Convent Of The Visitation Bridport Dorset

A Memory of Bridport

CHAPTER TWO

School Years - Convent of the Visitation 1939-1945

One’s school years leave an indelible impression on one for good or bad. My views over these years in this regard, have modified considerably. The older you get, the more you tend to look at your youth with rose tinted glasses. So in relating to my school years I am trying to put myself back in that time and place.

My mother took me down by train from Newbury on the GWR (Great Western Railway). It was the age of coal-fired trains with carriages that had separate compartments, sometimes connected by a corridor and sometimes no corridor. In the latter case, you were stuck in the compartment with no access to a toilet. We traveled down to the West Country to the town of Maiden Newton where we had to change to a smaller connecting train to Bridport. The date was September 3rd 1939 the day that England declared war on Germany. World War II had started. By the time we arrived, it was dark. We had to catch a bus to the seaside village of West Bay about three miles outside Bridport, where we were going to spend the night at the Bridport Arms Hotel. I remember sitting in the bus with the locals with all the lights turned off, as England was now in a full blackout mode. Everybody had to put up blackout screens on their windows to avoid any light showing at night to help the enemy bombers. Air-raid wardens were posted in every district to look out for people not complying and issuing fines. Everybody also had to carry a gasmask whenever they went out. The gasmask was contained in a cardboard box suspended by a cord, which you hung over your shoulder. We were also given a small package which included two pieces of cotton wool for your ears and a piece of rubber to put in your mouth to protect your teeth against bomb blast. Thinking back on it now, it sounds hilarious. If you were going to be that close to a bomb going off, you had a lot more things to worry about, than putting bits of cotton wool in your ears, what you would really be concerned about is whether you would have any ears to put them in. What it really demonstrated was to show the governments desperation in attempting to protect the population, after ignoring for years the arms buildup by Adolf Hitler.

West Bay is a tiny fishing community with an artificial harbour entered between twin piers extending out into the sea. A river exited into this little harbour. The coast consisted of steep undulating sandstone cliffs, which came down to sea level for approximately half a mile before rising steeply again. It was in this narrow depression that nestled the coastal town of West Bay. West Bay was part of a larger bay on the coast called Lyme Bay, after the coastal town of Lyme Regis. A significant point of issue, since Lyme Bay was one of the main projected invasion points, if Germany had invaded England, though we knew they would not have succeeded! My school would have been only three miles inland of one of the invasion fronts. Newtown was a lot safer place, than where I was sent to school. Years later I did have unworthy thoughts about the degree that my parents wanted to get rid of us.

The next day we spent in the town of Bridport and then in the evening mother took me to the Convent. The convent was a big three-storey brick building with a red tiled roof set in a large suburban site. On one side was a large asphalt playground surrounded by vertical spiked steel bars fencing off the play area from the kitchen gardens. A row of toilets and a covered shed were at one end and on one side was the indoor playroom. This was a large high ceilinged room with a polished concrete floor and a large coke fed steel stove at one end of the room. This was the sole heating element for that space. There were fixed benches running down one side of the room. That was it. No toys, books or anything else to occupy and inspire or entertain the young mind during break time. In the playground, all that was provided were some wood parallel bars at various heights to play on. This was my recreation space for six years.

The other end of the convent, were the daygirls classes and above that the chapel. In between were the dormitories and classrooms and the nuns quarters on the second floor. The Convent grew its own food and provided its own milk with its small herd of cows. They did there own laundry, boiling the linen in large open coppers. There was an open field past the kitchen garden, which was used for cricket in summer and soccer in winter. All the floors were polished wood and the lighting in the classrooms at night were by gaslight. The nuns had to stand on the desks to light each gas fixture.

The average day consisted of rising at 6;30AM, morning mass at 7:00AM to 8:00AM, breakfast at 8:00AM to 8:30AM. Break time to 9:00AM, and classes from 9:00AM to 11:00AM.We had a fifteen-minute break and then classes to noon. Lunch noon to 12:30PM, break to 1:00PM and classes from 1:00PM to 2:30PM, fifteen-minute break and classes to 4:00PM. Break to Teatime at 5:00PM to 5:30PM and then a break to 6:00PM. A Benediction service was held from 6;00PM to 6:30PM and then prep in the classroom to 7:30PM. Break until 8:00PM and bedtime at 8:00PM . This was my routine nine months of the year from the age of 5 years until I was 11. The weekends were only slightly better. On Saturday, we had classes in the morning and a long walk in the afternoon, crocodile fashion for up to six miles; again mass in the morning and benediction in the evening. Sunday we got a break, early morning mass was only half an hour instead of an hour, but that was made up for by a two hour high mass at lunchtime at the local church. All these services were conducted in Latin. Sunday afternoon consisted of playing in the playground until teatime. It was the most boring four hours with nothing to play with except what ever you could dream up in your imagination and of course benediction in the evening and I was not even catholic. I spent a large part of my childhood on my knees, listening to a service in a language I did not understand and all it did was to drive me away from any type of organized religion. Wednesday afternoons we got to play soccer or cricket, which to me was the best part of the week.

