MEMOIRS OF MY SCHOOLDAYS AT ST VINCENT'S ORPHANAGE FROM 1918-1927 BY WILLIAM JAMES HARDING
CHAPTER 1 - My arrival at the school
I liked being at the Children's home in Shap, Cumberland living with children my own age. One day Miss Graves - I remember her well - dressed me in my sailor suit of white and blue & little straw hat. We boarded the train bound for Preston. I was 6 years of age. As the train proceeded towards its destination I walked along the corridor placed my hands on the brass rail along the windows, I was happy having this train ride, it was my first time, had ever been in a train, so I sang this song:
Alfie, Alfie, Alfie my boy what are you waiting for now
You promised to marry me sometime in June
It's never to late nor its never too soon
All the family keep asking me
Which day, what day I don't know what to say
Alfie, Alfie, Alfie my boy what are you waiting for now.
From the station we caught the tram to take us to Fulwood - Miss Graves said. We arrived at the orphanage went into a big room, where there were these strange looking women wearing big white wings on their heads. I was scared.
CHAPTER 2 - My clothes
After the preliminarys I was taken by one of these strange beings to the Needlework Room, where I was fitted out with navy blue jersey, Black Corduroy trousers, black socks and clogs - horrible clogs. They were leather top and wooden soles with irons round the edges of the soles and heels. They had taken my sailor suit away.
CHAPTER 3 - My first day at school
I cried all day.
I was let out into this huge playground. Boys & boys & boys everywhere - all sizes it was terrifying. How was I to mix with all these boys - I cried a bit more.
They were all dressed the same as I was and a lot of them were playing football with different types of balls - some were coloured others were just tennis balls.
I sat on a seat, there were a lot of them around the playground and cried. One of these women was approaching me and sat down beside me. "You are a new boy" she said. I said I was. "Where are you from?." "Shap" I said. "Don't cry" she said kindly "boys don't cry". She got up and walked away. With that 3 or 4 boys came to me and said "what did Sister say to you?", and I told them. "We like her very much - she is nice - that is Sister Monica. Come with us" they said " do stop crying". I went with them and "You stay with us" they said.
I stayed with them, I stopped crying and I never cried again. I had friends - friends that were to stay with me for many years ahead.
CHAPTER 4 - Meal times
My number at the school (we will call it a school) because that is what it was, as well as a home was 150. I never really knew how many boys there were some said around 250 to 300 and 35 Sisters plus maids to look after us.
Mealtimes were regular, and always on time: Breakfast - 8.00am, Lunch or Dinner - 12.30pm, Tea -5.00pm
Breakfast consisted of porridge and a slice of bread & butter or margarine and a mug of cocoa. We had enamel plates and mugs with our school number painted in black. Saturdays and Sundays we had 2 slices of thick bread & butter with cocoa.
Lunch or Dinner was always meat and 2 veg - with gravy, on most days.
Tea A simple meal of 2 slices of bread and a mug of tea.
It must have been quite a suitable diet, because we all looked well and healthy.
CHAPTER 5 - Bedtime
We usually went to bed at 7.30pm except the Senior Boys and Prefects - They retired to bed around 8.00 to 8.30pm
Very large dormitories, with a compliment of 36 boys in each, bare wooden floors & iron bedsteads and straw mattress - I think they were straw or some such fibre because they made a rattling noise when we made the bed. We were taught to make our own beds when we reached the age of 8 or 9. We had white cotton sheets, which were changed regularly each week and 2 woollen blankets. It was quite enough bedding because our dormitories were central heated, with pipes running all round the rooms. We were watched over by 2 maids and 2 Sisters. - To the washroom have a good cold water wash and into bed. We got up in the morning at 7.00am, except on Sunday when we were allowed an extra hour.
CHAPTER 6 - Clothes
Our regular everyday outfit consisted of:
- A navy blue jersey - wool
- A pair of corduroy trousers - short
- A pair of black socks that came below the knee
- A pair of clogs - black leather tops and wooden soles with irons around the soles and heels, which had to be replaced when they wore thin, to save the wooden sole. Woe betide you if you let the irons get too thin, so that the wooden sole was damaged - you got punished.
