TONY GALCIUS’ ACCOUNT OF HIS BECKFORD AND SHRIGLEY DAYS
On October 8th., 1941 my mother entrusted me, her ten year old youngest child, to the guard on a morning train leaving Paddington for Evesham. It was the first time in my life that I had travelled on the Great Western Railway; the first time I had travelled alone; the first time I had left home, knowing that I would not see it or my Mum for that matter, until the following summer! She gave him a tip to keep an eye on me and to make sure I changed at Evesham, to catch a train for Tewkesbury, the nearest town to the village of Beckford.
I can only guess what went on in her mind. I am sure she must have been sad and worried that she was handing me over to a complete stranger. But I am equally sure that she would have dispelled any doubts or fears in the hope that her young lad was starting a long journey to the Priesthood. As for myself it was the start of an adventure into the unknown. The guard was a kindly man who seated me in his guard room at the back of the train. My belongings were packed in a large trunk, and together with my gas mask there would have been a packed lunch. I was excited as the guard carried out his duties of closing all carriage doors, waving the green flag and blowing his whistle. He made sure I waved goodbye to my mother and we were off, as the steam belched up into the iron ceiling of one of London’s most famous termini. I do not remember being sad at leaving, because there was so much to watch, both in the room and through the windows. All this countryside was virgin territory for this erstwhile slum dweller from the East End.
On arrival at Evesham, my minder handed me over to a porter with appropriate instructions and I was soon on the train to Tewkesbury. This time, however, I was not with the guard but in one of the compartments with a couple of elderly gentlemen, or at least they looked elderly to me at the time. They asked the obvious questions – where did I come from, where was I going , what was I going to do. I told them quite innocently that I was going to study for the Priesthood. No shame, no embarrassment! A conversation to be repeated to the porter when arriving at my destination. A phone call was made and a couple of Salesians came to pick me up. It was dark by the time I reached my new home, which was called ‘St.Joseph’s Noviciate’.
I joined some thirty other lads, whose ages ranged from 12 to 14. We were the years I and II, known as Lower and Upper Elements, who should have been at Shrigley, another Salesian house in Cheshire. We were at Beckford to make up the numbers. Beckford Hall was one of the many semi-stately homes built by retired Army officers during the glorious years of the Empire. The previous owner I understand was a Captain in the Army. It was a large house. In fact for someone like me coming from a pokey two up two down it was enormous. It was splendid in its grandeur, although I did not appreciate that then. All the main room floors were examples of fine parquetry. Only the dormitories, kitchens and scullery had floorboards; the dormitory with a strip of linoleum running down the centre with steel edges.
Because of its size Beckford Hall had to be full, otherwise all or part of it could have been requisitioned by the Ministry of Defence for military purposes. The original purpose of the Hall was to provide a chance for young men to try out the Religious life. Hence they were called novices, and hence the name of the house as St.Joseph’s noviciate. This consisted of a highly intensive spiritual programme to test the novice’s vocation and to instil the basics of ascetics. One could well imagine the incongruity of holy young men being juxtaposed to rookie soldiers. So, other areas in the house were used by Salesian brothers who were called ‘theologians’ because they were beginning four years of theological study before ordination. Three separate groups, each at a different stage of spiritual development and each living totally separate from the other two groups. A veritable apartheid indeed! The only days when we were allowed to mix were on special feastdays
The evening of my arrival I was shown into the boys’ refectory, a small room in the basement, given something to eat – the others had already eaten and were out in the recreation ground or yard. I was shown the bed I was to sleep in, one of thirty others in a dormitory which extended along the top of the house. A small cabinet separated one bed from the next and in that you kept your personal toiletries, pyjamas, and a minimum of clothing. Any suits, raincoats or coats were kept in a huge wardrobe which everyone else used.
Then to the chapel for night prayers, at the end of which one of the priests gave the “good-night”. This was a characteristically Salesian custom, started by Don Bosco himself. A few words with spiritual content, sometimes humorous, sometimes serious, on occasion a gripping little story with a moral. Immediately afterwards, to the dormitory in silence, known as the ‘Magnum Silentium’, not to be broken till breakfast time. A good wash, face and neck especially, legs, knees and feet and especially behind the knees. As you were doing all this one of the boys read out aloud from the lives of the saints. Once everyone was in bed the Brother in charge said ‘goodnight’ and switched off the lights. Thus was my first night away from home!
Was I homesick? Funnily enough, not that evening. I suppose the novelty of everything that happened that day was a powerful distraction. Two days later, however, I was enveloped in grief. As a routine was being established, it dawned on me that I was now truly outside of my family and the security of home. But I was afraid to show it. Peer group pressure was at full throttle! All the other lads had been there since the beginning of September and seemed happy enough. I had to be like them. My trunk had been delayed in arriving and on opening it I was shocked to find that my mother had packed a pair of brand new slippers! As far as I could see, the other boys’ slippers were old and well used. This was because they probably wore them at home, but in our house that had not been the case. So, hiding them under my jacket I took them outside, found a quiet corner and beat them up, squashing the newness and stiffness out of them and ageing them with handfuls of dirt!
A TYPICAL DAY AT BECKFORD
This has no reference to the beautiful little village of Beckford. It has always been customary never to refer to the correct title of the school or college or institute but only to the place in which it was located. The village itself was locked away from our lives completely. The only times we went into it or through it was on the days we went for a walk
We were awakened by the clapping of hands and a loud invitation “Benedicamus Domino” to which we had to respond “Deo Gratias”. Let us bless the Lord and Thanks be to God. It was then a scramble to get to the washroom where there were a number of basins and of course toilets. The water was always cold even in the bleakest of winters. In the morning face and neck were our prime targets, having done the other parts the night before. There were the inevitable ‘races’ between some of the lads as to who could be ready first and in the quickest time. Then the bed had to be made, that is sheets and blankets off, mattress turned, sheets and blankets replaced and tucked in according to instructions given. Once clothed you stayed and read by the bedside. All this was done in silence.
