Friday, 24 February 2012

True Stories for Posterity 1: Mr J.W.H. Gastall

I may be no different from most people in feeling that there are certain incidents that I have witnessed in my life, an account of which ought to exist somewhere in some form or other, lest any record of their having occurred at all is lost. 
In my case, most of these incidents seem to be events that should never have happened.  Particularly, they are occasions when certain individuals were allowed to do things that they shouldn’t have done and nobody seemed too concerned.  Likewise, however, there are times when people have acted with remarkable humanity, courage, and generosity but once again no recognition of this is to be found anywhere.  It seems to me wrong and unfair that any acknowledgement of these events – good or bad - should cease to exist altogether, even in the minds of the people concerned, who will anyway die at some stage if they haven’t already done so.   
That the stories of these events are available to the public is perhaps of most immediate concern, rather than whether anyone actually avails himself or herself of the information.  We may say that they should be ‘preserved for posterity’.  I also believe that the storyteller should be dispassionate and unmotivated by malice or self-interest, and should strive to present a fair and factual account, with due acknowledgement of the problems of bias, misinterpretation, misinformation and faulty memory.
The following is the first of some stories that I want to ‘preserve for posterity’.  
Two stories for posterity concerning Mr J.W.H. Gastall
The memory of this event has stayed with me for 53 years at the time of writing.  In the 1950s I attended a junior school in Lancashire called Waterfoot County Council School.  Our headmaster was John W. H. Gastall (1913-1997), who was once a professional footballer.  Mr Gastall used to punish his pupils by hitting them with a leather strap on their hands or buttocks.  Now and again he would administer the punishment in the school hall while all the pupils were in their classrooms.  The child he was strapping would first have to go round the hall and open each classroom door so that the whole school could listen to what was happening.

One such child was 'Shirley'.  She was about 8 years old and came from a poor family; her clothes were scruffy and she was one of those children who always seemed to have a trail of mucus streaming down one nostril to her upper lip.  'Shirley' got into trouble when she stole a watch from one of her classmates.  She was found out and Mr Gastall gave her four strokes of the strap.  I remember the door of the classroom opening and the class then went quiet as we listened to the sound of Mr Gastall's strap landing on 'Shirley' as she sobbed and yelped with each lashing. Some girls who knew 'Shirley' happened to be in our classroom at the time and they started giggling amongst themsleves until reprimanded by our teacher.  After a minute, the classrom door was closed and we all got on with our work.
The next incident, of which I was informed separately by two former pupils of Waterfoot School, happened after I had left.  Mr Gastall once repeatedly lashed with his strap a little boy, whom I shall call ‘Mark’, as a punishment for truanting.  While he was doing this, Mark’s shrieks and pleas for mercy echoed round the school to the amusement of other pupils.  I understand that the teacher present remarked on the severity of the thrashing once Mr Gastall had finished.  He then explained to the other little children present that he had been particularly harsh with Mark on this occasion as he had truanted on the Queen’s birthday.   Her Majesty would, I am sure, have been most appreciative.