Imperial fiction: Bully, Fag and Hero

‘You have chosen, both of you, a most foolish and wicked path to tread. You have trodden it, and you have arrived at your destination in consequence. What I have to say concerning the heinousness of your behaviour I shall say before the rest of the school tomorrow morning.’
Charles J. Mansford, Bully, Fag and Hero (1896)

A stirring and characteristic story of school-life and adventure, which will be immensely relished by lads in their teens. Incident is abundant, the writing is bright, and there is a refreshing air of breeziness about the production.
Western Daily Press (1896)

The story is set in Littlebury, a venerable school of some standing, and opens as Bob Challenge is waking up in the Fourth Form dormitory: ‘The boy ceased to toss himself about, and a smile of satisfaction played about his lips.’ Bob’s a new man (they’re called men, not boys) and this is the first morning of what will turn out to be an eventful first term…

It’s not one of the classics of public-school literature – it’s no Stalky and Co. – but Bully, Fag and Hero is a decent, very readable example of the genre. Pretty much all the essential elements are present – the midnight feasts and tuck shops, the pillow fights and canings – together with lashings of exciting adventures involving peril, injury and death, and a mystery that can only be solved by hypnosis.

There’s also a thrilling football match (referred to here as socker) with a rival school in the neighbourhood, a place that prepares boys for the army and which permits far greater liberties: ‘Smoking was allowed in the classrooms, each pupil kept at least one dog, while several of them had quite a number of dogs for ratting and other amusements. Of discipline there was practically none…’ This school, we learn, was later to close, which is for the best: we don’t approve of such licence.

There are some at Littlebury, though, who share that self-indulgent approach to life. The Fourth Form have an unofficial assembly, known as the House of Commons, in which there are two rival parties, the Whiffs (who smoke) and the Non-Whiffs (who do not).

‘Our claim is Liberty, our watchword Forward. We claim the right to smoke, to swear, to work or not, just as we please. We refuse to be bound by any rules,’ declares Comber, for the Whiffs. ‘We consider the time of youth a time for amusement; and pleasure, at any cost and in any way attained, we make our consistent aim.’

‘Our watchword is also Forward, but we add to it, Not Too Fast,’ replies the spokesman for the Non-Whiffs. ‘We refuse to smoke, we think swearing the height of folly, we believe in work at school, and we believe in helping to maintain the reputation of Littlebury as our fathers did before us.’ They’re denounced by their opponents as ‘kids’, but they’ve got an adult sense of responsibility. ‘We acknowledge the justice of school rules, but we reserve the right to break them. When we are discovered we take the penalty, and there the matter ends.’

Bob Challenge, of course, joins the Non-Whiffs. He is, after all, the Hero of the title. Whiff-leader Comber on the other hand is very definitely the Bully:

Comber’s brain was very defective. As a child he had delighted in perpetrating cruelties upon every animal he could, but with increasing years, his parents thought this propensity to maim and kill had left the boy. Instead, Comber delighted in all his former ways, except he did in secret what as a mere child he had done openly.

He’s no Flashman – he lacks the nominative determinism, apart from anything else – but he’s unpleasantly convincing as a villain. The Fag of the title, on the other hand, doesn’t really figure. Far more interesting are some of the other characters.

There’s a pair of identical twins from India, for example. No one’s ever quite sure which one they’re talking to: ‘The two boys were exactly alike, dressed the same to the most minute detail, their voices betrayed no difference’.

As Dominic Sandbrook pointed out in The Great British Dream Factory (2015), the classic English school story was often a welcoming place for Indian boys and far less racist than the popular perception would suggest: ‘We don’t share your ridiculous prejudice against coloured people,’ declares Harry Wharton in one of Frank Richards’s Greyfriars tales from 1910. In Bully, Fag and Hero, as elsewhere, it helps that the twins are very wealthy – ‘I get as much money as ever I want from India’ – but it’s worth noting that there’s little racism in the depiction. They don’t even speak in the twisted syntax and language of Richards’s character Hurree Jamset Ram Singh (commonly known as Inky); indeed they’re sufficiently flexible in their use of English that they can parody and mimic other characters

There is, it is true, an episode where they practise a kind of voodoo, making little wooden dolls of people into which they stick pins, as they conduct ‘a strange experiment’, but the central point of the sequence is the chance it gives the twins to get one over a disliked monitor, and to celebrate their artistry – their work is comparable to that of the ‘best modellers’ (they’re also academically proficient). Of the experiment itself, we never hear the results, so don’t know if it works.

