Religious instruction - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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Religious instruction

Almost from day one at Christ Church "little school" we had religious lessons. Since it was a Church of England school all the instruction was geared to the teachings of that church and was based on simple stories from the Bible plus adventure tales about overseas missionaries.

Left. A pic I found of Christ Church on a postcard in my family's archives.

The following description of Christ Church comes from a document dated 1888: "Christ Church, Thornes, is an ecclesiastical parish, formed Oct. 20, 1874, and of Thornes and Holy Trinity parishes: the church, situated in Thornes lane and consecrated in 1876, is a building of stone in the Gothic style, consisting of chancel, nave, aisles, north porch, and a tower with spire, containing one bell: there are sittings for 596 persons. The register dates from the year 1876. The living is a vicarage, yearly value £261, derived from endowment, in the gift of Mrs. Disney Robinson and held since 1884 by the Rev. Daniel Scurr Cowley M.A. of Downing College, Cambridge."

Once in a while we used to troop along the street from our classroom to the church, presumably on Saints' Days and other Christian festivals; that was all rather exciting but I cannot for the life of me remember what we did when we got there. I do know the church's own vicar was away at the war because the teachers told us that. I also vaguely remember the occasional afternoon parties we had on the lawn of the large vicarage which was just opposite the school main gate on the corner of Thornes Lane. I suppose it was the vicar's wife who supervised those parties but sadly I cannot remember her at all.

The formal lessons bore little resemblance to those in today's infants' schools. For a start, the walls of the classrooms were largely bare. Paper of all types was so scarce that there was hardly any available for painting, decorating or drawing. Before it could be discarded, we always had to use both sides of what paper we had. The teachers, two ladies, used to read stories to us from the Bible as well as from the few other books they had at their disposal. They also taught us simple hymns that we had to learn by heart. There must have been a piano somewhere in the school but I have no memory of it. In addition to learning about Yorkshire and the Ridings, we started learning about the British Empire and the countless British children overseas in Africa and other continents. One of our favourite hymns, non-PC by today's standards but well-intentioned, started off:

Over the sea there are little brown children, fathers and mothers and babies dear.
No one has told them the Lord Jesus loves them, no one has told them that He is near.

'Over the sea' was not the same as 'at the seaside'; my parents spoke nostalgically about Bridlington, Filey and Scarborough, seaside holiday resorts on Yorkshire's east coast. I longed to go to those places but I never saw the sea until after the war was over - and then it was at Blackpool on the Lancashire coast. I don't remember ever learning much about Europe at the Little School although, naturally, we knew that someone called Adolf Hitler lived in Germany, wherever that was, and that he was a very bad man.

At least once every day we would sit cross-legged on the floor in a circle and a teacher would read stories to us from one or other of the few books the school had. The stories always had a Christian moral to them; the ones about overseas places usually revolved around the work of Christian missionaries in the far flung parts of the British Empire. Missionary was one of the earliest 'big' words I learned at school. Curiously, we were also told fascinating tales about China's two main rivers, the Yellow River and the Yangtse Kiang, and about the fishermen who put rings around the necks of their cormorants to prevent them from swallowing the fish they snatched from the river. I wasn't the only pupil who thought that was a very cruel way to treat both cormorants and fish, but I kept quiet. I was rapidly learning that it seemed to get right up everyone's nose if any one pupil kept on asking questions.

There were some exciting tales about the Pygmy folk in the Congo. The indigenous folk of the country once known as Belgian Congo, later Zaire, and now the Democratic Republic of Congo, were called pygmies in the 1940s – today I believe the word is considered racist so I use it here simply to point out the 1940s usage. We learned about the British Christian Missionaries serving in Africa, especially Doctor Livingstone and his chance meeting in 1871 with Henry Morton Stanley, the journalist and explorer, who had apparently said "Doctor Livingstone, I presume," when they first bumped into each other in central Africa having traversed that mighty continent from opposite ends. I always thought Stanley was his Christian name because our teachers always referred to him simply as Stanley. 'Presume' was another new word we learned at Christ Church School. Once we had added it to our vocabulary, we used to greet our school friends with it: "Johnny, I presume?" to which the other child would reply, "Tony, I presume?" The novelty wore off very quickly. I learned many years later that there is considerable doubt about whether or not Stanley said those exact words when he and Doctor Livingstone met.

There was a large illuminated globe of the world standing on a pedestal in a corner of the classroom and we studied that to see where the countries mentioned in lessons were located. We were told that all the countries painted in red on the surface of the globe were British.  "They're ours," said the teachers, but we were not quite sure exactly what that meant since the concept of 'owning' a country was beyond our comprehension. We also studied a large, well-worn scrapbook which contained some pictures of the Victoria Falls, straddling the boundary between Northern and Southern Rhodesia - Zambia and Zimbabwe as they are now. In 1995 I stood on the very spot where those pictures had been taken and took some for myself (that page is here). The waterfalls on the Zambezi River, were named in honour of Queen Victoria and were called by the locals 'The Smoke that Thunders'. When I was there the Falls were much reduced from their normal levels due to an on-going drought, but they were still awe-inspiring - and they certainly thundered: I could hear the noise from my hotel, the Elephant Hills Hotel, several miles away.

Above: My 1995 pic of the viewing area at the Devil's Cataract

Another story the teachers told us about Dr Livingstone, possibly apocryphal, went like this. Livingstone's exploration party, in which he was the only white man, one day came across an apparently deserted village. Livingstone sent one of his African bearers on ahead with instructions to find out how many people lived there and whether they were friendly or hostile. In the meantime, Livingstone and the rest of his party hid in the jungle to await the bearer's return. He was gone quite a long time but eventually returned at a run, waving his arms and shouting loudly, "It's all right; they're friendly."

"How do you know they're friendly?" asked Livingstone, anxiously.

"I didn't see any villagers and all the huts are empty, but I looked inside one and saw that there was a Bible, like yours, on a small table, so they must be Christians. You've always taught us that Christians are friendly to all people."

We were suitably impressed by the power of Christianity – which, presumably, was the teacher’s intention. When our teacher had finished telling us that story, I recalled that some days or weeks earlier she had told us that the 'savages', her word for non-converted Africans, used to boil their enemies in a large pot over a fire and then eat them. (What an astonishing thing to tell infants!) Now I wanted to ask her, "But what if they are savages and they've already eaten the missionary and just left the poor man's Bible on the table, what then?" Once again some instinct warned me to keep quiet.

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