Trailing The Last Intake

An appreciation of Preston Catholic College The Last Intake 1977-1982, The End of an Era by Jim Clune and Adrian Gawain Jones with the Old Boys of ’77

Plus an added personal perspective.

It was a relief to find no mention of me in this book. There was always the risk I would be the subject of derogatory remarks. I was a peculiar person: a member of staff but not a teacher, a former student but not an Old Boy, a part of the institution but not belonging to it. The awkward question of belonging is a theme that lies at the gasping heart of The Last Intake.

It’s an insightful read, and not just for the knowing nostalgic, the general reader interested in twentieth century education as a strand of social history will find a plethora of first-hand experience to plunder here. Most valuably the perspectives are provided by those on the receiving end – at times painfully literally. There are a couple of short contributions from teachers, but this is primarily the testament of pupils, and as such it is eye-opening.

A view of the Catholic College Assembly Hall as seen from the stage.
This picture was taken before the fixed seating was installed.
The plaque on the balcony is a war memorial and is now displayed near the Chapel of Cardinal Newman College at Lark Hill

The parallel perspective

Due to a quirk of fate, my own perspective is a parallel one. I joined the staff one month after the eponymous intake. I also preceded them. My comparative years of learning were conducted at St Thomas More Comprehensive School in Preston, but I joined the Catholic College for two years of sixth form in September 1973. That matriculation mechanism was actually the reason that the College stopped recruiting at age eleven.

As explained in my earlier post,1 the switch to comprehensive education in the town (as it then was) combined with a policy of forming one Catholic sixth-form college to serve the graduates of the numerous Catholic high schools in the area. Hence the Catholic grammar school metaphorically closed its doors and the intake of 1977 worked their way through the ensuing five years as the perpetually youngest year group.

I was appointed as a Science Technician to join the College at the same time as this intake but had to work out a month’s notice at Nat West Bank before donning the lab coat in October 1977. I would continue in that role for sixteen years and then transition to being a drama teacher at the same establishment for a further twenty three years. I saw the Final Intake, and all that followed until 2017.

Only two persons were interviewed for the position of Lab Technician in the autumn of 1977, and as only one of us had been to the Catholic College, I got the job. Jobs for the old boys is a theme of The Last Intake, and while I was not a fully fledged lower school Old Boy, I was the closet thing on offer. My perspective on the testimonies that comprise this erudite volume is thus uniquely aligned. Whilst not able to bear witness to the inside stories of instruction, competition, penalisation, reward, derision, celebration and jolly japes, I can vouch that the context is stingingly true.

The A-level Chemistry Prep Room circa 1980.
That’s me in the corner, losing my Health and Safety certificate

The Last Intake

Jim Clune and Adrian Gawain Jones have done top grade work. The Last Intake is informative, accurate, amusing and honest. It is a most enjoyable read. It is a bit of bible. The chapters come from different scribes, not prophets, but witnesses to a movement inspired by teachings in a institution substantiated by a church, and operated according to a creed. Not all accounts are in harmony with the parent philosophy however. Some are charmingly dismissive of it.

I enjoyed reading every one, but my favourite was the least typical, that of Richard Curran, who I encountered briefly in his later capacity backstage at Preston Guild Hall and whose account leaves no doubt that he owes nothing to the ecclesiastical mind-benders of the north-west corner of Winckley Square

Curran’s chapter is also untypical in that it is one of the few that focus on an academic discipline and describes how it came to dominate his later life despite it not having been particularly nurtured by the ministrations of the College staff. There are a lot of references by his peers to the methods and means of the educators, but little time is spent on how the teaching influenced the pupils; a lesson for teachers everywhere. What we remember from school is mostly not what was intended.

Teaching

There are other testimonies that draw on academic influences, but the main purpose of the College gets scant treatment. Of the accounts that cite success sparked by knowledge first encountered in the Victorian panelled classrooms, very few strongly tie attainment in those pursuits to the learning imposed there.

John (now Professor) McLaughlin states that he effectively taught himself his A levels as “the teachers didn’t seem able to get through the whole curriculum”. His O levels had also been potentially compromised by the “demob-happy style with which some of our teachers approached the last years” (of the lower school).

