I must start this by declaring that I haven’t any religious beliefs anymore and haven’t had throughout my adult life, so it may seem a little strange that I am writing about religion, but times and I, have changed. The church was still held in high regard in the 1950s and 60s and there was little talk of multiculturalism at the time. Schools had assemblies that were definitely Christian and we were taught many bible stories and scripture was part of the curriculum. We would gather in the hall at Harehills County Primary and listen to radio assemblies, on a Thursday, I think. Each programme would have a hymn or two, a moral lesson and a religious story, such as Daniel in the Lions’ Den, The Fiery Furnace and the Good Samaritan.
My father came from a very religious family in Scotland and his brother was an academic in theology at St Andrew’s University. His son, my cousin, is a professor of theology in the USA. My father was of the Presbyterian faith as a young man and I suppose it was no surprise that we attended Oakwood Church (We called it Ladywood Church.) where my brothers and I were christened.
It was a lovely old building, set in delightfully green grounds with ancient trees surrounding it. These included some horse chestnuts, that were a good first port of call during conker season. I attended Sunday school and there we listened to bible stories and played games such as London Bridge is Falling Down, The Farmer’s in His Den and other games that involved circles and working together. We had one of the collecting boxes shown on the left and spare change would be collected and finally delivered back to the church for their missionary charities.
I even remember once when the Sunday school leaders were trying to make a film of Joseph and his Coat of Many Colours and we went, on a Saturday afternoon, to the gorge in Roundhay Park to do some filming. I am not sure it was ever finished and it was filmed on super 8. I must have attended Sunday school for several years and remember Christmas parties and organised bonfires on the church grounds. One memory that has stuck with me was the annual charity collection, Sunny Smiles. Each of us were given a little book of pictures of children from around the world and they were smiling. The idea was that you canvassed donations from friends and relatives and gave them one of the faces as a receipt. The money raised was for the National Children’s Home.
For some reason, when I was about nine, my parents stopped being part of the congregation and there was a period during my primary years where we didn’t go to church at all.
However, when I was about ten or eleven, my parents started attending St. Wilfrid’s church between Easterley Road and Harehills. There was a young vicar, Mr Parrot and he was quite dynamic and trendy. He lived in a nice vicarage within the church grounds and he had a young family. My older brother, I think, started attending the youth club in the church hall and from that he became involved in religion. I think it was through him that the rest of us started to attend this Anglican church. My older brother developed a deep interest in religion.
St. Wilfred’s, at this time, was thriving. Sundays had good attendances and the main morning communion service was full. There was a good choir and it was led by a capable organist, Mr Jack Benton, (ex-Roundhay School). After attending church for a while both my brother and I joined the choir and even though it meant attending choir practice, I think on a Wednesday night, I really enjoyed singing and it was there that I learnt about harmonies and music in general. Whatever your beliefs, there is something uplifting in singing en masse and despite becoming pre-adolescent I still enjoyed it.
It was possible to earn a little pocket money by singing at weddings. Often the bride and groom would like a small choir and sometimes just the trebles. We would get paid about five shillings for each wedding and it was gratefully received. At one wedding, I remember, I was the only one of the choir to turn up, but I still sang and got paid, and it was quite a solo as the family and friends didn’t know the hymns.
One wedding stuck in my mind at the time as a bit unusual. On this occasion the bride was sixteen and the groom seventeen. Even to me they appeared very, very young. I sometimes wonder how they went. Nowadays it would be almost criminal to allow a couple so young to wed. I believe the average age is about twenty-nine, if you marry at all.
Jack Benton, the choir master, became a friend of the family and, despite his alternative lifestyle, he was always welcome at our house and my mother enjoyed his company. I do remember going one evening to Roundhay Park Little Lake, where he played the organ on a stage. He played a range of popular film and musical pieces. I think it might have been Bonfire Night and there was a firework display afterwards. Mr. Benton, as I knew him, was another addition to our Christmas parties and he was quite a witty man.
I must have been carried along with the religious thing and I became confirmed, at the same time as my father, by the Bishop of Wakefield, I think. I also became a server, an acolyte, carrying in a lit candle to services. My duties also meant attending a mid-week service. On every occasion, at this service, there was only the curate and me to carry out the service to a congregation of none. Nowadays I think it would not be approved of, having a young lad alone with an adult, but I was perfectly safe and nothing untoward ever happened to me.
I think this religious phase was cut short by hormones developing and my sights turning elsewhere. I became interested in girls and playing rugby.
At Roundhay my form teacher was the RE teacher, (Holy) Joe Pullen (not sure about the spelling), and he was a kind, considerate man who allowed us to form our own views on a range of matters. I remember discussing with him my adolescent views on a variety of social issues. Despite being a teacher of RE, he wanted us to think for ourselves. One issue I felt, and still do, is that charities should only exist for animal welfare and similar causes. Charities for overseas assistance were fine, but all care of the less fortunate within the country should be handled by government programmes. To my surprise, I remember him agreeing with me. I believe that currently one in ten workers are employed by charities. It is just the same in Australia and I feel ashamed that the care for society’s most vulnerable is in the hands of groups that are now businesses. This is just my personal view so feel free to disagree with me.
The reputation of so many religious and other organisations has been damaged by the acts of individuals under their authority, but this has led to a loss of respect for so many institutions and professions that were held in such high esteem, and led to a culture of distrust and cynicism.
In the 1960s the churches would often provide youth clubs. I suppose the purpose was twofold. One was to give teenagers somewhere to go where they were supervised and they could meet safely. The second reason would probably be to try and increase the numbers of young people attending church. I know that there were several youth clubs on offer in the Oakwood/Roundhay area and I went to St. Edmund’s and Lidgett Park Methodist clubs, as my main ones. Being from a boys’ school, youth clubs were the opportunity to meet the girls that we could only longingly look at across the dividing trees and bushes that separated Roundhay School from Roundhay Girls’ School, but that will have to wait for another day.