Having been woken up at 7.00 am we were kneeling in the chapel, ready to start our prayers at 7.30 am. Such prayers were encapsulated in a prayer book entitled ‘Companion of Youth’. They were formal prayers, including inter alia a Morning Offering, a prayer for peace in the house and five decades of the Rosary which formed a parenthesis around the central act of the Mass. All this took three quarters of an hour and so at 8.15 we were sitting down for breakfast – porridge, often lumpy, cups of tea and two slices of pan loaf bread with margarine. On feastdays the latter was substituted with butter!! After breakfast each boy had a job to do since refectories, dormitories, the chapel, toilet and classrooms had to be cleaned dusted and made ready for the day’s use. Tasks such as washing plates, pots and pans, clearing the tables, drying cutlery and crockery, re-setting tables had to be done after the four meals of the day. There were no outside cleaners or cooks.
Classes then began at 9.15 am and changed periods every three quarters of an hour with a mid morning break at 10.45. and finishing at 12.30pm. Dinner ensued, consisting of soup, meat, vegetables, potatoes( always called ‘spuds’) followed by a pudding of tapioca or semolina (referred to as frogs’ spawn) and custard. After dinner chores again for half an hour, then a short game of football. If it rained we had table tennis and other indoor games, after which we went to the dormitory for a quick refreshing wash to prepare us for three more periods of class from 2.30pm to 4.15pm. Tea time followed with two slices of bread, margarine and jam. Once various chores had been done we went to the Chapel for Benediction, then homework and study from 5.30pm to 8pm. Supper with the same ingredients as for breakfast and tea( well almost) apart from a cup of tea being replaced by cocoa. Chores and playtime followed and finally night prayers at 9 pm.
This daily regime continued over the next six years. Life at Beckford was merely an exact replica of life at Shrigley. There were variations on Wednesdays and Saturdays when in the afternoons there were extended periods of football, after which came some of the harder types of housework, like scrubbing and polishing floors, gardening or farming, which included picking spuds, bagging them, gathering hay and helping with other crops.
On Sundays, there was a second Mass which was sung, either a Missa Cantata or a Solemn High Mass. After dinner full time football matches between the various Houses named after the martyrs, More, Fisher, Ogilvie and Plunkett. In the late afternoon there would be Vespers and Benediction.
Every event, class, meal and work was encompassed by the sign of the Cross, a Hail Mary and the invocation: ‘Mary, help of Christians, pray for us’.
The day to day grind, however, was punctuated by feast days, the most solemn of which were the Feast of the Immaculate Conception on December 8th., Christmas Day, St Francis de Sales - January 28th., St.John Bosco - January 31st., March 6th – Dominic Savio, March 19th – St.Joseph, Holy Week and Easter, Our Lady, Help of Christians - May 24th., Corpus Christi in June, and Rector’s day. These were preceded on the evening before by a sacred concert called an ‘academy’ in which all the items were of a religious nature, obviously relevant to the particular saint. The day itself was much like a Sunday – two Masses, an extra special dinner, ‘the extra’ being chips, and ‘tipsy cake’ ( sherry trifle ), a football match which could be a Staff v. Boys encounter, Solemn Vespers and Benediction in the evening before supper, followed by a concert or three act play. Such days were unforgettable and were very much looked forward to.
Taken at the top of the Malvern Hils on the annual outing in 41-42. Edward Riviera is second from R at the bottom, Mike Power and I on at the very top with caps on. Frs.Paul McAleer and Gunning are the priests.
At the end of every month we had the exercise of a Happy Death! Its purpose was to remind us that death may strike anytime, as the scripture says, “like a thief in the night.” Hence the need to be always prepared. We prepared ourselves with a talk by a visiting priest on some spiritual topic to do with death, or purgatory, hell or heaven. Our places in the refectory, chapel and classroom were changed so that we could mix with everyone not just friends. Our dormitory lockers and classroom desks were tidied, so that all would be left in good order lest we depart this vale of tears. There was also a special treat at supper. No homework was given so that the study period could be used to prepare yourself for confession, and a visiting priest was available to go to. The rest of the time you could read anything of a spiritual nature, for example, the life of a saint.
The following morning, we had something other than the usual porridge – egg on toast, bacon and egg, perhaps, but definitely butter in place of margarine. I cannot now recall what we did in stead of morning classes, but I do know that the normal curriculum always re-commenced in the afternoon of the Happy Death exercise.
Over and above the exercises of piety held in common, suggestions for private prayer were regularly made. Among these was to say ‘My Lord and My God’ immediately after the consecration at Mass to indicate our belief in the Real Presence, and just prior to climbing into bed, three Hail Mary’s and an act of sorrow. These customs I have carried out ever since.
Classes were named rather than numbered. So, instead of ‘first year’ we were in Preparatory, moving on then to Upper Elements, Grammar, Syntax, and Rhetoric(Lower and Upper or I and II).
Whilst the ‘stately’ home that was St.Joseph’s Noviciate, and the outstandingly beautiful surroundings of its location in the Cotswold village of Beckford must have played a part in my early educational formation, by far the greater influences were the people I first met.
