Was this his last and final attempt to break me. How could any human being so cruel. If this was my school life then thank God it was coming to its close’(Oates, 2:69).
York school: Archbishop Holgates Grammar School 1916 – 1921 (Founded 1546)
Cadets: marching incident
Since the war did not finish until 1918, the school had a Cadet Corps, and they even kept it for some years after. ‘As a boy of eleven and twelve [he] would watch the corps drilling after school hours. The marching, the shouting of commands, the thrill of the bugles but best of all the roll on the drums, stirred what ever [sic] was in [him] and [so he] wanted to join them’ (2:62). When Guy turned thirteen, he was able to sign up and join, ‘being a charity school boy [he] got little in the way of clothing most of it being second hand, as was [his] cadet uniform. Fortunately [he] did not worry over things like that’ (2:62). For Guy, his uniform was not a concern for him since he was over the moon just to be able to be a part of it. When Guy was younger he admired the Cadets, but he loved the drums the most, and after joining around a year later ‘there was a vacancy in the band as a drummer, so [he] applied. [He] was given a pair of drum sticks, taken to the table in our day room and told to do a roll. [He] must have made a reasonable attempt for [he] was accepted’ (2:62). This was a great ‘outlet for some [of his] energy’ (2:62) as he was encouraged to practice as much as he could. Guy was ‘now the happiest lad in the school,’ (2:62) since he was doing something he was extremely passionate about. Around ‘a year later [his] mother heard of a boy in [Guy’s] home town wanting to sell a side drum, he was asking for ten shillings, (50p) [Guy’s] Mother bought it and gave it [to him] on [his] next holiday. [He] think[s] this was the first present [he] had ever had’ (2:62). He was the only boy who had the honour of owning a drum and this thrilled Guy, even more, considering he was one of the boys who did not get gifts/food from home while being at boarding school.
Guy, now being a part of the Cadets, was able to attend the many parades that the Corps were involved in. ‘Each time [they] paraded and marched behind the armed services [he] always got a thrill listening to their rousing marching tunes. It always sent the blood surging through [his] veins’ (2:62). However, as you are aware Guy seems to always experience some sort of misfortune and in one of these parades that is exactly what happened. ‘[His] position was in the first row on the extreme left nearest the pavement, the drummers leading. People were about some with dogs standing on the path watching us go by. Another tap on the big drum when came our drum sticks [sic] startling the roll’ (2:62). It was the tapping of the drum, which provoked the dogs on the pavement, and ‘at that precise moment a big dog rushed off the path and [Guy] being the nearest dug its teeth into [his] left thigh. For a second [he] was startled, [his] first thought was [he] was a soldier, [he] must not panic or fail now. […] One of the Officers had seen this and came to see how [he] was, telling [him, he] could fall out if [he] wished’ (2:62) but he trooped on. Guy was an incredibly brave child who decided for the sake of avoiding any disruption he would carry on with his injured leg in order to stay in formation. ‘Captain Evans sent for [Guy] after [he] arriv[ed] at school and had a look at [his] leg. [He] was wearing a pair of whip cord [sic] trousers which saved [him]. The skin though a little bruised was not broken’ (2:62). Guy was fortunate (for once) and had evaded a terrible injury; I am sure like me as a reader you were also relieved by this.
Cadets: Thanksgiving service and lessons
‘It was now early 1919, there was to be a big Thanksgiving service to be held in The Minster one Sunday morning. All the armed service were to parade, along with civil organisations, with all the important people of the city’ (2:62). To prepare for this special occasion all the members of the Cadet Corps began ‘training, marching, rifle drill[s], and polishing [of their] equipment’ (2:62) days before the event as ‘every thing [sic] had to be right on the day’ (2:62).
