In September 1999's issue we published an extract about one of the colourful ancestors of our profession, Father George Potter, an Anglican Franciscan friar. He and his small community of brothers cared for homeless and troubled kids in the east end of London. Another extract ...
It’s been fun! These are the words that come so often to my mind as I look back. There have been bad times. There have been cold and dirt and noise and an empty food cupboard and discouragements and failures. But also there has been the fun of it all. So I have put down some of the humour in the tales in this chapter.
The majority of the boys who have come under my care were strangers to Church and the faith when they arrived. I think the angels got many a laugh out of our Confirmation classes and the discussions about the ceremonial and worship. For example, "Conscience is something what makes you feel funny inside." I always think that was expressive, even if not theologically correct. Or again, "Confirmation is when the doctor makes a hole in yer arm with a knife." A boy was serving me at Mass. I waited for the lavabo water for the ceremonial, hand-washing. Brother Francis shouted to the boy, "Water! water." He looked up and said, "Lumme! 'Oo’s fainted?!" On another occasion, a boy asked the Brother Sacristan, "Why does Father hit his chest three times before he receives Communion?" The Brother explained that the priest beats his breast three times saying, "Lord, I am not worthy!" The boy’s response often helps me even now. "Well, if he ain’t worthy, why does he go every day?" Bishop Leslie Lang, when here as Bishop of Woolwich (and wearing those old-fashioned gaiters instead of normal trousers), was surprised one day to feel a small boy tug at his sleeve and ask, "Sir, are you a Bishop?" When the Bishop said he was, the boy added, "I thought so. Father told me to look at your legs."
Another, when trying to help to lay out the Mass vestments, asked, "What coloured oojah goes with this thingummy?" One cheeky little wretch was serving. A Brother may have shown some sternness. Anyway, he had told him to read all that was on the server’s card. The boy looked up and said, "Who reads, “Printed by Mowbrays”?"
One boy was asked to sweep the chapel “"And don’t waste the electric light." So he lit every available candle. Once, when we had been singing carols in the chapel, and "We three Kings" had gone pretty well, I complimented them on their effort. One boy responded, "Smashing bit of jazz, that!" A new boy looked into chapel and saw the Brothers at Evensong. He remarked, "If I’ve got to dress like that, I’m going to buzz offl"
The Scouts from St. Chrysostom’s occasionally came up to the Friary garden to pass their firelighting and cookery tests. The Hostel boys would soon make friends. One day the Hostel boys called me over and said, "Will you explain to them, Father “these chaps think we are going to be parsons!"
I was getting particulars from a fresh arrival. "What’s your mother’s name?" I asked.
"I dunno," said the boy.
"What does your father call her?"
"Coo, Lor! All sorts of things!"
"She must have a first name!"
"I dunno, Father, straight! Shove “er down as Lizzie."
Again, "What’s your name, son?"
"Why, are you Russian?"
"No, Father got it from a book on dog-racing!"
I was telling the boys of my experiences in Egypt during the First World War, and how I came across an ancient tomb that was being excavated. I mentioned the fact that the coffin was covered with hieroglyphics. One bright youngster asked, "Do they bite?"
One loses heart at times. When, after a confirmation class, I finished by saying, "Any questions?" and a small, fat, greasy-looking boy remarked with splendid irrelevance, "That gooseberry jam we had for tea was good!"
A new boy arrived. He was very undersized. I introduced him to the family. One of the older boys told him, "So when any of us say “Maggot”, you–ll know we are talking of you!"
Again:a policeman brought one of our small boys home. He had taken sixpence from a schoolboy on Peckham Rye. I asked our chap:"Didn’t the boy shout or run after you?" The miscreant answered with a grin, "He couldn’t. I’d pinched his trousers!
Our boys had such a wonderful way of finding appropriate nicknames. "Scruffy" or "Spotty" would refer to any boy who had not that schoolgirl complexion. We had a "Liver-lips", which is obvious. A lad with a glass eye was soon known as "Pop-eye". A lad of six feet three inches is naturally called "Tiny". Others, obvious to us who lived with them, were, "Cabhorse", "Unconscious", "Bonzo", "Lofty", "Hoppy", and "Bombhead". "Nitty Nora" may need interpretation. It had a remote connection with a good nurse who “inspects” boys at school.
Cockney slang had to be kept up with. If a lad appeared in your room and said, "“Oppy’s taken a powder with ol” mouf-an-trahsers!", would you know what he meant? "Taking a powder" means "running away" and "Mouf-an-trahsers" refers to a dull, slovenly boy who wanders about with his mouth open.
I found it useful in many ways to give the boys a free-and-easy general knowledge test. The questions were multifarious “the answers even more so. I soon learnt whether they were interested in "finance". A few tactful questions in mental arithmetic would show that. They wouldn’t know the meaning of the liturgical "Greater Double" (referring to church feast days), but could explain the significance of a "Treble Chance". "Fifty-two" suggested the number of cards in a pack, rather than the weeks of the year. I learnt many new facts of history “how Florence Nightingale led the troops at Waterloo; and that Abraham Lincoln was a bookmaker.
One question I always squeezed in was, "What do you know of Good Friday?" Five boys at different times said, "He was a friend of Robinson Crusoe": or as one said, "It’s a day when Jesus Christ was killed in a fight. He was shot in the side." These boys were in no way mentally deficient. Another said that veal was something ladies wear over their faces. To the question, "Which king of England was beheaded?" a boy answered, "Henry the Eighth." I showed him his error. He added, "Sorry, I thought you said, “Big-headed”." Another, in answer to the same question said, "King John “and a girl served up his head on a plate!"