St. Joseph’s Home in Wartime

St. Joseph’s Home in Wartime

Tony Costello – June 2009

In April 1940 I was 11 and a half years old, my two sisters, Patricia and Norah were 8 and 5 respectively. We lived in Norris Green, Liverpool, which at that time was a new Estate, built to accommodate families who were being re-located from the poor housing situation in the Breck Road, West Derby Road area of the City.

The war was having a destabilising effect on our family life, my mother was extremely ill and my father had been mobilised to work with the Ministry of Aircraft Production. None of our extended family were able to look after us as a trio, and my father had insisted that we stay together. As a result he approached a children’s society run by the Catholic Church.

Some years earlier my sister Pat and I had spent some time in one of their Homes, Knowell [?] Park in Woolton, a suburb of Liverpool. Norah, being too young at the time, was looked after by a long standing family friend. So, one April morning the three of us were taken by car by the lady from the Society and were driven to Freshfield, and to St. Joseph’s Convalescent Home, an isolated building in the pinewoods. We were handed over to a small reception party of Nuns. Pat and Norah were taken to the Girls’ side of the house and I was taken in the opposite direction, to the Boys’ side.

My first impressions were not good. I had brought with me my treasured football boots; these were taken from me “to be looked after”. I never saw them again. I was told that I could not see my sisters until breakfast next morning. and that it was not allowed for boys and girls to be together even if they were siblings. This rule was only relaxed if we had visitors which, because of wartime conditions, was not a frequent occurrence. Occasionally, on the regular Sunday morning walk it was possible for my sisters and I to have a chat if they were at the rear of the girls column and I was at the front of the boys column. Providing that the nuns who were between the two columns were not too strict, as they sometimes could be, then a blind eye was turned. There were other brothers and sisters who also took advantage of this relaxation. In general. the nuns were very kind and caring. My two sisters made lasting friendships and even visited one of our favourites many years later when she went to live in a retirement home for her Order in Rome

The building, St. Joe’s, as we came to call it, was approached along a very rough and stony road running from Larkhill Lane, through pinewoods. The road ran straight for about half a mile and then turned sharply to the left. It was from here that one first caught sight of the big white gates, almost always kept closed.

There was hardly any traffic. An occasional tradesman’s vehicle, a visiting doctor, or somebody on official business maybe. On Sundays the taxi from the Station might be hired by relatives visiting children. The taxi was run by a Mr.Rimmer and the fare was half a crown (2 shillings 6pence) irrespective of the number of passengers. There was a Chapel in the building and a Priest used to come every day to say Mass. The Priest would come from a college in Formby and probably walked or cycled to the Home.

The first sight was of the rear of the building, all drain pipes and a fire escape. At the front, one could see a house of substantial size that had extensions built on to it. To the left was a two storey construction. (Hence the fire escape). The top floor was the Chapel and the Nun’s quarters. The Nun’s (or Sisters) called their rooms “cells”. The ground floor was the Boys’ dormitory which was partitioned in the middle, each section having 14 or 16 beds. A bathroom and toilets were at the far end of this block and a small private room where one of the Nun’s slept.

There was no provision for an Air Raid Shelter. If the sirens sounded we would go into the “house” part of the building and assemble in a sort of corridor. Boys and girls together with the ever present Nuns keeping vigil. The time until the “All Clear” would be passed in saying the Rosary and singing hymns. The windows in the dormitory were permanently “blacked out” with a heavy opaque paper. To let light in during the day, one or two of them would be opened slightly, depending on the weather. As we were not allowed in the dormitory during the day this did not matter to us. The “Angelus Bell” would be rung at 6pm. and we were all in bed by 7pm., summer or winter. Because of the blacked out windows we always went to bed in the dark, the lights being switched off by a nun or one of the maids. 

During one of the air raids, a bomb landed in the woods quite close to the back of the house. This caused a whole window, frame and everything, to be blown out of its mountings and into the dormitory. It landed across a couple of the beds but luckily there was no-one in them at the time. 

I cannot say much about the Girls’ side of the building but my sisters tell me that the layout was similar apart from the fact that it was single storey and had a large French window which opened onto a veranda. It was on this veranda where we were all assembled to have our group photograph taken when the Mayor ,and Mayoress of Southport visited the Home sometime in 1942. 

The population of the Home was greatly increased by having to take an overflow of evacuees. These were mainly children from Catholic schools in the Seaforth and Litherland districts of Liverpool; “Star of the Sea” Seaforth being one of them. This sudden influx played havoc with the education system and for a while the evacuees were taught at the Home by the Sisters. Whilst my sisters and I were not officially evacuees, Norris Green not having come within the boundaries designated as most likely to be bombed, we were nevertheless always treated as though we were evacuees and were taught along with them. There were also some children who were there for genuine convalescence and, where possible, these children also attended the makeshift classrooms. 

