Published: Tammy 23 October 1971 to 8 January 1972
Artist: Unknown artist – Merry
Writer: Terence Magee
Translations/reprints: None known
Special thanks to Robert Gairey for scans
Judy Jenkins is a bit uncontrollable at school and likes to play pranks to liven things up and relieve the boredom of school. She isn’t a bad kid; it’s just that her home life is neglectful and unguided what with Mum being dead, Dad being away on business so much, and a housekeeper who looks like she’s pretty much in loco parentis. When Dad gets the latest note from school, he decides that what Judy needs is discipline (not a parent who gives her proper time and attention, saying he can’t do that because of his work). So he sends her to “Spartan School”, a Swiss school that is very strong on discipline, and says it’ll do Judy “a power of good”.
We aren’t so sure about that when Judy and three other new girls (Amanda Rogers, Liz Orton and Sarah Williams) meet school prefect Siddons. Siddons is a cold fish who treats them with such severity she would make a heckling army sergeant look lovable. She says that they are all to take orders from her, and her sharp tongue is nothing compared to what awaits them at Spartan School, which will be “much worse things”. Amanda, who is a weaker character physically and emotionally, is quickly subdued by Siddons’ conduct. But Judy stands up to Siddons and says she won’t be downtrodden by such bullying, and neither Siddons nor the school will frighten her. The foreshadowing of how things are going to go in this story, obviously.
When they arrive at the school, Judy sees some pupils who have just finished their term and are going home. Although they do look disciplined, Judy is disturbed at how frightened and lifeless they are. Siddons tells the new arrivals that they will be just the same by the time Spartan School has finished with them.
Next, Judy meets headmistress Miss Bramble, who has been warned by Siddons that Judy will be troublesome. Miss Bramble tells Judy that she is a disciplinarian who doesn’t hold with “modern soft teaching methods”. She goes on to say rebels do not last long at Spartan School, and Judy will emerge from it a very different person. Siddons has already made it clear this means Judy will emerge just like the broken girls she just saw. The story’s subsequent text boxes say Miss Bramble runs the school like one from the Victorian era, with harsh punishments. Now that has to be an understatement. As we shall see, not even Victorian schools went to the lengths that Miss Bramble does.
Siddons shows the girls their dormitory, and continuing her ruthless army-like grind to break them into the Spartan School discipline. Once alone, the new girls tell Judy disturbing rumours they have heard about Spartan School. Amanda relates a story about a friend who was sent to it. Previously a wild girl, she never laughed or smiled again once she returned from Spartan School.
And the parents? Apparently they have no idea of what the school is like (or don’t believe it). Later we learn that Miss Bramble censors all the girls’ correspondence to their parents regarding her methods. The girls are to write glowing letters saying how happy they are at the school and learning to behave better. And what happens when they go home and tell their parents? By that time, says Miss Bramble, they are completely different people: “obedient and with a respect for authority”. In other words, too frightened to tell anyone.
Judy still isn’t fazed by her first impressions of Spartan School, and neither is Liz, who starts larking around. Unfortunately she accidentally breaks a lightbulb. When Siddons returns, she assumes Judy broke it and Liz doesn’t own up. Judy realises this is because Liz is more scared of the school and Miss Bramble than she is admitting.
In punishment, Judy is forced to stand in the dinner hall with her hands on her head and get no food. The food isn’t bread and gruel as you might expect, but it is bad quality food all the same. From the way the other girls look at Judy while she undergoes this humiliation, she gets the impression that niceness and kindness are unknown qualities at the school. But Judy’s punishment doesn’t end there. When Miss Bramble enters the hall (all pupils have to stand when she does), she inflicts the icing on the cake: Judy has to share a table with Miss Bramble where she gets a meal of bread and water while Miss Bramble gets a gourmet dinner.
Afterwards, Judy says she has never been so humiliated. The other girls are angry with Liz for not owning up and being responsible for what Judy went through. Judy herself is more understanding about Liz being too frightened to own up. Liz feels so guilty about it all that she sneaks to the kitchen to smuggle some proper food to Judy. Liz is disgusted to see how Cook feeds Jason, Miss Bramble’s cat, better than she does the pupils (a plate of the best chicken). Jason’s a real tiger though, and Liz has to run the gauntlet with him in order to get the chicken.