When ‘the great day arrived’ (2:64), and the service was over each party was allocated a place within the march. Since this was a grand occasion, many people came to watch. ‘A long way ahead of [them] were 1st The Royal Navy, 2nd The Royal Air Force followed by The Army. Behind them came St. Peters O.T.C and behind them came [the Cadet Corps]. Behind [them] were several Scout and Girl Guide organisations’ (2:64). It was a very memorable experience for Guy, and although he was far from the front, he felt a great pride just being a part of this joyous moment. As they were ‘brought to attention and told to stand at ease,’ (2:64) all Guy could do was listen for the orders in the distance. ‘As the commands ended you heard the thunder of their drums, the blast of Royal Air Force, and the might of their band. Now came the commands of the Army Every command was obeyed with precision and rytham [rhythm]’ (2:64). The time for the Cadet Corps to march was beginning to approach and ‘by now the blood was pounding through [his] veins. Those bands had stirred everything within [him]. [He] was nervous but al ert [sic]’ (2:64). He wondered if the crowd watching would applaud the Cadet Corps as they had done for each contingent prior, ‘how [could they] compare with those professionals’ (2:64). Guy felt immense pressure as he did not want to mess up, he began to ‘feel [his] heart beating fast, soon it would be our turn, there is only one before’ (2:64) their contingent. It was finally the Cadet Corps’ turn; Guy heard the first command for his squad, ‘Right Turn! At this command [the] drummers brought [their] drum sticks together just under [their] noses at the ready, waiting for the final order, ‘Quick March’, on hearing this the whole company put their left foot forward at the same time down came [their] drum sticks commencing the first part of three rolls’ (2:64). Now any tension that Guy had been feeling was now gone, he was focused on ‘the job in hand, [they] were on the move (2:64). The crowd began to applaud the Cadet Corps, ‘with the same enthusiasm as they had given those who had gone before. This made [Guy] feel very happy, and [he thought] that little bit of pride was again creeping back’ (2:64).
Guy’s experience as a member of the Cadet Corps had taught him many things, such as ‘disapline [discipline], something every child should understand. It taught [him] how to obey and order and how to give one. Smartness, alertness and cleanliness all make for a better boy. [They] were taught the correct way to handle a gun, never to point it at anyone, loaded or unloaded. How to fire on a Range using .22 and 303 ammunition. To attend Camp to mix with others are all good when supervised by responsible people’ (2:64).
I thought it was important to share some of his memories in the Cadets as his time in the Cadet Corps’ is a significant part of Guy’s life. Guy does not have many positive sections in his memoir about his time at school but as John Burnett comments ‘most writers of [an] autobiography received some schooling, however brief and rudimentary, and almost all of them included some account of it in their memoirs’ (Burnett; 1982, 8). Unfortunately, the next part of this blog is a very serious portion, but it is something that affected Guy’s life greatly.
Now, as readers, you may be wondering why Guy has not mentioned his brother Septimus in a while. Since he was a year older than Guy, the pair simply had separate lives. Nevertheless, ‘deep down there was that love between brothers,’ (2:67) and even though Guy was the youngest brother he was ‘supposed to be [the] tough [one out of the two]’ (2:67).
One day, Guy had seen Septimus crying, Sep informed him that he was ‘caned by the headmaster’ (2:67). This was because of something he did not do, there was ‘a note addressed to the maid […] found under his plate. It was not in his hand writing [sic] and he swore he knew nothing about it’ (2:67). However, the truth made no difference to the headmaster who had it out for the Oates family, because Sep was related to Guy he decided to punish him anyway. ‘How anyone could cane a boy so meek and mild as [Sep] was [he’ll] never know’ (2:67). From his experience, Guy knows ‘the mental and physical pain’ he experienced because of the cane, and so he could not imagine how his brother was feeling. This awful account of Septimus receiving the cane is heartwrenching. Septimus soon finished his education and, so he left school, returning home to his mother and siblings in Knaresborough.
Only a short while after Septimus had left Archbishop Holgates Grammar School he became quite ill. Guy had to deal with many unpleasant situations at school, but this was a morning that he would never forget. When attending assembly, as usual, prayers were spoken by the entire school, ‘followed by a reading from the bible, followed with the daily notes, followed with a hymn’ (2:67). All was going as normal until the morning prayers were finished and the Headmaster began the ‘daily notes’ with ‘I regret to announce the death of a recent old boy, Septimus Oates,’ (2:67) like Guy I am sure the readers are shocked to hear about this dreadful news. Not only because of how it was told but also because of how unexpected and abrupt it was. Septimus’ death was a truly tragic moment for the entirety of the family, here I will be writing about Guy’s reaction to his brother’s death, but in Part Two of ‘Home and Family’ Sarah gives an account of how this event impacted the rest of the Oates.