The A-level Science Corridor in Mount Street.
Behind the door on the right is the A-level Chemistry Lab.
Behind the door on the left is a man in white coat standing on a stool.

Some of McLaughlin’s contemporaries concur that the teaching fell short. Michael Suthers described how one teacher was “a top-class guy” but “he just couldn’t control our class” however he “got most of the lads an English O level.” Most. Not a claim we might expect from a grammar school that was considered by many as the best place in town to secure success for boys. Most!!

Other recollections are more positive, but readers can reach their own conclusions. The legacy is depicted as more in the reputation than the reality. Having been educated at PCC could mean that doors were opened, and not just in lofty places, but even as an apprentice pipefitter-welder.

Pete Cooper attests that when he and a classmate applied to a local heating company and the employer saw their school on the applications they “dismissed the other applicants and gave us the jobs”. As mentioned above, I’m not in a position to deride that approach. To be fair, the standards of metalwork that the College forged were very high, and no doubt paid off for the apprentices. Whether the same benefits could be claimed in progressing other careers is something the Last Intake scribes discuss as they examine the truth behind the reputational claims that the College wore so smugly.

From my unique perspective of studying in the sixth form and later working alongside the teaching staff, I conclude that, in common with most schools, there were strengths and weakness across the provision. The Catholic College did, perhaps, have the edge on neighbouring schools, but it also had the benefits of selecting its students, and the added pupil impetus that came from the expectations of parents, some of whom made considerable sacrifices to find the fees they had to pay.

The main entrance: Number 34 Winckley Square in 1978
Photo by Martin McCann

Schools were scrutinised far less fifty years ago, and the blame tended to be placed on the other side of the desk. In the Catholic College Magazine of January 1974 the Head Master (Father Hackett) reflecting on the previous summer’s results wrote in his report that:

There are some very weak results in Arts subjects at A-level partly explained by the fact that weaker candidates often choose Arts subjects.

and

Some Arts subjects faired badly at O-level indicating a lack of proper application by the candidates.

Pejorative judgements such as those say as much about the education of the Head Master as they do about the one he provided for his pupils.

A lot of the authors take this opportunity to turn the desks and examine their school and opinions range from that it was the making of them to asserting that it was almost an irrelevance. My own opinion is that the college was as good as it claimed to be at a time when there was virtually no independent assessment of just how good that was. The exponents of the College believed in the myths it manufactured.

Sport, sport, history and sport

The activity that dominates in the recollections is sport, and football in particular. Sport gets a mention on about a third of all pages, which might be a function of the mix of Old Boys who had the inclination to respond to the pleas for contributions from to the editors, but it could just be that, as with many independent schools, sport was something of a banner of prestige and that kind of self-congratulatory flag-waving perpetuates. Even here the benefits of the College are disputed. Some of the staff coaches are lauded by their proteges, but other participants imply that tuition in this exalted activity was more about boys being left to their own devices. Mick Wilson loved PE but even he attests: “there was no coaching or teaching, just playing and performing.”

Vintage postcard of Preston Catholic College taken from the air.
The date is uncertain but probably before 1947 as only No 34 Winckley Square is included.

Sport even features in the excellently compiled chapter on the history of the college. Researched by older Old Boy Ralph Cooper it sketches out the curious development of the establishment from it’s origins in number 25 Winckley Square in 1865. (It draws heavily on A Centenary History of Preston Catholic College by Alban Hindle, who, despite being a historian, would often visit the Physics prep room to exhibit his world-record breaking skills at extracting endless barely legible copies from typed sheets reproduced on the Banda spirit duplicator, the fumes from which gave many a history student unintended highs.)

Cracks

The child abuse formerly known as corporal punishment features prominently in several confessions. The Catholic College’s particular perversion was to lash the palms of miscreants with the ferula, a device comprising leather, whalebone and hypocrisy. This was administered by a number of appointed executioners, one of whose daughters I – briefly – dated. She went on to work in dentistry.

