Friday, 20 July 2012

Doctor Who's Jersey Highlands Connections

Do you remember the James Burke series "Connections", where he began with one thing, and followed it though to others? I thought it would be interesting to adopt that approach here.

As I mentioned in a previous post, Jon Pertwee, who played the part of "Doctor Who", came to Jersey several times - just before and after the war. Another Doctor Who also has a Jersey connection - the actor Tom Baker.

Tom Baker was born in 1934, in Liverpool. His childhood memories were of poverty, overcrowded housing (during the war, his family sheltered 14 people in their house), and filth and cockroach infestations. These were common slum conditions. The Architectural Journal of 1933, a year before he was born, noted:

'At one-and-a-half to a room Kitchens counting as rooms - there are six people in this house, divided for sleeping purposes thus : main bedroom, husband, wife and child; second bedroom, two girls ; parlour, son. Accommodation which necessitates five people sleeping in two small bedrooms, and one person in the parlour, is by every civilized standard odious. If one adds the presence of vermin, the bug, the beetle, the rat - the all pervasive slum smell, and the absence - in thousands of cases of bathrooms and W.C.s and even of water taps, one arrives at some idea of the living conditions of a quarter of the population as dealt with here.

He turned to the Catholic church as an escape, but as he recounts, this was an education which took one away from the slums, only to destroy all sense of worth. He was forced to repeat the words, 'I am nothing' in Latin and English over and over again. "I think it's been very difficult to get away from the fact that as a child I was brought up to loathe myself," he said.

Tom was not at all academic and struggled with everyday school work, failing the eleven plus. At 15, much to the delight of his family, he joined a religious order, the De la Mennais Brothers originating from Ploërmel in Brittany in France, and he dedicated himself to the monastic life. However as the years went by, disillusionment overwhelmed him, and at 21 he decided to leave. Tom later wrote about his time in the monastery in his autobiography "Who on Earth is Tom Baker?" (1)

At 17, the order took him to Jersey, where it was based at what is now Highland's College. Eileen Nicolle's "A History of Highlands College" tells us something of the background of this order:

French Jesuit training school Notre Dame de Bon Secours that was established in Jersey in 1894 on the site known as Highlands. The school trained sailors for the French navy but when the Jesuits were denied permission by anti-clerical laws to continue teaching, the school was moved to Jersey from Brest. The Jesuit period finished after World War I and the site was purchased by another French group The Brothers of Christian Instruction from Ploërmel in Brittany who set up a missionary school. (2)

Tom described in his autobiography "Who on Earth is Tom Baker?" what it was like to enter a religious order:

The first thing that happened on entering a religious house was that you lost your name. My name was Tommy in those days but who had ever heard of Brother Tommy then? Now monasteries all over the world are crawling with Tommies and Willies and Tweaks and Larrys; most of them don't even wear frocks anymore, except on masquerade days. But then, your name was changed. Then, it was virtue to leave father, mother, brother, sister and so on and change your name, too.

I wanted to call myself Sylvester. I thought it sounded good and my mother often talked about St Sylvester's in Liverpool. Yes, Brother Sylvester pleased me a lot. So that when I reached the mother house in Jersey, Maison Bon Secour, the house of succour, my happiness was complete. I was determined to be good. We say, don't we, "she's a good girl" or "she was a good mother" or "he was a good man". We still mean it, too. To be good in the moral sense still draws us to admiration. I wanted to be a saint. You can laugh if you like, I won't reproach you, but that's what we all felt, all forty of us in the novitiate of 1951. The discipline was very severe. The popular idea was that silence, lots of silence, deep silence, eternal silence it seemed to me, was good for the soul. I found it very hard.

The day started at about four thirty, I think. Odd, isn't it, that in a house of religion where silence was the great idea, we were roused in the morning by what I can only call a fire alarm. The shock was appalling. But one can get used to anything. It didn't occur to me to complain. Complain? (3)

But he found the regime very constrictive: "The whole point was to learn humility and practice obedience," he wrote later, "Yet the real point was the annihilation of self and I suppose that's where I lost myself for ever." After five years, he left the monastery under a cloud:

After five years, he dared to question certain aspects of the monastery and was expelled. Adjusting to life outside proved difficult; one wonders whether he ever managed to make that transition successfully. He remembers on his release how, because he had been forbidden to look at his fellow monks for five years, he felt compelled to stare intensely at strangers. His view of women had been warped by his experience, leaving him unable to form lasting relationships. (4)

But what was the order that he joined all about? It was a teaching order:

The Brothers of Christian Instruction, also known as the De la Mennais Brothers, is a teaching order founded by Father Jean-Marie de la Mennais in 1819 to teach the poor children of Brittany in Western France. These children had not had the chance to go to school, nor to learn about their faith due to the social upheaval caused by the French Revolution in 1789 and its far-reaching consequences.

In 1903, the Congregation had a severe setback when the French government closed all its schools in France and the colonies, like those of other congregations. The French Novitiate or training house for candidates to the brotherhood was immediately transferred to Taunton in south-west England and new missions were started in other countries such as Spain and Canada. In 1922 the Novitiate moved to Jersey and the Brothers in England opened their first school in Southampton, St. Mary's College, which still exists.

