Idyllic school days taught by band of Brothers

As a boy in the mid-1960s, Michael Billington was packed off to boarding school at a grand mansion in rural Shropshire to receive his education from a religious order.

And after a bad bout of homesickness to start with, he absolutely loved the experience, and to this day looks back on those times with great fondness.

Today he is in effect the historian of that long-disappeared institution which made its home in Cheswardine Hall, and he has a Facebook site devoted to remembering it.

It was called St Edward's College and opened there in 1950, closing in July 1968 and then moving – with pupil Michael moving with it – to Woolton in Liverpool.

"It was a very happy time of my life," says Michael, who is a retired primary school teacher who now lives in Chorlton-cum-Hardy.

"The official title of the order was The Brothers of Christian Instruction and the founder was Jean Marie De La Mennais, a French priest from the town of Saint Malo in Brittany."

He was a pupil at a Roman Catholic school at his home town of Urmston in Greater Manchester when he was "recruited" to join St Edward's, an independent boys' boarding school.

"There was an older Brother called Brother Louis who was a French Canadian and quite advanced in years when I joined St Edward's in April 1966.

"Brother Louis was like the recruiting sergeant who went round schools giving talks, obviously making it sound a fantastic place to go to, which actually it was. He was a very saintly man, a very lovely man, who spoke with a French accent, which had its drawbacks when he taught us.

"For any boy who showed an interest a letter would be sent home to the parents and it was taken from there. My mother was sent a list of requirements, including a list with things like towels, dressing gowns, socks, and handkerchiefs."

Michael had just turned 13 when he headed off to Shropshire.

"I had failed my 11-plus. I was rubbish at maths. What the Brothers would do is target secondary modern schools and try to attract the boys there of a higher academic level. I think my mum especially was happy for me to get what she considered to be a grammar school education.

"My father was Irish and a Catholic. My mother was not, and had to convert to get married to dad."

Michael, incidentally, is no longer of any religious persuasion and considers himself a humanist.

"If I could go back on my time there is only one thing I would want to change, and that is to go to Cheswardine Hall a year or two earlier. It was a fantastic experience.

"I was excruciatingly homesick when I first went and wanted to go home, and cried my eyes out, but I soon settled down and all the pluses of life at Cheswardine Hall soon became apparent.

"We followed a normal curriculum, with English, maths, science, and so on. All our spare time was spent on sport and there were very few of us who were not sport inclined. In the evenings we would have our tea, do our homework, and go out to what we called The Garage to play five-a-side football. It was a covered area in a garage.

"We went to school on Saturday mornings – a lot of boarding schools did that. On Wednesday afternoons we did not have school and tried to arrange football matches with other schools, like Wem secondary. Even the village had a team we used to play against.

"There was a lovely lake we used to go swimming in, with a boathouse with a boat in it. It was a very idyllic place. The hall was wonderful in every season. You can imagine the place in snow, and in summer, when we played cricket on the field. It was so quintessentially English."

There was, of course, a particular purpose to their attendance, joining the De La Mennais Brothers, otherwise known as the Brothers of Christian Instruction.

"It was training boys for the religious life to take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. It was a bit like the male equivalent of nuns," says Michael, although he points out that they were not learning to be monks, but Brothers.

"The teachers were called Brothers. Brother Augustine was the chemistry teacher, Brother Anthony was physics, Brother Brian was maths.

"We didn't really have music. Brother Louis used to teach us hymns, but we had no instrumental tuition."

The day would start with the Brother on duty waking the boys up, and they would wash and clean their teeth, and get dressed with a dressing gown draped across their shoulders, as a precaution to ensure modesty. They would go downstairs for Mass in the chapel at about 7.30am, followed by breakfast at about 8am.

There was a retired couple, a Mr and Mrs Roberts, with Mrs Roberts being the Matron who would wash their clothes and dirty towels.

"She was a lovely lady. Her husband was deaf and used to walk around the grounds chatting to us. They had a dog called Spot."