This then was to be my life, when my mother took me up to the big nail studded door and pulled on the chain. The bell I could hear tolling down the corridor and later footsteps coming closer and closer to answer the doorbell. The door opened and a nun in a full black habit opened the door and invited us in. This person I came to know as Sister Agnes. Mother left shortly after and I was on my own. Well not quite on my own since my brother had arrived a little earlier. I was taken up to the dormitory and put in a cot. The other boys had not come to bed yet as it was still early evening. My brother stayed with me for a while and told me a bedtime story; it was a modified tale of Jack in the Beanstalk. Thus at the age of 4 years 11 months and 20 days, the day after WWII began that I started my school years in earnest.

The classes were divided into three by age grouping. Sister Anne took the youngest boys, Sister Edith took the next age group and Sister Magdalene took the oldest boys. We used to call her Maggie behind her back. Maggie on reflection was a striking looking nun, highly intelligent and with a kind but no nonsense attitude. She was like most of the other nuns Belgian. I should make clear that the sisters were not unkind or tyrannical in fact quite the opposite. They were very strict both on themselves and their charges. It was these three nuns who we had to deal with. Sister Anne was a red haired Irish nun who had a disposition, which matched her hair. She came to the convent in 1926 as a young woman and stayed there until she died at the age of 85. Sister Edith was a more grandmotherly type, but whatever their disposition, they all wielded a sharp hand with the cane on unlucky miscreants. When we were punished, we had to hold out our hand and received six of the best. There was a rumor that if you put horsehair on your hand it would absorb the pain. I tried it and it did not work.

The convent was called the Convent of the Visitation and as I mentioned, they were a Belgian Order. They spoke French among themselves and sometimes to us. I believe some of the nuns had escaped from Nazi occupied Belgian and brought with them a little boy called Eric Bart. He slept separately from the other boys. The convent was situated on the edge of the town of Bridport and was surrounded on three sides by fields adjacent to an old Mill. Bridport itself is in the County of Dorset a most beautiful part of the West Country of England with rolling pastoral hills and copses. Unfortunately the beauty was largely unappreciated at the time. After all I do not think the prisoners on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay really appreciated the beauty of their surroundings either.

My earliest days in school were a kaleidoscope of memories. The nuns had boarded up the windows of the playroom to keep light from escaping at night. It was approaching winter and unless it was raining we had to play outside. The mornings were very cold and often with frost. That was good and bad. The good was we made ice slides on the asphalt and wore our shoes out in the process and the bad, was a lot of children developed chilblains a nasty form of swelling of the fingers due to the cold. The consequence was that when you went into classes you tried to warm your hands by the stove so you could hold a pencil. In the summer the heat caused the asphalt to get soft and break out in little heat bubbles, not good for your clothes. We went on these long walks every Saturday either to West Bay about six miles there and back or to Bothenhampton Downs a little closer with a view of the sea from the hill. In the summer of 1940 during the Battle of Britain we went for a walk to West Bay. An invasion by Germany was expected any day. The army had dug trenches behind the esplanade along the sea front. (No joke we were really on the front lines) We were all playing on the beach under the supervision of the nuns. When the nuns were not looking, three of us climbed back up the esplanade and got into the trenches with the soldiers. They were making tea, so they offered us some from the metal pans that they drank out of. So for a while it was quite exciting imagining us battling the Germans as they came ashore. Reality soon crept back and we sneaked back to the beach.

It was in 1940 with the imminent threat of a Nazi invasion that in mid- term the nuns told my brother and I that we were being sent home, as we were going to be sent to Canada with a friend of the family, who was taking some other children as well. When we got home mother had all our bags packed. We were going on the last civilian ocean liner to leave for Canada. At the last moment mother could not let us go and cancelled the trip. That ship was torpedoed mid Atlantic and 71 children died as a result. The anti climax was we were sent back to school, I suppose you could say we were lucky to be able to do that. But such was the paranoia of invasion, that mother many years later said that if the Germans had invaded she would have poisoned us. Whether she would have done so however is open to conjecture. Personally, I do not think she would have. It is impossible to convey to people in this day and age the feelings of people at that time. It was frightening for adults, for the children it was just exciting and perhaps a little bit apprehensive during an air raid.

A memory shared by Howard Johnson , on Jan 8th, 2009.

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