Even now, sixty three years later, I can still recall to mind my first English teacher. Brother John Collins was his name, a tiny man, beautifully spoken, lovely cricketer, swift of foot in the playground (impossible to catch during a game of ‘tig’ ), with a habit of leaning his head to the right whilst rolling his right shoulder at the same time.
Similarly, my first Latin teacher, a Scot, called Brother Paul McAleer overcame the monotony of learning verbs, nouns, and declensions by telling us how the Romans lived and what they did. He thus instilled in us a love for Latin which remained for the rest of my life. The importance of Latin was taken for granted. It was the language of the Church. All the liturgy was at that time expressed through Latin. Theological texts which one day we would be perusing were all in Latin. It was also very useful in the study of grammar, which again was a must on the curriculum.
The French teacher was a John Burgoyne, who regaled us with blood thirsty horror tales. For a very long time afterwards, I always associated the French with horror and gore.
One of the outstanding personalities among those first teachers was Bro.Tom Carroll, a very talented musician and organist. He was responsible for introducing me to Classical Music, via the unforgettable Beethoven’s Fifth. From time to time he organised concerts in the beautiful Library, the walls of which were lined with shelves and shelves of books. He would put on a record of various pieces from great composers, prefacing the music with anecdotes from their lives, and explaining what they were trying to convey through the music. Other members of staff or students might give a turn or recital.
During one of these ‘concerts’ the wireless was put on and we were told that Lord Haw Haw would be speaking. Everyone knew this gentleman as the traitor Englishman who broadcast daily from Berlin, extolling the virtues of Adolf Hitler and warning areas of Britain to expect a bombing. Imagine our surprise when on this particular occasion, he actually mentioned Beckford. Stunned into silence and not some little fear we listened even more intently until someone told us it was Bro.Tom having us on. His mimicry of Haw Haw was perfect.
The priest responsible for discipline was John Gunning, an Irishman whose title was Prefect of Studies. His task was to ensure we worked hard in class and privately and that we behaved ourselves. He always appeared serious and rarely smiled. I suppose he felt he had to be like this, to show how strict he was. During my second year at Beckford, I was very friendly with a lad by the name of Frank Horan. One day I was called out of the line going into the refectory by Fr.Gunning and told that I was becoming too friendly with Frank, and that ‘Particular friendships were frowned upon’. It was undoubtedly one of the policies of Salesian Education that you mingled and mixed with everyone in the school and not just one or two special friends. Obviously, there was a sexual connotation to such a policy and they were only trying to ensure that relationships never reached any dangerous levels. This restriction has probably put me in good stead, because I find mixing with people very easy and enjoyable, and am keen on ensuring everyone is included. On the other hand, I feel that it is part of our nature to have someone special, with whom we feel more comfortable, and at ease, and with whom there is a willingness to share interests. Certainly, as far as I was concerned, throughout the whole of my school days and life as a Religious, any physical relationships never came into it or even thought of. The only sexual urges I felt were entirely heterosexual.
My mother proudly kept all my school reports. The pass mark was 60% , above which came Good, Very Good and Excellent. I received two E’s at the end of my first year, one in Christian doctrine and the second in Elocution. Elocution!? - not bad for a lad who arrived ten months previously as an out and out cockney! In that first year I failed only Arithmetic. However, the following Summer I managed to change that to a G, and gained a total of six E’s.
With me in Preparatory were eleven other young, zealous boys, all one or two years older than me. Of those original twelve only two of us made it to the Priesthood. The other one was Gerry McGuinness from Glasgow. In the second year, he was joined by his brother Eddie, who also became a Salesian priest. The three of us eventually studied Theology together in Turin. It was during that time that Eddie and I became very close friends.
The summer holiday of ’42 was one I had looked forward to in a very special way. I had been away from home since the previous October, living in a huge mansion, under a strict regime with no female input whatsoever. It was nice to come home, despite its smallness, and be with my Mum and sister again. It was also to be significant for my brother John, who has just completed his five years at Shrigley and would be returning, with me, to Beckford as a novice.
I still vividly recall the day he came home. He asked Mum if he could have a few words in private. This they did in the front room. When they came out, both were in floods of tears. John, then nearly twenty, had been turned down for the Novitiate. He had not been considered good enough even to try his vocation in the Religious life. My sister and I were stunned.
On returning to Beckford for my second year, I felt, in some strange way, that I was sharing John’s failure. So many asked about him, especially a John McCrossan, one of the novices and a former classmate. Although I was able to tell them that John was trying the Zionists, a religious Order, whose aim was the conversion of Jews, I was almost apologising for his absence. I think it made me more determined than ever to succeed. Perhaps that’s why the Rector, Fr.T.W.Hall, was in a position to sum up my end of year report with: “ This is a very good report after a successful year. He is wholehearted in all he does and is inclined to some selfishness in small things”.
From September 1943 to July 1947 I spent four very happy years at the Salesian Missionary College, Shrigley Park, Nr. Macclesfield, Cheshire. Like the house at Beckford, it too was a Hall, built in 1825, on the site of an old medieval one,. It was a building of its time, where very rich industrialist families lived in neo-classical splendour. As befell many of its contemporaries, Shrigley Hall became too expensive to run and upkeep and on the death of its last owner, it was put up for sale. In 1929, the Salesians were looking for a place in England to educate and train young men for the Missions, which were predominantly English-speaking. Fr.Tozzi, the provincial, negotiated the purchase and I remember meeting him on one of his visits to Beckford.
To the right of the House, an Anglican architect by the name of Tilden built a most beautiful octagonal Church, from stone quarried locally, and which must be the precursor of many a so-called modern Church. A great deal of the hard work was carried out by staff and boys who lived there in the late 30’s. My brother John was one of them and from him I had heard so much about Shrigley that I could hardly wait to get there in the first week of September 1943.
