St. Augustine of Canterbury Church, Leeds Centenary Book.1905-2005

Saint Augustine’s School

Canon Austin J. Collingwood of St Patrick’s Church, afterwards Provost of the Chapter and Vicar General of the Diocese, felt there was a need for a school and a church at Harehills and fulfilled a long cherished ambition when land on Earl Cowper’s estate was bought in 1897. Dedicated to the Apostle of England, his patron saint, St Augustine’s School in Harehills Place was completed 18 months later and was solemnly opened on 10 April 1899 with 53 children attending the school. The first headteacher was Mother Bonaventure 1899-1926 who was reported to be a very good head and full of character. She taught Patrick Crotty’s father who later sang in the parish choir.

Due to the rapid growth of families settling in the area, the school became too small to accommodate the number of children in need of a Catholic education. Fr. Coffey, the Parish priest, applied to Leeds City Council to extend the school but was refused because they wanted to fill the vacant places in the local council school. As this was a denial of the rights of parents, which the Education Act of 1902 ostensibly protected, the challenge was taken up and a Parents’ deputation waited upon the Committee and later on the City Council. Eventually, after a heated debate and one of the longest sittings in its history, the Council approved of the extension by the casting vote of the Lord Mayor. In 1910 further building work was carried out at the school.

Sister Agnes became the next headteacher from 1926-1928. Staff members spoke well of her and she was said to be liked by everyone in the parish. She was succeeded by Sister Lorenzo who was the headteacher from 1929-1932 and one past parishioner remembers her as a little reserved.

Some of the teachers remembered in those early days were: Josephine Clarkson and Eileen Hughes who took the Infants; Sister Theresa an elderly kind sister in Standard 1; Mary Molloy in Standard 2 who taught there from 1930 until her retirement; Kitty Armitage in Standard 3; Frances Leyden in Standard 4 and eventually the senior girls, who was said to be a “great presence in the school and later took charge of the school when the head became ill”; Marie Atkinson who was said to be very musical and artistic; Nellie Fielding; Miss Britton; Eileen Leany and Madeleine McGreal who taught the senior boys and girls. One teacher remembers Madeleine as “an excellent teacher who handled her class with enormous confidence and verve.”

Just before the War the numbers of children in the schools in the Harehills district almost doubled as the slums of Holbeck and Hunslet and elsewhere were being cleared. The people were given houses on the Gipton, Seacroft and Osmondthorpe estates and Quarry Hill Flats – the showpiece of Europe – were also being built. The classes were huge – often as many as fifty to sixty children – so new temporary classrooms were erected in the boys’ playground.

New teachers joined the staff about this time. In 1936 Anna Riordan came to teach in the infants and a Miss Maloney was in Standard 3 in about 1937. Mary Midgley also came about that time to teach in Standard 3 and to take netball with the girls and Pat Conroy came to teach in Standard 4.

About 1936-7 Agnes Stappard joined the school to take Standard 1. Graham Cracknell remembers her as a very quiet and lovely lady. About 1940-41 Miss McGale arrived to take the Infants and Mollie Cunningham, who was said to be “lively and enthusiastic” joined the staff in about 1937 or 38 and took over the games as well as teaching Standard 3 and 4. Mrs Harvey taught from 1949-1952. Eddie Kirwan taught from about 1931 and when the war came he “joined up” in 1940. Harry Johnstone (known as Johno) was Deputy Head for many years up to retiring and used to run whist drives every Friday night in the school to raise money for the church debt.

Mr Dyson came later to take over the boys and Charles Byrne had just begun his teaching career when his call up came in about 1943.

The War Years

Mother Gertrude, who had succeeded Sister Lorenzo in 1933 was an experienced and motherly person. She was possibly on the point of retirement at the start of the war but stayed until 1945 to see the children through the chaos and upheaval. When war broke out in September 1939, the school had already made some preparations, as it is written in the Parish records that on 3 April 1939 there was a meeting to arrange an evacuation in case of emergency and on 27 August 1939 there had been a practice evacuation. The children were evacuated to Ripon later that year. The children were registered and the teachers and helpers assembled at the school on the Monday with their kit bags containing clothing, gas masks and rations for 24 hours.

Joan Sarah Murphy née Selby who was born in 1929 can remember that “during World War II we were all evacuated to Ripon and Sister Teresa came with us. I can remember that she sprayed the railway carriage we were in with holy water.”

That first winter of the war was intensely cold and they all suffered from the hard frosts and the deep snow. Before the end of about a month, some children had already begun to return home to Leeds. Sheila Hyde said that she came home after two weeks because she was so homesick.

Theresa Malone (née Millar) said that she was evacuated and stayed in the same house in Ripon as Sheila Egan (née Monaghan) and Pauline Rycroft. The house belonged to an elderly childless couple. Theresa remembers the six months there as an adventure and an exciting time but thinks the sudden increase to the family of three girls must have driven the couple round the bend.

In December of that year the new school opened and in the Parish records it tells us: “As a preparation for the opening all children who have been on the register last August and who are at present in Leeds are requested to come to the Church on Tuesday at 10am. Their teachers will meet them there. Their confessions will be heard after the meeting and a special mass will be said on Wednesday morning at 9am. It will be a mass for yourselves, your families and the world generally. Children and parents are requested to receive Holy Communion on that day. N.B. this does not refer to the children at Ripon. They are happy there with their own teachers and I would ask parents to leave them as they are until further notice.” Some of the staff were recalled to Leeds. One teacher stayed with the rest of the children in Ripon until March-April 1940.

Some of the teachers did fire watching during the war and stayed overnight in a room that was at sometime used by the men of the parish for their social gatherings. It had a stone floor and a couple of windows looking out on to the girls’ playground with an old fashioned gas fire in the corner of the room. The teachers would sit up late, snooze on trestle beds and leave for home about 7.30am. This meant packing up clothing and food putting away the beds and rugs and travelling home by tram only to be back again for school by 9.00am.