England: Unwilling to School in the 1950s, A Secondary Modern

I was born in 1945. My early childhood came in the years of austerity following the World War II. American returned to a booming economy, here in England it was rather bleak. We even had rationing for several years after the war.

My Family

Schooling for a lad in the North of England and, the son of a mineworker, usually meant the State Junior School. It was a happy enough time, but, towards my final year I was confronted with the prospect of sitting my 11+ examinations. I didn't really understand it at the time, but my dad saw academic success as the way out of the mines and was determined that I would succeed. This will lead as I shall explain to my having to wear short trousers. I had a brother who attended the Grammar. He was a few years older and short trousers were not such an issue. I also had a number of Uncles and Aunts. One Aunt and Uncle happened to co-own a small private prep school.


Shoes were another contentious issue. I had to wear black lace up shoes with the brand name "StartRite." Still available today,I think, but now a little more fashion conscious in there styles. In my day, as mother would say "good sensible shoes" When shopping I would always eye something more fashionable, but always ended up with good old "StartRite" Today I have very healthy feet, so Mam was right after all!!

I never wore sandals. Neither can I remember any of my school pals wearing them. Considered then as being a bit "girlie" or at least only for little boys. (Still do!)

Figure 1.--Myself with pony Jackie. Note my grey windcheater jacket. A favorite of mine, waterproof and with zipped pockets. A popular garment of this era, and they were popular with other boys as well. Also of note my turned wellington boots, which I mentioned in one of my messages.

The 11--plus

The 1950s was an era of rapidly changing fashion. Also, many of the local young men opting for a rebellious outfit commonly known as "Teddy Boy". Schoolboys however, especially the younger ones, still wore the traditional outfit which included short trousers and long stockings. I found this outfit extremely juvenile and disliked it intensely--even in primary school. So following much cajoling and pleading, I was allowed long trousers at around 10 years of age. A concession, I think my father thought, that I would become mature enough to study hard for my 11-plus exams. If that was the case it, then it was unsuccessful and, a year later I failed to pass for Grammar School.

M-Form and the Other Forms

Following the initial disappointment, I still enjoyed the long summer holiday that came between Junior School and my entry into the Senior Secondary Modern School, to which I would now be allocated. It came as some conciliation that not a single pupil in my junior class had passed either, so I was going to continue my education with familiar companions. A letter from the school, a week or so before start of term, delighted my parents. It appeared that I had narrowly failed for Grammar School and I was being allocated to a new "M-Form", until I was told the uniform requirements--which followed those of the grammar school where we took some of our classes. I was soon to find out what that meant--short pants.

My New Uniform

I remember going to the store with mam to buy my new school uniform. Not perhaps not as vividly as my final visit. Both occasions were miserable for me at the time, the last, because I really thought I might get some long trousers, the second because I was being put back into short pants after thinking I had outgrown them.

My Secondary Modern

My first day at senior school is imprinted, indelibly, on my memory, but for all the wrong reasons. All because of what was considered suitable clothing for young boys. Walking to school on my first day, I was certain everyone was looking at me, especially my bare knees. In truth, I now realise that most people had better things to do than observe a small boy on his way to school, but if they did, my former school pals did not. They had heard the news about M-Form uniform and now awaited my arrival with great expectation. The first few days were embarrassing. Things sort of settled down after that. I and my M-form mates didn't like our uniform one little bit. I must confess, I think I had been a rather arrogant boy, ever willing to put the underdog down. So now I was going to find out just how that felt.

Knee Socks

As far as I remember most of my stockings were plain grey with turn over tops. I think I had some with a pattern trim, as opposed to school colours. The Grammar did have uniform stockings, but we were not required to wear them, only short trousers. No I don't think school made a fuss about stockings, but I did. I disliked stocking round my ankles and perpetually kept pulling them up. But I know of one boy, in my form, who did the opposite. He often wore grey ankle stockings, even for school, and when in long stockings rolled them down. This lad, was also one of the later boys to come out of short trousers and certainly wore them for a little while after me. I've got to admit, of all of us, this guy seemed to look good in short trousers. (Perhaps our compatriots at the Grammar had a stricter regime, as I cannot remember seeing them with stockings down their legs.)

My Short Pants

My school shorts were until my last pair grey flannel. Terrelyn was becoming popular in the late 1950s and my last pair was Terrelyn worsted which I must admit, held a smart crease, as much as I disliked that last pair of shorts. I also wore khaki shorts during the summer, which for some reason I would roll up.