Our Sunday best consisted of:
- A blue woollen jersey
- Blue serge trousers
- Black socks
- A pair of soft leather boots, with rubber soles fastened up with cotton black laces
- A soft material cap with 'SV' intertwined at the front. We were only allowed to wear caps on Sundays and Holidays of Obligation
Later we changed to hardware boots, which were quite comfortable to play football in. We could then use a real regulation leather football, provided we play in a separate area in the playground and that was to save anybody getting hit with the ball.
CHAPTER 7 - Discipline
We had to be correct at all times, I mean we had to obey the rules laid down by Mother Superior, and enforced by the Sisters. Also there was a Drill Master by the name of Mr Moore. He was very strict and not very well liked by the boys, of course that was to be expected. Two Sisters were on guard duty every 2 hours on the playground and in the playhall.
We were lined up like soldiers at various times, such as meal times, going to our separate classrooms, going to Mass in the School Chapel etc under the tuition of Mr Moore and another man, I forget his name. We had to address them as SIR always. Mr Moore and his colleague went through the ranks each morning to see that our clogs and later boots were well blacked and polished before going into school, our hair was combed and our jersey and pants were neat and tidy if not...
Always address the maids as MISS, and caretakers Mr Hayhurst and Mr Tombey.
CHAPTER 8 - Routine activities
Getting up each morning we washed well etc and made our beds. We lined up outside our dormitories and went to mass at the Chapel that would be about 7.30am
We all went to the Refectory for our breakfast, we were not allowed to talk at mealtimes unless Sister gave permission. The Sisters had to watch over us during the meal - breakfast, dinner and tea. A few Sisters were kind and let us talk - but quietly - Sister Monica, Sister Benedict and Sister Aloysius to name some - we liked those Sisters very much.
Always clean our teeth, get our hair cut, and we had regular bath times each week. A nurse on duty at bath times to cut our nails on fingers and toes. School hours: 9.00 -12.00 am; 2.00-4.30 pm, Tea: 5.30pm, Played until 8.00 pm.
Assembled in the Playhall, all in lines and marched off to bed - had a good wash before getting into bed, 2 maids in attendance to each dormitory. The maids had a separate cubicle in the dormitory, a sort of night nurse role - they were mostly young active women. Sisters came round to see that all lights were out by 10.00pm
CHAPTER 9 - Feast days
Christmas Day. Much activity in school painting our own Christmas Cards but nobody to send them to. Decorated all rooms. We usually finished school on December 23rd. The School was given a thorough good cleaning, we all did our bit on this project washing corridors, cleaning ground floor windows, polishing brasses, washing statues and steps, and washing lower areas of walls - the paintwork.
Christmas Eve. Went to bed at the normal time but woken up to attend Midnight Mass. Put on our best clothes and walked silently to the Chapel. I was in the Choir and had the privilege of singing Silent Night solo, but my voice broke in later years and that was that, I never did become a singer of any distinction.
After the Mass we filed down to the Refectory and had a currant bun and a mug of cocoa. It was great to have refreshments at that hour. We could talk and throughout the Christmastide we were allowed to talk quietly at all mealtimes, which was good, and gave a distinct atmosphere of jollity.
We usually had RABBIT for dinner and 2 veg followed by Christmas Pudding. One of the cooking staff brought in a large pudding and it was set alight to the joy of all the boys, and cheers ensued from every corner of the Refectory. The tables were beautiful to behold with all the pop bottles of various colours lined up in the middle of these long tables. The big boys had to open the bottles for the little ones. They had glass marbles, as stoppers, and were very hard to push down. I performed this duty quite a few times when I became older. They used to go off with a loud POP!! The drinks consisted of Strawberry, Lime, Lemonade, Cherry and many other brands. We had crackers too - though not with big bangers but we had little presents in them. We had 2 weeks holiday. Christmas was great, the best feast of the year. Most other feast days we had half days holidays.
Easter. Easter was not liked very much because we had to do a lot of Spring cleaning, al lot of hard work - scrubbing the wooden floors of the bedrooms, all the corridors and stairs leading to the upper floors and the ground floor windows. The boys that did these tasks ranged from 10 to 14 years. All this activity was controlled by the Sisters, who made sure that everything was beautiful and clean for the Easter feast day - Sunday that is. We got new outfits for Easter every year.
St Patrick's Day. In the afternoon the school band used to visit each classroom and play an Irish tune and present us each with an orange - which we had to eat in the playground and don't forget to put the peel in the litter bins on the wall.
