Southern Region of British Railways in the 1950s and over-crowding

double decker train on southern region 1950s

Anthony Sargeant notes that overcrowding on Southern Region (of what used to be British Railways) is not a new thing. In the 1950s double decker trains were introduced on the Dartford Loop line in an attempt to increase capacity. They were eventually abandoned in the 1960s because they took longer to load and unload passengers. Also the trains were necessarily somewhat taller than standard trains and could only be used on lines without tunnels. 60 years later and Southern Region trains are still overcrowded and instead of addressing that everyday problem the government is committed to an immense ‘Vanity Project’ costing many billions of pounds in building a high speed train line (HS2) which will get passengers from Birmingham to London a few minutes quicker.


A Hard Day’s Night – The Beatles


On 11th August 1964 Anthony Sargeant, Tony, went to see this film with his girl friend (JG) at the Streatham Odeon in South London. It is interesting to see clips of the film today with its surreal elements. One notes that is billed as the Beatles “first full-length film” (they made five in all).

Morning assembly at an English Boys’ Grammar School (1955-62)


The honours board that hung on the wall of the school hall name all of the school captains (head-prefect) for the period 1930-1972. Anthony J Sargeant, Tony, was a pupil from 1955-62. In this piece he reflects upon the school ethos and regime with respect to Daily Morning Assembly during that period. The school in question had been one of many Grammar schools in South London endowed by the Livery Companies of London (in this case The Haberdashers’ Company) – Thus the school was ‘Haberdashers’ Aske’s Hatcham Boys’ School.

Morning Assembly at Haberdashers’ Aske’s Hatcham Boys’ School 1955-62

In reading this note it is important to understand that the day to day running of the school was organised and controlled by the Prefects. The masters taught their subjects but did not have to concern themselves with mundane matters such as the wearing of correct uniform, behaviour in the school playground during breaks, supervising queues for school dinners at lunchtime, or reporting boys who arrived late after the bell had been sounded for the school to line up in the playground ready for morning assembly.

These organisational matters were entirely looked after by the Prefects of whom there were usually about ten. These boys wore undergraduate Oxbridge type gowns throughout the school day, and had a distinctive navy blue tie with two royal blue diagonal stripes. In 1955 all of the boys still wore school caps including the prefects who may have been 18 or 19 years old and who had a distinctive prefects cap. The prefects had there own room above the headmaster’s study from which they could survey the school playground and when necessary hold a Prefects’ Court to determine punishment for serious misbehaviour.

As well as the ‘Full’ prefects there was a further group of ‘Probationary’ prefects who also had a small common room of their own which had originally been the entrance vestibule of the main school hall.

Finally sixth-form boys also had a role in the running of the school. Each of the 1st to 5th year classes had two sixth-form ‘representatives’ who supervised morning assembly, and some of these sixth-formers would also be delegated to patrol the school buildings and grounds at break and over the lunch hour. They were authorised to hand out the writing of lines as punishment to the younger boys for infringements such as being in a classroom during the lunch break without permission.

Prefects of course had the additional sanction of putting boys into the Prefects’ Detention which took place after school on Wednesday for an hour. I only incurred one such detention when I was in the fourth form, aged 15. I walked out of the school gates at 4.00pm with my school cap in my hand ready to put it on. Martin Symms a prefect was hiding around the corner and I thought quite unjustly gave me a detention. I felt aggrieved.

For serious or repeated offences boys could be summoned to a Prefects Court which could sentence miscreants to corporal punishment, either a slippering, or for more serious misbehaviour a caning, across trousered bottoms while touching toes.

But to return to morning assembly. One of the prefects would come down into the playground at 8.45 and ring a handbell which was the signal for boys to line up in the playground in their classes. The form-captain would note down any who were absent on a small slip ready for the countersignature of the master who was taking the first lesson of the day. The slip was then taken by the form-captain to the school secretary’s office at morning break.

