CONTRIBUTION BY NIK JORGENSEN 1951/1961
Since reading the memories of old boys of my era
at St Joe’s, I have realised that I spent a seventh of my life to date in that
school. How did it affect me and what are my memories? It comes across from
other contributions that memories range from extremes of anger and negativity to
those expressing fondness and gratitude for the educational experience the
school provided. My recollection is that the latter students either were
academically able or good at sports (or the lucky few at both) and probably
received punishment rarely, the former were those who struggled and were
frequently punished as a result. Punishments meted out were certainly brutal,
the leather strap which I think had a steel insert (removed by one Brother so it
was more flexible for beating around the head and any other available body
part), steel rulers (used by one lay teacher with the sharp end across the
buttocks leaning over his lap 'the Bridge of Sighs'. Was this sexual abuse?) and
of course Alf Pope’s (turned down by the Gestapo as he was too cruel!) cricket
ball in the rugby sock in the gymnasium. If any struck pupil cried he would
arrange a mock funeral with the ‘coffin’ being the vaulting box lower section. A
common strategy when I was about to be strapped was to cup the palm of my hand
so the blows could be softened. One Brother was aware of this and would hold the
fingers bent back so the skin was taut and the pain increased.
In 2016 such a regime would strike many with horror and disbelief (certainly to my granddaughters and recent students). However, as several have pointed out, those times were more brutalised than those today (as an aside see Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature for a fascinating account of how the world, despite all the harrowing news of wars, crime and related events in the 21st Century, has become less violent). We lived through the post-World War II era in a world of poverty and rationing (I can remember stuffing leaking shoes with cardboard and newspaper as new shoes could not be afforded). Hanging was the capital punishment for serious crime, there was birching of juvenile delinquents, etc. Within families violence was common for women (“Scream quietly or the neighbours will hear”) and children were frequently smacked or worse (some fathers hung belts behind the back door which were frequently used as punishment; in the popular Beano comic Dennis’s father frequently meted out the slipper on the backside). In all schools the cane or equivalent was legal and in Scotland there was the dreaded tawse. So in that sense were children’s experiences at St Joe’s any different from thousands of others at that time? My memory is that most of us experienced that world as if it were entirely normal as we had no comparable experience. My leisure reading was focused on the world of public boarding schools as portrayed in Billy Bunter, Jennings, Tom Brown’s Schooldays and similar novels where harsh punishments were a part of those worlds. So the issue of ‘normality’ is important as to how we coped with life at that time.
Some contributors have referred to sexual abuse. I have no experience of this at St. Joes, but there were rumours about the Head of the Sixth Form being given that position to keep him away from the young Prep School boys (shades of the ‘sidelining’ of paedophile priests being revealed in recent years?). Some of my friends said they had witnessed the aforesaid Head of Sixth abusing a pupil in one of the Labs, but I have no recollection of any other such events.
Yes, there was a dark side to schooling in those days, but I was not fearful of attending and as other contributors have pointed out there was a lot of humour and fun to be had, often as a way of getting back at the system. Unfortunately our ‘revenge’ as such was focused on ‘weaker’ teachers, several of whom with hindsight were nice people, but were not cut out to teach unruly, rebellious boys. One such teacher experienced a tapping from a cupboard during our lesson which we adamantly denied was happening. “I can’t hear anything, can you?” etc., and when the cupboard was opened out sprang Es …? holding a blazer button which he claimed to have been looking for. This same teacher had the lessons with string between desks attached to conkers under the lids so there was a constant knocking noise as the string was pulled. Again our “I can’t hear anything, can you?” was our innocently acclaimed response. The aforementioned Es…? was frequently punished and, once when being sent to the Head, ran down the school drive and went home. Thereafter, when E went for PE lessons Alf Pope would sing a popular hit of the time The Runaway Train Ran Down the Hill and It Blew Whooo! Whooo! Cruel, but, perhaps, now shamefully, we thought funny at that time.
I remember a maths teacher Brother with a strong Irish accent being frequently asked “Sir, what’s a third of 100%? I can’t remember” getting the exasperated reply, “It’s turty tree and a turd!” rousing much under the desks stifled laughter. There was Mr Singleton? who taught English and when we were studying Shakespeare’s Henry V caused great hilarity when he came in to class and said “Right boys, get your Henry’s out” which became our new euphemism for a while. Another contributor referred to the slope outside the huts, used as racing tracks for our Dinky racing cars. I think mine was a BMW, but I was envious of Martin Lord’s blue and yellow Ferraro which seemed to go further along the slope than others thus winning the game. I remember Martin lived across the road from the drive entrance. I was partly envious that he could stay in bed longer before school, but then thought it must be awful during school holidays to see ‘Holy Joe’s’ through your window. I can remember many games and crazes in the playground, such as Yo-Yos, Hula Hoops and Diablos, each craze relatively short-lived. One I particularly remember was on the playing fields at lunchtimes. This involved individuals facing each other, with their legs together, standing about a yard apart. Each had a knife such as a penknife (some who had been on school trips abroad brought back flick knives, the cause of envy). In turn the knife was thrown into the ground and where it stuck you had to move your foot to its position such that after several turns someone’s legs were so far apart that they fell forward and their opponent was the winner. During the game you could return to the legs together position by successfully throwing your knife between your competitor’s legs. My abiding memory is of crowds on the fields playing this game which would arouse horror in today’s world.
