The Tinder Box and other Fairy Stories. 

I was born in Preston and started school when I was five at the Talbot Infants and Boys schools (part of the St Walburge’s buildings) until I was nine. My father was an engine shed Shift Foreman for the LMS and British Railways and the family had to move from Preston to Stoke-on-Trent in 1947 and then to Blackpool in 1952.

I passed the 11 plus at St Teresa’s, Trent Vale and started at St Joseph’s College, Stoke (SJS) in 1949. This was a full-on Christian Brothers institution run with the same format as St Joseph’s College Blackpool (SJB) and I had completed forms 2 and 3 and one term of form 4 at SJS  by the time I began my SJB career in Jan 1952.

I stood out for the first five months as a new boy wearing a black SJS blazer in a sea of blue SJBs before my parents could afford to buy the SJB uniform. It seemed as if SJB was about six months ahead of SJS in most subjects. There was an air of bustle and shove about Blackpool when compared with sleepy Trent Vale which flowed on through the school.

The culture of the strap was endemic to SJS and SJB and I avoided frequent corporal punishment at both schools simply by being a good boy and trying hard to learn what the strappers wanted of me. The more I got it right, the less I got strapped. My diaries record receiving six strappings in 1952-3 administered by those star strapologists Alf Pope (technically a batterer) and  Bros Burns and Brennan (aka Icky). My strap entries are so sparse,  it must have been an event worth recording when it happened to me. I cannot imagine how bad it was for many others but have no hesitation in believing their stories of daily corporal punishment.  I didn’t record their suffering and maybe we all became conditioned to accept it as part of ordinary everyday school life.

I remember my first gym lesson with Alf Pope, three days after I started at SJB. He lined up all the class and took me along the line as if he was reviewing the troops. “Don’t associate with him” he said, as we walked along, stopping at maybe six or seven of the thirty in line. Naturally the ones pointed out glared at me. Alf enjoyed it all.

We had Icky for Latin and Form Master and I regret that he turned me off Latin completely. He didn’t need to strap me, I was just terrified of getting it wrong. The sawn-off billiard cue he used as a variety feature was no fable and he made smart and sarcastic comments as he doled out the punishment. I and a few other class members, sniggered nervously at some of these comments and three of the victims ganged up on me later in the schoolyard. So the bullying violence was passed on but the sniggering stopped.

Forms two, three and four were taught Spanish and no French at SJS when I was there. When I began life at SJB, I somehow persuaded the teachers to let me continue with Spanish rather than start catch-up French. They thought they had enough Spanish teachers to act as my tutors.  Icky was my Spanish guru for 1952! The mystery is that he treated me like a normal human being during these one-on-one lessons. No violence. He must have needed an audience to play out the grim role he chose in class.

Three years later, I did manage to scrape 55% for Spanish in the School Certificate exams but I suspect there was some quota system operative making Spanish an easier pass than French. French lessons were presented by another purveyor of violence- Panker himself- whilst I was sometimes at the back of the class with my nose buried in A New First Spanish Course. I remember Panker presenting the same habit of cynical comments accompanying physical punishment which marked Icky. I also remember Panker trying to persuade me to abandon Spanish and start French! But I’d seen enough of him and politely declined his offer.

As if things couldn’t get worse during these early years, I cracked a bone in my leg in Dec 1952 playing in the school yard. That was the end of lessons until I returned in mid-March 1953 and I was once again on the catch up trail. I worked my way up to 7th place in class by the end of Summer Term that year. I was able to give up Latin (more specifically, give up Bro Brennan) and History. I cannot recall hardly any of the History lessons I’d had in forms 4 and 5. I think “Solly” was one of the teachers. I do recall something about “Ship Money”, one of Charles I's taxes, and the fact that British history stopped in 1688, the year when the last Catholic monarch slipped out of the country.

I really caught up in the School Cert. Year or Ordinary GCE as it became. I revelled in Bro O’Leary’s maths teaching; lapped up all that Mr ‘Bing’ Crosby could deliver of English Lang. and Lit. I endured Bro Burns temper because Chemistry fascinated me and soaked up the Physics as presented by- I’ve forgotten! I’d also been turning up for German lessons (Mr Howe) since the start of the 1952-3 year and was amazed when I got a 45% mark in the final exam - they must have been even more generous with their German quotas than they were with the Spanish.

Maths, Physics and Chemistry appealed the most and I entered a LVI Sc form looking forward to more Science. I recollect Gandhi pleading with some of the new LVI Sc class to defect to the depleted LVI Mods but he got no takers.