No, I certainly did not have to wear a cap as a senior, but in earlier years my brother did. Caught outside without it was a punishable offence. However, in my early years at Junior School I certainly wore a cap, not as uniform, but just as a general item of boys clothing. I never seemed to mind wearing a cap, again possibly, because it was very much the accepted thing. A wool, often home knitted, balaclava was still often see, but I regarded these a bit like I was to regard shorts later.


I find it difficult to remember what other boys said about me wearing shorts. I found it such a humiliating experience that I think the 'situation' took precedence over what was actually being said. I can tell you though that it was irritating, especially when the younger boys would start in on us. But then again I have to admit that I said things myself once I was safely in long trousers.

The Grammar School

My Scecondary Modern was fairly close to the Grammar and my form went to their premises for some science lessons and French, I suppose, because their facilities were better than the Modern school. Although we shared some aspects of school with Grammar boys we rarely socialised, but nor can I remember any particular animosity between us.

My Friends

I certainly never discussed my shorts problem with other boys. I think, in an attempt to lessen the embarrassment, I often tried to give the impression I did not mind wearing them. Even, that they were 'softies' wearing longs. Once back in short trousers my friendships changed. I tended to keep company with guys like myself. At school I was friendly with Kenneth and at home I remained friends with the one guy from the junior school who went to Grammar, so he to was subject to the shorts regime. Probably my best friend was indeed Graham. I did have days out with Graham and his parents (very posh) and we had social gathering at his home (also posh) for which we both dressed up in best clothes. Graham, as you will note below, remained in shorts well after me, but I knew he was embarrassed about this and I don't think I ever made any comments to him. You will recall however, I did join in the teasing of Ken, when he was a lonely shorts wearer, but that was at school and probably, I just wanted to be one of the guys; what a gutless wonder…I think I deserved a bloody nose I got after a fight when a boy named Stephen who was teasing me!!!

Longs at Last

I never quite got used to this situation, remaining thus dressed until I turned 15. By that time I was a fairly big lad, who look very incongruous, even, with my similar dressed class mates. It was with great relief, at 15, to at long last get my desired long trousers. For some strange reason I do not recall getting my first school shorts, but I do vividly remember my first long pants suit.


Only one boy in our form, Kenneth, remaining in shorts after the must-anticipatefd demarcation of reaching his 15th birthday. He was to remain conspicuosly bare kneed almost until the end of his schooling at 16. So despite ourselves having suffered the taunts of others, he became the but of our mocking. I felt sorry for Kenneth, but then again like the other boys I joined in o n the teasing.

Graham and His Private School

Another friend of mine didn't go to my school. He went to a private school. They wore quite a formal uniform. It was a bright red blazer and cap, of course worn with a red blazer. Of course with short trousers. He really stood out in a crowd. Like me, he disliked his uniform. While I rarely discussed the uniform with my school mates. Graham and I did discuss the subject.

Our Boyhood Thoughts

Amongst my companions, our early school uniform was universally unpopular and, I am unable to recollect a single boy who wanted to go around in this fashion. Being so disliked, it is still incomprehensible to me, why our parents and teachers thought it such a good idea to compel us to wear such juvenile apparel. Perhaps, it was just that, a means of reminding us of our station in life. Whatever the reasons, the memory of shorts and there ac companying embarrassment remained vivid. So much so, that well into adult life I was very reluctant to appear in public, bare legged, either in adult summer, or sports shorts. Shakespeare had it just right in my case, "the schoolboy, unwilling to school."

Again memory fails me a little. I think this was the era, when boys thought of as 'small boys' wore short trousers and adults and older boys wore longs. In shorts you were a very juvenile figure. Because it was also an era of changing fashion I certainly encounted boys younger than me that were allowed longs. You may remember, I myself had worn longs back in Junior School, only reverting to shorts because of a school regulation. Not too difficult then to appreciate being confronted by boys a fair bit younger than you, but wearing more adult dress. I can recall situations of being confronted with smaller, younger boys (I was fairly tall for my age, which only made matters worse)who delighted in drawing attention to your bare knees etc.I think they only had to look down at my legs to make my face go red. It made them feel more grown up I suppose.


I hated PE and games and avoided them when ever possible at school. As an adult, I became an almost fanatical sportsman, my main sport being cycle racing. Nowadays I am the senior coach for my region. Sad now that I missed out on sports at school.