No one can but be impressed on arrival. The Hall, built of local grey stone, stands part way up a hill surrounded by mature trees. Looking from the front of the house, you can see the huge green fields undulating across and down to two man-made lakes, and in the distance the Cheshire Plain stretching as far as the eye can see. If any place deserves the title of ‘area of outstanding beauty’ then surely this must be it.
The school was wholly and essentially geared not only to the provision of a sound secondary education, but also to prepare us boys to become members of a Religious Order and its community life, to prepare us for the priestly life and an apostolate on the Missions. Emphasis was therefore placed on learning, manual labour, sport, music, drama, Religion and personal spirituality
These topics will head the following chapters, in which I describe what happened during the next four years of my school life. Where my own memory blurs I am gratefully indebted for greater detail to an excellent ‘memoir’ written by James Murray, who as a lad from Glasgow was at Shrigley from 1935 to 1940. He then made his novitiate at Beckford during ’40 – ’41, after which he returned to Shrigley to study Philosophy when I first arrived at Beckford. Through the years that followed we were never destined to cross paths.
I shall always be grateful for the first class education I received at Shrigley. The standards demanded, as in everything else, were extremely high. In my view it was on a par with any Public School in the country. Furthermore, it was almost free. Fees were based on ability to pay. I know my Mum gave as much as she could, which I think was in the region of £5 per term. Refusal to learn, shoddy homework, or laziness were not tolerated and in fact seen as signs of a lack of vocation to the Religious Life. Such demands were fortunately of no concern to me. I had been gifted with an aptitude for learning, a will to discover and an ability to learn. And I am glad that we were pushed or pressurised to study. It stood me in good stead for the next fifteen years of uninterrupted academic work/study.
The twelve of us that had started at Beckford, on arrival at Shrigley went into Grammar(Year 3). We were joined by a number of boys mostly Scots. Among them were Peter Boyle and Peter Burns. Both persevered to the end, although Peter Boyle died recently. I became very friendly with another Scot, Michael Power, although in a class below me. The only other Londoner was Peter Grace, remembered for an outstanding brain and love of German. He was outwardly very pious and perhaps may have suffered from scruples. Although he started as an aspirant to the priesthood, he opted to remain a lay Brother. Lay brothers in the Salesians were usually artisans, like carpenters, farmers, cooks, tailors, toolmakers, or printers. Peter became a teacher. His brother, Charles was a Salesian priest and member of the staff. He was a brilliant pianist and organist.
Other sets of brothers I can remember were the Norris’ who came from the Salesian College in Farnborough, Hants. There were also the French Paul and Roger D’Arifat, who had been in England when the Germans invaded France so were unable to return to their houses there. They were much older than us, but not yet professed Salesians, so were in betwixt and between. The summer of 43, when it was deemed too risky to return home, I spent most of the holiday at Shrigley and spent a lot of time with Roger and Paul. They were tall with long thin necks and when they laughed you could see the vertical movements of their ‘Adams apples’. The other most memorable set were the three Sutherlands – Frank who was in the form above me, Arthur a form above him and Tony, a contemporary of my brother John was studying philosophy. I was to be a fellow member of staff with Frank in Farnborough and with both Frank and Tony in Daleside, South Africa.
The standard of teaching varied according to subject. Some of the teachers had a great ability to make their subjects interesting and naturally these were the ones we excelled at or at least looked forward to. One of the worst teachers was Bro. Francis Rogers, who has been described as the Yehudi Menuhin of Shrigley. It would probably have been more contemporaneous to have called him the Fritz Kreisler, who at the time was the greatest violinist in the world. No one could deny that Brother Francis was a beautiful violinist and indeed was to teach me how to play, and at this he excelled. But as a Geography teacher, he was the most boring I have ever known. His ‘method’ was to make you learn ten pages of the text book off by heart and then give you a test the following day. And yet, what a potentially exciting subject both to teach and to learn. I taught it in South Africa throughout the school for some six years. I can quite honestly say it became the most popular subject in the curriculum and in which most students had their greatest success.
After my first two years at Shrigley, the war ended in May 1945 and VE day was celebrated on the eighth. We had a bonfire at the side of the house which must have been visible across the valley below. We also could see others burning in the far distance. The following month we were engrossed in ‘O’ levels, of which I eventually obtained ten. For my last and most important two years, I studied French, Latin and Greek. I found the latter difficult, but enjoyable. This was due to our teacher Fr.Pat McQuaid, a lovely, cheerful and kind personality, who was a punster par excellence. He loved talking about ‘Arry Stottel (Aristotle) and Plate o’ porridge(Plato). Despite my best efforts I failed Greek, and according to the system operating in those days, if you took three subjects(the required minimum) you had to pass three subjects. This failure therefore meant that I failed the whole ‘A’ level exam. My first bitter disappointment in the academic field. Mind you, I was only sixteen.
MANUAL LABOUR AND SPORT
One of the mottoes we soon learnt was ‘Mens sana in corpore sano’ , in other words, your brain will function better if your body is in good shape. And the body was developed through hard physical work and games like soccer, cricket, athletics. The competitive element was achieved through the ‘House’ system mentioned in a previous chapter. Each house had senior, middle and junior teams.
In addition to the everyday light housework duties were heavier tasks such as spud picking in early October, haymaking at harvest time, or being involved in construction work like road making and wall building. The lanes around Shrigley Park are lined with dry stone walls, no cement or binding, just slabs of stone chosen for size and compatibility with each other. Even some of the inside jobs could be heavy and demanding, such as scrubbing huge areas of floors or polishing them.