Once hearing the news of his brother’s death, ‘for a second [he] was stunned, [he] felt pinned to the ground, yet [he] wanted to run’ but where could escape to. After taking a moment, he ‘rushed from that hall into [the] day room. There [he] sat and sobbed, [he] felt sick and desperately unhappy, and very much alone,’ (2:67) once again Guy was left all alone to deal with such a heart-breaking incident. ‘In the distance [he] heard the boys singing that hymn, “For those in peril on the sea” and still no one came. [He didn’t] know how long [he] was there, [he] do[esn’t] remember even going back to [his] class room’ (2:67). This event (rightfully so) caused long-term effects for Guy; I am sure if he been told about the news in a sympathetic way then he would have been able to process it differently. However, this was not the case and ‘to this day every time [he] hear[‘s] that hymn [his] mind goes straight back to that day’ (2:67). Septimus only shortly after leaving school in 1920 had ‘developed Consumption and by the following May he was dead’ (2:67). When Septimus had passed, ‘they never told [Guy] how seriously ill Sep (2:67) and so their mother wrote to the headmaster asking him ‘to inform [Guy] as gently as he could of Sep[‘s] death. [Their] Mother was afraid to write and tell [Guy] herself, knowing what [he] was she was afraid [he] would run away from school and go home’ (2:67). The headmaster took it upon himself to ignore their mother’s wishes and decided to purposely inform Guy of this tragedy in front of all of the whole school.
A similar system was in place to the London school, in which each pupil had to ‘obtain a certain number of marks to enable him to have the fourth saturday morning off’ (2:69). Luckily for Guy his work had improved slightly compared to his grades in the London school, so much so he even, ‘succee[d] a few times’ (2:69) because of this Guy was given the chance to join ‘the boarders’ (2:60) team in the final ‘three school matches’ before term ended.
Having played ‘Gaining Ground’ (2:60) on several occasions Guy’s ‘throwing and catching ability’ (2:69) improved greatly. Joining this team granted you huge opportunities as ‘to play for your house [Y.S.S] was one thing but to play for your school at sixteen and out of 450 boys was an achievement, and [Guy’s] greatest ambition’ (2:69). Guy was informed that he would probably make the team and so he should keep checking ‘the sports notice board’ (2:69) for his name. The first week Guy’s name was not on the board, but the following week, Guy’s ‘name [was] at the very bottom of the sheet, [he] was elated,’ (2:69) he had made the cut. This was a huge honour because not only was Guy ‘the first Y.S.S boy’ but he was also ‘the youngest [on] the team,’ (2:69) Guy was simply ‘bubbling over with excitement’ (2:69) and quickly begun to get all of his cricket gear ready. ‘The match is to be played tmorrow [sic] morning saturday at eleven O’clock,’ (2:69) and so Guy was in high spirits.
On Friday afternoon, Guy was informed by his class master that he had been called upon by the headmaster. For once Guy was ‘not worrying a great deal, with only the cricket match [on his] mind, knowing [he] would be leaving soon [he] was in a much happier frame of mind’ (2:69). Regrettably for Guy his joyful world was once again going to come crashing down. As Guy entered the headmaster’s study, he said to Guy, ‘“Well Oates I see your class work for this month is again below your best, you will attend school to-morrow morning,”’ Guy told him that he had cricket tomorrow, but this made no difference. The headmaster simply ‘snapped back, “your class work is far more important than any cricket, you will attend class to-morrow, now go,”’ (2:69) once again he had abused his authority to belittle Guy. ‘[He] felt ill, [and] wanted to be sick, tears were in [his] eyes and [he] could not speak. Now, more than ever, and at sixteen years of age [he] missed that hand to grip, someone who could argue on [his] side, and someone to champion [his] cause’ (2:69). His chance to do something he would be proud of once again quickly disappeared and Guy was left with nothing.
As Guy returned to class, he was feeling ‘very subdued. [He] had a feeling that [his] class master Mr Thompson […] knew [he] had shed a few tears’ (2:69) Guy was able to confide in Mr Thompson when he asked him ‘if [he] was all right for to-morrow’ (2:69). A weight was lifted off Guy because of this, and so he was able to feel better about the situation. At first, Mr Thompson was unsuccessful at persuading the headmaster to let Guy play but the second time around he was able to convince him to let Guy play the next Saturday. Although Guy does not remember what happened in the match, he knew that just being a part of the day was a great honour.