Judy is thrilled with the food and Liz is forgiven. The girls decide to band together in a friendship for standing up against Miss Bramble and Spartan School, and not let it break them.
The first test comes immediately when Miss Bramble and Siddons arrive about the stolen cat’s supper. This time Liz does own up. The girls rally behind her, saying they are all involved, as they do not want Liz to face the punishment alone. Realising the friendship that has formed, Miss Bramble tells them that she does not allow close friendships because these are bad for discipline, and is going to turn them all against each other. To make things even worse, the whole school, teachers and all, have turned against Judy because Miss Bramble is taking her rage over Judy’s defiance out on all of them, even the teachers.
However, Judy is more concerned about Amanda, whose health and nerves aren’t strong. Amanda was sent to Spartan School because her parents thought it would toughen her up, but instead it is making her ill. But the teachers are as cruel as Miss Bramble and show her no compunction or medical attention at all.
In the courtyard, Miss Bramble’s plan to break up the friendship gets underway. She has the girls toss a heavy medicine ball, and the one to drop it will be the victim for the punishment. As the weakening Amanda is bound to be the one, Judy saves her by dropping the ball deliberately and taking the punishment herself. The punishment is putting Judy in the pillory, with the whole school throwing rotten fruit at her. They are only too happy to do so as they have turned against Judy. Siddons orders the three girls to do the same, or Judy will be put in solitary confinement. Their response is to throw the rotten fruit at Siddons. Surprisingly, this results in the whole school rioting against Siddons and the school discipline while the three friends release Judy. But when reinforcements arrive, the other girls go back to their subservient selves and put the blame on the four friends. The four friends are put in solitary confinement, which means being imprisoned in cramped, freezing, rat-infested cells. Amanda emerges even weaker but recovers after a rest, and the others are even more defiant, angry and determined to stick together. Seeing this, Miss Bramble is even more anxious to destroy the friendship because in her view it impedes discipline. This time Siddons offers to have a go at it.
Siddons takes the four friends out for a skiing lesson. There are only enough skis for three, so Judy is excluded. She is directed to go down the slope to check it is clear. She finds it is clear, but when Sarah skis down, a branch hidden on the slope causes Sarah to take a fall. She accuses accuses Judy of putting it there on purpose and turns on her. Judy soon realises Siddons is behind it, and spots the proof – a glove Siddons dropped while taking the branch from the tree – but needs to sneak out and retrieve it if she is to convince Sarah. She succeeds, although she narrowly escapes being caught by Siddons.
Siddons soon realises her trick has failed, but soon has another one brewing: tricking the other friends into distrusting Judy. She forces Amanda to clean windows, despite Amanda telling her that she cannot climb ladders on medical grounds, and her health is worsening. Amanda ends up falling off the ladder, with Judy breaking her fall. Judy covers for Amanda by cleaning the windows herself while the others take Amanda to the dormitory. But she does not realise Siddons is watching and had planned it that way all along. After Judy cleans the windows, Siddons dirties them up again so Amanda will think Judy lied to her. And when Judy sees the look on Amanda’s face when Amanda sees the dirty windows, it looks like Siddons’ trick is going to succeed!
Realising Siddons’ trick, Judy pulls a smokescreen (literally) to cover up the windows looking like they were not cleaned. This succeeds in foiling Siddons and regaining Amanda’s trust. Unfortunately this also earns Judy the punishment that “never fails” at Spartan School – the Iron Mask!
Yes, a real-life iron mask that is straight out of the Middle Ages. Judy is to be locked into this ghastly contraption for two days, with no respite whatsoever. Out of all the tortures that have been inflicted on her so far, this is the one that is the most telling on Judy’s strength. It also makes Judy a target for bullying and cruel tricks from all the other girls, who have grown as heartless and cruel as Siddons because Miss Bramble’s ‘discipline’ has destroyed all sense of humanity in them.
Later, the girls rescue a pigeon from being clubbed to death by Siddons. After they help it to recover, they use it to carry a message for help and hope the message makes its way to a school inspector.