I remember fondly the Maths and Physics teaching of Mr “Oscar” Slater which paid dividends for me but not for some others who had to battle with his take-it or leave-it style. He’d work out an elegant conic section problem on the blackboard, turn around with a glint in his eye and say “Now, Wall, doesn’t that send a shiver down your spine?”  It did. I think I read in somebody’s memoirs that Oscar lived at the Cross Keys Inn, Ribchester. I remember he drove and old green Bentley DVH 777, was Oxbridge educated and used to dab a tear from his eye when setting a homework problem from his teacher’s “dear old Gerry Noakes”  Electricity and Magnetism textbook.

I think Chemistry was handled by Bro Burns in 1954-5 and by Bro Sheenan for the Advanced Level year. I was hopeless at practical chemistry and neglected that subject in preference to the others.

I passed well enough to get to Liverpool University, enrolling for a B.Sc. which I completed in 1959. I shared digs with David Cummins, (French), David Leyland, (Architecture) and Mike Curtis (Biochem) and we were joined by Mick Brown, (Medicine) in 1958. I read sadly that Mike Curtis died in 1998 but don’t know any details. Another loss was that of Peter Creagan who died very recently.

I bear little resentment or bitterness towards my teachers at SJS and SJB between 1949 and 1956. Most of the influences on me were to the good. At the impressionable age we were, key experiences could trigger a cascade of consequences similar to the conflagrations which the spark of a tinder box might generate.

The lesson in which Bro Burns explained  the basic structure of the atoms making up ammonia is still in my memory. I eventually made a career in Nuclear Science.

I still recall the time a fossil of a plant was passed around class. It had leaves like a shamrock set in a red mudstone. Years later, during a mid-life crisis, I slogged away studying geology for six years and wrote a thesis on granites.

I tried but couldn’t play the violin so I didn’t last long in Kaye-Perry’s orchestra. But the much maligned Robert Atherton taught the senior choir to sing “The cheerful sound of horns” for the speech night in 1955 and I bellowed out the Handel/Dexter  arrangement with the other tenors. In Sept 2008, I was in the audience listening to Sydney’s Brandenburg Orchestra playing the original score of Handel’s Water and Fire music and I thanked one R. Atherton for the memory of the song we sang over 50 years ago.

Even the negative experience of the ridiculous ban on soccer only led to a greater love of the beautiful game. We played in the school yard with a small, rectangular piece of polished wood which slid like an ice-hockey puck and we wove ourselves in and out of the crowd who were doing other things. I was never much involved with playing school sport but I was an avid Saturday spectator at Bloomfield Road and was there when Blackpool paraded the FA cup past the end of our street in 1953. I was there when they beat Charlton 8-4 and also when Matthews wrong-footed the entire defence and caressed the ball gently past Bert Williams, the Wolves and England Keeper. I was behind the Kop goal when George Farm, the Blackpool and Scotland Keeper headed in a goal for Blackpool,  playing at centre forward in the second half with an injured arm. Much later I played in the local Sydney amateur soccer comps for 25 years. So much for lasting soccer bans.

I played a handful of rugby games during the UV and LVI years. I didn’t feature in any of the sporting records of the school but turned up dutifully on Sports Days. I did get my name in the School Magazine Summer 1953 edition for playing chess in a St Joe’s team which defeated Baines Grammar. When I got to the Lower Sixth Form, several unsupervised study periods were spent playing chess or shove-halfpenny. I later played in Liverpool University’s second team. Presently I’m an active member of Sydney’s St George Chess Club.

One ex-Brother deserves a good mention in my opinion and he is Bro. Mullowney. He taught forms 2 and 3 during my first years at Stoke and I remember being delighted to see him turn up at Blackpool in 1954. He may be remembered at Stoke for devoting a Religious Instruction period to explaining to the 11 year-olds that it was not a sin to call someone a bloody fool. This was in the days when a national TV apology had to be made when a celebrity, in error,  broadcast live the forbidden “Bloody Hell”.  Bro Mullowney’s revelation didn’t lead to a plethora of bloody fools being uttered in the second form but it was a breath of fresh air at the time.

A religious heritage, is I believe , a parcel containing mixed blessings. I feel mine was packed equally with school, church and home life. We relinquish school and home life and make our new life, sometimes far away from where all these formative experiences occurred. When it came to the crunch I could not reconcile the church’s intransigence on “Mixed Marriage” with my determination to marry the girl I loved.

I have been sustained by the love I was given at home and by the good fortune to have had  a better education and life than 99 per cent of the world’s teeming masses.

My positive memories of St Joe’s are challenged by the horrific stories other ex-pupils have related. Most of the accounts on the web site are positive. Those written by victims of abuse suffered at St Joes must be believed by the rest of us. Regretfully, it seems, they have not been awarded the justice they are entitled to.

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