St Vincent's Day. A great day this because we broke up for our Summer holidays. I always remember long hot days - playing football and playing cricket more like it. We used to play other teams in and out of the orphanage. I was in the school cricket team for one year. I wasn't all that good but did make a few runs and bowled a number of chaps out. I enjoyed these holidays very much. Also we had the School Sports Days, which usually went on for a week, as the organisers had to fit in all classes of ages 6 to 14 years. Seats were placed around the field - gymnasium benches they were, arranged around the cricket boundary line so that everybody could see what was going on. Some Sisters were there as well, younger ones of course. I often won the Thread the Needles race - because I had the knack of doing this. Though I have just one eye.
CHAPTER 10 - Outings
The first outing that all the school attended was the Whitsun Catholic Processions, through the centre of Preston. I was in the School Band and walked for our own Saint Vincent. We were dressed in blue and white sailor suits and straw hats. The procession took place every Whit Monday the whole time I was at the orphanage. Our second outing of the year was during the summer holidays when we went by Charabanc ride to Lytham. Lytham is a seaside town about 17 miles out of Preston.
We spent our time making sandcastles and if it was wet we went to the pictures - silent films in those days, and most of the time some kind benefactor paid our entrance fee - which was twopence.
On one occasion being a beautiful hot sunny day we saw a group of people talking and singing on the old windmill, as a lot of us children joined them and they taught us this song:
I am H.A.P.P.Y, I am H.A.P.P.Y,
I know I am I'm sure I am, I am H.A.P.P.Y
We were happy and enjoying ourselves. All of a sudden 3 Sisters came flying towards us skirts akimbo and rosary beads banging against their knees, they boxed our ears and said we should not take part in non-Catholic services, and bundled us off. Today they encourage ecumenical services, how times change.
I told you about Whit Monday walks being in the band, and on Whit Friday we went to Manchester to walk in a similar procession, and used to represent the Italian Quarter of the city. After which we got a lovely tea of cakes and ice cream, given by the nuns of St Joseph's Girls Orphanage.
Whit Tuesday we spent half a day at the Fair in Preston, all the rides on the Merry-go-rounds were free to us boys of the orphanage donated by a Mr Green who owned a number of the fairs entertainments.
CHAPTER 11 - Sports
We had a school football team and a cricket team. I played in them both at different times. I wasn't good but fair and made my small contribution to the success of the team by scoring goals and making runs. Sports days were great and took place during the summer holidays. They included:
sprint races for all ages, 3 legged race for all ages, duck apple for senior boys -a galvanised tub of water, see how quick you retrieved the apple from the bottom of the tub. Thread the needle race for senior boys. Incidentally I always won this race because I had the knack of performing this feat.There was javelin throwing for the senior boys and throwing the cricket ball. Also we had long jumps, hop, skip and a jump, which I was good at and won prizes. All in all they were jolly days.
CHAPTER 12 - The building
It was a Victorian structure of 3 floors and a Clock Tower. A large forecourt of chipped gravel, with a large statue of St Vincent in the foreground. Big double doors which to us seemed enormous, and we were not allowed anywhere around this entrance. There was also a large double door at the rear of the building, which was used very rarely, only on special occasions, like when we had different processions around the grounds - we went out that way. There were long corridors and stairs leading to classrooms, the Chapel, the bedrooms, and various other parts. We used to go for walks, of some distance but always returned to this austere red brick building, of many windows. There were shrubs but not a lot of flowers surrounding the building so large earthenware pots had flowers in them and a certain Sister had the job of looking after them.
When I was about 12 or 13 I got to know the Clock winder, I used to go up into the machine room and help wind the big clock. There was about 3 of my mates with me. The Sisters didn't know about this and he used to pay us 1 penny each - we thought we were well paid, I often went up in the Chapel roof to get the balls that the boys had kicked up there - I got special permission to do this.
CHAPTER 13 - My friends
Since my first day at the orphanage I had friends - boys who tagged on to me. I must have been fairly popular, to have so many, but on the other hand I was rather particular in my choice - but they all proved good and were a great comfort going on trips and other times.
I also had a special Sister by the name of Sister Winifred who taught me to play the piano. She was the school music teacher, over 6ft tall, and came from Brentwood in London -so she told me, I was about 13 then. She introduced prefects to the school. As well as the Sister I had a friend a Miss Green in the needlework room, she often gave me sandwiches, which she saved from her meal. I played the Harmonica and she bought me 3 or 4 at Christmas as presents. She was elderly and originally came from America. She had a sister. We were good friends until I left the orphanage and she made much more pleasant for me.
