English School Uniform Garments: The Book Satchel

Figure 1.--s.

Some like book bags or satchels were also used in other countries, although the types and styles may have varied. There were two basic types of English school book bags. Some boys wore both a single strap-style satchel. One HBC contributor indicates that this style was typical of the ones commonly worn at grammar schools (academically selective secondary schools) in the 1950s and 60s. Others boys wore the rucksack style with the two over the shoulder straps. With the two shoulder, it was worn in the middle of the back. And what was irritating was, the Jewish boys all seemed to be given briefcases for their Bar Mitzvahs (initiation into manhood, shortly after the 12th birthday), whereas the rest of us had to carry on with our satchels (which were far from worn out, of course) for a good while longer.


Although not strictly an item of school uniform, the school satchel was once a familiar sight on the backs or at the sides of English schoolboys (and, of course, schoolgirls). Shakespeare mentions 'the whining schoolboy, with his satchel / And shining morning face' (As You Like It, II.vii.145-6): this would have been a bag of some form though not like the later satchel. Often in earlier periods, when a single slate was used for writing, bags were not used and textbooks were carried to and from school tied together with a strap - fairly convenient but hardly suited to wet weather! By the beginning of the 20th century, however, a satchel of distinctive form (the 'traditional' school satchel) was adopted as the normal schoolbag. In a novel by George Orwell, set just before World War I, George Bowling 'went to the Grammar School, with a leather satchel and a black cap with yellow stripes…' (Coming Up for Air, paperback edition, Harmondsworth, 1962, 66), and in a semi-autobiographical novel by Henry Williamson set in the same period, the older boy, Jack, carries 'a worn leather satchel', but his younger companion Willie's books 'were held by a canvas strap'; later, we learn that the use of a strap is against school rules and Willie is duly punished for this breach (Dandelion Days, revised edition, 1930, 14, 30). Curiously, in an early 20th-century school story by Walter C. Rhoades exactly the opposite was the case: Ronald learns that his satchel is considered bad form and it 'was quickly discarded, to be replaced by the correct strap' (Quills: a Tale of School-days, [1918], 28).

Briefcases or attaché cases were alternatives and many older boys exchanged their satchels for one or other of them, although others continued with a satchel right through their schooldays. Sometimes boys had strong feelings about such matters. Ian Niall and his schoolmates in 1920s London were proud of their 'new shining schoolbags' - that is, satchels - which 'hung on our shoulders. The more effeminate boys carried little attaché cases and were jeered at by the rest of us' (A London Boyhood, London, 1974, 50). This would change in later decades, with a satchel being regarded as more juvenile than an attaché case or, more often, a briefcase. The satchel even came to epitomise the middle-class schoolchild and many parents and teachers preferred pupils to use them for that reason alone. As Lord Noel Annan has written: 'The comprehensive [non-selective] school headmaster of the fifties wanted his new school to become as far as possible a uniform-wearing, satchel-carrying school…' (Our Age, paperback edition, London, 1991, 493). They came to be regarded as 'traditional', although, like so much else associated with the 'traditional' English schoolboy, they were essentially a 20th-century phenomenon.


The most expensive school satchels were made from real leather, almost always some shade of brown, although black was occasionally used. The leather was most often smooth, although sometimes it had a grained effect. Such satchels were long-lasting. Sometimes a boy might well have a new one for starting secondary school at eleven and still be using it when he left school, sometimes at eighteen years of age. Sometimes they might require re-stitching in places - a job that my dad undertook (by hand) with mine - although this was not always the case. Like most products, of course, they did vary in quality, and some lasted better than others. Bill Andrews recalls that when he started at Ashton-under-Lyne Technical School, Lancashire just after World War I, a 'satchel was one [item to be bought]. I think is cost 12/6d [12 shillings and 6 pence: 62.5p in present-day English currency]. It wasn't of the best leather but it was new. And it lasted me for five years, finishing up without straps or buckles and … tatty' (Don't Fret My Lad: an Ashton Boyhood, Radcliffe, Manchester, 1987, 29). They could be kept smart and in good condition by polishing: Tom Wakefield remembers how, in the 1940s, his father 'was intent that I should look meticulous [when going to the Grammar School, and] he would polish my shoes and make the leather of the satchel shine' (Forties' Child, London, 1980, 156).