Next day, Judy is almost collapsing under the weight of the iron mask. It makes her so faint that she breaks a flask in science class and sets poisonous fumes off. While the class evacuates, Judy makes her way into the laboratory storeroom in the hope of finding something that will help her get the mask off. She succeeds, and then throws the iron mask down the mountain so Miss Bramble can never use it again.
Terrible punishment for this is inevitable. Sadistic Siddons suggests that the girls be allowed to choose the punishment as they all think Judy set off the poisonous fumes on purpose so she could get rid of the iron mask. Of course Miss Bramble thinks it is a marvellous idea. The girls’ punishment is a hockey match where they all take turns in fouling and brutalising Judy.
But just as this punishment ends, a helicopter arrives. The carrier pigeon did get through and the helicopter has brought in a school inspector, Miss Craig. Miss Craig indeed suspects something is wrong with the school after witnessing the inhumane hockey match and sees Miss Bramble for explanations. Miss Bramble says Jenkins must have goaded them but they will all be punished, while Judy tells Miss Craig that Miss Bramble put them up to it and it’s all part of how she runs the school through terror. Miss Bramble tries to cover up with smooth talk in how her school prides in discipline that turns unruly girls around. Nonetheless, Miss Craig tells Miss Bramble that in view of the note she has received about brutal treatment at the school, she will make a thorough inspection of the school.
The four friends realise Miss Bramble will try to pull the wool over Miss Craig’s eyes – and eventually it looks like she could succeed. They are desperate to find a way to find a way to make her see the truth. They get their chance when Miss Bramble gives the school a film show of documentaries to impress Miss Craig. Judy plants a Charlie Chaplin film (gee, how did that get to Spartan School in the first place?). She shows Miss Craig how the girls are reacting to the film: not laughing or smiling at all. She tells Miss Craig the girls are too cowed and scared to laugh because that’s what Spartan School does to its girls. Miss Craig understands what Judy is driving at, and when Miss Bramble lashes out at Judy in anger, Miss Craig wises up to her at last. She tells Miss Bramble her school will be closed down by tomorrow and gets ready to take Judy away from it immediately.
Miss Bramble is not having that and orders Siddons to get the cine-camera. She then threatens to beat Judy, and Siddons films Miss Craig holding the cane after she snatches it from Miss Bramble to make it look like it was Miss Craig beating Judy. They use it to blackmail Miss Craig into dropping her threat to close down the school. Appalled at how this frame-up could destroy her career. Miss Craig leaves without a murmur. While she leaves, Miss Bramble says to her, “These girls need the treatment I give them. It’s the only thing they understand.”
Afterwards, Miss Bramble gives the four friends an ultimatum: sign a document promising they will never defy her again or face terrible punishment the following day. Naturally, Liz, Judy and Sarah refuse to sign. Unfortunately Amanda’s weak nerves have reached breaking point and she feels she doesn’t have the strength of the others in continuing to defy Miss Bramble. Next day she signs the document while the others get a hosing for refusing. Amanda regrets signing, but has been brought up to keep her word and refuses to go back on it, even if it was forced. Later, the girls notice how Amanda is becoming more and more like the browbeaten, terrified girls.
That night, Amanda runs away. She is in serious danger because a blizzard is looming, but hard-hearted Miss Bramble refuses to organise a search for her. She locks up the three girls in a shed for the night when they try to force her to do so. Later, Miss Bramble grows worried that the girls might report her for refusing to search for Amanda, and Siddons hatches a plan to deal with this.
Next morning, Siddons offers to help the girls escape, claiming that she has seen how wrong Miss Bramble is and sends them off down the mountain in the cable car. When the cable car is half way down the mountain, Siddons cuts through the cable to kill the girls. Miraculously, they survive, and soon discover what Siddons did with the cable.
They make their way to the police station to tell their story and get help for Amanda. But they soon discover that Miss Bramble and Siddons have arranged another nasty surprise for them: they told the police a concocted story about the girls having run away after stealing money, and Siddons had planted the money on them before they left. The police escort the girls to the cells, but Liz helps Sarah and Judy escape by distracting the police with a ‘fainting fit’. Sarah and Judy make a fast getaway on a sleigh and head across the country to shake off the police.
