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Memories of St Joseph’s Primary School, Chirton, North Shields, 1956 – 1962

My childhood was an idyllic one and St. Joseph’s played a major part in this.

St Joseph’s was no ordinary school, it was a Catholic school. And I so much wanted to be ordinary like my friends. I wasn’t sure about the missing Heaven bit though! (only Catholics were good enough to go!!!)

North Shields, now in Tyne and Wear, was a bustling Northumberland fishing town in those days, a decade on from the end of the Second World War. I lived on a council estate in a two bedroomed flat with my Mam and Dad, Edith and Jimmy Timlin. Balkwell Green was a fantastic place to live, away from the sad memories left behind in Woodlea Crescent where we had lived with my Grandma until her death in 1954. The flat was “self- contained” the ultimate aspiration of any young couple who wanted to be settled for a few years before aiming even higher with the keys to a whole council house.

The flats, plus a few houses, were arranged around the “green” in a huge circle just like a wagon train (my own personal travelling aspiration in those days). The grassed area became a red hot “sparky” place for our carefully planned bonfire in November, a place of surreal crisp white beauty near Christmas, and a whirlpool of boundless childhood imagination for the rest of the year. I will never forget being chased round it by Red Indians, rescued by Bronco and then led back to safety by that gorgeous Hollywood star known as Cheyenne. The back gardens became, in the case of my best friends Marjorie Christine and myself, theatres of dreams as we intently rehearsed little plays or pop song duets in preparation for the big day when we would invite or force some quiet, innocent little boys from up the street to pay a penny to watch the “show”! My childhood with loving parents, aunties, uncles, cousins and friends was an idyllic one and St. Joseph s played a major part in this.

I remember my very first day there in Miss Durkin’s class aged five, in what would nowadays be called reception class. What made it really special was the fact that the classroom was round, still part of the rest of the one storey school but from the outside, almost like a separate, special building. Once inside, the roundness gave the whole room a light, airy feel. There was also a separate small room to the side, probably full, I realise now, of books and other varied educational resources lovingly prepared by the teacher, but my main interest back then was that it stored the big toys for special playtimes; a metal see-saw with proper cloth seats to lower yourself into and, joy upon joy, a rocking horse. Wonderful!

My first morning was so exciting and went so fast. Soon Mam was there to take me home for my dinner; cold sliced corned beef to wrap around lovely hot chips. I gobbled this down as quickly as possible so that I could get back to school. But disaster was to strike! I was so impatient to be back to school that I ran ahead of Mam down the cut past Mrs Broderick’s house, towards St. Peter’s Church Hall, and was knocked down by an older boy on a bike coming the other way! My fault not his, but I had a bump and tears which somewhat clouded that first afternoon.

Miss Durkin must have been a good teacher. I have had a love of learning ever since and I can remember those first important lessons on shaping the alphabet letters, writing my name and drawing stickmen. Over the years, I was to be taught by other wonderful teachers like Mr Wilson the Headmaster, Mr Todd my hero, Miss Saunders the music teacher, and Mr Duffy the art teacher. They all seemed so old then, probably they were in their 30s or 40s, and a different breed to other people. Very few people I knew had cars in the 50s, so I was not surprised by the fact that I saw several of these teachers standing at the bus stop every night to go home. Having been a teacher myself for almost 20 years I do now understand better how they were able to remain so affable, calm and good-tempered most of the time.

In those days, most children behaved in class. If not, the chances are they would have got a “clip” round the head from their Mam or Dad as soon as they found out from the school. Most working-class parents in the 50s were in awe of those from any learned profession and so would have always been on the side of the teacher. Nor was there any National Curriculum, no SATs, no Ofsted inspection to worry about and to teach towards. The 11 plus was the main academic goal for all children, but this did not take place until the final primary year. Before this, I would imagine teachers could relax on the bus, content that another school day was over. There was not the same pressure to meet government targets then, only to plan good lessons, get on with the children and please the headteacher.

