CYC-Online 60 JANUARY 2004
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Boys – the dear wretches

One of the colourful ancestors of our profession was Father George Potter, an Anglican Franciscan friar. In the early part of the previous century his community of brothers ran a number of programs for boys in trouble. Such similarities and such differences in our field nearly 85 years ago!

Boys! Work among them and for them has always been a large part of my life. They have always had their place in the life of the Community, sometimes to a greater, sometimes to a lesser extent. At present we have at our home at Lee about fifteen maladjusted boys up to the age of fifteen, sent by the local Education Committees, and there are other lads between fifteen and eighteen years of age who live in the Holy Cross Hostel, adjoining the Friary. These lads for one reason or another cannot live in their own homes.

We have had over nine hundred boys in our care since the Brotherhood was founded. Nine hundred ready-made children! I have found it very easy to give a lot of pity, love, and affection for this large family. It must be an immense joy to have a family of one’s own. Only twenty-eight of the nine hundred or so boys we have dealt with have had good homes and parents. This lack of love, lack of discipline, lack of religion, lack of security is really pathetic.

After nearly fifty years in what used to be the poorest parishes in South London, I do wonder sometimes whether the Welfare State has helped this type of parent to face or to avoid their responsibilities. So much is done for them without any effort on their own part. I am well aware of the advantages of the Welfare State, but I am also aware of the disadvantages. A kindly visitor calls before the baby is born – and after. There are nursery schools, school dinners, care committees, after care committees, committees to provide jobs for schooleavers, and so on.

I so often think as I hear a mother’s weak pleas for her child in trouble at the Juvenile Court for stealing, truanting, and the like, that she feels that the child is not altogether her property, and that the Court is just another outside influence “another “somebody" to take charge of her bairn.

Recently, I looked through a number of reports from various committees and bodies which have brought a child to us over the past year. It makes rather pathetic reading. Some of the children have got completely out of control or are habitual pilferers or liars. One boy, with his father, had no fixed abode for two years, and they slept in sheds and under hedges until the father had to go into hospital and the boy was left stranded. Another report told of a family where the father and mother lived together, but hadn’t spoken to each other for years. All conversation took place through the children.

One boy was brought by a mother who had seven legitimate and two illegitimate children. She had to go out to work, and the children were left in the care of a girl of fifteen. The younger children were taken to the Juvenile Court for stealing. Another boy of eleven had been housed at thirteen different institutions and with foster-parents since he was born. Several boys have been sent to us from broken homes. In one family where the father had deserted the home, the mother had to work until seven in the evening and the children ran wild in the streets until she got home. In the case of step-parents, the child born before the couple lived together is often the favourite “later children are unwanted. One little chap said, “My Dad is fond of my older sister and Mum fusses the baby, but nobody wants me." Not one child with us at the moment has a normal home. Some parents, I must add, are simply cruel. One naturally learns that some youngsters are difficult and play up the parents, and one does sympathise with the parents, especially under the conditions in which they live.

I like the story “I can’t say it is true “of the Probation Officer who called at the home of a boy who had been up before the Court. The parents were out, but he said, “Never mind! I want to have a talk with you." He then asked the boy how he was getting on at school, and the boy replied “All right." Next he enquired if he liked sums, to which the boy replied, “No! I ain’t no good at that." The Officer then enquired about sport and asked if the lad liked football. “No," said the boy. “Do you like cricket?" and again the reply was “No! I can’t play cricket."

"All right then," said the Officer. “Can you swim?" “Oh, yes," responded the boy, “I’m O.K. at that!" The Officer was interested and asked if the lad could swim very much, and how often. “Well," said the lad. “Every fortnight or so, Dad takes me out on the river in a boat and when we get to the middle he chucks me out and I have to swim for the shore." “I expect that that makes you tired?" remarked the Probation Officer. “No, not at all," said the boy. “It’s getting out of the sack that worries me!”.

It is so interesting to watch the boys growing up, developing a sense of responsibility, and taking an interest in other people and in Church life. After years in this sort of work, I feel that the one thing at which we must aim is in getting obedience. That, I believe, is most important. Other good things follow.

The craze for being a “Teddy boy" is by no means new. the genuine Teddy boy is really quite an interesting character, not to be confused with those other unbelievably sadistic morons who seem to find a delight and take great pleasure in ill-treating lonely old people and other lads smaller than themselves.

Generally, the Teddy boy likes to adopt a peculiar style of dress. But when you have lived with lads for forty odd years, as I have, you find that some of them really take pride in their dress, though you may find it very hard to appreciate their particular style. It is equally difficult, too, to understand their hair-dos, especially the ones that resemble the rear portion of a duck.

They are usually clean, shy boys and quite harmless. One such lad I know spent 12s. 6d. on a hair-cut. Others that we have had have worn very gaudy ties, reaching down to their waists. One tie, I remember, had a rich blue background, upon which was emblazoned a young Hawaiian lady wearing a grass skirt. Another was of a violent purple hue and had upon it a scene showing Westminster Bridge, with Big Ben in the background and with dozens of people and “buses crossing the bridge. Strange tastes.

One boy who lived with us was presented to the Bishop for confirmation. On his return, I asked if all had gone well – he said that it had. I then enquired if the Bishop had spoken to him personally – he had. The lad said that he asked him his name, and that he had told him, and then added something that I simply cannot believe, and that was, that he had said to the Bishop (as he was about to lay his hand on his head), “Don’t upset my hair-do, will you!"

