II. Ronald Searle & the St Trinian's Cartoons


Ronald Searle, creator of St Trinian's, was born in Cambridge in 1920. After leaving school at the age of fourteen, he took night classes at the Cambridge School of Art (which overlooked his sister Olive's school playground, a possible source of inspiration). In order to pay for his tuition, he worked first as a solicitor's clerk and then, after a period of unemployment, as a parcel-packer and later as a clerk at the Co-op. At the age of fifteen, when he started working for the Co-op, he became the resident cartoonist on the Cambridge Daily News, and at sixteen he also began contributing to the student magazine, The Granta. In September 1938, at the age of eighteen, he was granted a year's scholarship by the local Education Committee which allowed him to study full-time at the School of Art, although he continued to work for the CDN, as it was known locally. Then, in April 1939, at the age of nineteen, Searle joined the Territorial Army as an Architectural Draughtsman in the Royal Engineers with the rank of Sapper, and left the School of Art in the summer after scraping through the Ministry of Education's Drawing Diploma's examination with 42% (the pass mark being 40%).
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Searle was soon called up into the regular army - on 1 September 1939 - and after a few week's training was stationed in Norfolk. That month, November, he saw his first drawing published in a national paper: an illustration for a short story in the Daily Express. In January 1941 his work was included in an exhibition of wartime artwork by members of H.M. Forces stationed in East Anglia at Norwich Castle, but by then Searle had left for the village of Kirkcudbright in Scotland, which happened to be an artist's community. This posting was to affect the rest of his career.

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Lilliput accepted the cartoon, and it was published in October 1941. It shows a group of schoolgirls gazing bemusedly at an official noticeboard, bare flesh showing between the tops of their stockings and their gym slips. The cartoon's caption, slightly reworded by Webb, reads: "Owing to the international situation, the match with St Trinian's has been postponed." (In fact, of course, the girls must have belonged to another school, but the drawing is always known as the first St Trinian's cartoon.) Searle, however, had been posted abroad before publication, arriving in Singapore in January 1942. By the end of the month the British forces had withdrawn from Malaya to the island, but this was not enough to stop the Japanese from invading, which they did on 9 February 1942. On 13 February, under enemy fire, Searle found a copy of the October issue of Lilliput amongst debris in a Singapore street, and saw his cartoon in print for the first time. Two days later the British forces surrendered, and Searle was listed as "missing", his career also postponed "owing to the international situation". No more was heard of him for almost two years, until the Red Cross finally informed his family that he was alive on 29 December 1943.
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Searle, though, continued cartooning and drawing secretly during his time as a prisoner of war, recording many of the events which took place. After a time in Changi prison camp, he eventually he fell foul of the British authorities with his contributions to The Survivor, a radical magazine circulated secretly and banned by the British on his 23rd birthday, 3 March 1943. As a consequence, Searle was sent to work as a labourer on the Siam-Burma railway, where he suffered continual bouts of malaria. He finally entered the camp hospital after an attack by the guards on one of his hands, by which time he was also suffering from beri-beri, ulcers and skin disease. In September 1943, he was paralysed by a blow from a guard's pick-axe which penetrated his back as far as the spine, and was taken to the sick lines weighing around seven stone.
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The railway was completed on 25 October 1943, but Searle was too ill to be moved to Singapore. He was eventually transported to the Sime Road camp near Singapore race course in December 1943, when his malaria immediately recurred. However, he recovered enough to design and perform in the prisoners' shows, and on 4 May 1944 was transferred to Changi Gaol, a modern prison built by the British eight years beforehand. Originally intended for eight hundred prisoners, ten thousand men were now incarcerated there, with Searle living in a cell which contained two hundred men. Despite the hardships, though, Searle continued to draw, contributing to a new magazine, The Exile, as well as designing shows and recording camp activities. The Japanese were aware of his activities, and in 1945 he spent three months drawing murals at a beach villa and officers' club before the prison administrator, an artist who admired Searle, was abruptly transferred. By 10 August 1945 Searle's health had became so poor that he had to have an ulcer on his leg surgically excavated, but on 15 August 1945 the ceasefire was declared, and on 27 September he began the journey home, arriving in Liverpool on 24 October 1945.
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Searle lost no time in picking up his career where it had left off. In November 1945, as Kaye Webb describes, Searle:

Over the five years which separated the first and second St Trinian's cartoons, the content had undergone a fundamental change. If this had not been so, it is doubtful whether Searle would have continued drawing them at all, since there was no real hint in the first cartoon of what was to become the joke underlying the rest. In contrast to the first cartoon, the second to be published (it was the third to be drawn, in Changi Gaol) shows a classroom full of grinning schoolgirls, all with their hands at their sides, being addressed by a Victorian-looking schoolmistress: "Hand up the girl who burnt down the East wing last night." Another cartoon which was first published in 1946 shows three schoolgirls, hockey sticks in hands, gathered around a tree from which a schoolmistress - also Victorian in appearance and still holding a cane - is hanging: "Well that's O.K. - now for old 'Stinks'."
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The joke was that, contrary to the popular image of the quiet, well-behaved, "honourable" British boarding-school girl which had dominated from the beginning of the century until the Second World War, the girls were in fact violent, even demonic, gin-swigging, cigar-smoking and out of control. Rather than being "innocent" and worthy of respect - the pre-war ideal - the girls were worldly wise and to be feared. The fear of girls' schools and school stories as promoting women's independence and lesbianism had, of course, been the motivating factor for attacks on the genre from as early as 1915. While the post-war critics became more overt in their attempts to repress the genre, the post-war parodists became more overt in revealing the reasons for these fears. That these fears were widespread can be seen in the fact that St Trinian's quickly became "a new National joke"; "a term of national reference, so that but to say 'St Trinian's' was to conjure up a whole world"; "The Times has referred more than once to 'Trinianism' confident that this will be immediately comprehensible to its readers".
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Webb, with whom Searle began an affair in 1946, has pointed out that:

It is probable, too, that the public's experience and/or awareness of wartime cruelties and horrors is another reason why the cartoons were so well-received.
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The following year, 1947, when Webb gave birth to a twin son and daughter (the couple later married, in 1948), the gin-swigging, cigar-smoking aspect of the girls emerged. For example, one cartoon shows a group of four girls, two with hockey sticks and all wearing their boater hats, sitting on their dormitory beds having a drink: "My God - she's put water with it again!" Another features a lone schoolgirl, also complete with hat, sitting in a classroom writing the "lines": "I must not smoke cigars during prayers. I must not smoke cigars during prayers . . . " (This was later reproduced with the word "pot" replacing "cigars"; many of the captions were subsequently changed or updated.)
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However, violence continued to dominate the cartoons. For example, one cartoon shows disconsolate girls being frisked as they enter the school doors, with a growing pile of weapons on an incongruously elegant and spindly table besides the (continuingly Victorian-looking) mistresses: "Bang goes another pair of knuckledusters." Another, untitled, shows the victorious hockey players raising their sticks in triumph over the bodies of their opponents. The mistresses are shown to be unbothered by all this, on one occasion commenting simply "Cleaners getting slack, Horsefall" as they step over the bodies littering the school corridor.
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Later the girls became actually demonic, with one cartoon showing a girl writing the lines "I must be gooder" with her devil's pointed tail doubling as a pen. This also extends to the mistresses, with the girls lined up under the banner "Welcome to our new Science mistress" as a witch flies in over the gates. (Single women have often been accused of witchcraft.) However, girls continue to commit arson and to drink: one cartoon shows a girl lifting a broken bottle from her case with the caption "Hell! My best Scotch"; and another, uncaptioned, shows simply a pair of legs emerging from a dustbin surrounded by empty bottles, the inevitable boater resting on its lid. As time progressed, though, these themes were tempered with others, slightly more gentle, such as the parent being shown round the school's snooker room: " . . . of course indoor games are an extra"; and the schoolgirl being comforted at the midnight feast: "Honestly, darling, you don't look a day over nine".
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From the beginning, the cartoons received widespread public acclaim, as Webb has described.