There were only two weeks left before Guy was ‘free of this place, free from being shown up in front of [his] friends’ (2:70). Once again, Guy was unable to have a peaceful ending to his school life. When entering the dining hall, Guy and another pupil were told ‘to stand up. Once more [he was on his] feet for all to see. He [the headmaster] tells the other boys of [their] rank bad manners, of how [they] had passed his wife that very lunch time in the street and had not raised [their] caps’ (2:60). Of course, Guy was not allowed to protest about these false accusations, and so he just had to be made a fool in front of his fellow pupils.
The gratitude Guy expresses to Mr Thompson in his memoir just shows how respectful he is, ‘you knew how I had been treated. You saw a boy giving his best when not hounded. You were his class master. You were the officer commanding his platoon. […] It was you who came to him when he was bitten by that dog, and it was you who gave [him] his one and only chance to fulfill [sic] his ambition. You were stern but fair, you were honest and just. You would never punish a boy by so foul a means by depriving him of his greatest wish. To you […] my most grateful thanks’ (2:70)
Since Guy was not allowed to argue his case when he was sixteen, he decided to write his response to the headmaster in his memoir. ‘You sir, were as wrong then as you are now, I for one never saw your wife. What ever [sic] I may have been, my mother had taught us all to respect our elders, our betters and ladies in particular. My manners were good. Had I have seen your wife I would most certainly have raised my cap’ (2:70).
On the field of sport
To end on a high note, I leave this photo of a medal which Guy won. Guy ‘had felt free and away from all the tyranny’ when playing sport ‘and in that freedom [he] had given [his] best’ (2:71).
If you have enjoyed reading about Guy’s life, you may like to explore the full collection of Guy Oates Posts.
If you would like to read some of our fellow Writing Lives students blogs, then look no further! Here are some of the posts Sarah and I enjoyed for this particular theme:
Jennifer Rose: http://www.writinglives.org/education-and-schooling/martha-martin-b-1871-education-schooling-1-2 this post is about Martha Martin and her fond memories of childhood at Sunday School.
Similar to Guy James. H. McKenzie expresses his frustration throughout his memoir about not having a good education http://www.writinglives.org/education-and-schooling/james-h-mckenzie-1862-1952-education-and-schooling this post was written by Taylor Liddell.
Natasha Ebbrell’s post – http://www.writinglives.org/education-and-schooling/kathleen-m-lindley-b1920-education-and-schooling on Kathleen M Lindley shows an insight into the life of someone who went to a convent school.
Oates, Guy. The Years That Are Gone. Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection Library, Vol. 2.
Gagnier, Regenia. ‘Working-Class Autobiography, Subjectivity, and Gender.’ Victorian Studies 30.3 (1987): 335-363. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3828397
Rogers, Helen and Emily Cuming, ‘Revealing Fragments: Close and Distant reading of Working-Class Autobiography’, Family & Community History, 21:3 (2019): 180-201. https://doi.org/10.1080/14631180.2018.1555951
Rose, Jonathan, ‘Rereading the English Common Reader: A Preface to a History of Audiences.’ Journal of the History of Ideas. 1 (1992): 47- 70. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2709910
Savage, Mike. Social Class in the 21st Century. London: Penguin, 2015.
Vincent, David. ‘Love and Death and the Nineteenth-Century Working Class.’ Social History, 5.2 (1980): 223-247. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4284976
Burnett, John ed. Destiny Obscure: Autobiographies of Childhood, Education, and Family from the 1820s to the 1920s. London: Alan Lane, 1982.
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‘Schools and colleges.’ A History of the County of York: the City of York, ed. P.M. Tillott. London: British History Online,
1961, Pg. 440-460. http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/yorks/city-of-york/pp440-460 N.d. Web. Accessed 10 April 2019.
Strange, Julie-Marie. Death, Grief and Poverty in Britain, c. 1870-1914. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2005.
Vincent, David. Bread, Knowledge and Freedom: A Study of Nineteenth-Century Working-Class Autobiography. London: Methuen, 1981.