Soccer was my favourite game and to play it on open fields was a long way from playing it on the streets of the East End or the tarmac and concrete of my primary schools. It was also my favourite because I was good at it and constantly emulated my Soccer heroes in the form of Stanley Matthews, Tom Finney and Tom Lawton. I tried to imitate their swerves and sidesteps and the shooting from outside the penalty area and heading became a great skill as well. We were encouraged to learn to use both feet and not just concentrate on the natural right or left foot.
Ogilvie Team of 45-46.At either end you have Eddie McGuinness and at the other on the R, his brother Gerry. Both are now secular, retired priests in the US. Both have prostate cancer and I await to hear how their treatment is going. I know the names of some of the others but not all.
Weather conditions for some of the winter months were atrocious, either very cold, chill winds or rain. Nothing was allowed to be worn beneath the football shirt or shorts. This could be a distinct disadvantage. Because of the numbers of matches going on simultaneously, a lot of pitches were being used. Some of them were on the side of a hill or a ravine so that when the ball was kicked out on the down slope, it took time to fetch it. If you were not the retriever then you huddled together trying to fight off the cold. All this was part of a toughening up process, preparing us for the arduous tasks that lay ahead on the Missions. After muddy and wet matches there were no comforting hot showers. We showered once a week only and then for two minutes. You washed yourself as best you could, legs, arms and head, from the wash basin in the communal area near the dormitory. The Salesian in charge of the dormitory ensured you had done the job properly.
After Easter, cricket was played during the Summer term. We were given very basic equipment, a bat, a ball and one pad for the leading leg, so on your right one if you were left handed and vice versa. There were three stumps and bails at each end. Coaching was also very basic, but it started us out on the right path. Tips like how to bowl a length, a proper grip and so on. House competition was keen, and my Ogilvy were practically impossible to beat when I was in my last two years. I played a significant part in our victories, as both opening bat and opening bowler. My partner was a Maltese called John Briffa who was a big, slightly stooped lad. We opened the batting and although our parnerships, in adult terms, were small, like 20 or 30 runs, in school boy terms these were of some stature. At the time the Edrich’s and Dennis Compton were having an outstanding season with Middlesex and were known as the ‘terrible twins’. Briff and I were rather proud to be nicknamed after them. As I opened the bowling, Briff kept wicket and for a tall man he was very agile, caught and stumped well. Cricket became less and less available in the early years as a Salesian, since I studied abroad where we could only have nets on a ‘bocce’ court in Italy. No matches, no green fields.
Athletics was a sport I simply hated. Cross country races were beyond my capability and comprehension. To make things worse the terrain around Shrigley was extremely hilly. Furthermore there was the inevitable ‘Sports day’ with 100, 220, 440 and 880 yard races. I managed to excel at the shortest. Quick over short distances, no stamina for anything more. I know that when I left the school, I held the 100 yards record. What it was I cannot, conveniently, remember!
Walks or rambles were also a regular feature. The quiet, scenic country lanes, practically traffic free, were ideal either for a short two or three mile walk to the nearby villages of Rainow, Adlington and Bollington, just above which was a favourite climb up to the White Nancy. On special Feast days, longer walks were undertaken and every year the ‘mega’ walk to Buxton in beautiful Derbyshire countryside. It involved a ten mile hike, climbing 1400 feet to the top of the moors, after which it descended quite steeply through the beautiful Goyt valley, very often a destination on its own, down into Buxton.
A large quadrangle at the back of the Hall was the recreation yard for the numerous short breaks during the day. In midwinter, water was poured over the middle, so that one massive diagonal slide resulted. It was quite dangerous to be ‘en cordon’ travelling at speed into an old mattress in the corner. The most popular game was ‘tig’, consisting in chasing after someone to touch. As soon as anyone was touched, he became the chaser.
With the above regime, our health was very good. However, what many boys suffered from were boils and chilblains. I had boils repeatedly on the back of my neck, so I was a fairly frequent visitor to the infirmary where the lay-brother in charge was Brother James Brockbank, an eccentric if ever there was one. He was kind and comforting although he never hesitated to stick a massive needle into your boil if he considered it time for lancing. The momentary pain was outweighed by the relief that followed.
The other common complaint were chilblains which are usually a sign of poor circulation. We were certainly subjected to fierce changes of temperature. A very warm central heating system inside and then the cold winds and snow outside. In addition when we were on washing up chores, the plunging of cold hands into hot water did not help. I would guess however that an incorrect and insufficient diet were probably more at the bottom of these complaints. After I left Shrigley I never had any further problems.
Hunger for adolescent growing boys was also a daily occurrence, so that if the occasion arose, as for example, we were on jobs in the Community refectory or helping out in the kitchen, chips were the items most often stolen. These were hidden in pockets and shared out with your friends at an appropriate time. I have always enjoyed cold chips ever since.
MUSIC AND DRAMA
Don Bosco, the founder of the Salesians, was a great believer in the importance of vocal and instrumental music, which he felt expanded a boy’s education, and also enhanced participation in the liturgy. So we all learnt Gregorian, which I have always loved to hear and to sing. As far as concerts and the stage were concerned, he laid down strict guidelines, which were eventually incorporated into the Salesians’ handbook of Regulations. Producers or directors had to choose suitable plays, which would exclude anything “ violent, immoral, passionate or vulgar, as well as the presentation of cruel or vicious characters.”(Regulations, 1967 no.229) Furthermore, plays with female characters in them had to be adapted. So a ‘waitress’ became a ‘waiter’, a ‘daughter’ changed into a ‘son’ and so on. Some plays were easily adaptable; others that were not, just did not get played. Operettas from Gilbert and Sullivan were very popular, the ‘Mikado’ and ‘Pirates of Penzance’ being the ones most frequently produced. A perfect play for men and boys only was, of course, R.C.Sherriff’s famous ‘Journey’s End’, which I later produced to great acclaim in South Africa with thirteen and fourteen year olds.
