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Reformatory CP - March 2004
Evening Chronicle, Newcastle, 11 March 2004
A school of hard knocks
With corporal punishment a daily occurrence, life was torture for young delinquents at a special boarding school in the 40s. Here three former pupils tell SONIA SHARMA of their lost youth
Twelve-year-old Davey Hopper felt the birch cut his skin as the headmaster flogged him in the middle of the school yard.
He had tried to run away and this was his punishment. Bent over a wooden stand and with other children watching him, he lay there as the lashes rained down on his back.
"I tried not to cry but I did," said Davey, now 68. "The headmaster was a big fellow, about 20 stone, and he gave me 12 or 15 lashes across the back.
"I couldn't sit down for weeks afterwards. I was black and blue."
He, and around 40 other boys from Sunderland had been sent to special boarding schools hundreds of miles away in the 40s and 50s.
Run by the Roman Catholic Church, the schools had strict rules and corporal punishment was an everyday thing.
Many boys, some as young as seven, were from impoverished backgrounds, on the edge of juvenile delinquency. Others had special educational needs. Some were classed as mentally subnormal or mental defectives.
They were first sent to St Joseph's in Sambourne, and went on to Besford Court, Worcestershire, when they turned 12.
The aim was to teach the children trades like bricklaying or gardening so they could find work when they left at 16.
Davey, of Rhodesia Road, was enrolled when he was 10 for stealing a cricket bat.
"When I was put on a train in Sunderland I really didn't realise what was happening to me," he said.
"But when I saw my dad and my older sister standing as we pulled away from the station, the penny dropped that I was going. It was a hell of a journey."
Six hours later he was at St Joseph's School, where he met other Sunderland lads he knew.
They slept in big wooden dormitories, with 60 or 70 lads in each one. A nun slept in a little room at the top of the dormitory. If anyone was heard talking, she would come out and hit them with a belt or slipper. Or they could be asked to stand on a wall for hours on end.
The harsh treatment by one teacher in particular prompted Davey to run away from Besford Court.
He said: "A teacher once caught me talking one night and he made me kneel outside his door on the stone floor for hours.
"I was only wearing a little nightshirt and I was kneeling there nearly all night.
"One day he smacked me on the back of my head and I tossed a pot of tea at him.
"I decided to run away. At 11.30pm I woke up two mates, climbed down the drainpipes and went into the fields. There were farms and orchards for miles around.
"We didn't know where Sunderland was. We went anywhere we could and lived off the fruit in the orchards.
"We stayed with some Gypsies for a while but were caught by police as we tried to get onto a goods train."
He was brought back and flogged. But that didn't stop him from running away two more times and again being punished for it.
The children were taught things like carpentry, plastering, cobbling, painting and other similar trades.
At the age of 14, they were given jobs in the school. Davey was in charge of the market garden. He looked after pigs and garden vegetables.
He said although the school was harsh, there were a few good times. He enjoyed taking part in sports like boxing and football, and there was a trip to the cinema every month.
"There were some nice teachers but some were sadistic," he said.
"I was never scared. I was a fighter and could look after myself. I just missed my father and sister. My mum died when I was six."
After leaving at 16, Davey joined the Merchant Navy as a deck boy and later became an able seaman.
He left after 20 years and spent some time in the painting and decorating trade. But he was also getting in trouble with the authorities.
He spent around 12 years in total in prison for being violent, fighting with police, carrying a gun and other offences.
He says no-one ever led him astray and does not blame other people for his downfall.
Fifty years on, he and other Besford Boys made a trip back to the school, now a private housing estate.
Their journey will be shown in a Tyne Tees programme tonight, in which they find scrupulous records were kept.
It was a shock for Davey to find out he had been classed as mentally deficient.
The father of four said: "I could not read or write, that's all.
"When we went back to the school, it was an emotional journey for some of the lads.
"I went to the grave of the teacher who made me kneel all night. I looked at it and spat at it. I felt extreme hate for him."
Danny Lavelle, 61, of Pennywell, was sent to Besford Court when he was nine because he was playing truant.
The father of two said: "Looking through the records, it was a shock to find out my dad was put in jail because of me.
"I never knew it. He had tried to stop me going away and might have hit someone. He spent three months in jail for it. It broke my heart.
"I wanted to grow up with my family in my own town but I didn't get a chance."
He says the boarding school was a terrible experience.
He said: "It really frightened us to see boys getting whipped in public. They would put you in the middle of a yard and make an example of you. I never thought of running away because I would have been flogged."
The good times for him were when he received parcels of sweets and toffees from his parents. Not many people got visits because their families lived far away.
Danny, who went on to do building work, said: "When I look back, I think, 'What a waste of my childhood and a waste of my life.'"
Jimmy McEvoy, 67, of Renfrew Road, was sent to Sambourne at the age of nine and says it was rough for everybody.
He once got his hands whipped for standing on a wall trying to chase a pigeon. The headmaster was told he was trying to steal apples.
After leaving school, he worked at shipyards. He often thinks about what it was like in his youth.
He said: "We shouldn't have been sent there for what we did. Many were there for things like truancy, whereas today children seem to be getting away with murder."
Besford Boys will be shown tonight on Tyne Tees at 7.30pm.
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