Cheaper than these were satchels of 'artificial leather' - usually of plastic, sometimes with a fabric backing, normally in some shade of brown. Both smooth and grained types were available. Some were more convincing than others in their attempt to simulate the real thing and, again, some were of better quality than others. After a while the plastic tended to split, especially when not backed by fabric, and in general they did not last as long as the leather types. The carrying-strap and fastening straps were sometimes of real leather but might themselves be of artificial leather. Also available were artificial leather satchels made from some form of composition - like the cheaper sorts of suitcases. Again they were brown with leather or artificial leather straps. They were not very strong - especially when subject to the knocks of a rough-and-tumble schoolboy life!

A cheap type of satchel, not even attempting to look like leather, was made from waterproofed canvas of a light brown (almost orange) colour. The canvas had a thin plastic coating inside, which made the satchels waterproof, at least until the plastic began to peel away. The stitched seams were usually covered with brown plastic. The straps were of real or artificial leather, though for some reason the carrying-strap was often less broad than on the satchels made from other materials.

Canvas or cheap plastic satchels, in a very small size, were sometimes carried by very young pupils, for whom they were hardly essential since, until recently, state primary schools in Britain did not usually give homework. The satchels might be used to carry a small snack or a favourite toy to school or might even be carried just in order to make their small owners feel a little more grown-up! At secondary school, boys who had satchels of this type, in a larger size, of course, could sometimes be the butt of teasing or even bullying, since they were a sign of impoverishment - and, of course, schoolboys are capable of being unpleasantly cruel one to another about such matters. For a couple of weeks when starting Grammar School I experienced some very mild teasing on this matter since a leather satchel had been ordered for me and was late arriving. My parents bought me one of the cheap canvas ones for the interim. I can remember how pleased I was when the leather one was at last delivered!


Whichever material was used, the form of the satchel was more or less the same, although sizes differed. Those for the youngest children were often no more than 10 inches long, whereas those for older pupils - particularly at schools where quite large amounts of homework were given - might be as much as 15 inches long. They had a large main section with rounded corners at the bottom and, in front of it, a smaller section, also with rounded bottom corners. Each section had a bottom and sides of a single strip forming a gusset. The main section could carry a number of exercise and textbooks, and the largest were capable of taking fairly sizeable books - a school atlas, for example. Because of their stiffness, the leather and better-quality artificial leather types kept books in good condition so long at they were packed carefully. The smaller front section was useful for holding geometry instruments, a folded school cap, a tube of sweets, or - usually against school rules - a catapult or pea-shooter! A large flap folded over both sections to close the satchel and was secured with small straps sewn to the front of the flap and small buckles attached to the front of the smaller section. Sometimes on the front of the smaller section there was a small open-fronted pocket with a Perspex 'window' in which a piece of card could be placed with the pupil's name and address or name, school and form (class) written on it. Alternatively, this might be fixed to the front of the flap of the satchel. They were not always provided, however.

Carrying the Satchel

The satchels were provided with double or single carrying-straps, which had buckles so that they could be adjusted to suit pupils of different sizes and, with the single-strap type, to suit different ways of carrying the satchel. In the British television series The "1940s House", reconstructing family life in wartime Britain (Wall to Wall Television for Channel 4, 2000), both types are shown: ten-year-old Ben carries the single-strap type whilst his brother, seven-year-old Thomas, carries the double-strap type: there is a photograph in the book accompanying the series: J. Gardiner, The 1940s House, London, Basingstoke, and Oxford, 2000, 21. The straps were attached by metal fixtures and, at least with the better quality satchels, the stitching was reinforced where necessary by metal rivets.

Those with double straps ('ruck straps') had them attached to the back of the satchel and forming a pair of loops. One arm was slipped through each loop and the satchel was thus carried pack-wise on the back, quite high up against the shoulder-blades. Such satchels could also be carried using only one of the straps across one shoulder, the other loop dangling free, much as many people these days carry knapsacks.

More common was the single-strap type. Very occasionally the two ends of the strap were attached to the back of the satchel but usually they were attached to the sides of the main section, near the top. The single strap gave a choice of carrying methods. The satchel could be carried against the side with the strap over the corresponding shoulder. Alternatively, the strap - suitably lengthened - could be passed diagonally across the chest and back so that it was over one shoulder whilst the satchel was carried against the opposite side. The single-strap satchel could also be carried on the back by passing the strap under each arm and around the back of the neck. It would be carried lower than with the two-strap type - usually against the small of the back, although the precise position could be changed to some extent by adjusting the length of the strap.