Religion played a very big part in everyday school life. My dad was by then a “lapsed” Roman Catholic. Mam was a Protestant but had dutifully gone along for instruction in the RC faith before being allowed to marry Dad in church, and had also made a promise to the priest to bring up any children as Catholics. I had, therefore, from the age of three, gone along to St. Joseph’s Church, right next to the school escorted not by Mam or Dad but by Mrs Melody our kind neighbour along with her children, Ann, Michael and Thomas. Mrs Melody was a lovely lady and a devout Catholic. While I no longer today follow the Catholic faith, the discipline, the mystery and the ceremony will stay forever in my memory.

Once beyond Miss Durkin’s class, all children were encouraged to go to Mass and not just on a Sunday. St Joseph’s church held an 8.15 am Mass every weekday morning. The incentive for going to this, increasing as time went on and the new hormones began kicking in, was the breakfast afterwards in the school hall. I had by this time made my First Communion, so had denied myself breakfast before Mass so I could receive the Host. I can still taste the cold fried egg sandwiches lovingly and proudly prepared by Mam and devoured slowly and thoughtfully before lessons began. The sandwiches met a need but there is more than one kind of hunger and the chance to eat them next to handsome boys like Anthony Sargeant, Tony Devlin and the heartbreakingly gorgeous Terry Palmer, made me a very holy girl indeed for a while. I do hope, but I cannot be sure, that I was listening to the priest during those early Masses and saying Our Fathers and Hail Marys with sincerity!

The problem with church though was that the Masses were in Latin. I loved singing and I can remember singing “Tantum Ergo Sacramentum” and other hymns with gusto but unfortunately with little understanding of what I was singing about. Our school song “Faith of our Fathers”, about men striving to survive the fury of wild seas was much more meaningful to a child from a town with such a historic fishing industry.

Another problem was, no matter how many masses you attended through the week unless you did so on Sunday you were in a state of mortal sin! One missed Sunday, whether through a bad cold, your dad’s annual fortnight’s work’s holiday, or even the death of a relative, and you could go straight to Hell!! Just think, all those egg sandwiches, all those “Tantum Ergos” – fall off your bike in the path of a Morris Minor and “poof”- you are gone – straight to the unrelenting fires of Hell with that red horned devil monster forever and ever! And I did believe in Hell in the same way I believed in Heaven and Purgatory, where you went to work off your sins before you get to Heaven. We were also taught about Limbo where the souls of poor little babies went who had died before birth or in their first year before they could be held accountable for any sins.

While our teachers gave us R. E. lessons, and Catholicism invaded every cobweb of every classroom and corridor of our school, it was the local Catholic priest whose job it was to save our souls. I remember though feeling confused. We were shown pictures of Jesus showing his loving heart and Mary his mother with her gentle smile and pale English skin. We were read Bible stories about forgiveness and miracles inspired by love. Even the suffering of Jesus on the cross was endured we were told because he loved mankind. And yet every Monday morning in school the black garmented priest arrived with the terrifying question for the whole wide-eyed class – “Who did not go to church on Sunday?”

I did go so I shouldn’t have worried. Even on our summer holiday, typically a caravan at Crimdon Dene, my Protestant but dutiful Mam made sure we found a Catholic church and she and I went on the Sunday morning. She may not have really believed that missing Mass once would send her beloved daughter inexorably down to the fiery pit, but she knew I worried about it. And that was enough for Mam. My big overwhelming worry though was over my Dad. He had attended church as a young boy in Willington Quay. He had even been an altar boy for a while but as a youth, and then a married man, he had decided that Catholic priests were no better than he was and that going to Mass on Sunday did not make you a better person. And if it was a mortal sin not to go, he would chance it! And he told the priest so; the priest who visited our street every three months searching out lapsed souls, trying to reinstate the belief that only good Catholics could inherit Heaven. On his last ever visit this priest received a very firm denial of entry to our house as Dad had decided he had had enough, a big lesson to me about making personal choices and sticking to them.

