Saints and sinners

l WITH reference to St Francis Grammar School, Hartlepool (Memory Lane, February 12), my research tells me the school opened its doors in 1956 at the cost of £15,840, excluding the buildings purchased in 1947.

It covered a large area from the Parade, Grange Road (and halfway up that stretch as well!) all the way across to Elwick Road.

The exterior of the White House (then known as Normanhurst) has changed little, whilst the site of the main house (Woodlands) and much of the playing fields now accommodate new housing.

The project owed much to the eponymous Father Francis Dunne, although by a quirk of fate the first teachers were brothers from an order named after another Francis, St Francis Xavier.

The school motto and crest also carried a delicious ambiguity "CERVUS AND FONTES" both relates to a biblical verse expressing a thirst for ultimate knowledge (Psalm 42) while also being a wonderful pun on the name Hartlepool (it means Deer to the Waters, Hart to the Pools!).

My own time at the school only took in the last year of the Xaverian brothers tenure, so others would be better placed to tell the first part of the story.

I remember however the small cell-like rooms in which they lived on site, Brother Chrysostom and his hedgehogs, and the unparalleled Brother Osmund whose eccentricity takes some beating!

We also took some beating from him as he carried a cane on a string in his right-hand cassock pocket, which was produced, among other things, for not underlining exercise book headings.

He was very tall, goose-stepped around the playground and gabbled prayers at breakneck speed.

The form wag, who shall remain nameless, used to treat the reception of the brother's "electric shock" (as he called his cane) with great amusement, until one day Osmund produced a large leather strap instead, which sent the culprit running for cover!

The school really grew and developed in the second half of its existence when taken over by the late great Father John "Dickie" Bell. It included a sixth form and dual-form entry for the first time and an interesting array of staff.

Jack McCabe was the sort of PE teacher you loved to hate, and then hate to love after you've left; Derek Mylroi's story of how he came to have a false leg was not for the squeamish; Shirley Corcoran was the first full-time lady teacher; and we never did find out the true provenance of Gilles Legal's French aristocratic ancestors (he also taught me Russian).

I think all the pupils consider their teachers to be old, even six-formers of new graduates, but with hindsight we had a largely youthful staff, many of those in the early 1970s are still not 60 years old!

Father Bell was a scholar of some achievement, but combined traditionalism with a wicked, albeit idiosyncratic, sense of humour.

He loved the ambiguity of the English language and was not beyond using texts from the Bible to illustrate it. My favourite was always the passage from Acts of the Apostles (1.26) "AND THE LOT (DICE) FELL ON MATTHIAS" which the Canon took to be evidence of a mugging of the hapless apostle! His brilliant acronyms to ease the teaching of Latin are still as fresh as ever.

He was also years ahead of his time in the area of political correctness, deploring inappropriate references on the grounds of gender, race or disability, I could quote some piquant examples.

No school account could be complete without reference to some legendary episodes, the launching of a school cap from the tower of Durham Cathedral (strange that many pupils now prefer to wear headgear!); the unfortunate bounce of a rubber bung in the science lab which found a teacher's nose as the target; the gradual exit of almost a whole form through a ground floor window as an inexperienced teacher continued to write on the blackboard!

There were darker episodes, the mysterious fires which laid waste the antique staffroom tapestries; an emetic addition to the staff rest room teapot which cause more than a stir; clandestine smoking in the woods.

Not only the staff were ahead of their time, head boy Robert Rutherford, my predecessor as the first pupil to win a place at Oxford, wrote an essay in which he deplored smoking as not only unhealthy, but also "aesthetically disgusting".

One of our achievements as sixth-formers was to campaign for the roundabout on Grange Road/Wooler Road corner, and at about the same time, a postman took a bow after opening Hollymount post box to resounding applause after the lengthy postal strike.

St Francis achieved much in a relatively short space of time and was then subsumed into English Martyrs Comprehensive in 1973, along with the other four local Catholic secondary schools, hence the Martyrs crest of five points with the Latin motto "Strength through unity".

This was not Cannon Bell's only contribution, as he then went on to serve with distinction as the new school's first headteacher for about seven years.

Catholic education in Hartlepool has been a source of attainment and pleasure to many, those who belonged to the four houses of its only boys' grammar school, namely Percy, Swalwell, Errington and Thirkeld, most certainly played their full part.

Gerard Hall

Eamont Gardens,


Publish Date: 28/02/2005