The way of carrying the single-strap type could, of course, be varied according to circumstances - or just personal whim. If it was only lightly filled, it might be carried over one shoulder, but if for some reason it was heavy then it could be more comfortably carried on the back. At Luton Grammar School, where I was a pupil, boys were required to take all their books home for the Christmas and Easter holidays and keep them there until the start of the next term. This involved carrying a lot of books over just two or three days and that in turn meant some heavy loads - especially for the younger and smaller boys of only eleven, twelve, or thirteen.

There were also more casual ways of carrying the satchel, often adopted by older boys who wanted to look more grown-up. The strap could be shortened and so arranged under the large flap that it formed a flat handle: carried by this makeshift handle, the satchel looked quite like a briefcase - at least from a distance. Alternatively, the strap could be concealed entirely within the satchel, and the satchel carried by putting the bent fingers of one hand under the flap or by tucking the satchel under the arm. Some boys even removed the strap altogether so that the satchel had to be carried in one of these alternative ways, despite the awkwardness of doing so when the satchel was particularly heavy - the price of vanity!

Rules and Regulations

Occasionally, schools might insist on a school satchel rather than any other sort of schoolbag being used. This was particularly likely to happen in preparatory schools (in the British sense of private schools for younger pupils). But most schools did not have such a regulation. Sometimes, though, a school might even be insistent on the way in which the satchel was carried. At Bedford Modern School in the 1940s satchels were not compulsory, but it was stipulated that if they were used then they had to be worn 'pack-wise' on the back and not carried in any other way (Andrew Underwood, Bedford Modern School of the Black and Red, Bedford, 1981, 172-3). This, however, was not a typical regulation. Many schools were relaxed about what sort of schoolbag was used and about how it was carried.

Other Uses

Although primarily intended for school, the satchel could also be used as a general purpose bag at weekends or during school holidays. For boys who went fishing, for example, it was useful as a tackle-bag - reel, floats, hooks, and a tin of maggots as bait often tumbling together with a packet of sandwiches for a lunchtime snack! For those who went train-spotting or collecting car numbers, the various 'spotters' books' or notebooks could be carried, again with a snack, in the school satchel. From the age of eleven, I was keen on looking at old buildings - churches, castles, and the like - and on expeditions to these the satchel was a very useful bag for the necessary guidebooks, drawing books, pencils, and that seemingly ubiquitous lunch!

Whether carried for school or for out-of-school activities, the satchel also formed a useful 'weapon' in mock fights. The single-strap version in particular could be swung by the strap with some force: if well filled and well aimed, it could deliver quite a hefty 'biff' to another boy. Roy Greenslade remembers at Dagenham High School, Essex c.1960 'pushing yelling boys using bulging satchels like gladiatorial maces' (Goodbye to the Working Class, London, 1976, 25). Less boisterously, older boys might show affection by carrying a girlfriend's satchel for her. In 1968, the British pop-group The Hollies reflected this in their song Jennifer Eccles: 'I used to carry her satchel,' ran the words, along with, 'I love Jennifer Eccles'.

The Present Day

School satchels of the 'traditional' form are still available in Britain today, although they are used by very few schoolchildren, boys or girls. The smallest type, in brown plastic, often have the small front section of fluorescent red plastic; in other cases reflecting red patches may be stuck or sewn to the satchel. These, of course, are a safeguard for children on dark mornings or afternoons. One department store with branches in a number of large towns and cities stock (or did until very recently) versions which are similar in form to the 'traditional' type but are manufactured from PVC or vinyl in a primary colour or a combination of different primary colours - presumably with the intention of making them more appealing to today's youngsters. But English schoolboys (and girls) of the 21st century are more likely to be seen carrying general purpose sports bags than anything resembling the old school satchel.

Personal Experiences

A reader writes, "One of your photos reminded me that I had a briefcase too. Felt really grown up after having previously used a canvas haversack. Later my Father managed to get me a surplus RAF Navigators bag and I used that right through school and even to this day as a spare bag. "


The information here was primarily provide by Terence Paul Smith, April 29, 2002


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Created: April 29, 2002
Last updated: 4:04 AM 5/11/2007