They check out a hotel in the hope the guests found Amanda on the slope. Instead, they find Amanda herself! She says she found a calf on the slopes and they helped keep each other warm in the shelter of some rocks. After the blizzard eased, a farmer found Amanda when he came looking for his calf. He brought Amanda to the hotel, where she has made a good recovery. She phoned her father about Spartan School, who in turn contacted Judy and Sarah’s parents, and Mr Rogers is on his way to collect Amanda.
Just then, the police catch up to the girls, and they have brought Liz as well. But before the police can do anything, there is a sudden alert that an avalanche is imminent and will sweep Spartan School away. They cannot warn the school because the school phone has been cut off. What’s more, another blizzard has started. The girls decide to head back to Spartan School to warn them, making their way through the blizzard.
They make it back to the school. Knowing Miss Bramble is unlikely to listen to them, they decide to sound the old fire bell instead. But Siddons has seen them return and alerts Miss Bramble. They lock the girls in the bell tower. Miss Bramble does not listen to the girls’ warnings about the avalanche. Fortunately, Siddons does.
The girls manage to break down the door by using the bell as a battering ram. The noise the bell makes while they do so rouses the school, which enables Siddons to warn them about the avalanche. The school evacuates, and on the way down the slope, they bump into the rescue party consisting of the police, Judy’s father – and Miss Craig, who found the courage to report Miss Bramble to the authorities. The schoolgirls say they don’t know where the four friends are.
Meanwhile, the four friends have found Miss Bramble knocked out and unconscious on the bell tower steps. They pull her away with a sledge and eventually meet up with the search party. While they do so, the avalanche gets underway and destroys Spartan School.
Miss Bramble regains consciousness and cannot understand how these “wicked girls” were capable of saving her life. The police tell Miss Bramble how Miss Craig has told them about her “strange ideas of discipline”. When Miss Bramble says she was certain discipline would be good for the girls, Miss Craig tells Miss Bramble that discipline is good, but her “harsh tyranny” is not. However, seeing as Spartan School is no more, Miss Craig has little doubt the authorities will take no further action in the matter (whaatt?!?). Nonetheless, Miss Craig tells Miss Bramble that her teaching days are over – “over for ever!” Meanwhile, Siddons slinks away and is not seen again.
The four friends return to England and stay together at a much better and happier school.
This was the first story Terence Magee wrote for girls’ comics. It was also the first to pair up Terence’s writing with the artwork of the unknown artist who is nicknamed “Merry”. This pairing would occur again and again, most prominently in Jinty’s “Merry at Misery House”. Other occasions included the extremely popular Sandie story, “Slave of the Trapeze”.
Girls’ comics often made comment on progressivism vs. authoritarianism in education, particularly on how evil authoritarianism could be if it was taken too far. In so doing, it was linked with the bully teacher/principal theme, which was frequently used to illustrate what not to do in the classroom (or for the creators to purge their own memories of bully teachers?). The theme of tyrannical headmistresses going to extremes with discipline and reacting against modern teaching methods was in Tammy from the first issue with “The Girls of Liberty Lodge”. Here Miss Steele runs her school with such bizarre and harsh discipline that she stages show trials for girls in the school hall in front of the whole school. However, Miss Steele’s nemesis is not a pupil but a teacher, Miss Valentine. When Miss Steele reprimands Miss Valentine for showing a pupil kindness (so kindness is not allowed at this school either) Miss Valentine responds by quitting and establishing a progressive school, Liberty Lodge, in reaction against Miss Steele. From then on, Miss Steele pulls every trick in the book to destroy Liberty Lodge.
Jinty also used the theme on occasion. In one of her holiday specials she ran “The Spoof of St. Elma’s”, where the “cold and unfeeling” Miss Reed takes great pride in making St Elma’s “the harshest and strictest school in the country” (grim teachers and appointing the hardest girls as prefects are among her methods) and has no tolerance whatsoever for modern progressive teaching methods. She vows not to retire until she can find someone who can run the same way, and eventually tries it with a computer named Miss Steele. But it all blows up in her face when the computer malfunctions. As a result, her harsh, unfeeling legacy is completely swept away and progressive, caring teaching comes in with the new headmistress.
A variant Jinty had on the theme was “Children of Edenford”. Headmistress Miss Purity Goodfellow uses drugs to turn her pupils into brainwashed paragons of virtue in the name of perfection – with the full blessing of the girls’ parents.
