The headmaster who beat me black and blue with a bamboo cane and why I’d like to thank him for it



When I say that M.L. Forster loomed over me, it wasn’t too difficult. At 11 years old, I was the smallest boy in the school. Also the skinniest. And at that moment, by far the most frightened.

M.L. Forster, headmaster, and frightener-in-chief, was over 6ft tall, more than 16st, a huge and powerful figure, a bear in a black gown.

He was also, at that moment, flexing between his hands a bamboo cane which was the principal cause of my anxiety. He pointed the cane at the armchair.

I decided to take an optimistic view of the situation. I sat in it. A mistake. ‘What is your name?’ His voice rumbled around the bottom of the baritone register.

‘Dunne, sir,’ I squeaked.

‘I see, Dunne, you are some form of a humorist. Be so good as to bend over the chair.’ The next thing I heard was the whistle of bamboo as cane met trousers. Six times. ‘Only six because this is your first day,’ he said. Lucky me.

It was my first day at the grammar school. It was ten minutes to nine. I had still not reached my classroom.

It’s a shame M.L. Forster is no longer with us, because I would like to meet him again, if only to thank him and shake his hand.

It’s also a shame he’s not around because he would have enjoyed Educating Yorkshire, the Channel 4 documentary series which revolves around the efforts of no-nonsense head teacher Jonny Mitchell to give a decent education to the pupils at his comprehensive school in Dewsbury.

Jonny faces a challenge. Dewsbury has 20 percent unemployment, a huge Asian population, and considerable racial tension. He estimates that just ten percent of his pupils’ parents are white-collar workers, while the rest are blue-collar or unemployed.

Many of his students are disruptive — yet Jonny is determined to make them model citizens even if it is the last thing they wanted.

It is both horrifying and heart-warming viewing as he instills discipline, ambition, and pride into his often unwilling charges.

This is what Forster was doing to Yorkshire children — including me — 60 years ago. He ‘did’ horrifying as and when required, and occasionally even offered a little heart-warming. As for no-nonsense, Forster invented no-nonsense education.

Of course, it was slightly different in the Fifties. That was the last time in this country when young people were required to behave themselves, to do what they were told, to comb their hair, tidy their rooms, do their homework and never be cheeky.

And if they failed, they had the pleasure of explaining it to people like M.L. Forster.

As headmaster of Ermysted’s Grammar School in the small market town of Skipton in the Yorkshire Dales, he set the standards and the moral tone.

For 20 years, he took grubby little Yorkshire lads and turned them into young men who were well-educated and even semi-civilized, whether they liked it or not. By the thousand.

He achieved this with a combination of charm, wit, high intelligence, blazing charisma, and a personality that would stop a tank.

Plus, of course, his cane. He ruled not so much with a rod of iron as with a rod of whistling bamboo.

To this day, you will find countless elderly people who swear their lives were vastly enhanced by his early influence. Me among them.

When I got to Ermysted’s, he was already a legend, with the nickname Bru. Some said it was short for Brutal, but it wasn’t. It was a condensed version of Brumas, a polar bear cub that had become a star attraction at London Zoo.


Giving him the name of a creature that was famously pretty and cuddly was a rare example of schoolboy irony.

Marselis Forster — known as Mark — was the son of a Northern Irish merchant navy skipper and a Dutch woman. He had a double first in modern languages from Queen’s, Belfast, and still in his 20s, had been head of modern languages at Epsom College in Surrey. His move to Skipton made him the youngest head of a serious academic school in the country.

On that first day, after we had sung Lord Behold Us With Thy Blessing, I helped to collect the tubular steel chairs. In my excitement, I scraped one on the floorboards. Hence the whacking — which was what we all called it.

He brought the standards of the public schools with him. The only way we knew this was not because we knew about Eton (we thought it was the past tense of the verb To Eat) but because we’d read about schools like this in our comics. Wizard, Hotspur, and Adventure all had school stories about swots, cads, and whackings.

‘He caned my whole class of 30 — in alphabetical order

Bru ran a tight ship. No running, no shouting, no fighting, no cheek. We had to wear our uniforms at all times. To be caught without your cap in the town was practically a hanging offence.

Bru called every one, masters as well as boys, by their surnames. Everyone called him Sir.

If a master ordered you out of the classroom, there was always the terrible possibility that Bru would chance to walk past.

Then it might mean a trip to his study. We trained our ears to pick up his footsteps. To this day, the squeak of crepe on tiles breaks me out in a sweat.

He held us in a fearful fascination. One afternoon, in a few unsupervised minutes between lessons, our 1A class became over-excited. Treble voices squeaked. The door flew open. The doorway darkened. ‘Follow me,’ he growled.

Abject, shaking, and squeaking no more, we followed him to his study where he whacked us, all 30 of us, in alphabetical order.

By the time he got to the boy called Wood, he had developed his usual scary-funny banter. ‘I expect you think I’m getting tired, Wood, old man. We shall see about that.’ And he made Wood cry just to show he wasn’t.

He always did that with the last boy. One day, Wood said he was fed up with it and was going to change his name. “No! Don’t!” yelled Wilson, who was next in line.

Today, this all sounds terrible. But you have to remember that at home we were accustomed to a smart smack over the ear.

We were used to it. In a strange sort of way, we were proud to have such a fearsome figure as our headmaster.

