Discipline was not too strict in the grammar school as most of the students were intelligent and interested in studying, but the rules were there and adherence was expected. As in all schools, the habitually bad boys seemed to lead a charmed life, repeatedly evading punishment, while the occasional lapse by an otherwise law-abiding student was invariably punished. That’s what happened to me for singing the then popular song about loading 16 tons of number nine coal.
Cotham Grammar School was the jewel in the crown of the Bristol Education Committee in the late 1940s and 1950s. It was the school that seemed to get the cream of the annual crop of boys who succeeded in passing the highly selective eleven-plus examination. In those days in England, about 5 percent of young people entered university and these included about half of those who passed through grammar schools.
After seven years of study I found myself in the third year sixth science form. Our form master was the headmaster, Mr Wood, known inevitably to the boys as ‘Splinter.’ Our form room was the school library although we attended classes in other rooms and laboratories. It was during our free time that we were left in the library. Occasionally we burst into song and the popular song of the day had the following chorus:
‘You load 16 tons and what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt,
Saint Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go,
I owe my soul to the company store.’
The headmaster, having many other concerns, used to leave us for relatively long periods, but this day he returned unexpectedly to find us in full voice. Normally a quiet student, I did not usually play a leading role, but as a member of both the school choir and orchestra I was expected to know something about music. On this occasion the full wrath of authority fell on me because I was standing on a table conducting the performance.
‘Come here Powell – singing in the library!’ was the call and I was banned from the library for several weeks. Eventually I summoned up courage to plead to be allowed to return and my wish was granted.
My library ban is the only disciplinary punishment that I recall from my schooldays but the words of the song have stayed in my mind. It predicted the fate that awaited many of us, although for the ‘company store’ we would probably substitute the banks and credit cards.