprehended) by an assiduous prefect. 


You mention the bell. I’m sure that at a time when survival rather than sympathy was what motivated most of us, we all felt great empathy for the ‘fag’ usually one of the three or four assigned to the Head Border Prefect, who was the designated bell boy. Both the method and the timing of the bell had to be performed exactly as indicated by the Head Boy - failure led to the inevitable caning. I rather think that Desmond de Swart had had that awful responsibility in our third form year. I’m pretty much sure that he was never accorded the appreciation or admiration he deserved for this most importunate of tasks.


Having been sent to boarding school from the age of 7, I was reasonably well prepared for the spartan existence that was life in Blackmores.  Nevertheless the inflexibility with which rules were applied was intimidating even to the most resilient of us, and fagging system was sufficiently archaic and oppressive to explain why Blackmores’ boys seldom failed third form - at that second formers had yet to be included in the overall cohort.


The one task I found the most irksome of my ‘fagging’ tasks was the polishing of shoes and ‘boning’ of cadet boots for the prefect whose well-being was my responsibility. Virtually every afternoon of that third form year was devoted to that task. There was a memorable occasion when my prefect having displayed the mirror image reflected in the boned toe cap of his cadet boot to the other prefects lounging in the Prefects’ Room - I had spent two or three afternoons on the Sisyphean exercise - complained that the colour was too dark and thereupon used a compass to crack off the bone in a very public performance of dissatisfaction. I was told to use a lighter brown polish to ensure that the ‘correct’ shade of brown was effected.


In an increasingly sensitive and politically correct world these stories sound for many like an endorsement of systemic bullying. For bullying to have been occurred, it seems to me that I had to feel crushed or intimidated. In fact I regarded it more as a test of endurance. Of the many lessons, some more incidental rather than intended, the whole DHS experience imbued one with a sense of independence- that life could often be difficult but once you knew that you had the resistance to survive these challenges you were able to enjoy the camaraderie and weekly dramas of boarding school life. There were memorable friendships and shared experiences. In my first year I had a very special regard for three fourth formers -Steve Pohl, Pat Goss and Punch Chapman. For me they epitomised all the very best of the DHS ethos - they could find humour in most circumstances and, though they understood and accepted the hierarchical structures in the school they were unfailingly affable and determined to prove that there was something special about Blackmores. My regard for this triumvirate - which was how I came to view them - was even more enhanced when we third formers were moved into their dormitory for a few days - our dorm was being used to accommodate a touring rugby team. To my amazement - and a strong sense of guilt - the moment the lights were turned off, these three friends knelt alongside their beds in silent but very public prayer. Not one of them was a proselytising Christian and yet here they were in a sense making a very clear statement of faith while I, also a non-proselytising Christian, opted for a more private form of meditation.


Something I recorded in posting on the 1966 website was that every evening after ninety minutes of prefect supervised homework study - which was conducted in absolute silence - boys would not even risk handing notes to each other - there was a dash for the dining room where boys could queue for a cup of milk.  Derek Nelson-Esch and I were on crutches which meant that we were always the last to arrive. The protocol was for the lowest formers to wait at the back of the queue and hope that by the time we got to the serving table there was still some milk in the jugs. Almost always there were a few third formers who would miss out. Derek and I, though we were invariably at the back of the third form queue never failed to get a cup of milk. The reason for this was that Punch Chapman always forced his way to the front of the queue, filled two cups of milk and then carried them to the two tardy characters at the back of the queue. If this sounds slightly Dickensian, that’s because it was so. I’m quite certain, though Punch would probably disclaim this, that he on occasions was one of the few for whom an empty jug was all that remained by the time he got to the serving table - this was an inevitable consequence of the fifth formers being pushed back by the 6th formers, and the fourth formers likewise, being displaced by the fifth formers. A perfect metaphor of the Blackmores’ hierarchy.









This photo of Punch Chapman and myself was taken four years ago - needless to say, before social distancing became mandatory. The event was the fiercely contested 2016 DHS v Maritzburg College rugby match. I had not seen or spoken to Punch since our school years, and as I had been assured, Punch is still Punch!