As the phoney war continued, the ‘Powers that Be ruled that some of the children should attend the Catholic school in Formby, “Our Lady of Lourdes”. This idea was abandoned after a short trial period. The long crocodile of pupils had too far to walk and often arrived soaked to the skin and late if the weather was bad. It also stretched the school’s capacity to breaking point However, some of the older boys, were regarded as being fit and able to do the daily journey, and I was one of them. It was not possible to go home at dinner time in the time available and so I had to do without a midday meal or take some bread from the breakfast table to tide me over until I got back to St Joe’s in the evening.

I can only remember two teachers, the Headmaster, whose class I was in, and a Miss. Berrill. The Headmaster’s name was George Edward Ryan. He was member of the Royal Horticultural Society and so it was natural that, in the farming community in which the school was situated, we did a lot of gardening lessons. I learned how to double-dig and how to “force” rhubarb. His house in Gores Lane was named “Camelot”. I have never forgotten having to learn the poem, “On either side the river lie, long fields of barley and of rye,” and so on. 

There was no access to the wireless or newspapers at St Joe’s and so it wasn’t until I got to school that I learned from the other boys of what was going on in the outside world. Dunkirk, Hess landing in Scotland, The thousand bomber raid on Cologne, the sinking of HMS. Hood, etc. One of the school’s old boys had died in this latter event and was remembered in our prayers at Assembly. 

Other events which stick in my mind are the funerals of the Polish Airmen in the churchyard of Our Lady’s. They had collided in mid air over Woodvale RAF Station. Also, I arrived at school one morning only to be whipped around the legs with bunches of stinging nettles. There was a local custom that one should wear a sprig of oak leaves on Oak Apple Day to commemorate King Charles the Second hiding in the oak tree in 1651. Anyone not doing so was whipped accordingly. I introduced some of the perpetrators to the Liverpool custom of physical retaliation, and was duly given four strokes of the cane by Mr.Ryan. 

Coming home from school one day, near Brooks’s Farm at the top of Wicks Lane we met an armed soldier escorting what we thought was a German pilot, to Harington Barracks. It turned out to be an RAF pilot who had done a belly flop crash landing on one of Mr. Brooks’s asparagus fields. The plane was a Hawker Hurricane. For a few days it lay in the field, guarded from souvenir hunters by a small group of soldiers. The children from St. Joes used to chat to them and share their corned beef sandwiches and tea as the field was quite close to the Home. 

There was also an occasion, on my twelfth birthday, November 1940, when a group of the children were taken by two of the nuns to Formby Park where a Messerschmitt 109 was on display. It was in an enclosure surrounded by a hessian screen and it cost sixpence per person to view the German fighter plane. The monies raised going to the Formby “Spitfire” Fund. The Sisters hadn’t known about the admission charge but as they were both Irish and as the soldiers guarding the plane were Inniskilling Fusiliers AND as it was my birthday, some sort of compromise was reached and we were all allowed into the enclosure to see “Gerry”. 

Playing football on the beach one day during the holidays we saw a plane coming :from the direction of Liverpool. We were all quite good at aircraft recognition by this time in the war and various opinions were given as to what it could be; Blenheim, Beaufighter, and the like. Eventually the Luftwaffe Dornier, another “Gerry” flew over our heads and we saw the plume of black smoke as it crashed, up by Birkdale. I can’t put a date on this. 

There was a searchlight emplacement in the sand hills, a sandbagged enclosure with a solid base of paving stones. The Lister generator was concealed in the woods as was a galvanised water tank. The tank was replenished daily from II bowser sent from Harington Barracks. Again, the children formed friendships with the soldiers, and they, the soldiers, would explain to us how the light worked.

On one occasion we had a visit :from the U.S. Vice Consul’s representative in Liverpool. He brought a present for every child in the Home. The Junior Red Cross in the USA were the donors. I got an aeroplane with a wind-up elastic propeller. All the presents were of high quality and we were all in awe at the kindness of these strangers from America. 

I loved the environment of the woods and the dunes. There were lizards, small blue butterflies, rabbits, newts in the ditches around the asparagus field and a colony of natterjack toads in a pond on the far side of the field :from the home. We boys were very much left to our own devices, often missing midday meals but always having to be back in the late afternoon.

In November 1942 I reached my fourteenth birthday. The rules of the Home did not allow boys to remain after this age but fortunately an aunt and uncle in Liverpool were able to take me in. Their two sons were now serving in HM Forces so there was a room for me at their house. 

I finished my schooling at Christmas 1942 and went to stay with them.

I never did get my football boots back !