We called our old Alma Mater in Liverpool ‘Colditz’ after the infamous World War Two Concentration Camp in Germany. St Mary’s College in Crosby was run by the Irish Christian Brothers. The Regime would have put the Nazis to shame and in more recent times taught the Taliban a lesson or two.
The Christian Brothers were founded by Edmund Ignatius Rice in 1820. Pope Pius VII ordered that members took, ‘Vows of obedience, chastity, poverty and perseverance,’ and devoted their lives to the ‘free instruction, religious and literary, of male children, especially the poor.’
We were certainly not poor though our parents scrimped and saved to pay fat fees at the Preparatory School for us to get into St Mary’s Main School as Scholarship Boys.
And they never knew what went on in the hallowed halls of one of Liverpool oldest Catholic schools. They also never knew of our struggle to get out.
A lash on the hand from the black leather strap with a coin sewn into the tip which Brother Brickley carried like a short sword in the belt of his black cassock was commonplace. The Brick called the weapon Excalibur. If we were lucky we only got three belts – if we had really sinned it was six of the best.
Summary, or was it Sharia justice was usually meted out during religious instruction which took place every weekday between high noon and 12.30.
That was after the O Level lesson in the Biology Lab where we could look down through the window into the changing rooms of Merchant Taylors Girls’ School where the Protestant parents paid for their daughters to be educated.
On a typical day The Brick swept into the classroom and ordered us to stand. We clutched our blue covered Catechisms in our hands to profess our faith. David was the first in the firing line because he was the smallest of our gang and his desk was in the front row.
‘Who made you?’ demanded The Brick.
David had done his homework.
‘God made me, Brother.’
I sat behind David.
The Brick was already pulling Excalibur out of his belt.
‘Devaney, why did God make you?’ he roared.
‘God made me… err….’
And then I hesitated, unsure of what came next.
The Brick grabbed my right hand and Excalibur came down.
‘God made you to know Him.’
‘To love Him.’
‘And to serve Him.
BANG BANG BANG.
And I lost the plot.
‘You’re no F*****g brother to me and no F*****g Christian,’ I yelled.
And then he grabbed my left hand.
The headmaster Brother Taylor was even more brutal. Serial transgressors were sent to his study and kept waiting alone in fear for several hours until Taylor came in and the PE teacher Jimmy Highton was called to administer the lash on bare buttocks while Taylor looked on, licking his lips.
But despite everything I believed the Christian Brothers when they said we needed to help others more unfortunate than ourselves.
When we were younger, and more gullible at Prep School they drilled into us that in return for certain acts, God would grant us Plenary Indulgences which could knock thousands of years off our time in Purgatory, a shadowy world between Heaven and Hell. We were told the unbaptised Black Babies lived there, now that the Pope had abolished Limbo. They never said what the acts were but later we had a good idea.
As youngsters it was also suggested that helping the Black Babies was pivotal on our road to salvation. And we were asked to donate a penny a week to help the poor unfortunates waiting for baptism in darkest Africa.
Our contributions were ticked off on a pink card.
When we’d filled 12 squares and handed over a shilling, we were allowed to name a Black Baby and the money was sent to the Missionary Nuns carrying out God’s work among the heathens.
I named my Black Babies Popeye and Olive Oil.
That was in the Prep School, an old mansion built by a Liverpool Slave Trader and called The Mount. It was only years later I began to learn why it may have got its name.
But by the time we made Fifth year in the Main School we had other interests.
The sight of the Merchant Taylor girls undressing for PE had already stirred our pubescent loins but The Brick had warned us that they were Protestants and destined to join the Black Babies in Purgatory.
So we turned our attention to the girls from Seafield Convent which was only across the road.
Seafield girls were renowned for being even more flirty than their Merchant Taylor counterparts. They wore navy blue skirts below the knee but when they were in Coronation Park, things were different.
Girls like Carolyn and Cherie rolled up their skirts from the bottom and held them in place with clothes pegs to give us a tantalising glimpse of their navy blue knickers. The pegs could be flicked out and the chastity curtain rolled down in seconds if Sister Scholastica appeared. They could be quickly hitched up again with the wickerwork baskets the girls always carried.
Seafield girls were allowed out at lunchtime to walk in Coronation Park.
We were confined to barracks unless we had a pink pass, rubber stamped by Brother Taylor, which proved we were going home for lunch.
We formed our escape committee and met every lunchtime behind the pottery shed outside Everest House in the College grounds. There, we could scale a low wall, dash across Liverpool Road and bring back penny loosie cigarettes and a book of matches from the tobacconists.
But Coronation Park and the Seafield girls were out of bounds because our maroon blazers and caps would be instantly recognised by the Sixth Form prefects in their black blazers who manned the school gates and hid in the bushes of the park.
David had been watching the film Colditz.
‘We could build a glider,’ he said. ‘There is space in the attic and plenty of material in the woodwork room.’
‘Not enough time,’ I said. ‘We’ll be expelled before it’s finished.’
‘What about a tunnel?’ asked Frank.
‘There are two under the Mersey already,’ said Steve.
‘I have forgery in mind,’ I said and everyone nodded in agreement.
