Former Advertiser reporter remembers an old Rugby end of term tradition - and the irrationally severe reaction to it

Former Advertiser reporter John Phillpott looks back on a Rugby tradition that was not without consequences…

Monday, 28th June 2021, 11:05 am
Updated Monday, 28th June 2021, 11:06 am
Rugby’s Clifton Road... scene of many an end-of-term merry jape!

I’ve never made any attempt to disguise the fact that my time at Lawrence Sheriff School was hardly a resounding success.

The truth is that I wasted my five years at the academy that took its name from a man who was so successful at selling groceries, that he came to the attention of no less a personage than Good Queen Bess herself.

Back in the 16th century, it was a good idea to get in the good books of Elizabeth I.

We all know what happened to those who crossed the virgin queen.

And if you achieved that by supplying the royal court with best north-east Warwickshire fruit and veg, then all the better.

But unlike the renowned grocer, who left quite a sum to educate ‘the poor boys of Brownsover’ I made no attempt whatsoever to ingratiate myself with the people in power, in this case the masters at the Sheriff.

By the end of the fourth year, my behaviour was so poor that headmaster H A Staveley demanded to see my father to discuss whatever future that might - or might not - be available to me.

So, one warm night during the summer holidays of 1964, Mr Staveley drove out to my home in Churchover. I remember the occasion vividly.

Mr Staveley and my horrified father sat drinking tea on the lawn while I lurked in the tobacco plants patch.

Dad grew this crop to keep his pipe primed and, as the stalks grew very high, the area afforded an ideal hiding place.

My father wanted to know what had angered his guest, so much so that he needed to go right to the source of the problem. But Mr Staveley’s reply completely mystified me as I earwigged in the Woodbine Cottage plantation.

It was this. On the last day of term, I had been spotted by a Lawrence Sheriff prefect – the bad boys in 5b called them ‘defects’ some of you may remember – wearing what appeared to be the uniform of a Rugby High School girl.

Apparently, I had been seen walking down Clifton Road, complete with that famous hat with the band round it, laughing and shouting to the girls waiting or arriving at the line of buses that stretched from the Bonbon to Moore’s handicrafts shop.

The prefect promptly reported me to Mr Staveley, hence his note in red ink on that term’s report that expressed the wish to meet with my father as soon as possible.

Both men agreed. I really had done something way beyond the pale this time.

And yet… I was not only confused but surprised as well. For as far as I was concerned, it was a tradition that Lawrence Sheriff boys swapped caps and hats with not only Rugby High School pupils, but also the girls at Dunsmore School, too.

If my memory serves, this cross-dressing occasionally went as far as blazers, too. If it had escalated into trouser and dress swaps, then all right – even by the standards of the mid-1960s, that would probably have been too much.

But just exchanging headgear? Oh, come on. What was all the fuss about? Nevertheless, judging by the conversation on the lawn that night, Mr Staveley appeared completely ignorant of this harmless bit of end-of-term fun, and had plainly decided that such acts required the most severe measures to be taken.

I have little doubt that he warned my father that I was at risk of expulsion. It was a case of shaping up… or being shipped out.

At the start of the autumn term that September, knowing that this was the beginning of the ‘o’ level year, I resolved to behave myself for a change.

I would actually knuckle down to do some serious study… well, sort of.

But all these years later, the mystery remains. Why had I been singled out for the special treatment when, as far as I knew, this term break-up caper had been going on for years?

Come on, someone back me up here. Was it, or wasn’t it, a custom for school pupils to parade through Rugby wearing clothes that didn’t belong to them at the end of term?

And another thing - if you’re the prefect who dobbed me in, please get in contact. I know it was a long time ago, and we’re both far too old to have a punch-up over it, it’s just that I’m curious.

There is an amusing footnote to this story. I used to write a weekly column for a Midlands evening newspaper, and one day, I referred to Mr Staveley and my days at Lawrence Sheriff.

A few days later, completely out of the blue, his son – a Peter Staveley - contacted me by email, expressing the hope that his now aged father had never caned me, in those days a standard school punishment.

I told him that his dad had indeed applied bamboo to worsted on occasion, but there were no hard feelings, as I thoroughly deserved whatever punishment had been deemed necessary.

A few days later Peter Staveley replied. He said that his father could not recall me at all. In fact, he’d never heard of me…

John Phillpott’s books Beef Cubes and Burdock and Go and Make the Tea, Boy! are available online or from bookshops.