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" Leesons at The Convent of The Cross, Boscombe - 2."

At Christmas there was the inevitable nativity play and I remember enjoying the limelight as the angel Gabriel, greatly envied for having the best set of wings and perched high over the crib scene!

The impressions I retain are more of sense than of substance: the coded ringing of the hand bell at the bottom of the boys' stairs to summon a particular nun (Mother Howe was 1-2-3(pause)1); the silent line of boys walking along the ornately-tiled corridor which, having passed through the frosted-glass door that divided boys from girls, led to our playroom, keeping to the left and always stopping at the 'Lady statue', one of many religious effigies set in alcoves along its length; the distinctive tapping of Mother Howe's ring on her stall in chapel to signal an orderly departure by her boys.

When I was older, probably about ten, I slept in a curtained cubicle instead of an open dormitory. I remember ghost stories told by a boy called Charles Palmer about the mysterious 'Grey Matron' [as far as I know it was a character of his own invention]: he would continue until the flickering lantern of Sister Joan signalled the end as she padded quietly along to her cubicle in the corner the lantern casting strange shadows on the ceiling and curtains.

Even certain smells can take me unfailingly back: toast reminds me of passing the Bishop's parlour after early mass where Father Weaver's breakfast, just removed from the trolley in the corridor, awaited his arrival - toast was never on our menu!

One refectory smell I have never since experienced was the strange mustiness of a nun's habit as her arms enveloped me from behind in order to cut up and 'recycle' the meat fat I had hoped would not be noticed on the edge of my plate!

In 1942 Tony left to become a dayboy at St Peters. We had always been very close and his departure left me feeling very alone and unhappy.

I was about eight and was allowed home on Saturdays.

On one occasion after having been taken back to school I 'escaped' and made my way back home.

Despite my pleas I was not allowed to stay and once again Miss Gobell was sent to take me back. I found the light summer evenings especially difficult and would sit in one particular lavatory situated on a half-landing on the boys' staircase, open the frosted sash window and gaze wistfully at the outside world where the voices of children playing in the adjacent St James's Square could be heard.

The fact that I knew Tony was at home made me feel worse. The sudden rapping of Mother Howe's ring on the inner frosted glass would bring me back to reality.

The Sunday routine was always the same: our best blue suits would be laid out on our beds and after breakfast we would usually attend mass at Corpus Christi in the special area screened-off from the chancel by decorative ironwork and reserved for the Convent.

Access was via a long, dark and rather dank covered passageway from the school. After 'milk' and subject to the weather, we would set-off in typical 'crocodile' fashion for the Sunday morning walk: along Parkwood Road, up Beechwood Avenue to Woodland Avenue and onto the overcliff.

Depending on who was in charge, we might be allowed to negotiate the more interesting Woodland Walk and the paths on the cliffs from where we could see the sea. It was not unusual to meet the girls on a similar walk and every effort would be made by the nuns in charge to avoid too close a confrontation.

For reasons unknown to me I did not leave the Convent at the normal age of eleven. Not surprisingly therefore, by the time I left I was Head Boy and this brought various small privileges among them 'helping with the babies'.

It seems surprising to me now but I believe children as young as three were boarding at the time and I remember very clearly helping to bath them and putting them to bed in their cots. I assume that it was associated with the difficulties that war had imposed on some families where fathers were abroad and mothers had businesses to run.

One such was Christopher Colbourne whose mother had a hairdressing salon in Boscombe. Others I recall were Billy Burke and Mark Noble.

I was still at the school when, at the beginning of April 1946, our mother was taken ill eventually going into hospital to be treated for pneumonia and pleurisy.

Once again for reasons unknown Tony and I had to be removed from the 'scene' and, on 6th April, were sent to Coventry (literally!) to live, as Frank had when dad died, with Dad's sister Auntie Mary.

It remains a mystery to both of us why such drastic action was always necessary, but it seemed to be Mother's way of dealing with crisis in the home even though this time I was already boarding at the Convent and Tony could, I am sure, have temporarily done the same at St Peters.

We returned to Southbourne in September. Tony, who had worked while in Coventry, did not return to school and I started at St Peters School, thus ending the long association of the Leeson family with the Convent which started when our father Charles was appointed Organist & Choirmaster at Corpus Christi and Music Master at the Convent in 1919.

This continued with the education of my half-brother Peter, my brothers Francis and Tony and me who, in the year 2007, will be 87, 81, 76 & 74 respectively!

John Leeson, August 2007

Click Here for - 'Memories of Charles Leo Leeson ARCO'

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