1968 – The Great School Hymn Book Robbery

At school it must have come as something of a relief to my parents that there was a little bit of improvement in 1968 and a tiny glimmer of hope because although I finished the third form in July still rooted in the fourth stream I must have done reasonably well in the end of year exams because when I returned in August for the fourth year I unexpectedly found myself promoted to the third stream.

This surely meant that I wasn’t a complete no hoper after all and someone had at last spotted my potential.  Significantly it meant that I might be allowed to take a few GCE ‘o’ levels in a couple of years time and I was pleased with this because it meant that I didn’t have to do the manual stuff like woodwork and metalwork, which were lessons for the boys who were going to be working in factories quite soon and at which I was completely hopeless because the only things I ever completed were a wonky wooden tray and a bent metal fire poker, neither of which were suitable for their intended purpose.

It wasn’t all plain sailing however, I was still a ‘back of the class’ sort of kid who liked getting into mischief and larking about and in 1968 I nearly went just that little bit too far and put my new elevated academic status at risk.

The Dunsmore School Great Hymn Book Robbery wasn’t quite on the same scale of the 1963 Great Train Robbery but this is what happened:  every morning the school had an assembly and as we all trooped in lines into the main school hall we would collect a hymn book from cardboard boxes on a table by the entrance and on the way out we were supposed to put it back again.

No one liked going to assembly very much and some of us (me, Mick Kowell and Simon Howells) hatched a cunning plan to close it down.  The plot was brilliant and simple, if the three of us didn’t actually return our hymn books each day then eventually there wouldn’t be any to hand out in the first place and that would put an end to assembly and it would be even more brilliant if we took two hymn books each every day.  Actually, to be honest, I have now revisited the plot and the thinking behind it and I have to say that it was most unlikely to have ever been successful, not least because there must have been something like a thousand hymn books and at the rate of one each per day for the three conspirators this would have taken two complete school years to achieve and during this time someone would have been sure to notice.

Actually they noticed a lot sooner than we gave them credit for and after a week or two, maybe a month, our stash of books was discovered in our desks at the back of the class and we were called to see the headmaster to explain ourselves.

The Headmaster really made a terrible fuss about it and I remember thinking at the time that in my opinion he seemed to be unnecessarily over reacting to what was after all only a silly schoolboy prank.  For a while it was touch and go, mum and dad were called in as well and expulsion seemed on the cards but I put up a decent defence and my punishment was commuted to no worse than six of the best from Frank Hodgson’s garden cane and the sentence was carried out the following day, which gave me time to take the appropriate steps to lessen the pain by wearing double underpants and a pair of speedos for extra protection that morning.

It turned out that at the same time as our hymn book heist quite a lot of other school property was going missing as well and turning up in second hand shops all over the town and the headmaster suspected me of being the criminal mastermind behind the thefts.  Most of the school orchestra’s musical instruments went missing and eventually the finger of suspicion turned towards the Welsh music teacher, a nasty aggressive bully called Mick Self, and soon after he was caught and charged he spent some time sewing mailbags at her Majesty’s pleasure at Parkhurst prison on the Isle of Wight.

The face of a master criminal…

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One response to “1968 – The Great School Hymn Book Robbery

  1. Maurice A. Collier

    I also attended the Dunsmore School and also raised “Hedgehogs” wrath as, like you, a none achiever, my father decided that GCSEs were a waste on me and hawked me round the local businesses for an apprenticeship. Ended up at George Over Printers. Thoroughly enjoyable time.
    My exit from Hodgsons office when I informed him by letter that I was leaving (December 1959) was hastened by a book thrown after me . . fitting, I thought at the time, as I returned it to his desk, as it was his Bible!
    Dunsmore was a school that only the top third of each class was deemed to actually exist the rest were there to be humiliated, thrashed or detained. I was on permanent maths detention with a “teacher” called Mr. Dickle. Finally ended in the nohopers with Mr Whittacker who, when you got to know him as a form master, actually had a heart of gold . . unless you strayed from the narrow path of enlightenment.
    You missed the old Eastlands School years . . thankfully never having to suffer the violence of the Geography teacher who finally was removed after an intervention by the Head over a boy in our class. The whole school sighed in relief after that as every class held a victim of his.
    I made such an impression on the school that I cannot even find a photo of my one season of cricket in the first eleven . . although a School Photograph was taken. I didn’t play every match though!
    As impressions go, I ran into a class member about six months after I left. . . he didn’t know who I was!!!
    I’ve never been back or even communicated with them.
    The one good master was the art teacher, Mr Underwood.
    I enjoyed your “article” and it brought back memories . . . not many good ones though!
    I now live in Victoria, Australia

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