The huge disappointment in not going home for the Christmas holidays was more than compensated by the way we spent the time at Shrigley. Classes were substituted by periods of work in the morning, sport in the afternoon, evening study period reading stories and then a different stage production every alternate evening. Each form and group of students(the ‘philosophers’ and ‘theologians referred to above) put on a play or concert. Many of the productions bordered on the professional, and there were some outstanding artistes. Tony Sutherland immediately comes to mind. I must say that over those four years, I used to get very jealous of other boys who been picked for a play in preference to me. I thought I was at least as good as them, if not better!
On first arriving at Shrigley, we all underwent tests for suitability to be members of the choir. I passed and began an association with choirs that lasted throughout later studies right up to ordination. We were also offered options on musical instruments, so I chose the piano. Fr.Charles Grace, who eventually became a colleague of mine in South Africa, failed me because I did ‘not have a good ear’. Brother Frank Rogers then welcomed me to violin classes( an instrument on which you had to make your own notes accurately, as opposed to the piano where they are already in situ) and was surprised at my natural ability for the instrument. He encouraged me endlessly, and I think he was rewarded when I became the leader of the Shrigley orchestra in my last two years. Our repertoire was mostly classical and popular music at the classical end. The first movement from Beethoven’s Fifth, and the second movement from the Seventh are well remembered. “Cavalleria Rusticana” was also a great favourite. We were not good enough to play whole symphonies or concertos. But it all increased my attachment to the Classics.
Anybody reading this would be forgiven if they thought Shrigley boys were swats and boffins. The reality was that we were very ordinary kids full of fun and mischief, although you had to be more wary about the latter. We had nicknames for most of our teachers, some of them being outrageously irreverent. A Brother Michael Doyle was ‘Mick the masher’ because he liked to clip people about the ear. Bro.James Conway, a lovely man with very red cheeks was known as ‘Beetroot Bill’ and was probably the most mimicked of all. He had a slight stutter when beginning a sentence. All of us vied with each other to achieve the most perfect imitation. Bro James Connolly could not pronounce his r’s very well and made them chinese-like into l’s. “Go and brush the Refectory” became “Go and blush the Lefectoly”. A very severe looking Northern Irishman, who rarely smiled or spoke to us, sported a crew cut. He was immediately dubbed ‘the beast of Belsen’. Every little mannerism was spotted and mimicked. Even when Fr.Musgrove was preaching. He had a pronounced lisp and as he lay his hands on the lectern of the pulpit, he lisped the famous quote from Scripture: “Feed my lambs(at this he would lift both his little fingers), feed my sheep”, when he would raise the middle finger on both hands. The Head, Fr.Wrangham, was a snuff taker and I do not think that there was a boy in the school who did not attempt to do exactly as he did, immediately followed by his favourite snort ‘Che,Che’.
Neither did we boys escape the nick name culture. I was called ‘Tubbs’ although I wasn’t very rotund. John Higgins, a Geordie in my class, was ‘wee Bobby’, an attempt to mimic his style of speech. Poor old Jim Colette suffered with bad feet, so he became ‘gassocks’, but what a brilliant clarinet player! Come to think of it, we were only furnished with a clean pair of socks once a week on a Saturday, together with shirt and underpants, as they were commonly referred to in those days.
RELIGION AND PERSONAL SPIRITUALITY
In addition to the daily Mass, prayers and exercises for a Happy Death, described in a previous chapter, Confession was encouraged on a weekly basis. The two main confessors were Frs. Musgrove and John Sexton. Both were very patient and re-assuring, particularly when it came to listening to my worries about ‘sins’ of impurity, which were none other than wet dreams. These were always very embarrassing events for me and I was ashamed to ask any of the teachers or even mention them to any of my friends. I thought this was something which only happened to me! We heard a lot about ‘Purity’ and ‘Chastity’ but they were never defined, except perhaps in relation to dedication to God in the religious life. As for the biological processes of early adolescence, nothing.
Complementary to the confessional, were the regular call ups to see the Rector. He would ask how things were going, did I have any worries, was I happy? Then, the bad news, if any. He told you things that were not satisfactory, like I wasn’t working hard enough, or what needed amending in conduct or attitude. These interviews were quite nerve wracking, because it was at one of these that you could be told you are no longer considered to be priestly material. Parents would be told, and arrangements made for packing your luggage and the purchase of a single ticket. This would be done at a time when the rest of the school were busy. Anyone leaving was never allowed to say goodbye to classmates or friends. You were not allowed either to tell anyone you were being sent home. Strange, but true. I think this was designed not to cause too much upset among the ‘survivors’. I had Fr. T.W.(Tammany) Hall as Rector for my first year (Grammar ) at Shrigley. He was a rather awesome figure, who strode around with great energy, and spoke with what was termed in those days as an ‘Oxford’ accent. His successor was the small, rotund and more approachable Fr.McCabe, who made us feel during our last two years as very special young men, about to embark on a wonderful life as Salesians.