I never joined cubs or scouts, mainly because of the uniforms..more short trousers! I don't think joining scouts was a question of money. If I had wished to join I am sure my parents, although not wealthy, would have made every effort to support me. In those days it was the Boy Scouts and the uniform consisted of shorts, which I would have had to continuing wearing even after going into long trousers for school (i.e. 15 +). I was so pleased to get out of shorts there was no way I would join an organisation which stipulated them.

Interesting though, none of my mates as far as I can remember were cubs or scouts either. I think that the Scout movement was to a lar ge part a middle class movement and participation by working class families was more limited. This question about why working class boys did not join scouts puzzles me. I don't really know. I lived a working class community and cannot even recall a local scout troop. However, because of my close association with the Grammar, I certainly knew boys from middle class homes, but again I don't think they were in scouts. If we can conclude that it was a middle class organisation, then I do not think that is the case today. I have friends today with children who went to cubs and scouts and indeed, they themselves are active as leaders, but would consider themselves working class. It also has to be said though that class is not so divisive these days


For church etc. probably a short trousers suit. But I certainly had 'Sunday Best' clothes and, because I wore shorts at school I had to stay in them for best. I think the logic was to keep me in clothes, with which, I was familiar and supposed to get used to. If I had not entered into this particular grade at school I am sure I would have been allowed to remain in long trousers. It was a general concept that boys were in short trousers until considered old enough, by their parents, for long trousers. No boy promoted to longs would then willingly wear shorts, considering himself too 'grown up.' It was certainly a very unwelcome aspect of senior school when I had to revert back to "children's" clothing. I was, as they put it "still in short trousers."

In my day Sunday School was only about one hour in duration and took the form of a junior church service. The central part was forming into age groups with our "Sunday School Teacher" who taught us, or read to us, Bible stories etc. I always had to go (Mam's idea) and always had to wear Sunday best. Yes, you guessed it; I hated Sunday School. It was boring and I could have thought of a lot more interesting things to do. I cannot recall many other boys my age. They seemed to be mostly girls, or smaller boys, with only one or two older boys in long trousers. It was a Methodist Church and probably a very small Sunday School.

With hind sight I think my parents were right as I would have found it very difficult to be dressed one day as an adult, the next as a child. There was also the element of new clothes bought for best; then if suitable worn for school and, finally old play clothes. You certainly got value for your money in those days. Other boys, as far as I can remember, followed the same code, you either wore shorts or longs and very rarely, both. Unless at a school like mine it was your parents decision when this promotion took place. As, I think I pointed out previously, this could cause extreme embarrassment when younger and smaller boys were allowed longs before you.

My First Girl Friend

Even though I was only about 11 I was friendly with a girl I met at the church Sunday School. My first girl friend! But, we first met with me in longs. Back into shorts, I can remember going to Sunday School and avoiding her like the plague, I was so embarrassed. End of a beautiful friendship. Short trousers have a lot to answer for with my generation.

Yes she did eventually see me. I could not hide my bare knees forever! When she did I think I tried to pretend she was not there, and Anne, as a true lady of any age, never once, that I recall, drew attention to my predicament. As young adults we did speak together but this was an issue never discussed. I guess she knew all along that it was an embarrassment for me.Is it not rather sweet I can remember her name after all these years, not having seen her for many years.

My young friend Anne went to Grammar. After our brief childhood friendship, I can only recount two events involving her in adult life. She was having trouble passing her driving test, two or three failures to her credit and somehow I ended up taking her out for driving practice. I can remember feeling a little awkward renewing a childhood relationship, but she passed the driving test at her next attempt. My other memory is that she became a local Librarian. I don't know if she ever married or what became of her.

Play Clothes

I also wore short pants for play. Again, short trousers, probably old school ones.There was no such thing as jeans that I can remember so basically you just wore your older clothes for playing in.


Although I disliked wearing short trousers as a senior boy, looking back, I always seemed to want to be grown up too quickly, missing out on many childhood pleasures. When I was about fourteen, perhaps just into longs, I also started smoking cigarettes, secretly of course, just to prove how big a man I was. It caused me considerable pain then, in the form of punishment and, considerable anguish later in life when I knew I had to stop the filthy habit. Perhaps if my parents, like Ken and Graham's, had kept me in short pants longer the urge to appear grown up might not have been so strong; neither of them ever smoked.

Christopher Wagner


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Created: March 17, 1999
Last updated: March 20, 1999