Desk lid 1890s

A lid from an oak desk of the kind in use in Big School from the 1860s until the 1920s. For nearly eighty years every boy in the school sat behind a desk like this, and for nearly eighty years the desk lids were the primary (officially the only, and always unofficial) graffitied objects in the school. The desk lids became so iconic that when the desks went out of use in the 1920s, Warden Fox proposed that the lids should be saved and used to panel Covered Passage. In the end, after months of languishing in storage in the Old Gym, only four desk lids survived, three to be made into the back of a garden bench now long decayed and thrown away, and one, chosen at random, to be kept forever as a museum piece. This is about public and private space; it is about the relationship between schoolboy and classroom, and between schoolboy and teacher; it is about the temporary and the permanent; and about anonymity and making your mark.

No. 1. 1890's Desk Lid

The Desk Lid

The graffiti on this desk lid is monumental in scale, carved with a tool fit for the purpose, probably a wood chisel which leaves a characteristic wedge-shaped groove in the hard oak. It was prepared in advance, drawn out and planned so that no spelling errors occurred during the carving. Each letter is perfectly proportioned and spaced, finished with serifs. The carving renders the desk surface unfit for its original purpose. The description of a science experiment by a visiting lecturer in 1910 illustrates the problem:

But his most popular experiment was to drive a little toy locomotive engine, using liquid air as the motive power. A set of rails would have made this experiment more effective, for the lecture table was a much worn school desk on which the knives of Radley boys had worked many irregularities, and these caused frequent stops to the poor little toiling engine.

The skill shown by the carvers prompted a suggestion in 1881 that:

…there should be a “Carpenter’s shop” here as at Tonbridge, Clifton and many other schools. Carpentering is a thing which is useful at all times, and I think it would be a great improvement if it were more widely taught … We also see instances of the boys’ ingenuity in the carving of the desks in school. Do you not think that this could be turned to some better account?

Two names have been obliterated, but otherwise each carver has respected the work of his predecessors, finding space for his own mark amongst all the others. The message is uncompromising and personal: name or initials and date. There is no room here for rude messages about the boy at the next desk. The iconography is heraldic, recognisable symbols relating to family or club. There are no phalluses here, nor any of the ‘squalid scribbling and scratching with which some later Radleians have adorned their desks’ as described by AK Boyd in 1947. All the carving is on the top surface of the desk lid – there is only one letter (upside down from the desk user’s point of view) on the inside. These are ownership marks, or memorial inscriptions, for public consumption; they are not about rebellion.

Consider how long it took to carve each letter, to prepare the space. One letter each lesson? If so, how dull was the lesson? Or were they carved in private time – itself carved out from the activities of the day and using precious moments of quiet to achieve a personal memorial? There is no sign that anyone’s arm was ever jogged during the carving, although the figure on the lower right side appears unfinished. A poem, published in The Radleian in 1890, just as Basil Oxenden first put his name on the desk, describes how to spend the time between 5.30 and 6.30pm ‘almost the only hour many fellows get to themselves all day:’

I scream, I hoot, I whistle,
In gossip I rejoice;
I talk the last school scandal,
I love my own sweet voice.

I cut the desks and hack them,
I feel the thirst for fame;
I carve in two-inch letters
My valuable name.

The memorials of past boys’ names carved into desks or on wall panels was well-known at other schools in the 1840s, but it was never intended to be a part of Radley life by the school’s founders in 1847. In 1893, just after Basil Lawrence and Charles Barker had made their marks on the desk, Bishop Macrorie, one of the earliest Dons, reminisced about William Sewell ‘who … allowed no boy to carve his name on a desk in school, but little brass scrolls were screwed on the walls to answer the same purpose of perpetuating their memory.’ A satirical description of Sewell’s first vision appeared in The Radleian in 1904, in an article written whilst Monty Vidal was embarking on carving his name on the desk lid:

So much for fictions; but the facts too might seem incredible, did we not see similar miracles here at Radley with our own eyes. Not a cut upon their desks or benches: not a sign of scribbling on the walls…

Sewell understood the need to immortalise the names of past boys, a concern which was not shared by his co-founder, Robert Corbet Singleton. Singleton’s address to the first prefects laid out one of their duties:

They are especially to preserve the desks and panelling from scratching, scribbling and hacking, to suppress that extraordinary propensity of the young … that zeal of handing down to posterity names which have no claim whatsoever to be rescued from oblivion…

The prefects succeeded in saving the panelling. Despite eighty years of use as a schoolroom, the linen-fold panelling in the present Library has only one piece of schoolboy carving. But Singleton could not enforce anonymity. This single desk lid contains inscriptions by thirty-four individual boys, many simply initials, but twelve left their full names, including two brothers, whilst seven members of the Boat Club revealed their affiliation by carving the Maltese cross. And when the desks were removed in 1925 it was the names, not the quality of the carving, which prompted the desire to save the lids in some way: ‘An oak garden seat … It is hoped to use up in this way a number of desks, on which many familiar names have been carved by past members of the School.’