The standard expected of personal conduct, in every single aspect of your life, was extremely high. This was exemplified in my Easter report when in Rhetoric I (First year sixth) instead of scoring ten in each of the twelve weeks in the term, I received two nines. The Rector commented at the end: “Anthony is trying hard to improve himself but he should have a higher mark for conduct”. Those were the days!
Some of the months of the year were dedicated to special saints or themes. So, March was St.Joseph’s, May belonged to Mary, under the particular title of ‘Help of Christians’, June was the month of the Sacred Heart, October for the Rosary, and in November we remembered to pray for the dead. Boys in Syntax and Rhetoric 2 had to give a short talk, called sermonettes, to the whole school, on one of the titles from the Litany in May, or a topic of devotion to the Sacred Heart in June. This usually took place after tea, followed by Benediction. I can remember doing one of these. It meant writing it, having it edited, learning it off by heart and then delivery – a very nerve wracking occasion. Nevertheless I think I enjoyed it, and was proud to be chosen (usually out of a hat). Perhaps it was a harbinger of the sermons I was to preach many years later? And if you think I must have been a very pious little goodie two shoes by now, you ‘ain’t seen nothing yet’.
Towards the end of August 1947, I returned to Beckford, where six years previously I had started on my journey to the Priesthood. This time, however, it was to take up a challenge, a challenge to holiness. I believe that in Hebrew ‘holy’ means ‘being set apart for God’. This involved cutting yourself off from the outside world, that is, the ordinary life that the vast majority of men and women and children lived. In fact what I had been living as a boy before I started my secondary schooling.
In a previous chapter I touched very slightly upon the sort of house St.Joseph’s Novitiate was. The purchase of the house was preceded by a medal of St.Joseph being thrown over the wall from the street outside. With the medal, of course, went many prayers. The house had been seen by the Novice Master, Fr.Simonetti, who thought it and the surrounding grounds eminently suitable for the training of novices. A novice is a learner, or a starter. We were starting to learn about a very special way of life. The term ‘novitiate’(the middle ‘t’ can be replaced by a ‘c’), usually lasted a year and was the same word to describe the place as well.
I can do no better than to quote from James Murray’s piece about Beckford. He wrote: “Just inside the main door, where the carriage and horses would stop to allow the gentry to alight, there was a magnificent broad wooden staircase with two landings. The first landing led to the library, with wall to wall bookcases and comfortable chairs surrounding a huge table. Next to the library was the refectory with oriel windows looking onto the rose garden and luscious lawns. To the left of the first landing were two hatches which led down to the kitchen on the ground floor. All the food and crockery were hoisted up manually and taken to the refectory. Immediately to the left of the big hatch was the door leading into the chapel. The second landing led to Don Sim’s room and the Rector’s room. Sweeping and dusting that staircase every morning and polishing it on your knees or with a large polisher on a Wednesday or Saturday afternoon was a job you prayed you wouldn’t get.”
Of the outside, James goes on to write: “ The grounds were truly beautiful. A Cedar of Lebanon tree rose magnificently from the centre of a large well-manicured lawn. Tennis was played on this sometimes by members of Staff. To the other side of the house was the rose-garden walk, where we were allowed to stroll up and down in threes and fours each night after supper. One night a week we had to converse in Italian! That probably was the quietest night of all. The old stables were near the courtyard, now converted into toilets which had the whitest stone walls I have ever seen. I helped to give them their annual coat of distemper. There was also a small farm with a herd of cows and a dairy from which came our butter. Altogether it was idyllic”.
We rose everyday at 5.30am and meditated for half an hour from 6 am. It consisted of reflecting quietly to yourself on some given thoughts. This was a skill which needed learning. The most difficult part about it was trying to keep awake. At 6.30 we had our first talk on topics relating to the spiritual life, and the life of a religious. The rule we would have to live by, the vows we would be taking at the end of the year. A second similar talk would be given later that evening just before supper. This happened from Monday to Friday. At 7.30am we attended Mass, during which we said five decades of the Rosary. At 8.15am we had breakfast. From 9.15am there were classes till dinner time(midday). Subjects taught were restricted to English, Latin, Italian (because the founder of the Salesians, Don Bosco was an Italian), Religion (mostly the catechism), Music with emphasis on Gregorian Plain Chant. Then we played football, more classes till about 4 pm, then 15 minutes listening to a reading from a spiritual book. Tea-time followed, after which we went back into the Chapel for Benediction. The second talk, then Supper, concluding the day with Night Prayers. About once a week we ventured out into ‘The World’ and went for a walk through the village and beyond for about two hours. To say that we struck a rather curious sight to behold would be a vast understatement. Imagine a group of young men attired in black suits, collar and tie (soon to be replaced by a dog collar after November 21st) walking along three abreast. To top it all we had to wear trilbys!
The programme at weekends was different. Saturday was spent on the bigger jobs: farming, cleaning large areas, special projects (like building walls). During the good weather I was assigned to paint all the guttering and down pipes around this vast house, a smaller version of a stately home. The paint we used was ‘battleship grey’, then surplus to wartime requirements and no doubt cheaply purchased in those early days after the War. My fellow worker was Paddy Deane, a lovely Irishman, who eventually went to China as a missionary immediately after ordination. Climbing up ladders at quite some height has served me well ever since.
Sundays was most definitely the day of the Lord. However we did start off with a lie-in. Up at six instead of 5.30am. First mass at 7am, then after breakfast at about 11am, a sung Solemn mass, all in Gregorian chant. After midday dinner, a full game of football followed by Tea. Then an hour of study, concluding with Vespers, a sermon and Benediction before supper.