Jinty’s most striking, and best thought-out example of the theme was “Dracula’s Daughter”, where authoritarian Mr Graves is determined to turn free-and-easy Castlegate into an old-fashioned grammar school. He rams it down everyone’s throats, even the teachers’, saying that he’s the headmaster so everything he says goes, and the teachers are to shape up to it or ship out. Mr Graves also believes fun and play belong in the home and not the classroom, and imposes this on the school too. However, unlike Miss Bramble or Miss Reed, Mr Graves is not a cruel, unfeeling sadist who subjects pupils to mock trials or ladles over-the-top torture with a shovel in the name of discipline. He is a bigot, not sadistic or insane like the headmistresses mentioned here. Ironically, he does have a heart and he shows he can be human when he believes it is appropriate for him to do so. Moreover, Mr Graves ends up becoming less rigid in his beliefs about education and learns to respect progressive education more. Still, everyone at Castlegate is relieved when Mr Graves leaves and goes back to his old grammar after discovering its discipline has slipped to the point of the boys becoming delinquent.
Spartan School is no doubt the most intense and excessive example of progressivism vs. authoritarianism in girls’ comics. Nothing is beyond Miss Bramble in her crusade to turn ‘unruly’ girls into her models of obedient and disciplined girls. However, we suspect discipline is just her excuse and the real motive behind her methods is that she’s a sadist who likes to torture girls emotionally, physically and psychologically. We suspect this even more when Miss Bramble says she has to stop the girls reporting her to the authorities because they would not understand her methods.
The text boxes say that Miss Bramble runs the school as if it were Victorian, but surely not even Victorian schools went as far as Miss Bramble. The girls either emerge as emotionally and psychologically traumatised zombies or like Siddons – unfeeling, bullying monsters with no trace of kindness or humanity to be seen. It is not just unruliness that is beaten out of girls but all trace of kindness, humanity and friendship as well. This is clearly because Miss Bramble does not tolerate tender emotions as she does not have any, and she does not allow friendships because they are building blocks to conspiracy against her discipline. She wants all her girls to be turned into models that are based on her personality. It could well be that Siddons came to Spartan School as an ‘undisciplined’ girl herself, and Miss Bramble’s ideas of discipline turned her into the stone-hearted monster and flunky that she is. As a result, Siddons is capable of anything, even murder. Or maybe she was a genuine badass kid in serious need of straightening out, but just got a whole lot worse at Spartan School. In any case, the four friends are the only oasis of kindness and courage we see in the entire school. Nowhere else is it to be seen.
Miss Bramble seems to ride on the shoulders of neglectful / useless parents who don’t seem to pick up on what’s going on at Spartan School or what their girls have become after they return from the school. Some may even approve of it. Rumours about the school’s cruelty circulate, Amanda herself has seen a damaged girl returning from Spartan School, and girls go home from Spartan School looking broken and frightened, yet nobody seems to step up and look into things. Parents still send their girls to it, believing it will do their girls a world of good. It’s not until Amanda manages to bring an inspector in that the cruelty of the school finally begins to get out. At least the four friends’ parents redeem themselves somewhat when they come in person to form part of the rescue party.
It is a bit annoying that Miss Bramble seems to get off a bit too lightly at the end of the story. Miss Craig takes the view that the authorities will not do much because Spartan School has been destroyed. Oh, come on, this is a woman who’s not only committed physical and psychological abuse against girls but is guilty of attempted murder as well! Shouldn’t there be at least a full public inquiry before deciding what should be done with Miss Bramble? Don’t the parents and pupils get a say in the matter? A lot of readers must have wished Miss Bramble had died in the avalanche or broken her neck on the staircase after reading Miss Craig’s view on what will happen to her. As for Siddons not being seen again after she disappears…well, it does suggest she might have come to a sticky end off-panel. Readers must have hoped for that anyway.