Nevertheless, Dad was happy that I attended St. Joseph’s School, so I stayed there until the age of 11. It was very close to the church building and this, in the minds of pupils, made the two almost one and the same. Preparation for First Communion then Confirmation, for example, was largely done in school. It was in the schoolyard that we gathered on those important days before in white dresses, white shoes and veils we walked to church. I can remember vividly how nervous I felt. My Confirmation name of Bernadette chosen, preparing to kneel in church before the Bishop and to profess my undying love for the Holy Trinity and the Catholic Church.

I was already used to dressing in a white dress on May Day, 1st May, every year when a girl from school was chosen to be May Queen and led a procession of us to the statue of Mary in our schoolyard. This statue, in the boys’ yard and portraying Mary appearing to Bernadette at Lourdes, was then crowned with a wreath of Spring flowers as was the one in church and we all sang :

“ Mary I crown thee with blossoms today
Queen of the angels and queen of the May…..”

I loved it except I was never chosen to be Queen of the May and I decided it was because I wore spectacles so was just not pretty enough. The girl, in my memories anyway, was usually very pretty with long blonde hair, just like Mary on all our statues. I realised many years later that the Mary who lived in Jerusalem was very unlikely to have looked like this at all!

The Bernadette and Mary grotto in the schoolyard was close to another highly religious symbol, a very large crucifix representing the agony on the cross of Jesus on Good Friday. My Mam and Dad, Edith and Jimmy, aged 24, had one of their wedding photos taken in front of this cross and that photo hangs on my wall still today. They were married in what was to become my school hall directly behind this cross, which was then, before the new building, St. Joseph’s Church.

We Catholic children, early recruits into all of the symbolism and ritual of the Catholic church in the 1950s, were not always liked by other kids. The dressing up in white, walking down to school or church, on more than one occasion invited jeers from the pupils of Collingwood School just up the road from us, and the initial quiet, pious pleasure of leaving the house all dressed up to walk to the celebration was somewhat marred by shouts of “ Yar…..mucky Catholics…”! Turning my face to a pallor more like my dress! Luckily this was only a temporary ill-feeling and I spent non-school time happily playing with cousins and friends from Protestant schools!

The other annual occasion when I felt badly done to for wearing spectacles, was the choosing of Britannia for our Empire Day celebration on 24th May. Again, she was always pretty with long hair, the way a Roman female would have looked I suppose. On this day, the children were chosen to represent a country in the British Empire, dress in something like the national dress of that country and sing a song and/or perform a dance, all taught and encouraged by the formidable but lovely Miss Saunders, and all accompanied on the piano by Mr Wilson. I proudly represented Ireland (Eire), the homeland of my Catholic forefathers, for at least two years running. I think I was given a dark green dress to dance in and, to this day, I can still reminisce by standing erect, arms very straight by my side, and begin dancing sideways, crab-like daintily crossing one foot in front of the other!

The celebration culminated in a grand pageant of all the countries, holding home-made flags arranged in a semi-circle with Britannia wearing a Roman tunic and centurion’s helmet, and holding a trident and shield proudly standing in the middle, the whole thing appreciated and enjoyed greatly by all the parents who could attend. Most mothers, unless they were working, more and more likely in the late 1950s, did try to come along to watch the many school productions but most fathers, unlike today, were at work. This meant my Dad had to miss Empire Days and also other shows like “Sleeping Beauty” where I was a happily bespectacled courtier, blissfully dancing in the arms of John Lilford, wearing Jacqueline Ging’s pale, yellow lace on a chiffon bridesmaid dress!

My Dad by now was working long hours at Cookson’s (AON) at Willington Quay as an electrician’s labourer. He was, by trade, a brass moulder like my mother’s father, but in the post-war years’ many tradesmen had returned from abroad and also less ships were being made so he found it hard to get skilled work. He, therefore, worked very long hours for less pay, Monday to Friday and any overtime he could get at weekends. I remember, aged about 7, Mam having about £5 in her purse each week to cover all food, clothing, transport, hire purchase payments (Archer Lee loans at times to buy furniture) and energy bills. Mam managed our money and gave me 2/6d pocket money every Saturday and Dad earned it until I was 9 when Mam took a part-time job at Ronson’s on Norham Road. She still ensured she was in for me coming from school. I was never a “latch key kid” like many children nowadays.

