Henry Mantel recalls…

Thanks to Henry Mantell for some very interesting insights into Xavs and in particular Brother Cyril Birtles. As I have indicated before, there were two sides to his character and this article relates an example of his compassionate nature. Henry attended Xavs from 1964 until 1970. Some very interesting insights into teachers and college life as well as more information regarding one of the college’s more famous alumni, Anthony Wilson aka Anthony Burgess (not to be confused with the other Anthony Wilson, of course, who was a product of that place that shall not be spoken of, De La Salle College!)

I found your site and congratulate you on establishing a replacement for the Friends Reunited College site. I was fortunate to re-establish contact with Brother Cyril when he moved to Danvers and each trip to the UK he would offer my wife and I tea at the Order’s Twickenham House.I learned much about the College from these visits.Ward Hall was requisitioned in 1939 and was a Military Intelligence house which then became a lock up for the Military Police when the US entered the war and drunken Americans were detained there.The land and buildings were purchased by the Brothers rather cheaply after the war and the rest is Xaverian history.

In June 1964 my parents and I relocated from Derbyshire to Salford where my mother was employed by the Diocese of Salford. I had attended my first year at a co-ed Grammar School but this had no Latin department. De la Salle were rather sniffy and rejected me at interview. We were advised to “try” Xaverian. We travelled from Salford one Saturday afternoon for a 5-30pm appointment with Brother Cyril who had come hot foot from his beloved Maine Road where Manchester City had lost! The absence of any Latin was not a problem and he conducted us on a tour of the main block and chapel. My father was convert to Catholicism and had been in danger of losing a leg following a German potato masher stick grenade in the Libyan Desert. In Army service he had been an altar server to various  Catholic priests and as a result was honoured by being one  of a handful of UK members of a Roman guild.

I became a Xav only a few weeks later; I stayed until 1970. I wouldn’t recommend moving from a co-ed to a Boys Direct Grant and the lack of any formal Latin was a challenge. Lower 4’s were a challenge. I remember Mister Archdeacon in English lit declaiming as he strode across the desk tops- marvellous almost balletic delivery! Then I encountered Mister Diamond for Latin and my heart sank. He asked to see me at the end on my first lesson and he offered to spend time with me after school to help me the first of many unexpected kindnesses I was to find at Xaverian. With his help and my work ethic and my father’s Church Latin at home I was by no means disadvantaged at the end of the year. Many upper 4’s  had given up on Latin but could not drop it like Music and Woodwork; inevitably classes were disrupted by misbehaviour. I liked Mister Swallow a thoroughly decent man who had left the priesthood to marry. The facilities above the cricket pavilion were in marked contrast to my previous school which had woodwork metalwork and electronics as well as ceramic studios. One trick in the woodwork room was to place an old rubber into the winter heating- the smell was atrocious;  a group marched off to the Headmaster by a furious Mister Swallow.

In my upper four year my father was diagnosed with lung cancer and at Christies he had a heart attack-mild but cause for concern. In the January he was due undergo lung surgery at Christie’s but died of heart failure minutes after I had left the house. When the classroom door opened I knew it had happened. Brother Cyril placed his arm around me and broke the news gently and explained that the curate from our parish had driven over to collect me. I realise now how hard that task was for Brother Cyril who told me years later that was the hardest thing he had to do for others subsequently. He hired a coach form my form and teachers who travelled to Salford for my father’s requiem mass. I have always felt that there was fraternal bond about Xaverian and in subsequent years there I felt supported and given every opportunity. I’m not surprised to hear that same ethos exists in a co-ed Six Form College. In 1966 the chapel altar was changed to face the Congregation; the altar stone was donated in my father’s memory.

Now to some of the characters who taught me in the 60’s a mixture of war years teachers recruited to teach at Blackpool and those who returned to teach after some very difficult war service. I was taught in my O level year and Six Form by Mister Underwood. He was an amusing ex Army officer with a very dry wit who brought Shakespeare to life and in Six Form you could get a laugh at his expense from the text. One summer I boarded a train to Wigan and found him and his wife and children were travelling at the front of the diesel car. It was there that I discovered from his wife that he was one of handful of survivors in his unit to survive the fighting at Monte Cassino without injury. After I left the school he was to lose his wife and one morning found his son had died suddenly in bed both bereavements only months apart.

John Dooley’s accent enlivened Geography and his appearance on This is Your Life as Val Doonican’s sponsor for vocal lessons meant a reappraisal for many Xav’s. His vocal mannerisms included “style of t’ing “ and he was a man for the “fillum’s”. I don’t know why “take out your Horrocks” ( the geographers Bible of the 1960’s) drew such a laugh amongst adolescent boys. “Tom” as he was nicknamed was an effective teacher and I was grateful for his spotting trends in exam questions at both and O and A level.

Jock Burns was an unqualified war time teacher who commanded a class with authority. I liked his class and achieved a decent O level. In marked contrast we had a year of Chemistry with a Welshman who tried to organise a Rugby programme. One of our form was messing about generally and the teacher lost his temper and quite violently assaulted him breaking his glasses and causing a nose bleed. Jock Burn’s entered and slapped a metre rule hard on the bench top; we all knew this meant stop what you are doing. He ordered the Welshman to the Headmaster and assigned one of the form to take the boy for first aid. Then he took over the remainder of the class. Needless to say our form’s O level Chemistry  results were poor with many resits and passes that Autumn.

After I left Xavs the only teacher who remained in touch intentionally was Larry Halstead my French and German teacher. He used to pull sideburns I recall in lower school. He recruited a delightful French woman who taught in O level year conversational French and again for both years of A level. The school was changing!

 I also met Mister Diamond several times. My happiest memory of him was at Manchester Union bar carrying on a conversation entirely in Latin with a University Latin Professor and the Head of Latin from Manchester Grammar. He greeted me in Latin and I joined the conversation rather inhibited by my O level; in the background I looked at a large group of baffled Russian students who must have wondered if their student exchange was going to be like this.

I worked hard as a Xav and felt the education offered me as working class lad every opportunity to progress. The School had historically been linked to Mancunian Films. I appeared on Coronation Street as a teenage extra twice and when I moved to London worked many film and TV studios over the years; returning to Granadaland to film Crown Court episodes. I wish that Xaverian College had been a co-ed in my time but the Six Form building and later expansion created an impressive achievement. The School Council enabled and empowered students and was ahead of its’s time.

Henry Mantel, Downe and Farnborough Online Parish Clerk Kent Online Parish Clerk

1 thought on “Henry Mantel recalls…”

  1. I recall a very attractive French lady recruited to assist for a year or so….i also recall her(unusual name…… Hilda Ackers


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