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Feather's Miscellany: My Mentors

“I had a good start in life as a boy and young man and was fortunate enough to have senior colleagues who enabled me pursue a very happy, and I hope successful, career in teaching,’’ writes John Waddington-Feather in this tribute to those who influenced his life and career.

Even in these days of broken homes and single parent families, the majority of children are brought up in happy marriages, where both parents give their children the love all children need from birth and throughout childhood and who also give them the chance to make good in life sometimes at great sacrifice to themselves.

Certainly, that was the case with my three siblings and myself. Our parents sacrificed much to send all of us to university. It had never happened before in our family where my parents and forebears had left school early at the age of twelve – or who had never attended school – to work in the mills and engineering plants or in the vast moorland quarries which surrounded Keighley, my home town in Yorkshire.

` In our case, our mother slaved in a woollen mill across the road from our home till she retired at sixty. She sent us all to university and at the same time nursed a sick husband who’d been injured in the RAF in the war. So first and foremost it was to my parents I owe so much for a good start in life. But there were others.

First, there were my teachers at primary school, who gave me the basics of reading, writing and maths. Without their tutelage and oversight, I’d never have got started, and I couldn’t have had a better beginning. I excelled at writing from the start and was sometimes asked to read my essays aloud before the whole school in assembly. I always found it a nerve-wracking experience and on one occasion fainted. History, geography, drama, art and music were all nurtured at Eastwood Council School where I made my start, along with many others who made good in life; people like Lord Asa Briggs, the historian, and Keith Jessop, the diver-entrepreneur who brought up gold bullion from the wrecked British warship off Murmansk. Miss Boase, Miss Lambert, Miss Law, Miss Cook and all the others, I salute you and thank you from the bottom of my heart.

My primary school teachers enabled me to win a scholarship to Keighley Boys’ Grammar School, where my mind and body were nurtured through adolescence into manhood. It, too, turned out some notable people like Dr Gordon Bottomley, the literary critic and Sir Herbert Butterfield, the historian, but many professional people like doctors and lecturers, scientists and engineers received their early training there. We arts students were very much in the minority by the time we reached the sixth-form at sixteen, yet all of us benefited from an all-round education both in the arts and sciences till at sixteen we reached the sixth-form where we specialised in our chosen subjects.

We were schooled as much outside the classroom as in it and at fourteen I was packed off to France for a month to live with a French family in Valence; a visit arranged by a far-seeing French master, Fred Catley, who became a lifelong friend like other teachers, such as George Rannard, my history master. Under them my love of languages and history increased immeasurably, as did my appreciation of music under Philip Marshall, who subsequently became organist and director of music at Lincoln Cathedral for twenty years. He it was who started me off hymn-writing. He’d ask me to write a hymn, which he’d set to music and which was sung by the school choir next week.

. The encouragement I received in writing at Eastwood School was continued at my Grammar School under Kenneth Preston. He was a thorough-going pedant who corrected every single mistake in my written work, which I had to re-write again and again. I soon learned all about punctuation and spelling, grammar and style, and as result mastered Standard English, while still retaining my dialect which was spoken at home and in the school playground and written in verse.

My art master was Hildred Harpin, a deeply religious man who converted to Catholicism and became a priest. I owe much to him, as much in what he taught me about life as about art. He was no mean artist himself and his paintings sell well in the States. He retired to Assisi as a chaplain where he died, but he trained at Beda College in Rome, which I visited in the summer of 1953 to improve my Italian. He gave me a grand tour of all the notable churches and chapels as well as arranging for me to be blessed by Pope Pius XII at his summer residence, Castello Gandolfo. I appreciated the gesture greatly – but still remained a Protestant!

I’ve always enjoyed sport and the coaching by Gilbert Swift, my gym teacher and rugby coach at Grammar School, ultimately led to my winning a county cap for Sussex while in the army on National Service and playing for Crowborough. Later still I played for Blackheath as a young master on board H.M.S.”Worcester”, my first teaching post.

My spiritual nourishment came first at my local church, Holy Trinity, down Lawkholme Lane, where I joined the choir when I was six in 1939. The vicar at that time – and after the war in which he served as a padre – was the Revd H.G.Wilks, who breathed new life into the church, but in the process upset many of his staid, middle-class parishioners.

. Half of the parish was in a middle-class area across a railway footbridge, separated from the working-class on the other side where I grew up. The middle-class parishioners were shocked when Wilks in the 1930s began holding Sunday night dances in the church hall. He was a very socially conscious man and tried to get youngsters from lounging about the streets on Sundays by tempting them first into church for evensong, then on the strength of that attendance going to a free dance afterwards. His move upset many folk in the town, especially the Sabbatarians who turned up with drums outside the parish hall and unsuccessfully tried to drown the band inside. There was no alcohol allowed in the dances, which were very orderly and they had the desired effect of keeping the streets around free of young nuisances.