I have little memory of the content of lessons, except, as frequently mentioned, rote learning as the key pedagogical strategy of most. One lesson I remember was Jim McGrahan on our first arrival in Form 1 teaching ‘How to Make the Perfect Pot of Tea’. Why this is a memory I don’t know, perhaps because it was so different from our normal lessons. I enjoyed Latin with Mr. Charles. Although there was rote learning (verbs, declensions, etc.) and the inevitable strap for failure, I liked the material on Roman life and history, wars (bella?) and military matters. Touching on Classics led me to read Homer and Virgil for pleasure, which was perhaps an indirect ‘success’ for Latin lessons. Or was it a bloodthirsty schoolboy’s fascination with violence and wars?!
My background was C of E, but a condition of Direct Grant status was that a small percentage of St. Joe’s pupils had to be non-Catholics. At lunchtime RE sessions, the ‘non-Catholics’ sat in a separate classroom thankful that we had not to participate in potential further punishments lessons. I can remember the then Head, Brother Dolan?, taking each of us individually along the corridor and with an avuncular arm around our shoulders asking us if we wanted to become Catholics. My thoughts were “No Thanks” as I thought of fellow pupils with their red Catechism books desperately trying to learn by rote '11 Stations of the Cross' etc., to avoid punishment. Maybe the image of a ‘man of God’ in a dog collar and black robes wielding a strap has been a factor in my lifelong atheism cum Spiritual Humanism? But obviously there are a lot more factors than Holy Joe’s schooling experiences.
Some contributors have referred to school dinners under the watchful eye of the redoubtable Ma Coakley. I remember her dispensing culinary folk wisdom such as stewed rhubarb and custard counteracting the fattiness of fish and chips. Fridays were either fish and chips or beans and chips with the added bonus of batter bits. There was semolina which we turned pink by stirring in the added blob of strawberry jam and of course ‘concrete’ where we developed our hammer and chisel skills breaking into the pastry. School dinners were my main meal of the day as ‘tea’ at home was often toast and jam with the occasional boiled egg (we were a single parent family).
Even after 50+ years, I can remember friends/fellow pupils such as Peter Mather, Peter Fullalove, Peter O’Reilly. One who I was particularly envious of was the Elvis lookalike Billy Wright from Fleetwood (I think his Dad was a fisherman). He was one of those who were good ‘all-rounders’ academically and in sports. The envy not only came from his good looks but that he had a lovely girlfriend, I think a prefect/Head Girl at Collegiate one of the girls we used to gaze at when they played tennis next door. In the Sixth Form, Billy wanted to be a Vet. I wonder if he did or perhaps he is still performing as an Elvis tribute act. My first ever visit to a pub was on breaking up at Christmas around 1960 having a half of mild and a ginger ale in a pub on Talbot Road with Billy and a few others.
In the Sixth Form I became bored with school and academic study so played occasional truancy. It was exhilarating to be out of school and the highlight was trips to coffee bars such as Hi-Jean and Copa Cabana drinking the then trendy Espresso frothy coffee out of glass cups and saucers. Juke Boxes had just become fashionable so such days were spent listening to classic early Rock and Roll from Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino, Gene Vincent, etc. Great times and music that became more dominant in my life than the academic demands of Holy Joes. In the Autumn Term of 1961 I was fed up and remember going to the School Library finding the Eagle Comic Book of Careers where various occupations were portrayed in strip cartoon format. One that caught my attention was for the Merchant Navy which had a cartoon of young Cadets on a tropical island surrounded by hula-skirted girls. Underneath was a Fleetwood Nautical College stamp with the name of the Principal Captain Carruthers as a contact. I was interviewed and accepted so I left Holy Joes in December 1961 to eventually become a Third Mate on cargo ships travelling around the world.
My Merchant Navy career lasted around 7 years then I came ashore and became a Civil Servant for a couple of years before going to Lancaster University as a mature student. I majored in Sociology and eventually became a College Lecturer, Deputy Head of a Sixth Form Faculty, etc. In my early 50's, I was lucky enough to gain an enhanced service early retirement package. I had already begun writing introductory Sociology textbooks (available via Amazon now at 1p per copy!) so welcomed this as an opportunity to do what I enjoyed on a full time basis. Then my first granddaughter came along so I child minded her for 3 years before taking up a post as a Video-Conferencing Tutor for A-Level Sociology students.
Since last year (2015), I am now fully retired and enjoying life very much. I have been married to my wonderful wife, Jan, for 48 years. We now live in the lovely village of Mellor near Blackburn and we are on the doorstep of the scenic Ribble Valley, the views as I walk our dogs every day are stunning. I enjoy singing in a local group and still play guitar as I used to with Peter Mather all those years ago. Oh yes I support Blackburn Rovers for my sins!
So, what effect did 10 years at St Joe's have on my life overall? Perhaps not a lot as University as a mature student had much more impact. I don’t remember school with much affection, but as stated earlier, conditions probably viewed as Dickensian in today’s world were ‘normal’ to us as children and we did have some fun and laughs which is probably the best that could be said.
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