This flagellating regime did appear to ensure compliance, albeit in an unenlightened way. One curious variation on the system was implemented by the gloriously rock-god wigged Father Wareing who would accumulate the names of offenders until he had half a dozen, place them in a hat, then draw out one. That unfortunate sinner would be duly lashed while the remainder where pardoned. A curious straining of Wareing’s quality of mercy, methinks.

Colditz

Eugene Henderson compares the College premises to the set of Colditz, an analogy with which I strongly concur not least because my contemporaries had made the same comparison some four years previously, probably as a consequence of the BBC TV series that was being aired at the time. Henderson’s account is another that stands out. He doesn’t pull his punches. After his disparaging depiction of the facilities he moves on to the teachers who ranged he says, “ from the disinterested (the majority) to the deluded and the downright psychotic.”

In the interests of balance it is important to point out that there are many appreciative nominations for top teacher, though not all are on the basis of their tuition prowess. These include “the very stylish, well dressed and extremely attractive” Miss Tyrell, who by her presence alone supercharged recruitment into Physics. (Wendy Tyrell was a very proficient and brave pioneer. At that time female physicists were as likely to be encountered as the Higgs boson.)

The yards of Colditz Castle POW camp and Preston Catholic College.

Several scribes comment on the accommodation which on the west side was deeply Dickensian in nature. As the only full-time technician I often found myself alone during holiday weeks amid the oak-panelled confines of the Mount Street laboratory wing. Wooden stairs sagged beneath feet and groaned back some seconds after they had been left behind. Cupboards opened of their own volition. The fixtures and fittings were generally better behaved on saints’ days.

The north wing was indeed Colditz meets Copperfield. Bleak classrooms surmounted by the cavernous Assembly Hall containing a really rather splendid traditionally raked stage with a double height fly tower. There were also curious semi-hidden rooms atop cardiac-testing staircases. These included the Wright Room (formerly a library) and Attica, named one suspects for classical reasons as much as those suggested by its lofty altitude. One Last Intake scribe comments on the slapdash plaster repair to the Assembly Hall ceiling. I might have inside information on the need for that repair. Let’s just say that Attica was not the topmost space to which a Colditz-minded boy might escape.

Plan of the Catholic College in 1970 drafted by metalwork teacher Jim Talbot and extracted from A Centenary History of Preston Catholic College by Alban Hindle

The eastern range of property was a different kettle of architecture. As Ralph Cooper’s history outlines, the College acquired various premises on the wonderful western facade of Winckley square gradually during the twentieth century. The buildings there were much more salubrious, being better decorated, curiously connected and with much better views. The final addition was the Garden Street gymnasium built in 1970, used until 2006 and only demolished in 2021.

Final assessment

I was present on the final day that the classrooms were ever used in 1986 and helped to supervise the transportation of laboratory equipment across town to Lark Hill, and yes I must admit that there was a sense of the era ending. That sentiment, emblazoned in the subtitle of The Last Intake, emits from the pages, but the book offers so much more than that.

The theme of belonging does not go away. The Old Boys appear to agree that they belong together but differ on just how much they owe their alma mater.

The book bulges with recollections and in the main they are warm and cherished but it is sobering to see the more positive nostalgia riddled with the snide, the doubtful and the questioning. Was the Catholic College as good as it claimed to be? On this the old boys don’t agree. That dispute is the value the book offers to those who were not there.

They effuse fond memories of trips home and abroad, naughty pranks, and playground games permitted only with nothing larger than tennis balls. They applaud the staff who made a particular effort to do that for which they were paid, and whose nurturing was conducted with a fairness to match its firmness.

The revelations of the later careers range from the mundane to the extraordinary. One hunted terrorists, for example, while another smuggled such a person across the Irish border. A police officer was able to identify the corpse of a plain-clothed nun purely by linking a piece of jewellery with his Catholic recollections.

I found The Last Intake to be continuously edifying. I laughed out loud many times, and sank to contemplation even more. The editors may have thought they were compiling collective memories, but they have done something greater than that. They’ve left a unique testament of passing through the educational intestines of an extinct species.