This daily spiritual intensity was reflected in every aspect of our lives: work, play, relaxation, learning, and eating. Attention had to be paid to every detail and everything done as perfectly as possible. Whether you were dusting a room or a hall, then even the most inaccessible corners had to be reached. You ate to live, and not lived to eat. Food must not be wasted, even if it tasted horrible. At games, then enthusiasm and endeavour were required, no matter your ability. Dissent was never voiced. Sportsmanship ruled above all else.
The whole aim of this holy year was to get us attuned to a life based on the monastic Rule of St.Benedict. In fact all religious orders or congregations are modelled on this fundamental way of life, although each will have its own style, different from the Benedictines. The Salesian style was enshrined in the Constitutions and Regulations originally composed by the founder, Saint John Bosco. One of our tasks as novices was to learn 200 of the former and some 400 of the latter. Not all at once of course, but a few at a time in accordance with one’s ability to memorise them. The Novice Assistant, a very pious Scot called Bro.Edward, would give us all a chance to be tested.
Over and above these official Rules we were encouraged to compose our own Rule of Life. This project was an ongoing effort and for over twenty-five years I added to it. I still have it today in a note book, measuring some four by six inches. It approached each activity under three headings: the aim, motives to go for that aim and methods to reach it. Many of my annual retreat resolutions found a place in it. My doubts, crises of identity, weaknesses and strengths were all there. It was a totally personal record, for my eyes only.
Life moved on in the relentless quest for perfection and holiness. Self assessment, focussing on personal weaknesses, and attempting their eradication was constant. This was accomplished in various ways, such as the confessional, and choosing a personal monitor to keep an eye on you to point out any faults shown. My monitor was John Briffa, my cricketing ‘twin’ from Shrigley days. But one of the most significant ways was called the ‘Manifestation’ in which once a month you presented yourself to the Novice Master and gave an account of your activities, whether you had kept or broken the rules, queries, worries or doubts about your vocation. In the original Italian the word is ‘Rendiconto’, that is ‘to give an account’ and is badly translated, I think, by the word ‘manifestation’. It was the occasion when you might be told that you are no longer deemed to be suitable material for the Religious Life. If this were the case, your departure was quick, silent and unannounced, as previously noted when any boys left Shrigley.
Major Church festivals, like Christmas and Easter, came and went. To help us during the season of Lent to concentrate on the sufferings of Christ we were given a Passion Clock. At each hour of the day we were reminded of what happened to Our Blessed Lord during Good Friday. So, for example, at twelve noon, He was nailed to the cross; at three o’clock He died. In which case, you had to think twice before answering the question “What’s the time?” Did they mean Passion time or Greenwich mean time?
The Salesians used to say jokingly that a holiday for them was a change of occupation. Anyone expecting a seaside sojourn, strolling along the beach would have been sorely disappointed. The only time we left Beckford during this year of trial was a trip to Cowley, near Oxford, where we had a boarding school. We stayed for two weeks during the Summer holidays and loved it. The mornings were devoted to painting and decorating, whilst the afternoons were spent looking around that city of spires and colleges. Can you imagine the look on people’s faces as they encountered this bunch of young men, dressed in black suits and dog collars? I was only sixteen at the time. Because our tastes were simple, the holiday was thoroughly enjoyed.
On our return, only a few weeks remained of the year as September 8th loomed on the horizon. Our Lady’s birthday. This was the day we were to make our first vows of Poverty, Chastity and Obedience. It would be initially for three years only, then you could renew them for another three, before making them in perpetuity. The day was always preceded by a ten day retreat, an even further intensive period of spiritual recollection. It was necessary, for we were going to make a huge decision about the immediate and perhaps long term future in our lives.
During that retreat, I went up to make my ‘manifestation’ and had the most unexpected news. I was to go to Turin with three other novices. We had been handpicked for various reasons – potential, academic success, hard work. I do not know. Fr.Simonetti told me something to the effect: “I was not too keen on you going to Turin because of your youth. You have a great capacity to love, and I am not sure whether that it is best served in this way”. It puzzled me then, and it has done so ever since. But I was not going to query the decision of my Superiors, which obviously included the Provincial and other members on his council. All the rest of my companions would be going back to Shrigley to study Philosophy for two years. The Turin course at the Pontificio Ateneo Salesiano (a papal university) would last three years and we would graduate with a licentiate in Philosophy( Ph.L). This meant we would be able to teach it to other newly professed Salesians in the future.
Profession day dawned amidst enormous excitement, expectation, some trepidation, but full of joy. It was a like a wedding day. We were consecrating our lives to Christ, after all. What a challenge! With the vow of Poverty, we were surrendering all attachment to material possessions. We would have everything we needed but at the most basic level. To go out for the day we would have to ask the Bursar for a few bob. By vowing Chastity, we were forsaking all sexual pleasure with others or alone. No wife or children of our own. We were now part of a family of brother Religious. By far this was the most difficult vow to keep. In making a vow of obedience, we placed the control of our lives in the hands of someone else. Any major decision to move elsewhere, to adopt a particular course of study, would need permission. This also applied to going out, sight seeing, visiting home and many other facets of daily living. It also meant being told to do things we did not like.
Parents or family were not present on this day of days. In the normal course of events we would not be seeing them for another two years. This in itself was symbolic of a total detachment. We now belonged to God alone. The happiness experienced was indescribable. The reward of seven long years of preparation. Together with the day I was ordained priest, I can safely say, that September 8th., 1948 was the closest I felt to being really holy.
My brother John and I - both Shrigley old Boys, taken in 1958 at home. I had just been ordained sub-deacon(an order which does not exist now) and John was a priest in the Birmingham Diocese(died in1967)
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