When Judy arrives at Spartan School, it’s where Miss Bramble finally meets her match, much in the way that Misery House does with Merry Summers. Like Merry, Judy refuses to be broken by the cruelties of the institution, finds strength in the only friends she has, and uses her quick wits to get out of the scrapes and dirty tricks that Miss Bramble and Siddons pull on her. As with Merry, Judy’s defiance takes the form of something that flies in the face of Spartan School and defies all attempts to break it. In the case of Merry, it is keeping on smiling and joking, no matter what. In the case of Judy, it is maintaining the four-friend friendship against all of Miss Bramble’s attempts to destroy it. And like Merry, Judy is determined to get word out about the cruelties of Spartan School and get it shut down. Unlike Merry, Judy succeeds on her very first try, although it takes time for help to arrive because of the blackmail Miss Bramble pulls on Miss Craig.
On this blog, Spartan School has been regarded as a forerunner of “Merry at Misery House”. For one thing, it is the same creative team. Parallels between the two stories have been noted above. The cruel institutions are physically destroyed (fire in Misery House, avalanche in Spartan School) as well as being shut down by authorities that have been finally been alerted by unsettling reports. Misery House also resorts to beatings, pillories, unhealthy isolation cells, poor food and other cruelties (but no iron mask, thank goodness) in order to break the protagonist. As with Judy, they also pull blackmail and other dirty tricks in order to isolate the protagonist from her friends and turn them against her. Character-wise, Judy could well be a predecessor of Merry; she likes to play jokes to liven things up a bit, but unwisely does them during class time. Liz is a bit like Merry too; our first impressions of her are that she is a chirpy girl, just like Merry.
In some ways, Spartan School does Judy a lot of good, albeit in spite of itself. Her energies, which went into practical jokes at her previous schools, are rechanneled into bringing down Spartan School and foiling all the tricks that are pulled to destroy the friendship. At the beginning we see a stubborn streak in Judy; once she puts her mind to something, she does it. This would have helped Judy immensely once she became determined not to let anything at Spartan School crush her. We get the impression that Judy emerged as a more toned-down and mature girl. No doubt she emerged as a much stronger and courageous one.
9 thoughts on “The Four Friends at Spartan School (1971-72)”
Like “Children of Edenford” this has a strong undercurrent of parents not really caring about their children unless they conform to social requirements (being disciplined / quiet / helpful). It’s a very cynical story theme, of course. I wonder how much we can speculate about the authorial intent or background in these cases? For instance I wonder if this is an unlikely sort of story for a parent to write, and perhaps more likely for a young man to write and laugh about, as we hear Pat Mills recount. Perhaps someone nearer the age of the protagonist is more able to take the side of the girls in question and to paint the adults as heartless sadists?
Obviously Terry Magee may write in and answer me which would be great 🙂
It’s definitely in the category of ” ‘grown-ups know best’ – not!” stories.
At the age of 11, I went from small, gentle East Hanningfield village school in the wilds of the Essex countryside to rough-tough Moulsham Secondary School in Chelmsford – violent and hostile teachers with canes, slippers, metal rods, lumps of wood, flying blackboard dusters, threats.
Plus the pupils were even worse . teddy boys with flick knives, beatings-up, physical torture, extreme bullying. I really thought I was going to be killed. All that was behind Spàrtan School. Typical behaviour of the 1950s was that I never told my parents of the terror – not my Mum and Dad´s fault, times were hard and everyone was expected to put up with things. Moulsham School was a shock, I realised for the first time there were bad people in the world, there was no Jesus to help no matter how much I prayed for help, I was on my own. After 18 months I did start to toughen up and then luckily was sent to brand new Sandon secondary school which was the total opposite with a forward-thinking headmaster Arthur Harvey who hated corporal punishment. He was also very literary and encouraged me a great deal in writing, I owe him a tremendous amount. But I never got over Moulsham School and it came out in Spartan School, one of the best serials I ever wrote.
Thank goodness you got that transfer out of that school.
Bad school experiences often find their way into famous literature such as “Jane Eyre”.
“Jane Eyre” is one of the great great novels, the part about the school very strong writing by Charlotte and copied by Charles Dickens for “Nicholas Nickleby” I believe. I was well read as a young teenager(Mum´s influence)and had read “Jane Eyre” by the time I was 14. My mother was a big influence on me(and my brother and sister), she loved literature and poetry. I owe my Mum, too.
I suspect that a lot of the girls stories that feature bully teachers were being used by writers to offload bad memories of real bully teachers and send messages about what not to do.