There was too a Spanish family, the Esposito family, comprising husband, wife, and three children, who were the cooks, and later went to the Isle of Man to start a cafe.

"The boys would go to the kitchens each meal time and bring the meals through on a big catering trolley. The boys would sit in the main hall six to a table, dishes would be put out, and there would be one boy on the table with the job of dishing everything out and passing it around."

Michael says in his experience the most number of boys at the college was 50, aged between 11 and 16.

They would all pitch in to the work.

"After meals the dirty dishes and cutlery would be wheeled into the scullery where we would wash and dry and put away in the cupboards.

"Every morning we'd sweep and clean the rooms. Each boy would be assigned a particular room or stairway and once a month we'd have manual work which would entail work around the grounds such as sawing logs for the fire, gardening, picking potatoes and so on.

"Also we'd have to polish the main hall and staircases. This was done by rubbing wax polish from large tins and then buffing up to a shine. Hard work, I can tell you.

"There was a huge greenhouse in the grounds in which were grown tomatoes and a field in front of the greenhouse in which the Brothers planted potatoes. All our produce was bought in and I remember large catering tins of baked beans with the brand name Armour."

Some boys went through successfully and became Brothers, others decided it was not the life for them, and there were some where it was the Brothers who decided they were not suited for the religious life.

"One thing at the college that was not a positive aspect was when a boy left. It was very secretive.

"They would say 'this is not the life for you and there is no place for you any more.' I would look around and think 'I've not seen so-and-so for ages.' It would become apparent that he had gone. We were never given the opportunity to say cheerio to our friends."

Michael was to move with the college to Woolton when it closed at Cheswardine in July 1968.

Woolton College was in Menlove Avenue, a stone's throw from the house where John Lennon grew up, although that was not something Michael knew at the time.

"It was very different, being in a city. In Cheswardine cross-country running was literally cross-country. It was very rural. In Liverpool it was running around streets. At Woolton we didn't have a field so to play football went to the park and put a couple of cones down for goals.

"Woolton was a big letdown in so many ways. It was a brand new, soulless, characterless, concrete building."

And while at Woolton, he discovered that he hadn't made the cut.

"It was put to me that I was too worldly. I was not pious enough."

Exactly where he fell down, he is not sure.

"We were all goody two-shoes. There was rarely any friction between the boys. Those of us who went to Woolton College were getting older, 15 to 16, and getting to the age where puberty had kicked in and interest in the opposite sex would be showing then, although it did not with me because I had had such a cloistered life and when I came back to Manchester I was very behind-the-door and unconfident with girls.

"We were all showing inclinations and listening to pop music and things like that and they must have seen something that I was not aware of."

Such was the attempt to maintain a veil of secrecy regarding such departures that Michael says when he told a friend of his that he had "got the push" Brother Anthony had got quite annoyed.

"If I had progressed with the De La Mennais Order I would have been a teaching Brother."

Instead Michael went on to De La Salle, a grammar school in Salford, and then studied law in Liverpool, but that did not work out and he eventually did an Open University degree and went into primary school teaching.

Today he is a man of many parts and interests. He has recorded albums, mainly acoustic folk, and plays in a ceilidh band. He likes Renaissance music, traditional Hungarian music, and has a great interest in bagpipes, with a collection of almost 30 from around the world. He's also had a book published.

As for Cheswardine Hall, he says: "The upkeep of the college became a bit too much. It was a big place and I imagine there was a lot of repair work, so from a financial point of view the Brothers decided to sell. It sold for only £20,000, which even in 1968 was a steal. It's now a residential care home for the elderly."

The school at Woolton is no more – it was demolished – and Michael says today the Order has two schools in this country, one being St Mary's at Southampton, and Xaverian College in Liverpool.

There have been reunions and nostalgic returns to Cheswardine Hall, and looking back on his Shropshire school days, he says: "It was an important and very enjoyable part of my life."

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