This reminds me of another story about confirmation. At one class that I was taking, a boy asked, “Does the Bishop keep a record of all the things you have done wrong?" And when we were discussing what was meant by the soul leaving the body after death, one youngster enquired, “What about John Brown's body? “'E died and 'is soul went marching on. 'Ow could it – with no feet?"

Again at a confirmation class, a boy, in answer to a question of mine, observed, “Well, if you do wrong you just go to the priest and get dissolved."

All this is not so bad as the yarn I heard about a boy who was asked, “What must you do before you can be forgiven?" He replied, “Sin!"” and that can be capped by the boy who, talking about sin, said, “But I didn’t know what sin was till I came to the Hostel." I still believe this lad meant well.

Another Teddy boy came to our Chapel a few weeks ago, to make his Communion. I noticed that he sat throughout the service. I told him afterwards that he should have knelt. He looked at me in a very sad and sympathetic way and asked, “How do you expect me to kneel in these trousers?" He did kneel at the parish church the next week with disastrous results, and arrived home very early.

I think the Press does much to encourage the wrong type of Teddy boy. Recently two of them sat in front of me on the top of a 'bus and were discussing a friend who had got mixed up with a gang, and was now to appear in court. One lad turned to the other and said, “Now he will get his name in the papers." I think that about sums up this particular type of Teddy boy.

Among all such lads there is, of course, a quantity of bad language. It seems to flow out so naturally. They hear it on all sides and think nothing of it. I was talking one day to the boys in chapel about swearing. I said that the more sanguinary adjectives were quite superfluous. One of the boys argued against this statement. I tried to explain that it did not mean any more if I said that Jim was a b- silly fool, than if I had said he was just a fool. The boy thought deeply for a moment and said, “Well, both would be right, anyhow!"

In our house at Lee the boys are of school age, the youngest being nine years old. Small boys do some strange things, don’t they? They drink many strange home-made concoctions before sitting down to meals, and eat cocoa raw when they can’t get enough sweets – which is always. Their stockings and shorts soon become like fishing-nets in only a few days, their beds are always full of shavings and foreign stamps, and they will persist in talking at well after midnight, when we have to get busy with a slipper.

They feel ill when you mention that there are “jobs to be done". They love swimming, and hate washing. They climb trees, and suddenly appear on the roof. They turn my only hat into a cowboy’s headgear. They tie towels round their middles and become shrieking “Tarzans". They lick out saucepans and are always asking, “Are there any more 'afters', Bro?"

They borrow tools, and lose them. They break windows with their catapults. They eat cake and are sick: they are sick and eat more cake. They ask for pennies and not for work. They see thrilling films and get nightmares. They have a passionate craving for “comics". They are late for school and then become like martyrs and say that they were “made to wash up".

My Hat! They shriek like monkeys and are as dirty as pigs. They get mumps, measles, chicken pox, and anything else that is going. They love to be ill and be fussed. But in spite of all this they really are most lovable, and help us to start the day with a grin.

Friends don’t always believe my stories when I relate them, but (unless I say otherwise) they really are true. I remember that at the conclusion of a lesson in a Kindergarten class at Peckham the youngsters were each given a large piece of brown paper and a stick of chalk, and told to draw something that they remembered from the lesson. After a time, one little boy of about five came forward to hand in his work of art. It showed an old man in an Inverness cape and “topper" and carrying a furled umbrella. The teacher enquired who it was supposed to represent. The small boy grinned and said coyly, “It’s God." The teacher tried to explain that no one had seen God – that no one knew what he looked like. The child gave her a wondering look and said triumphantly, “Well, they’ll know now, won’t they?"

As I travel round on Sunday mornings I am saddened to see some of the thousands of children and young people who do not go to church or Sunday school. I don’t think that it is because they are particularly anti-religious; most, I suppose, feel that it simply doesn’t matter, and they themselves have never really faced up to it.

One Sunday morning recently, during an hour's journey by 'bus, probably about fifty people joined me at some time for a part of the journey. There was a father and two boys off for a day’s fishing; a young couple – very much in love – bound for a day in the country; and a football team with a few supporters left us at Barnes. A Boy Scout in uniform, and, later, a couple of St John Ambulance Cadets boarded the 'bus, and they, at least, were bound for some Church Parade. At one stage a group of hikers also travelled a part of the way with us. Possibly, a few of all these many people had been to church earlier in the morning. Far be it from me to judge, but I do know that the great majority of these “and there are tens of thousands more like them “give no thought whatsoever to the duties of Sunday.

I get rather anxious about our young people today and wonder whether they really get a chance to face up to spiritual realities. I know that Religious Instruction in day schools may help some – but very few, I fear. Most will get very little spiritual help in their own homes; many will never be taught to pray; many will never hear the name of God mentioned, except when Father falls over the dust-pan. Only a very small percentage go to Sunday school, and consequently, many can be quite pagan at fourteen years of age, as I know from experience.

What is there to help them at that age? The cinema is probably their sole or chief means of education. They will probably go several times a week and see films which give a very unreal background of life. I suppose that perhaps fifty per cent of these films are “sexy" and present a very false picture of married life, love, and loyalty. In the cheap literature they read about films and film stars – and that can’t be very edifying. So many of these books tell the life stories of the stars “men and women who have made many experiments in married life; sometimes even to half a dozen so-called marriages.

I remember reading somewhere of a group of lads who were discussing their various film favourites. One of them asked how many film stars had not been divorced. One young wit answered, “I know of one!" On being questioned, he replied with a sly grin, “Mickey Mouse!"

We have published other “Father Potter of Peckham" stories in September 1999 and December 2000

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