We should also note that the twins are nicknamed Chutney and Curry – Chutney ‘rather liked his nickname’ – but that fits in with the food obsession that is characteristic of these stories. (‘Challenge, who had been used to a first-class table at home, was a little taken aback by the food given to pupils at public schools.’) It’s not much different to their schoolmate Margarson, a fat child who eats a lot and is nicknamed Margarine. It is striking that no one makes any disparaging reference to the twins’ colour or nationality.

The most intriguing character, though, is a peripheral figure from the Sixth Form, who’s surely intended as a caricature of Oscar Wilde (this is written fifteen months on from Wilde’s conviction for gross indecency): ‘Lawson was an exquisite; he dressed perfectly, and was said to be the wealthiest fellow at Littlebury. He wore a flower in his coat, and the room was adorned with vases of rare flowers, in spite of their cost at such a time of year.’ He prides himself on his wit – he has a ‘habit of repartee’ – and the Fourth Form mockingly refer to him as ‘a sweet tempered youth’. As a member of the Sixth, he enjoys the privilege of caning younger boys, and his technique suggests he does indeed enjoy it. ‘Get down, then,’ he says to his victim, ‘and cock up.’ And the boy lowers himself and ‘put his head and knees together on the ground’.

One other point I took from the novel is the absolute assumption that a public school will cover up scandals.

When it’s suspected that one of more of the boys may have stolen money and valuables, the first response of Doctor Chapple, the head master, is to protect the name of the school: ‘Of course, whoever the culprit is, I must try and keep the case from being made public.’ This isn’t easy, but it can be managed: ‘The inspector was very loathe to hush the matter up at first, but as the men of Littlebury were usually present at the annual concert given in aid of the police orphanage, and Doctor Chapple hinted that future support might be withdrawn otherwise, the affair was allowed to drop.’

Charles Mansford (1863–1943) made his literary reputation with his stories of India and the Far East, first published in The Strand and collected in Shafts from an Eastern Quiver (1893). (I’ll get round to writing about these at some point.) He’d also, I think, written some short stories set in schools by this point, but this full-length treatment was new territory for him.

It got what we like to call mixed notices. ‘Very good, thrilling and natural,’ said one reviewer, while another enthused: ‘The fun waxes fast and furious at times, and there are also nobler strains that will appeal to the more serious side of the lads who read the story.’ On the other hand there was criticism of his ‘jerky, amateurish style,’ and the patronising conclusion: ‘If Mr Mansford studied composition a little more, he might do well.’

My favourite is the verdict of St James’s Gazette. While acknowledging that the book is ‘interesting and exciting’ and ‘powerfully written’, the paper was horrified by the story itself, which is ‘most unpleasant’. The conduct of the boys is deplorable, whether it’s ‘playing in railway tunnels, gagging and blindfolding a gamekeeper, or holding surreptitious meetings in an empty house – the boys bribing the caretaker to frighten away likely tenants so that they can continue to use the building’. There was also disapproval of the scene in which a detective plies a boy with champagne and tries to get him to commit perjury. ‘Mr Mansford should give his stories a more healthy tone than that which runs through Bully, Fag and Hero,’ the reviewer concluded. ‘We do not think it would be wise to put it into the hands of boys.’

Of course, the fact that the boys are depicted cheerfully breaking the rules was one of the main reasons why the book did so well. In 1907, it was reported to be on its seventh edition, and it was still being promoted as late as 1924. Subsequent volumes also sold well, including Fags and the King (1909) and Prefect and Fag (1910).

As for Mansford himself, I recommend a fine biographical note by his great-great-niece Mary Mansford Prior. He was, she writes: ‘The son of a tailor with four older brothers who were respectively a hatter who became destitute and spent time in the workhouse, a labourer, a carpenter and a postman.’ Despite which background, he became a highly respectable headmaster, first in Derbyshire and then at Dartford Grammar School; he appears to have been a progressive type, arguing in favour of co-education and equal pay for women teachers.

Dartford, of course, is part of the legend of British rock ‘n’ roll, the school that gave us Mick Jagger, as well as Dick Taylor and Brian Pendleton of the Pretty Things, and Dave Godin, the man credited with inventing the term Northern Soul. But all that was after Mansford’s time. He died in Bournemouth in 1943, after being hit by a taxi.

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