The first day at school is a daunting experience: so many different lessons, different teachers, and lots of corridors and the fear of having one’s head down the loo! (The last worry, although as far as I can remember, was always one spread around, I don’t remember anyone having that done to them.) In some of the venerable school’s of the country, there appears to be a formalised ritual of initiation associated with the first weeks of September. One such school was Stamford, Lincolnshire, were there was a tradition called ‘Kissing the Old Man’. The Old Man was a medieval carved head which formed the keystone of the door into the old school which was formerly St. Paul’s Church. There appears to be some confusion concerning the age of the custom. On the Reminiscences page of the school’s website it suggests that the custom begun in 1929, the author claiming to be the first one on the 17th October unknown origins but was well established by Victorian times. The reason for this confusion, maybe due to the fact that in 1929 this worn head was reset into the west door of the chapel extension and he may have been the first to re-kiss it. Indeed, it appears to have been going through decline then as Arthur Browning, reports that in 1870, the initiation was ‘seldom practiced’ and J. H. Boam states that the custom was only done if a pupil had done anything to dishonour the school, which appear contrary to other reports. Certainly it was traditional to pinch and annoy the kisser as Deed in a History of Stamford School notes that they would often suffer the indignity of having a compass stuck in their backside. This is emphasised again by Micheal Walsh in Brothers in War who records:
“New boys at Stamford had to face one of those familiar, character building initiation rituals beloved of the public school system. ‘Kissing the Old Man’ required the victim to be hoisted up by two prefects to kiss a stone head over a doorway while being barracked, pinched and buffeted by the rest of the assembled school.”
Similarly, an anonymous rhyme in The Stamfordian in the Lent term edition of 1887 goes:
“It is my intent, And on it I’m bent, In our spacious hall, The School Roll to Call, Of those who have felt, From foot to the belt, The most cruelly pinched, And woefully lynched, While kissing the face, With horrid grimace, And very poor grace, Of the School Old Man.”
The custom was undertaken on Saturday break, and some old boys appear to have a more rose-tinted view. In Sutton’s Lincolnshire Calendar an old boy recorded:
“The Old Man is still there, even though nobody kisses him any more..there was nothing cruel or painful in the process when I was subjected to it in 1960. It was probably banned because it was too much of a distraction from work.”
The head is still there and I imagine a head saw it as a form of bullying and in the more enlightened time penalised those doing it and the custom disappeared.
image Stamford school text copyright Pixyledpublications