In retrospect, Preston Catholic College appears to be a dinosaur. Its only physical remains are fossilised and repurposed. The Last Intake catalogues its death throes with a charming mix of affection, evangelism, criticism, cynicism, sarcasm, and appreciation. And sport.


The Book

Preston Catholic College The Last Intake 1977-1982, The End of an Era by Jim Clune and Adrian Gawain Jones with the Old Boys of ’77 is available now from booksellers and online. ISBN: 978-1-9196420-9-3

The Reason

Why it had to happen is explained in my blog post from August 2018: Hard Terms


Staff picture

The photograph below shows the College staff in the late 1970s. I’ve named all the ones I can confidently label.

Back row

1, Leo (Bunny) Warren / 2. Martin (Sandy) McCann / 3.Ken Henry / 4. John Andrews / 5. Arthur Bunce /6. Graham Billington / 7. Pete Singleton? /8. Mr Bradley /9. ?? /10.? / 11. Mr Graystone / 12.Bob Poole / 13. Fr?/14. Gerry O’Neil / 15. Fr Praeger / 16. Jack McCann / 17. Fr Spencer / 18. Joe Bamber

Penultimate row

1? / 2. Fr Wareing / 3. Fr? / (seated:) 4. Joe Higgins / 5. Martin Sanderson / 6.? / 7. ? / 8. Dave Starkie / 9. ? / 10. Cyril Chester / 11. ? / 12. Jim Talbot / 13. Pete Hartley / 14.? / (behind:) 15. ? / 16. Pete Harwood / 17.(behind:) Fr? / 18. Bernard Huggon.

The Assembly Hall Proscenium Arch and the College Staff.
This may be the final official Catholic College staff photo taken in 1978

Second row

1. Peter Williams / (gap then:) / 2. Roy Holdsworth / 3. ? / 4. ? / 5. Dennis Malley / 6. ?/ 7. ?/ 8. Lindsay Smith / 9. Rita Wharton /10. Joan Monk / 11. ? / 12. ?/ 13. ?

Front row

1. Harry Duckworth / 2. Alban Hindle / 3. Mrs White / 4. Louis Caton / 5. ? / 6. Fr Magill / 7. Fr Wren (Head Master) / 8. Peter Newsome / 9. ? / 10. ? / 11. Dr Brosch?/ 12. Mrs Howson


References
  1. See Hard Terms

Influenced

My times at Catholic College and Newman College fed their way consciously and unconsciously into many stories.

There is a story called The Grammar School in the Christmas Present collection. The exteriors are drawn from Preston Grammar School by Moor Park in Deepdale, but some of the interior scenes and key characters were inspired by the nooks, crannies and cronies of PCC.

There’s a character and couple of scenes in the Untitled thriller that owe a debt to those days,

There is a character who links Ice & Lemon . . .

. . . to its sequel Jyn & Tonic who is based on a colleague from that time, though he was a teacher who had originated at Winckley Square Convent school next door.

I cannot provide copies of The Last Intake but will be hawking other unique publications locally, and will be happy to reminisce, at the following times and places:

2 thoughts on “Trailing The Last Intake

  1. Thanks for your post Pete. I was in the penultimate intake of 1976. Many fond memories of the school and the choir. My dad also went to the school. My recollection is that the Jesuits were only really interested in you if you were going to university. I don’t have another to compare it to, but I must say that I have mainly positive memories and it has served me well in my life and career. JW resident in Australia since 1989.

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    1. Greetings John. Thanks for your comment. Time and distance certainly put a twist on perspective, but overall I feel very fortunate to have been integrated into that particular community. The latest news on the site is that the building on Mount Street (Science plus swimming baths, Sixth Form Centre etc.) is set to be demolished and redeveloped into an apartment block. There have been objections, but to my mind the time is probably right. It has been in use as an office block but it is a pretty gloomy property. There will be some work at the rear of 33/34 Winckley Square, but as far as I can determine the old College entrance façade will not be affected.
      The link to the Lancashire (no longer ‘Evening’ ) Post article is here: https://www.lep.co.uk/education/century-old-part-of-prestons-former-catholic-college-could-be-flattened-for-apartment-block-4033669

      All the best, Pete H.

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