On the outbreak of war the dances stopped, and the church hall became a restaurant for local factories. Wilks himself joined up and had some traumatic experiences during frontline service which left him a changed man. He left the parish a couple of years after he returned in 1947, but in those two years he made a great impression on me. He was a powerful preacher and set up a pulpit made from old stage scenery in the churchyard where he preached on Saturdays to shoppers and the crowds going down the lane to the rugby league matches. The choir sang hymns from time to time and were always joined by a sizeable crowd who stayed to listen to him. I subsequently met many people who said their lives were indeed changed by Wilks, especially men who served on battle-fronts during the war, who’d attended his evensongs and learned how to pray.

Another cleric who impressed me was one I played rugby with, though some years his junior. He was the Revd Adrian Carey and quite different from the dour, run-of-the-mill Keighley person. He’d been educated at Eton and, I believe, had a Blue from Cambridge. He was tall and powerful and played with me in the second row of the local team, the Keighlians. His whole demeanour impressed me, especially the cut-glass way he spoke. He’d come to the town as a curate, and how he survived Keighley I don’t know; but survive he did and before he left married the widow of a former mayor. Sometimes when he was taking a wedding just before a home match, he wore his rugby gear under his cassock, take the wedding then arrive by taxi just in time for the kick-off, which once had to be delayed till he arrived.

He was a ferocious player and in one match became involved in a fracas with his opposite number. The referee cautioned them both and they shook hands and played on. In the dressing-room afterwards, Adrian said he’d better go and buy his opponent a drink to show there was no ill-feeling. He left for the bar wearing as usual his clerical collar. When he reached the bar, he found the player he’d been scrapping with already waiting for him with a pint. He, too, was wearing a clerical collar for he was a Catholic priest! And a right merry time those two had the rest of the night. In time he became Head of Religious Broadcasting at the B.B.C.

The third clergyman who made a big impression on my life was the Revd Owen Darby, Rector of Greenhithe, Kent, and chaplain on board H.M.S. “Worcester”, which was moored in the Thames. It was a floating school, a training ship primarily though not exclusively for the merchant navy. The Thames Nautical Training College had been founded in 1862 and taught the cadets seamanship as well as the traditional school subjects, to prepare them as future officers in the merchant fleet. The Royal Navy gave the College its first ship, a redundant wooden man o’ war, and it was moored next to a large mansion, Ingress Abbey, on the Thames. Ingress Abbey had been built by a wealthy entrepreneur who sold it to the College. When I taught English and rugby there, it was used for admin purposes and the headmaster lived there, but its grounds contained the sports fields and swimming baths of the ship.

The chaplain of the ship lived in the rectory at Greenhithe next to the church, where once a month, headed by the ship’s band, the whole College paraded to church. Owen Darby prepared cadets for Confirmation among other things and I was sometimes called in the night before a Confirmation service to be godfather to a cadet who hadn’t been baptised and was about to be, as my cabin was near to the ship’s chapel. Owen was a father-figure to the cadets, greatly loved by all and he’d certainly led a full life.

He’d emigrated to British Columbia as a young man and worked as a priest in the outback. There he met his wife-to-be, Isobel, and they eloped to get wed. The bishop didn’t approve and the couple came back to England on the outbreak of war, in which Owen served as a padre in the Royal Marines and saw action. He certainly was a man’s man and made a great impression on me in my twenties, becoming a lifelong friend and attending my own ordination.

I left the “Worcester” to teach at Salt Grammar School, Yorkshire, and the deputy headmaster there, Stanley Mathers, a Methodist lay preacher, also made a big impression on me. He was a great character and a first-class teacher. He’d fought at Gallipoli in the First World War and had extricated his platoon intact when they’d been trapped in a shell crater by enemy machine-gun fire. He’d a fine bass voice and I sang alongside him in the school choir, and on one occasion the choir joined a massed choir to sing Haydn’s “Creation” in the local parish church. Unfortunately, the basses’ chairs were placed over a large cast-iron heating-grille in the aisle and the heat began to toast our feet when we stood for the choruses. When we sat, we lifted our feet off the grille; nevertheless, the soles of our shoes looked decidedly browner at the end.

I had a good start in life as a boy and young man and was fortunate enough to have senior colleagues who enabled me pursue a very happy, and I hope successful, career in teaching. Without such a start, I’m sure my life would have been so much more difficult and a deal less fulfilled.

John Waddington-Feather ©

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