The Story of the Little White Prayer Book
By Pauline Boyes. October 2015.
The story begins around 1947/8, just after World War 2.
My aunt and uncle were both victims of Tuberculosis and my aunt died leaving two daughters aged eight and five. My uncle was also very ill, in hospital, and could not look after the girls. The elder girl (we will call her Jenny) was brought up by various aunts in the large family, but my uncle asked my mother to take the younger girl. I was an "only one" and the five years old (we will call her Margaret) was subsequently legally adopted by my parents.
We had Margaret for one year and then tragedy struck. One night, after school, Margaret was in a neighbours' house with her little friend of the same age when the other child started a fire. Margaret's dress caught fire and she ran out of the house. A neighbour saw her and she was taken to hospital but she survived only ten days. She was 6 years old.
There had to be a police investigation and an inquest, but being only around nine at the time, I was sent to grandparents whilst all this was finalised. As a result of the trauma my mother had a severe nervous breakdown and never again fully recovered her health.
Soon afterwards, possibly in the summer of 1948/9 I went into hospital to have my Tonsils removed. Then I was told I would be going to a convalescent home to regain strength. This was just after the war years when children of my generation were told nothing, nothing was discussed you simply did what you were told to do. (with hindsight, and the benefit of age, I think that I was simply sent away because my mother wasn't well enough to look after me and my father had to go to work) No Social Services in those days.
I remember my father taking me to Leeds City Station and giving me to a lady. I was simply told "be good and I will see you sometime" I had no idea where I was going. We went quite a long way on a train and arrived at St Joseph's Children's Home. The home was Catholic and was run by Nuns. I had no contact with Nuns previously as I was Church of England and my parents were not regular church goers so Nuns in their black habits were a bit scary at first but I soon became used to them. There were two young women carers who looked after the children on a daily basis with the Nuns supervising mealtimes and outings.
We played in an area outside the building that was simply compacted earth but it had a statue of a lady in a blue dress which stood in a grotto. I thought she was beautiful and I would often go to sit by her. There were many children there, and comings and goings all the time. All ages too, some babies and up to about ten years I think.
The children ate meals in a dining room with long bare wooden tables and metal plates and mugs. The meals were basic, mainly stews, but edible. After tea, usually jam and chunks of bread, sometimes figs or dates and apples, a nun would come to give each of us a spoonful of Malt Extract (we called it toffee, and a spoonful of Parish's Food ( red tonic). In the mornings the Catholic children had to get up early to attend church service before breakfast but non- Catholics could choose to stay in bed until breakfast –so I stayed in bed. After tea the Catholic children had to walk through the Pine forests saying the Rosary. Non- Catholic children could choose to join them or go to bed – so I joined them, walking through the quiet Pine forests in a crocodile saying " "Hail Mary" held a special kind of magic for me.
By day we would be taken through sand dunes to a beach (I think a private beach because I never saw anyone else there). Usually we were accompanied by the carers and one or two nuns.
On one day each week the clean laundry would arrive and was simply put in a huge pile in the middle of the room. We just had to find something we liked that we would fit into. I had one special dress that I searched for each time. And one day each week the doctor would come and examine and weigh each of us. Waiting in line outside the Doctor's room was an anxious time for us all as we knew that if we did not gain enough weight we couldn't go home.
The children slept all together in a large dormitory in little single beds and there were cots for the babies and toddlers. Every night there would be someone crying for one reason or another. The Nun would make her rounds and offer a few kind words and a drink of water to settle her (I don't remember any boys with us but I know boys were there at some time). The carers slept at either end of the dormitory in partitioned off areas that gave them privacy, but at the same time they could hear everyone. One night I was very upset because I did not know if I would ever see my family again. One of the carers heard me and asked if I would like to sleep with her. I went into her bed and she held me and there was nothing untoward, just kindness.
The next morning she gave me a little white prayer book and told me that If I was ever upset or worried I should hold that little book and that Jesus would look after me.
I finally returned home and I had only good memories of my time at St Joseph's. Although the nuns were a bit remote they were not unkind and the young carers I now realise were not much older than us: we were well looked after. My memories of St Joseph's stayed in my psyche and the little white prayer book stayed in my treasure box for the next sixty-five years. I grew up, married and had children but never told anyone about this time in my life.
My son and daughter married and my grandson Leonardo John (called Leo.) was born to my son and his Italian wife in 2005. Leo was christened into the Catholic faith and when he had his First Communion in 2013 I decided it was an appropriate time to pass on the little white prayer book.
Unfortunately, although the inner pages were still intact, the plastic cover had disintegrated. My husband searched the internet and found a book-binder in Leeds who restored the little prayer book with a new white cover and by new technology had also restored the image of Our Lady from the original cover.
A new white box with Leo's name in gold lettering completed the gift, and I put a card with the ( some) provenance in the box.
In the telling of the story of the book on Leo's First Communion day, and not having heard of this story before, my son became very interested in finding St Joseph's. From my sketchy memories and by research on the internet he found an article about St Joseph's on Formby Council's web-site. It was written by a man who as a young boy had been at the home and described it as I remembered it.
Time passed and my husband became very ill. He passed away in October 2014
Once again I felt the need to find out if St Joseph's is still there. I telephoned the contact number and on 3rd September 2015 my daughter and I visited the Convent and had lunch with Sisters Nora, Emmanuelle and Agnes.
The original buildings, Children's Home and Convent, had been demolished and replaced with new buildings. However we did find the lady in the blue dress, Our Lady standing in her grotto exactly as I remember her. The sand dunes and beach are just the same, but now belong to The National Trust. The pine forest I walked through saying the Rosary is now a sanctuary for Red Squirrels and also belongs to The National Trust. Sadly the Archivist cannot help me with official documents to help me better identify my time there as all records were destroyed along with the old buildings.
Now I will try to find the kind young carer who gave me the little white prayer book. If she is no longer with us, maybe her family would like to know of her kindness and what a big impact it had on me. The name written on the first page of the book seems to be M.Miller. I hope I can find her to say Thank You and pass on the full story to my grandson along with the little prayer book.