Unsuprisingly, the cartoons soon appeared in book form, with the publication of Hurrah for St Trinian's! in 1947. Searle's biographer Russell Davies has noted that this:

It is important to note here that Searle may have been pleasing the British public, and, presumably, the children's book critics, but he was not, as Marshall had been, happy to regard it as a key part of his life's work. Hurrah for St Trinian's! was, however, followed by The Female Approach (1949), which sold 16,000 copies; Back to the Slaughterhouse (1951), of which the first print run of 20,000 copies sold out in six weeks; Souls in Torment (1953); The Female Approach (New York, 1954); and Merry England etc (1956). Other cartoons were included along with St Trinian's, but the books were marketed on - and presumably sold because of - the St Trinian's content.
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Hurrah for St Trinian's! was introduced by D.B. Wyndham Lewis, who became "the girls' official chronicler" when a writer was needed to accompany Searle's cartoons. He later published a full-length novel with Searle, The Terror of St Trinian's (1952), writing as Timothy Shy (45,000 copies of this were printed in the month of publication), and also wrote the St Trinian's Soccer Song:

The reference to "Island Blood" makes it clear that the girls are British girls. It suggests that the qualities which "Island Blood" engenders in men become ridiculous in girls, who do not as adults progress to the battle field. The fact that the girls play soccer rather than hockey also suggests that their behaviour is unfeminine.
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Wyndham Lewis was soon joined by Arthur Marshall, previously the best-known parodist of girls' school stories in the country. In "Look out King Wenceslas!", published in Lilliput in 1949, Marshall imitates the head of the school, "Madge", writing to Maud, an old college friend, about the past term. When compared with Alastair Sim's performance as Millicent/Amelia Fritton in the film comedies which followed later, it is clear that Marshall's characterisation was influential in shaping both the character of the headmistress in the films and the actor's subsequent performance of it.

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Other writers also seized on the opportunity to bring St Trinian's to life: Robert Graves wrote a "School Hymn for St Trinian's"; James Laver wrote The Fourth Form at St Trinian's; C. Day Lewis wrote "A Short Dirge for St Trinian's (following the school's demise); and Michael Flanders and Donald Swann wrote the song "Surly girls", first performed in Penny Plain at the St Martin's Theatre, London in 1951.
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Siriol Hugh-Jones suggests that the reasons for the cartoons' appeal are as follows:

(Of course Marshall had discovered a related joke earlier in the decade and must have influenced Searle to some extent.) Hugh-Jones believed that the cartoons appealed to men because:

This is a very astute analysis, and Hugh-Jones' reasons why women and girls enjoyed the cartoons are equally convincing, showing that there are a number of different ways to read the cartoons, and this is probably the main reason for their huge success.

Meanwhile girls enjoyed the cartoons because:

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In later life, Searle himself wrote of the characters that:

It is interesting to note here that Searle draws attention to the fact that the staff may appear to be "old-fashioned", but that this conceals "lesbianism". This reflects the cultural fears about women teachers and their influences which had been the primary reason for the suppression of the genre of girls' school stories. Searle continues of the girls that:

It is interesting to note that, by Searle's description, it would be very difficult to identify a "St Trinian's girl". A woman might appear to be well-spoken, even well-mannered, polite, sardonic, witty, very amusing and good company, but in fact she could be sadistic, cunning, dissolute, crooked, sordid, lacking morals of any sort and capable of any excess. She might appear to be "straight and fearless", but in fact she could not be trusted. This played heavily on cultural fears about women, particularly the beliefs that women were incapable of being "honourable".
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"Endearing" or not, though, the cartoons were a victim of their own success. By 1952 Searle decided that his life had been dominated by them for too long and stopped drawing them, killing the girls off in an atomic explosion the following year in Souls in Torment (published by his own company, Perpetua Books). An additional reason for Searle's action may have been a growing public concern about his cartoons' influence on the young, fuelled by the tendency for the media to produce stories such as "St Trinian's Girls Burned Their School" and to blame Searle for the results. To accompany the school's demise, C. Day Lewis wrote that:

And so it was to be. St Trinian's fame had long since spread abroad, appearing in Tribune, Art News and France Dimanche, and the girls had become unstoppable. Despite his intentions, Searle's cartoons remained in print into the 1990s.
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Next: 8: III. The St Trinian's Film Comedies
Return to: 8. The Parodies of Girls' School Stories Index
Return to: Virtual Worlds of Girls Index

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