By Harry Mottram: Until I visited a museum where there was a skeleton of a Neolithic man my faith in God had been total. Back in school I asked Sister Louisa what would happen to all the Neolithic hunters and cavemen born before Jesus when they died?
The answer was a cop out: “Jesus will tell you when you die and go to heaven.” Further questions about the beginning of the planet, dinosaurs and man’s evolution were met with the same answer – we will only find out when we ascend to heaven – all would be revealed then by Jesus.
Such had been the brainwashing by the Franciscan Sisters of the Five Wounds at Stella Maris Convent in Seaton that I had believed literally every word. From Adam and Eve to all those miracles and saints. But as a non Roman Catholic at the primary school I was already in the slow lane to heaven with a mandatory stop off in Purgatory to clean up my soul – according to Sister Edwina.
The Primary School in the East Devon seaside town of Seaton had opened initially in the 1930s and enjoyed its best days in the 1940s and 1950s until the late 1960s when it closed due to falling pupil numbers. Together with its sister school of St Clare’s Girls’ School over the road the establishments had largely catered for well heeled Catholic families with some overseas diplomats sending their children there as the nuns also provided boarding.
My siblings and I had been granted a cut price deal at the private school as our mum worked there as a PE teacher. When the job ended and the money ran out I was sent to the state primary school nearby – the pupils of which were known as the Licorice All Sorts as they didn’t have to wear a uniform. We were known as the Blue Birds due to the colour of our uniform and the pupils of a rival private school in Seaton at the Manor House School were known as The Cabbages as they wore a green uniform. We were nothing if not inventive with names.
Many of the nuns were Irish but also there were a small number of Spanish sisters and a very ancient mother superior whose croaking dry voice was impossible to pin down as to her origins. Perhaps she had always been 120 years of age. Sister Edwina was her NCO or Sister Enforcer and charged with maintaining discipline which she did with the ruthless use of corporal punishment using a variety of implements long given up as too barbaric by the Spanish Inquisition. The double thickness 18 inch ruler, the slipper (a large gym shoe) and the most feared of all: the buckle strap.
My sister Alex received the ruler from Sister Edwina on her hands for failing to remember the eight times table. I received it on the back of legs as my younger sister Sally was punished for talking in class – and for some reason Sister Francesca carried out a collective punishment on me and anyone sitting close to Sally. And if you sucked your thumb then your hands were tied together with dusters, while poor hand writing led to you being made to stand on a chair – outside in the courtyard for added humiliation. The buckle strap was such a terrifying instrument of punishment that it was only spoken of in whispers – and a select group of rule breakers were rewarded for their sins with the leather belt used across their hands, legs and posteriors. It led decades later to a great deal of business for the dominatrix industry in Soho.
Roman Catholic Convent Schools have no doubt changed since the 1960s but back then it wasn’t called child cruelty – it was called discipline. There were many rules to be broken with a variety of punishments to match. Untidiness got you a clip round the ear and a sign tied to you which you had to wear for the rest of the day stating your crime. Talking in class meant standing in the corner for the rest of the lesson, and forgetting to put away your books could result in a Chinese burn – your arm twisted by one of the nuns – with a look of grim sadism on her face. Regular transgressors were of course executed by firing squad.
Angel of Death
Although I was not a Catholic I bought into the idea of sin at an early age due to the blanket brainwashing and implementation of guilt – something that has never left me as although I no longer believe in God I still assume some almighty force is looking down on me and tut tutting. From failing to remember the Apostles Creed – a minor sin – to not knowing the full name of the Pope – a cardinal sin – all could be wiped clean at confession – if you were a Catholic.
For non-Catholics sins were added up by the Angels who kept an eye on you all through life as you always had a celestial guard looking over your shoulder marking your sins in a ledger which would be presented at the Pearly Gates. On your other shoulder was an Angel of the Devil – who was for ever tempting you into sin. Such as putting your hand up Suzanne Abbot’s gym slip – I was caught and disciplined for that with a session of standing in the corner.
Fear of eternal punishment in hell did prevent me from committing cardinal sins such as drawing a moustache on Mary Magdalene’s picture or not eating all my school lunch. School dinners were so bad we would do anything to not eat them by slipping the last piece of rubbery liver into a pocket or slip the gristle under the table.
The grey meat, the boiled cabbage and the fish cakes with bones in them – plus fifty variations of over cooked and burnt milk puddings like semolina, tapioca, sago, junket and rice pudding – complete with a thick blackened skin. All were indigestible and should have been used to plaster exterior walls such was their malleability.
Not all the nuns were proto-concentration camp guards as there were exceptions like the nun who gave me a sweet as she’d given them up for Lent, and the tears they all shed when President Kennedy was shot, and Sister Louisa who took us boys for football. Her enthusiasm for the game and Celtic FC in particular inspired me as she laced up her heavy leather boots revealing a shapely ankle. She could trap the ball with her long grey habit and punt it up the field with real power as well as using ‘the hand of God’ to illegally glance it into the goal.
When I was eight my mother’s spell as PE teacher at the girls’ school ended and with a hike in fees my parents pulled the plug for my spell in private education. Both my young sister and I were sent to the state school – my other siblings already having left for secondary school by then.
My terror at being sent to the state primary school had been heightened by the tales told by the nuns – according to them the ‘council school’ was filled with anti-catholic feral children. Which happily turned out to be rubbish as without a doubt my three years in Seaton Primary were the happiest of my years in education after leaving the convent school.
Looking back, despite the brainwashing, the beatings and the climate of fear there was the odd happy memory. Watching the steam trains from the playground shunting backwards and forwards from Seaton Station, the school production of Peter Pan with me as Tootles the Lost Boy and my sister as Captain Hook, and the strange Ave Maria procession when the girls were dressed in white and the nuns carried a statue of the Virgin Mary (or was it Mary Magdalene) through the streets. Whoops – that’s another sin marked down on the ledger to be accounted for at the Pearly Gates. I hope I get into Heaven as I do want to find out whether the Neolithic hunters were allowed into Paradise. Perhaps I’ll meet them.
For details for the work of the journalist Harry Mottram visit www.harrymottram.co.uk and follow him on FaceBook, Twitter as @HarryThe Spiv, Instagram, YouTube and God knows where else!