Robin Turner (G 52-57) recalls:

“I attended St Bees School in Cumberland, from around 1952 until 1957, first boarding in a preparatory house, called Meadow House, until I graduated to the main school, where I was allocated to Grindal, a white mansion by the railway line. The other houses included School House, and Foundation North and Foundation South, which were situated in the oldest buildings of the school, opposite the Priory.

The janitor of the main Foundation buildings, was a thin, wiry old man affectionately known by the boys as Gabriel. His province was the boiler room, which served the sprawling stone complex of class and assembly rooms, as well as the accommodation for the boys of the Foundation houses, North and South, their common rooms, studies and communal dining hall. This subterranean basement was filled with a huge boiler, coal and coke bunkers, and a variety of workshops and stores, for cricket nets, tents, and the paraphernalia of the CCF. This included a secure magazine for the Lee Enfield 303 rifles, or ‘Old Smellies’, which had been the mainstay of both world wars.

Such a tantalising underworld was a magnet for disaffected youths, over whom Gabriel exercised a benevolent eye, often comforting some home-sick boy with a word or a small gift, to lift the boy from his misery. Gabriel had a keen eye for the smaller underdogs and for their bullying tormentors, and would show the lads how to avoid and resist the inevitable few, power-corrupted larger boys.

On the main corridor leading from the old assembly hall in Foundation, a long corridor ran towards the chapel, at the end of which was a row of twelve communal lavatories, and hand basins, known simply as ‘the bogs’. The cubicles had no doors, the better for prefects and masters to spot ‘malingerers’, and the ‘bogs’ or lavatories consisted of simple holes in the continuous timber bench box which ran through each cubicle. The system was flushed by a stream of water periodically released down the open channel below the seats.

One day when I was just a junior in the third form, Gabriel had clearly observed that I and a few of my usual companions had been the target of some bullying by a group of fifth formers. Quite often we would see him standing by as our classes changed, providing an opportunity for our tormentors, unsupervised by a teacher, to strike. One day after he had despatched a particularly obnoxious cabal of bullies, he called us over and murmured, ‘Meet me outside the bogs, just after lunch, boys, an’ we’ll jist gie the marrers a taste o’ their own medicine!’

Baffled, we thanked Gabriel for his timely intervention, and agreed among ourselves that we had nothing to lose by a rendezvous with our protector. At around one pm our small group approached the door to the bogs, anxiously scanning the throng for Gabriel.

Now after lunch, as the tapioca pudding took effect, there was usually a stampede for the lavatories. The pecking order dictated that the senior, older boys were released from the dining halls first, followed sequentially by the lower orders, with the ‘younkers’ such as ourselves consigned to the tail of the stampede. Thereafter it was a matter of waiting in a jostling queue along the corridor, which slowly advanced as the seniors departed one by one.

As was often the case, our tormentors were but one or two classes ahead of ours, as those more senior disdained any conversational truck with the ‘younkers’, and we tried to avoid their attention, while scanning the corridor for Gabriel. As we neared the head of the queue, Gabriel suddenly appeared holding a large biscuit tin and beckoned us to follow him, with the command, ‘You boys, come and lift the vaulting horse over to the Gym, pronto!’ This ruse may even have gained some fleeting sympathy from the boisterous bullies as we trooped out of the corridor behind Gabriel.

Once outside he lead us around the side of the building and through a locked door into the room immediately behind the cubicles. Here was located the water supply and a large cistern, which, when triggered by a ball-cock, periodically flushed the channel beneath them with a mini-tsunami!

After he had explained the workings of the cistern, Gabriel opened the lid of his biscuit tin to show us a small pile of rags and cotton waste. ‘Now lads, who has heard of the fire ships used by the Chinese and later the ancient Greeks to cause confusion to their naval opponents?’

As we looked at him blankly, he took a can of petrol from the shelf and dribbled petrol, followed by some oil, onto the rags in the tin. He took a look in the cistern and triggered the flood by depressing the ball-cock, and then looked at his watch, saying. ‘Right lads, synchronise watches, and in exactly four and a half minutes, we’ll ketch yon impudent braggarts wi’ their trousers at half mast!’

Gabriel picked up a painted placard, inscribed with the warning, ‘Out of Order!’ in bold red letters and with that he lead us back, tin and placard in hand, past the boys with their trousers round their ankles, and up to the head of the cubicles. As soon as the top cubicle was vacated, he strode over and strung the placard across the entrance, and placed the biscuit tin on the bench inside the cubicle.

Gabriel lifted the lid, and with his lighter, set fire to the petrol soaked rags in the tin, before loudly commanding us to fetch a bucket, a pipe wrench, a plunger and disinfectant from the boiler room. Then he whispered ‘Reet lads, scarper!’ With that he lowered the flaming tin into the hole, and as the cistern released another hundred gallons down the channel, he deftly dropped the tin into the flood.

As we marched briskly out behind Gabriel, we heard the first anguished scream, as Gabriel’s fire ship passed close below the occupant in number two cubicle. With glee we heard a second scream, and then another, and another, as the flaming tin floated down the channel. Clearly, while each heard the yells from the preceding cubicle, there was insufficient intelligence to react sensibly to the fire ship’s steady progress, until it was too late to take avoiding action!

There was chaos as the victims struggled painfully to hoist their trousers, loudly shouting of the volcanic events by which they had been overtaken. And each clearly believed that their neighbour’s pain was nothing in comparison to their own! As we took up our position in the corridor queue once more, Gabriel gave us a wink, and headed back to the boiler room, with another aside to his co-conspirators, ‘Yev heard o’ the scorched earth policy, lads,  they’ll no be sitting pretty, for a week!’

And sure enough, our tormentors proved less troublesome, as our fear was diminished by visions of their naked disarray, and a determination to respond collectively and imaginatively to further bullying. And before I finally left school, the ploy of Gabriel’s fire ship had passed into folklore, and had been put into practice at least twice more!”



The St. Beghian Society,    St. Bees School,    St. Bees,    Cumbria,    CA27 0DS.
         Tel: (01946) 828093