We commandeered a genuine pass from a First Year pupil and drew up our battle plans.
The pink paper card on which the passes were printed was the same card that was used for the Black Babies. It also wrapped the new exercise books which were delivered weekly to the College. They were stored in the Book Room which was run by Brother Rafferty who we suspected had an eye for the younger boys. We decided that someone needed to offer to help Brother Rafferty out.
There’s no contest,’ said Joey. ‘David is by far the best looking.’
And so young David started spending his lunch hours in the Book Room and by the end of a fortnight we had a big supply of pink card hidden in a little-used storage cupboard in the Biology Lab.
‘Did Rafferty do anything to you?’ I asked David.
‘To be honest, he didn’t. I was a bit disappointed because I was looking forward to giving him a belt in the jaw.’
Adding our Name, Form and Address to our newly cut get-out-of-jail cards wasn’t a problem after we pooled our dinner money to buy a John Bull Printing Set in the Hobbies shop up the road in the Crown Buildings.
Soon we had dozens of forgeries almost ready to go. But one thing was missing – Brother Taylor’s signature from a rubber stamp which he kept on the desk in his study.
The playground was like a building site. The Brothers were adding yet another wing to the College.
Five of us were in a huddle in front of the main building.
‘Give me those passes and don’t ask any questions,’ said Joey.
He shoved the cards in the pockets of his blazer, grabbed a brick, ran forwards and flung the brick through the window of Taylor’s study.
‘I may be some time,’ he yelled as he was smothered by a swarm of black blazered prefects before being dragged away to stand alone in the Headmaster’s study waiting to face Taylor and a leathering from the Jimmy.
More than seventy of us escaped into Coronation Park the following day waving our newly stamped pink passes at the Prefects as we partied with the Seafield Girls who had brought bottles of Enva Cream Sherry in their baskets to celebrate.
But our freedom was short lived. The Prefects pounced and that afternoon we were all lined up to face the firing squad.
I was the first one to be fired.
‘Devaney, I know you were the ringleader,’ lisped Taylor.
’You can sit your O Levels next week and then you are out.
‘Do you hear me… you are out!’
Then he handed me over to the Jimmy.
But we found solace that evening in the bar of the Crosby Hotel on Liverpool Road where the Seafield Girls drank Sherry and we quaffed pints of Mild Beer and glasses of Rum and Peppermint Cordial. We were only sixteen but the landlord turned a blind eye.
He even ignored the human skeleton we’d brought with us from the Biology Lab and sat in the corner with a penny loosie dangling from its mouth and a pair of navy blue knickers around its pelvis.
I sat my O Levels, failed most of them and left to get a job as an apprentice journalist on the local weekly newspaper the Crosby Herald. In a bittersweet way I was sad to be leaving St. Mary’s but as time moved on I began to feel that with the lessons I had learnt there I could take on the world.
Steve Boulton was Editor of the award-winning Investigative Granada Television programme World in Action. We were at St Mary’s together and cut our teeth as young reporters on the Herald. When he left World in Action he wrote a ground-breaking piece for the Guardian newspaper about his ordeal at the College. He reported that we were regularly beaten and claimed he’d been sexually abused by one of the Brothers.
I was producing Sky News in London when I got a call from a reporter from the Herald, almost thirty years after I had left the newspaper.
‘We’re ringing around famous old boys to see what they think about Steve Boulton’s story in the Guardian,’ he said.
‘I’m not famous,’ I said.
‘But everyone remembers you on Merseyside,’ said the reporter.
The reporter also rang Roger McGough who was famous both as a poet and a member of the Liverpool band The Scaffold.
Roger told the Herald, ‘As a working class lad who won a scholarship to go to the school, I felt lucky to be battered.’
He added more seriously, ‘It was a fearful time and unduly so.’
Roger summed up his terror in his poem ‘Another Brick in the Wall.’ One line reads, ‘‘It’s like bashing my head against a wall,’ said the Brother, bashing my head against the wall.’
I told the reporter, ‘We were regularly beaten, but we learned to survive on our wits. I certainly wasn’t sexually abused but maybe I wasn’t handsome enough. I like to think that the Brothers did some good. After all didn’t they help the Black Babies?’
In the years to come I often wondered what had happened to Popeye and Olive Oil and all the other Black Babies. After the Irish Christian Brothers had finally left St Mary’s I thought I would never find out.
But many years later I met Berenice Beukes in Sligo.
Berenice grew up in the South African Township of Soweto and has since become a good friend. Now I was certain that I would learn the truth about the Black Babies.
I was disappointed to find out that she hadn’t come across Popeye or Olive Oil. I told her my story of our escape from Colditz.
‘I spent my school years trying to escape too,’ she said. ‘Both of us survived. I’m certain it was because we’re both fighters.’
She told me one other thing was certain.
‘In Soweto we always knew when the money for the Black Babies arrived from the Irish Christian Brothers. The Reverend Mother got a new Mercedes.’
Note: The Black Babies appeal is a period reference. It became the Lenten appeal and then the Trocaire Lenten appeal. Although there is no doubt that some of the money did some good, a lot of it was sadly misappropriated.