A reader’s letter in a Yorkshire newspaper gives a brief picture of part of my education in the mid-thirties. It was written by someone who must have been incarcerated in the charity school at roughly the same time I was (1936). My father, a fairly prosperous Liverpool accountant, had abandoned the family in my 8th year and my mother had returned to her working class roots. My mother could no longer afford to keep me and an opening was sought for me at a charity school, recommended by a vicar at the local Anglican Church who was a subscriber. I seem to remember feeling that I was being given away.
The school had been established in the 18th century, in a building erected in on the site of a chapel which was built in the thirteenth century. It had previously been a poor house, an archery court and a prison; described as a House of Correction. It was now recorded as being for orphans and the children of poor families. Parents, when they existed, were required to “relinquish control and management of the child, and to concede the authority to place the child to trade or service”. Footmen and poultry boys for the great Yorkshire houses figured prominently in the lists of jobs at the time when I found myself incarcerated there.
I was taken there by my mother who delivered me to the entrance hall and was then rapidly got rid of. Taken up to a dormitory where I was told to wait, I looked through a window and saw her standing dejectedly in the street.
Years later she said, “I wanted to go back inside and take you back home, but I knew it was something life couldn’t afford me”.
A letter, a copy of which reached me just a year or two ago, came from a former pupil who spent some years at the school, with his brother, at a slightly later time that I was sent there. He writes about an occasion when his brother was struck by the then headmaster: a man I remember with surprising clarity.
My correspondent wrote: “This was a common occurrence. Mr. …… was a Jekyll and Hyde character, avuncular to visitors but brutal in his treatment of the boys. He wore a signet ring and one of the pastimes was to compare bruises to see who could exhibit the most complete replica of the ring.
For a period I was Matron’s prefect and had to collect shopping. On a cold winter’s day I visited Wright’s butchers where an elderly woman took pity and bought me a Wright’s pork pie – the nearest thing to heaven I could recall.
A week or so later I was dragged in front of my class and beaten by Mr…….. who accused me of having stolen from my schoolmates, when it should have been handed in for the benefit of all.”
Other letters bear out similar treatments, and the quality of the food generally which was appalling. My own particular memory is red cabbage. I can taste it as I write. In the evenings, on days when it was still light, we were marched out to a site a couple of miles from the school where a sports field was being made, our job being to pull the heavy roller. When, as darkness fell we were marched back we were given a supper of red cabbage and dry bread. The sports field was not for us. Rumour had it that it was for a nearby public school.
When the school was closed after the war it was handed over to an Institute of Historical Research. I have their glossy brochure before me. It advertises such items as the Royal Charter of Charles ll; the churchwarden’s accounts for St. Michaels 1641; but nowhere is there anything relating to the later charity school.
Following some incident I absconded, climbing the city wall to gain my freedom. Home was two days walk away, but my mother refused to allow them to take me back, and I was sent to the local council school.
In 1910 Featherstone’s Lister Baths was opened by coal mine owner John Lister who donated the baths to the community ‘to show his appreciation for the work they did at local collieries’ it was said. It became a focal point for the whole community. A few months before the outbreak of war the baths were adapted for a more sinister purpose.
They were converted into a decontamination centre for the treatment of poison gas. We believed it was coming. At fourteen I was a member of the team being trained to cope. Some of the victims of world war one still sat on their doorsteps, coughing their lungs away.