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News > OP updates > Lifting the lid - a wry look at PGS desks

Lifting the lid - a wry look at PGS desks

27 Apr 2022
Written by John Sadden
OP updates
A classroom at PGS in the 1970s
A classroom at PGS in the 1970s

“The desks at this School are not of a nice sort.”

This was the considered verdict of an anonymous PGS pupil in 1898 in an essay, written in the Detention Room, thought to have been set as a punishment for banging his desk lid. Perhaps in the same way that a bad workman reputedly blames his tools, the miffed schoolboy attributes his unfair treatment firmly to his wooden desk. It was, after all, the desk that made the offending noise.

In the half-an-hour that was stolen from his life, spent in shameful, unnatural silence in that Detention Room, the boy controls his despair at being so ill-treated, draws deeply on that can-do PGS spirit, and proceeds to list his ideas for improving school desk design. Nobly and selflessly he seeks practical ways to prevent others suffering his own cruel fate. He concludes that a simple desk catch would have prevented the lid falling down, breaking the sacred silence of the classroom and upsetting the Master. His brilliant idea would also save future schoolboys from the suffering caused by heavy wooden lids slamming on vulnerable fingers and knuckles.

The anonymous boy is on a roll. He recommends a unique lock for each desk: “The object of having locks is to keep your books, pens, pencils and other necessities from being ‘gone’”. Desks, he argues, should be individual, not shared, bench-style. Seats should be padded and have a shaped back for comfort. In that half an hour, the boy has anticipated the ergonomically designed desks and individual lockers taken for granted today.

Half a century later, in a piece of post-war creative writing of the type beloved of a new breed of English teacher, an eight year old Lower School pupil imagines himself as a desk.  But while the detained Victorian schoolboy had ideas to improve his desk, in this 1946 account, the desk has ideas to improve the schoolboy:

"I am a single-seater desk placed in the back of the class, near the window. The first thing I remember was that a horrid boy woke me up in the morning by banging my lid up and down to make a noise. He nearly cracked my head, and to increase my discomfort he stuck some nasty chewing gum on me. I finally got some peace when the teacher came in. But even he spoilt it by making a boy stand on my seat! In the dinner-hour the little brute took out a penknife and started to carve his name upon me. Happily a Prefect caught him before any real damage was done. I hope he was caned!"

The physical abuse suffered by the average desk from chewing gum and penknives was, one imagines, an occupational hazard, and the carving of one's name an expression of the natural territorial instinct of the schoolboy. In those innocent days, knives were carried as routinely as mobile phones today, before whittling was replaced by text-messaging, twittering and tik-tokking.

Ten years later, Peter Barnes (OP 1954-64) and his contemporaries added their own ingenious brand of psychological abuse:  

“There was a craze for creating marble runs inside the desk by arranging books, wooden pencil cases, geometry set boxes, rulers inside the desk so as to create an inclined zig-zag route from the top right hand corner where the hole for the inkwell was down towards the edge closest to the seat. The trick was to catch the marble as it emerged (from a hole at the front, possibly bored by a compass point or a penknife) but sometimes it would drop on to the floor and then there could be trouble.

Today, such inventiveness would be celebrated for its promotion of problem solving, touching on several areas of the curriculum, as well as the development of motor skills in catching that marble.

Another innovative use of the desk was as a place for pin-ups utilising the underside of the lid, so that every opening provided the ranks of pupils behind with a welcome distraction from academic matters. Indeed, the role of the desk in education, in its broadest sense, may appear to have been neglected, but thanks to the memories of OPs and occasional accounts in The Portmuthian, we are able to take a peep under the lid. 

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