So to the names which have been rescued from oblivion, which were each valuable to the individual boy by proclaiming that he was there. Any list of boys’ names from the 1890s strikes a chill, since this was the generation that went into the trenches of World War 1. However, these boys were old enough to be senior officers and so had a greater survival rate than their juniors a decade later. Of the thirteen individuals who can be identified with certainty, all those who served survived the War. One, Tom Kingham, went so far as to find love not war in Vichy in 1915. Two, Basil Lawrence and Theo Stretch, died before WW1, but another, AElfric Riley, lived to be 93 and died as recently as 1979. They were also totally modern: on leaving school, two went straight into industries which were created by inventions or discoveries that had not existed when they carved their names on the desk – Basil Lawrence into Daracq racing cars and Richard Sankey becoming a consultant radiologist working with x-rays. Others achieved distinction in their chosen professions, two were awarded the OBE (Monty Vidal) and MBE (Harold Smith); three became Fellows of Professional Institutes – Harold Smith and Clifford Steward as professional surveyors and Richard Sankey, the Institute of Radiologists. Several continued to play the sports they had enjoyed at Radley, one, Charles Barker, played hockey for Middlesex, another, Clifford Steward, served on the Henley Regatta Committee for nearly twenty-five years, whilst a third, Theo Stretch, was haled as one of Radley’s greatest oarsmen, and rowed in winning crews for Oxford University and Leander.

Stretch Memorial

Only Theo Stretch is commemorated by name on a memorial at Radley in the stained glass of the ante-chapel, but three others left lasting contributions: Clifford Steward designed the Evans Memorial Boat House in 1911, now replaced; the father of the Riley brothers planted 370 trees in the grounds in 1897, several of which survive, especially the cedar to the south of chapel; and Monty Vidal kept a photographic record of his entire time at Radley which was bequeathed to the Archives. But none of this could have been predicted when each carved his name as a Remove.

Cedar Tree

Cedar by Chapel

Singleton’s lack of understanding of the burning need of a Remove to make a public mark on the place is at odds with his much greater appreciation of the need for personal and private space in communal living. Speaking to the prefects in 1849 he asserted:

They are to protect the whole School in their privacy. Every desk is to be accounted a sacred spot, into which no companion’s eye is to be allowed to penetrate without the owner’s free consent. It is almost essential to everyone’s happiness that he should have one spot at least in the world, however small, that he may call his own; let every boy have a real interest in his desk.

Behind the public face of the carved lids each desk contained a private world. In 1866 there was a complaint:

With our correspondent “Terrier” we entirely agree, a more disgusting passion than this love for rats and mice we can hardly conceive … To have one’s desk filled with a cage emitting a musk-like flavour can only be agreeable to the owners of the piebald occupants of the cages …

Reiterated in 1881:

What a mania there is for keeping pets here this term! It began with … tortoises; then white mice, rats and snakes followed … Every other desk in school is made into a menagerie …

In 1873, there was a passing allusion to a different function:

Desk.- A receptacle for books. Every boy will understand that books are to form the very minimum of the contents of the desk, and that they are to be scattered in lavish profusion over the desks of other people.

The individual, permanently assigned desks within the schoolroom mark a different relationship between teacher and class to that of 2012. The boys were fixed in place: it was the teacher who moved between classes. This was in part the pattern of education in the nineteenth century, but is also an aspect of Radley’s particular history. Although the school was founded in 1847, the buildings and grounds were leased until 1889. Essentially the school was not permanent. Every building erected was temporary and many were constructed in a way that would allow it to be dismantled and moved to a new site. Classrooms were especially impermanent, being described as ‘tin tabernacles’ where ink could freeze in the ink wells and not thaw out until lunch time, or a series of lean-to sheds, rapidly nicknamed ‘the slums’ erected against the outside of Big School. These classrooms were reserved for older boys, organised and named after the sets who were permanently based in them, or specialist classes, including music, languages and a laboratory. For the juniors there was Big School, originally a barn, now the Library. They sat close together on benches behind the heavy desks, presumably filled with the sound of rustling and squeaking:

Big School

Big School

1879. The large schoolroom crowded with trembling boys, arranged in long lines at their desks: our revered Founder enthroned on the dais: a “terrible silence:” some few in eager expectation, yet not without visible quakings, the majority endeavouring to escape notice As that terrible eye roves over the throng, here and there one will lie down at full length on the form or the floor, and so remain, safe but uncomfortable, till the hour is over. At last a victim is selected…

However, in 1889 the estate of Radley Hall and its grounds came up for sale, and the school was able to buy itself at public auction. The temporary home was now permanent. This resulted in a frenzy of building, starting with the Fives Court in 1890, new Chapel in 1895, new boarding houses, masters’ houses, Hall in 1910, and new classrooms, until 1928 when the new classroom block which is now the Classics classrooms was opened. Now the teachers each had a classroom, and the boys came to them. The permanent/private/inherited desk had no function in the new classrooms. The era of the satchel, the briefcase, the armful of books and files carted around the school had begun. Personal space existed in the private study or in Social Hall, where there was no need to carve a public memorial. In 1931, the change was appreciated by a boy of IV3, but lamented in a eulogy for the carved desks:

We pupils of these modern times
Are not too good at making rhymes
But now in warmth I do my work
To write a verse I cannot shirk.
For now we sit on nice new chairs
And no one now to gossip dares
For now my friend’s too far away
For me to see what he will say.
The blackboards too are nice and smooth
One’s pen rests safely in a groove

But now we cannot carve our names
Upon the school’s new desks and frames.

In 1987 the cover of The Radleian celebrated the carved desk lid, featuring two montages, the contemporary and the historic. The 1987 desk illustrates the private space in a study – the coffee mug, music CD, copy of The Spectator; then the public face of education, the portable aspects of the desk which are moved from classroom to classroom to study – the file of notepaper, the pile of books, the pencil case, and the calculator. The monumental graffiti on the paper pays homage to the carved desk lid. But the calculator looks forward. It anticipates 2012 when the schoolboy and teacher have equal access to the same object: a fully portable, totally private, personal space, accessing the public, communally-created desk and classroom complete with notes, writing implements, books, music, even a form of pet mouse – the iPad.

Clare Sargent, 9.12.11

The names on the desk lid

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