Talking of playing the harmonica I once went to the Old Peoples Home adjoining the school to retrieve my ball which had been kicked over the high wall. I had been given permission to go, and I saw the elderly folk there, so I decided that it would be a good idea to have a little concert round about Christmas. So I went over and played Carols for them, some sang and others thought it was nice anyway I enjoyed it.
Another friend I had was Mr Hayhurst the caretaker who used to let me into his boiler house and see the big fires, used for heating the school - we had radiators all over the place. We had lots of windows and Mr Hayhurst spent a lot of his time replacing panes of glass, which the boys had broken.
Mr Tickle was also a friend of mine. He was the painter - the contractor who made sure that everywhere was clean and nice to look at. He was wonderful at his job. He taught some of the boys to paint.
CHAPTER 14 - The chapel
A flight of stone stairs led up from the ground floor to the Chapel. Once in the Chapel you saw the beautiful walls of an azure blue and painted pictures of the Stations of the Cross. The high Altar was marble and designed to depict angels, and other statues were placed in different places. The Choir balcony was at the rear and could hold 30 or 40 boys. I know because I was in the Choir until my voice broke. The frieze around the walls was beautiful, comprising of bunches of grapes. I know because during the summer holidays me and some 8 or 9 boys helped Mr Tickle with his work. I would be aged about 13 then. He showed us how to paint, in thick and thin paint, how to stencil the frieze and use gloss paint. We painted the iron bedsteads in the dormitories.
Coming back to the Chapel, it was cared for by Sister Aloysius, who had dozens of boys working for her, to keep the floor highly polished and the benches too. There were stained glass windows all round. The Chapel was very light and airy at all times. I was proud of the Chapel because there was some of my own handywork there.
CHAPTER 15 - Prefects
When Sister Winifred introduced them to the school it was quite an unusual procedure in as much as we had never had boys virtually governing boys, so there was going to be a certain amount of resentment but strange enough this was overcome. I was made a Prefect at the age of 13 or 14. We wore an enamel badge denoting that we were Prefects. We were to be obeyed, if we saw anything just not right, as in the case of fights, or bullying, or untidy boys - "do something about your clothes". Take the boys to the classrooms, line them for mealtimes and bed times, see them washed at different times, and see that they did not give cheek to the Sisters or maids. It worked well. At the age of 14 I was elected Captain of the School and wore a special badge to let everybody know who I was. I held this honour for one year until I left. I am not boasting but I was also 'the cock of the school' which meant I was also the best fighter, I had beaten all challengers, because I knew quite a bit about boxing, which helped considerably. In short Prefects took over the work of guarding the boys at play, seeing that nobody wandered about the school and kept discipline throughout at all times.
CHAPTER 16 - Bus rides
Our longest bus ride was our annual trips to Lytham which was about 17 miles from Preston. The buses or charabancs as they called them were very crude by today's standard. Luxury coaches they call them today. They had solid tyres and canvas roofs, which could be drawn back to the rear if the weather was good. They were a little protective in wet weather but we had open sides which let in the rain - not so good.
We went to Manchester on Whit Friday to walk in the Catholic Processions there, walking for the Italian Catholic Churches. As the years went by the transport became better, and by the time I left the orphanage we were actually travelling in beautiful coaches with inflated tyres, beautiful body work and supplied by Mr Wade the Banana Merchant of Preston. They were called 'the Scout', but later we rode in 'the Majestic' which were really great. When we were older we went to football matches at Preston North End ground, and they took us by coach then. We spent half a day on Whit Tuesday at the Fair held in Preston by a Mr Green who gave us free rides on all the roundabouts.
CHAPTER 17 - To sum up
We were well clothed. We were fed well, sufficient for the day. We had plenty of leisure hours.
Lovely well aired classrooms, and a good supply of writing materials.
You could say we were happy because we had no knowledge of the outside world, and the plight of some of the families who were suffering as a result of the General Strike which was going on in 1926 -1928.
We had good footwear from clogs to soft rubber soled boots, which were very comfortable.
We had regular baths, and dental treatment, and an infirmary were serious cases went. We all had handkerchiefs, and they were looped to braces which held up our trousers for there was no way we could lose them and they were changed every week.
We were happy children