The Brothers are now in 24 countries around the world, places like Chile, Japan, Uganda, Tahiti, Senegal, Italy, the U.S.A. Argentina, etc... Wherever they are, their aim remains that of their Founder. (5)

The order received its first group of novices in August 1922, who soon fully fitted out their new home. For nearly 50 years Bon Secours, (or Highlands College as it was usually called), housed young men training to be members of the teaching order of brothers, coming mainly from France, England and Italy. But what was in like to be part of that? Tom Baker is not the only one who has written of his experiences. Brother Edward Earley (1924-2001) also wrote of his experiences in Jersey, which were - unlike Tom Bakers - all pleasant. But this was pre-war Jersey:

In June of 1939 I arrived in Jersey to finish my postulate and then enter the Novitiate. William Drinkwater was my companion. The sun shone brightly during those first few weeks and with the other postulants we went on various walks and excursions. We even visited HMS Jersey; a small battleship paid for by the inhabitants of the island. I remember that on July 14th Bro. Jean-Auguste was awarded the Medaille de Guerre for his services during the First World War. The scholastics joined us for the banquet in his honour. That day we also met Bro. Jean-Joseph, the former Superior-General and Bro. Denis  who was to become the first Canadian Assistant after the following General Chapter.

In February of 1941 came the order from the German authorities that the novices and scholastics had to leave for France. The novices were able to find accommodation in the Trappist monastery of Timadeuc. Then in June 1941 Highlands College itself was occupied by German troops. (6)

Brother Earley remained in Jersey, tending the gardens and still receiving education:

Our chaplain was Rev. Fr. de Tonquedec s.j.. He also preached our annual retreats all through the occupation. During 1942, William Drinkwater and myself prepared for our London Matriculation exam which we sat at the Beeches School. We had to wait until after the war to receive the results from London!

At the beginning of September 1942, William and I were offered teaching posts at The Beeches. This was wonderful news for us. Prior to this we had simply been studying and doing some work in the garden at Highlands. But the evening after our first teaching day, the Jersey daily paper announced the startling news that all non-residents were to be deported. The next morning, no classes for us. We were handed a letter from the German commander. "You must be at the port at 16.00 hours with your luggage." Lunch that day was a very sad event. After the meal I knelt to receive the chaplain's blessing. We were going into the unknown! At the port 300 people, including children, were assembled. When we went aboard the vessel, we found that we knew nobody else on board. (6)

He went, with other Channel Islanders, to  Biberach, but because his parents were in fact Irish, he discovered that he could apply to return to Jersey. Irish was neutral, and the German policy on non-residents did not apply:

Whilst speaking to some men who had been imprisoned in Belgium, I happened to mention that my parents were Irish. "Irish? Then you should not be here. In Belgium, several people we knew were freed because of their Irish connections (Ireland was a neutral country). You must apply to return to your college. As a student teacher you would be of much more use out in a school than kept locked up here." They brought me some paper and a pen. I wrote a courteous letter to the Kommandant. It was January 5th, 1943. But as the days and weeks passed, I soon forgot all about my letter.

One day in June, my number 157 was called out at parade. I went to the office and a German captain told me I could return to Jersey. I was so stunned. I asked if he could explain. "You applied to be released, didn't you?" "Yes," I replied, "six months ago". "Have you any money?" he asked me. "Sir," I answered, "I left Jersey with £1 and I spent it on a German language book." "Your country will lend you £10 (106 marks) which you will pay back after the war!" I must confess that I forgot to do so. I did not know at the time but father had written to union leader Ernest Bevin to try and get my release, my father having been a member of the Trade and General Workers Union (T.G.W.U.), though I do not know if this had any influence.

So, I prepared my luggage, underwent a medical examination and finally had to say goodbye to my friends. One man met me and said, while smoking a cigarette, "I hear you are returning to Jersey, Anthony." "That's correct." "I can't understand you. I wouldn't go back if I was paid." "Why not?" I asked. "Here I get a food parcel every week now, 50 cigarettes a week, mail from England - I wouldn't get all that in Jersey, would I?" "No," I answered, "but, you see, I don't smoke, we have a large kitchen garden attached to our community in Jersey and I have a teaching job waiting for me." He walked away smoking his cigarette. (6)

He remained in Jersey, teaching, until the end of the Occupation, a time which was tinged with sadness:

After our annual retreat, in the summer of 1944, the mental state of one of our community, Bro. Floribert, deteriorated so badly that he had to stay in bed the whole time. Bro. Alpert, watched over him. Bro. Floribert died on Liberation Day, May 8th. Our joy was mixed with grief for our dead confrère. We buried him later that week.

I attended a victory Mass in St. Thomas Parish Church with Bro. Donatien. He was wearing his WW1 medals. I felt as if I was walking alongside a Field Marshal! We drank champagne during the victory celebrations at Highlands. Union Jack flags were flying everywhere on an island that for so long had been living under the flag of foreign invaders. I helped Pierre, our gardener, to hoist the flag at Highlands. On May 24th, the school children of the island attended the march past of our liberators. The military band played and everyone cheered joyously. We soon received newspapers from Britain, then the first letters from home started to arrive and also from my brothers in the army. They were all well, thank God. (6)

There are other stories of boys who came to Jersey. Here is one, from the end of the time when the order decided to leave Jersey, and the States agreed to purchase the site:

After the first year at St Joseph's, the normal procedure was to move to Jersey for the remainder of one's training - right up to becoming a Novice. At St. Joseph's these were referred to as the 'Jersey Boys' and all the Juvenists aspired to become a Jersey Boy. When we went to Jersey, Bro Alphonsus stayed for the new intake at St Josephs and Bro James accompanied us to Highlands. He stayed with us then until my departure (at St Edwards) in January 1952. However, during the year I was in Jersey, the Brothers acquired St Edwards and of course it was not cost effective to send the Juvenists to Jersey when they had this dedicated training school ( i.e. no boarders ) in Shropshire.

The site was sold to the States. The Great Hall at Highlands still has a wonderful stained glass window, a legacy of its past. And dotted around the car parks are the odd statue of the virgin and child, strange curios of a forgotten chapter in Jersey's past.

(2) Eileen Nicolle's A History of Highlands College
(4) - These articles first appeared in:
The Daily Mail 20, 22, & 23 September 1997.

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