If the whackings were a bit of a challenge, then his tongue lashings were far worse. They could raise bigger blisters than his cane.

When four of us were summoned before him for — I think — suspected smoking, he observed in friendly tones that we were all A-stream boys.

Then, with the smile that told you a howitzer was on its way, he added: ‘As our intellectual aristocracy, you will know that the cream is not the only thing which rises to the top.’

He paused. ‘So does the scum.’

However, boys have a natural gift for wickedness that is hard to contain. Somehow, for all the constraints, now and again we contrived to break loose.

Whenever we saw a weakness, we struck.

Our new music teacher, Mr Stack, had shown signs that he wanted to be liked. He might as well have given us a loaded gun.

When he next tried to test our voices, as he sat at the piano, one by one we sang in silly voices. Too high, too low, guttural grunts, trilling sopranos. We thought it was wonderful.

Poor old Stack cracked. He began hurling copies of Hymns Ancient And Modern at us, shouting: ‘You rotten little b******s, I hate you all!’ It was marvellous.

We never saw him again. Triumphantly, we waited for his replacement, hand-picked by the headmaster. Mr Sievewright tried to test our voices. We made silly noises.

‘He took grubby lads and turned them into men’

Quietly he stood up and began handing out sheets of graph paper, lightly marked with hundreds of tiny squares.

‘What do we do with these, sir?’


‘Cut them into squares, and don’t cross any of the lines.’

‘But … that will take hours, sir?’

‘I should imagine it will. Now, let’s hear the altos …’

We knew when we were beaten. He was there for years.

So why would I want to thank Bru?

Because he was an outstanding teacher and a brilliant headmaster. He presented us with a controlled and orderly environment in which the expectation was that we would work, learn and thrive.

We did just that. What’s more, we learned to enjoy it.

Even the whackings were unimportant. The pain faded after a couple of hours: the message — ‘behave yourself’ — lasted a lifetime.

By then we understood that Forster employed his cane and his somewhat savage tongue simply to control 360 boys permanently on the brink of mutiny. In the end, we found ourselves boasting about his severity.

With boys regularly treading the path to Oxford and Cambridge, with exam results that put the school around the top of all the league tables, after 20 years of Bru, Ermysted’s was one of the very best.

By the time I left I realised that we had experienced a golden time. We all did. We were lucky to have caught the prime of M.L. Forster.

But whenever we met in later years, it was never his remarkable achievements we talked about — it was always the whistling bamboo.

The difference between the Fifties and today was that then the grown-ups were in charge of growing up.

There were other differences. When I was a teenager, I didn’t know — had never heard of — anyone who had been robbed, burgled, raped or mugged.

The local paper, the Craven Herald, featured no photographs of battered pensioners, eyes blackened and faces swollen, who’d been beaten up by youngsters in search of fun.

Nor were there any stories of youngsters wrecking parents’ houses with Facebook parties, or girls lying in Majorcan gutters with their skirts over their heads.

Whether there was any connection between Bru’s bamboo cane and young people’s respectful behavior, I wouldn’t know.

Ironically, it was a matter of personal rather than professional failure which brought his downfall. What we didn’t know was that Bru’s passions were not restricted to education. Passion also played a part in his private life.

In 1957, Skipton, the sort of small town where a missing cat registered as a major news story, was seized by an unbelievable scandal.

Forster had resigned. Incredibly, he had impregnated a Dutch maid who worked at the school. He was 51. The young woman was 26 years his junior.

He left his wife and their three grown-up children. He married a Dutch girl.

With this dark shadow over him — in the Fifties, it was only one step short of murder — he took a job that was a major demotion as head of Cagthorpe Secondary Modern School in Horncastle in Lincolnshire.

Cagthorpe: it wasn’t a name to suggest the quiet cloisters of learning.

At the Cagthorpe morning assembly, something of a rag-tag shambles after Ermysted’s proud blazers, a huge figure in a black gown arose to address them.

‘Gentlemen, I understand this school has been run as something of a holiday camp. I am here to tell you that your holiday is over.’

Bru had arrived. And incredibly he did it all again.

First, the discipline. Surnames for staff and pupils: Sir for the head. A house system, head boy and head girl, prefects, a strict uniform policy, students streamed for ability.

From a standing start, Bru created a sort of junior grammar school. It was such a resounding success that it was probably the only town in Britain where parents were delighted when their children failed the 11-plus, so they could get into Cagthorpe instead.

This time, it was a slightly more mellow Bru. He no longer caned entire forms, although the whistling bamboo was always available if required.

One of the A-stream pupils, Robert Blackburn, who was caned for fighting, says now his education under Forster stood him in good stead throughout his life: ‘That old school discipline taught us there are consequences for our actions.’

In the end, Bru got Parkinson’s disease and finished off his days in a home. He died in 1988.

Ask any of his pupils what they think of him now and they all find the same words. Respected. Admired. And just a little feared.

Feared. Bru would have liked that.

On my last report before my final exams, Bru wrote: ‘Dunne has, as usual, missed the bus.’

It was the ‘as usual’ that did it. I was scared. I got those damned books out and slogged away at them. I passed all my exams. For once I had caught the bus.

Bru made me catch it, just as he did all those other boys. If Jonny Mitchell in the TV series continues to do half as well, he should be very proud.