There no formal registers called as happened in Primary School with a teacher calling out names and putting a tick or cross against each child’s name. Aske’s system saved on teaching time and was efficient in the first few years. Once we reached the fourth form however and were divided up into ‘sets’ for a range of different GCE ‘O’ level choices it was impossible for the master taking the first class of the day to know if the absence slip was correct or not for the whole form. This allowed for collusion over absences if one was friendly with the form captain, and I was.

But to return to the line up in the school playground. It was also the opportunity for checks on school uniform. With boys at that time there were a number of stress points that had to be managed by the prefects.

Socks – in the first and second years so up to the age of 13 or 14 nearly all boys wore short grey flannel trousers and then it was obvious that you had to wear regulation school grey woolen knee socks. But once boys graduated to long trousers socks were not normally visible and around the late 1950s a fashion for fluorescent socks developed. Lime green was a favourite colour amongst the rebels but bright orange and yellow also featured. And so from time to time there would be spot ‘sock inspections’ where, as we stood in line waiting to go into assembly, we had to pull our trousers up to reveal our socks to the inspecting prefects – infringement of school rules would certainly have merited a Prefects’ Detention.

Trousers – Similar stress points arose with respect to the tightness of trousers (it was the days when narrow ‘drainpipe’ trousers were fashionable) and there was a minimum width prescribed. In cases of doubt boys would sometimes have to take there trousers off during the line-up for the width at the bottom to be checked with a ruler – much to the amusement of form-mates.

Shoes – The other stress point was the ‘pointed-ness’ of shoes. It was the time of ‘winkle-pickers’ and any shoe deemed too pointed like all the other possible infringements would have been punished with detention and the instruction to wear more suitable shoes for the next day.

When all the preliminaries were completed we processed into the school hall. First formers in line abreast at the front closest to the stage and sixth formers at the back. School Prefects arranged themselves around the edge watching for any misbehaviour which included talking during the assembly.

Each boy was issued with a hymn book on entry into the school and we had to cover these with brown paper and have them ready for morning assembly. From time to time prefects would carry out a ‘hymn book inspection’ as we filed out of morning assembly to see if (a) we had out hymn book with us and (b) that it was properly covered – failure on either count was punishable with a Prefects’ Detention.

The format for Morning Assembly remained unchanged during my time at Aske’s.

Once the whole school was assembled (by the way we stood throughout assembly) the staff, wearing academic gowns (but not hoods or mortar boards except on special occasions), would process in from the back of the hall, followed by the head master, who for most of my schooldays was Mr E Goddard, MA Oxon – Corpus Christi (‘Ned’ or ‘Neddie’ to the boys but never to his face of course). Once on the stage some 4 or 5 ft above the boys The headmaster would announce the hymn and Mr Smith the school music teacher would accompany us on the Steinway Grand (a gift from the Haberdashers’ Company).

After the hymn one of the prefects wearing his undergraduate gown would climb the steps up to the stage and read the lesson for the day from the wooden lectern after which the headmaster would say prayers ending with the traditional Lords Prayer “Our Father Whichart… in heaven” (schoolboy joke but note “which” not “who” – a liturgical and theological point for the cognescenti) and “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” and so forth.

There would then be announcements by the Headmaster and any awards – cups to successful house teams in cricket, rugby or athletics, or awards to individual boys for success in various spheres. I only had one such mention when I went up onto the stage to receive my Rugby Colours – a prized distinctive tie. The Head master congratulated me but then as he presented me with the tie remarked with a smile and sotto voce “Well about time you did something, isn’t it Sargeant”. He might have added “like turning up more regularly” but didn’t. He was a good man with a liberal reforming approach to school-mastering.

There would be announcements about school clubs meeting that day and some words about behaviour or misbehaviour if such had been noted by the headmaster. On some occasions the Headmaster would make specific reference to some misdemeanour and the punishment meted out. I remember when the Headmaster, following a lecture about the evils of smoking, announced to a somewhat shocked assembly that he had caned a very senior boy and Probationary Prefect, Wharton, for doing so after a school play.

After assembly the head master would lead the staff off the stage and out of the hall and the boys would file out to the first lesson under the supervision of the prefects.

The routine was consistently the same except on Speech Day, Remembrance Day, and the final end of term assembly. Of which more later.