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Olden Life: What was a Crocodile? By Eleanor Allen

Blog | By Eleanor Allen | Apr 27, 2023


A line of schoolchildren walking in pairs, shepherded by a couple of teachers front and aft, was once a familiar sight.

Temporarily released from desks to wend their way to a swimming baths, church or educational venue, they’d be chatting along like a flock of chaffinches. And the public, even when shunted by the line off the pavement into the gutter, would adopt an expression of benign tolerance.

We used to call this set-up a crocodile.

I presume the strange nickname came about because of the column’s wavy, side- to-side forward motion, combined with the head-up, shoulders-back posture usually adopted by the leading pair.

The term was only ever used in Britain:

‘Crocodile: a girls’ school walking two and two in a long file, 1870’. (Shorter Oxford Dictionary)

Later, the term was extended to lines of adults and vehicles, and the crocodile became a popular means of moving primary school children around.

‘You are representing your school!’ exhorted our senior mistress, back in the early 1960s, running her beady eye over the length of our skirts and angle of our hats and ties, before releasing us into the glaring spotlight of the public stage.

‘Remember to comport yourselves with dignity!’

Things hadn’t changed much since Tirzah Garwood made her delightful woodcut called Crocodile (pictured), back in 1929. She captured the deep-rooted yet lightly flaunted pride in school and uniform, combined with a gleeful sort of insouciance; the awareness that, despite the ‘beetle-crushers’ on their feet and identical felt hats rammed on their heads, the girls nevertheless had little ways and means of asserting individuality.

From the end of the 19th century, showmen such as George Edwardes (Gaiety Girls) and John Tiller (Tiller Girls) had recognised the captivating charm radiated by crocodiles of ‘pert’ – but respectable – schoolgirls, ‘full of girlish glee’. They encouraged their chorus girls to attract publicity by emulating them in public.

In Paris in the 1930s, Miss Bluebell ruled that her Bluebell Girls, chosen for their height and elegance, must always walk to the Folies Bergère in English-schoolgirl crocodile formation. Impeccably dressed in hat, gloves and unladdered stockings, they must convey the impression that, should they get run over, their underwear would bear inspection. Furthermore, they must never, ever be seen snacking in the street. Needless to say, Parisian necks craned, horns honked, brakes squealed…

Nowadays, schoolchildren tend to be bussed between venues and are only occasionally seen walking in a crocodile. We might catch sight of a line of primary-school children wearing high-vis vests, but this is referred to as a ‘walking bus’.

My grandchildren talk of sometimes walking with a ‘talk partner’. Chaffinch-like chatter still carries on, but the word ‘crocodile’ draws a blank.

And when even a primary-school teacher on Mumsnet claims never to have heard of the crocodile, I guess the term may now quietly be heading towards extinction.

A pity, because it was colourful and fun.