We worked and played hard at St. Joseph’s. Easter decorations were made well in advance and cheered us through Lent when everyone in my class had “given something up”. I tried and succeeded over several years in giving up sweets for all of the 40 days, and the chocolate feast of Easter was made doubly enjoyable by the pure joy of being reminded every year that Jesus’s agony on the Cross was to have a happy ending and that we would all be “resurrected” to eternal life after death.

Christmas parties were enjoyed by all too, with juice and cakes, jelly and biscuits and games. We played The Grand Old Duke of York, Musical Chairs Musical Statues, Pass the Parcel and Pin the Tail on the Donkey. A great time was had by all as long as, in the case of the girls, your outfit was acceptable. There was not a lot of money in our area for party dresses and I do remember one time coming home in tears because my gorgeous but second-hand party dress kindly given by my Uncle Matty’s sister, had appeared at three birthday parties at friends’ houses that year, and one of these “ friends” made fun of me. Oh, the cruelty of children!

The biggest cloud on our horizon was the 11 plus, dreaded by most children as the pressure to do well was on. If you had really loving, caring parents like mine, they bought the practice books recommended by the school, so that by the time you entered the hall for the exam you knew the kind of thing to expect. If your parents were less supportive, however, or simply too poor to buy the books, or if you yourself refused to practice the exercises, you had much less chance of passing.

I will never forget standing in the school hall on Results Day, probably about March 1962, when Mr Wilson walked into morning assembly with his clipboard to give us our results. We trembled as the names were read out and our futures, in many cases, were decided. I had passed for the grammar school so was overjoyed and couldn’t wait to get home at dinner time to tell Mam, but many had failed and would be going to a Secondary Modern School (Linskill or Ralph Gardner). Some children would be going to Preston Technical School; they had still passed but with slightly lower marks. There probably was only one or two points between a grammar pass and a technical pass, and many of these pupils and their families were disappointed.

After three years of good work though, they would be invited to sit an exam to change to the grammar school. I don’t know anyone who did, possibly because the price of a new school uniform from Raymond Barnes shop in Newcastle was exorbitant and because they would have been leaving their friends. In fact, the technical education they received at their schools was a lot more vocational and practical than the highly academic, university focused one I received, and many of them went on to do very well for themselves job-wise.

I wanted to go to Tynemouth High School because it had boys in it and was local, but my Mam and our Head thought I should go to either the very prestigious La Sagesse in Jesmond or Sacred Heart Convent School in Fenham because they were Catholic. Of these two, I wanted La Sagesse as good friends of mine, one year older, were already there. Like “Fenham” though La Sagesse was a fee-paying as well as an LEA school, and in 1962 they were not letting LEA children apply, to my huge disappointment. What made it worse was, in order to get into Fenham, I had to do a very formal, very difficult entrance exam. I had never even heard at this time of the First World War, but this is what it was about: trenches and submarines – a test of eleven-year-old female endurance and logic if ever there was one! Somehow, I passed and days of leaving home at 7.45 am to get a train and a bus to Fenham began. And I loved it!

Without Mr Wilson’s encouragement, Mam and Dad would have probably given in and let me go to Tynemouth High. While it may have given me more experience of young men and eased my chronic teenage shyness a little, I have never regretted going to Fenham, so I thank Mr Wilson to this day for his faith in me. While all of St. Joseph’s teachers were excellent and memorable in their own way, it was Mr Wilson who held everyone together. He had a daughter Marion and a son Peter at school with me, plus some younger children. He was the only person I knew who lived in a private, not council, house. In school, he knew all our names and treated every child with respect while imposing strict behaviour and learning rules. He made me believe I could go very far in life and made me Head Girl in my final year. The Head Boy and I even modelled the new school uniform, in royal blue and gold, which, sadly for us, was to be brought in after we left. Mr Wilson took his job very seriously and all of the children I was at school with owe him a debt of gratitude. Happy, happy days!

Contributed by Trish Coles (nee Timlin)

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