Laura Freeman

Box of delights | 7 September 2017

A much-loved boarding tradition and the companies keeping it alive

Box of delights | 7 September 2017
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No mother, wrote Roald Dahl in his childhood memoir Boy, would send her son off to prep school without, at the very least, the following in his tuck box: a home-made currant cake, a packet of squashed-fly biscuits, a couple of oranges, an apple, a banana, a pot of strawberry jam or Marmite, a bar of chocolate, a bag of Liquorice Allsorts, and a tin of Bassett’s lemonade powder. To these, a boy would add ‘all manner of treasures’, such as magnets, pocket knifes, balls of string, clockwork racing cars, lead soldiers, tiddlywinks, catapults, stink bombs and Mexican jumping beans. One boy in Dahl’s class at St Peter’s in Weston-super-Mare drilled an air hole in his pinewood tuck box and kept a pet frog, which he fed with slugs.

I never, not for a minute, not even in my most ardent Malory Towers phase, wanted to go away to boarding school. But, my goodness, I wanted a tuck box. With my initials stencilled on the lid and the key in my pocket. A school trunk, too. One solid enough to sit on at train stations, with brass corner covers and a cabin-lock lid. A tidy child, I had a passion for putting things in boxes, and the trunk and the tuck box were boxes on a grand scale. You might have thought that the wheelie suitcase had done for the heavy, unwieldy school trunk. But when it comes to the First Day of School, the trunk still beats the suitcase and rucksack. ‘They’re a bugger to carry, though,’ says one old Wykehamist, who boarded from eight to 18. He reports that the sport his boarding house excelled at was sledging down the stairs in a trunk, using the banisters to swing round corners and with spectacular crashes against the wall at the bottom. It is testament to the makers, Mossman, that the trunks are still in good nick today.

Mossman has been designing school trunks and tuck boxes since 1938. They are still made by hand and the rivets are put in place with a pedal-operated puncher. ‘Same as since day one,’ says Justin Locks from the workshop in Cambridgeshire, where they still make around 6,000 trunks a year. ‘Fads and fashions come and go, but trunks are always in.’ They’ve seen a decline in demand, though, for the biggest steamer trunks. ‘It’s health and safety — the porters aren’t allowed to carry them.’

Lucy, who started boarding at seven, tells me: ‘Weeks after beginning school it was clear that the only acceptable tuck box to have was a Mossman. My new best friend had the coolest one: metallic, no stickers. Despite my pleas, Dad insisted I return one weekend with the vast wooden tuck box his own father had made for him. His initials were still plastered across the top and it was easily double the size of everyone else’s, which, sadly, didn’t result in double the contents. My tuck in the post was always the same: four Crunchie bars.’

Still, Lucy grew to love her tuck box, and 22 years later the formerly ‘mortifying’ box takes pride of place as a coffee table in her living room.

My own mother and my aunt, who went to Sherborne in the 1960s, also inherited their tuck boxes and trunks. They had been my grandfather’s and before their arrival in Dorset they had been all round Europe filled with Baedeker Guides, then on to New York and North Carolina.

Hugo, who went to the Dragon prep school in Oxford, remembers a strict regime over boxes. ‘Tuck was twice a week plus a bonus day if you sang in the choir, and on each day you could take from your box items to the value of 40p,’ he says.

The traditional tuck box still contains all manner of treasures – and even the occasional pet frog

‘This was never very strictly pegged to market prices — for example, a can of Coca-Cola was valued at 20p when in a shop it would cost at least twice that. This led to a level of haggling more often seen in a Moroccan souk: “But matron, surely these Refreshers are only worth 15p! It’s Wine Gums that are 20p!”’

‘My tuck box always smelt of strawberry shoelaces,’ says Sophia, who went to Wycombe Abbey. ‘I still have it, actually. Full of old photos and covered in smiley-face stickers.’

Some of the millennial generation of boarders are unconvinced by trunks and tuck boxes. Alex, at Marlborough in the noughties, says: ‘They felt like a nostalgia trip — an inconvenient relic from a less flashy age when children were packed off on a train and able to fit their possessions for the term in a single trunk and tuck box. Tuck boxes could only fit three Pot Noodles and a box of cereal, and were normally supplemented by supermarket plastic bags full of extra grub. Trunks did still exist by my time, but the frugality of a 1950s public school which they once represented did not.’

Matthew Winton, director of the Winchester Tuck Box Company, is leading the fight back against the plastic bag full of grub. A woodworker of 30 years’ standing, his principal job is to fit out boats and the tuck boxes are a labour of love. He didn’t go to boarding school, but the idea for the boxes came while talking to a friend whose aunt used to fill his tuck box with bottles of Babycham, not knowing it was alcoholic. It made the boy very popular with the prefects.

‘The kids get a lot of pleasure out of the boxes,’ says Winton. ‘It’s nice making them knowing that they’ll be treasured for the rest a child’s life.’ He creates them with secret panels, false bottoms and sliding sections for hiding goodies or contraband. There’s even a felt-lined gadget tray for phones. He paints initials, mottoes and school crests on the outside, and, if you asked him nicely, he might even drill an air-hole for a frog.