VOLUNTEERS and interviewees came together for the launch of an oral history exhibition in the historic setting of Ushaw, on the outskirts of Durham. PETER BARRON spoke to them about their memories...

The Northern Echo:

TEAMWORK: Some of the participants and volunteers from the oral history project

THEY have come back together at the place where they spent so much of their lives, and the memories echo down the old corridors and through the glittering chapels.

From domestic workers and farm hands, to clergymen and professors, the former members of the “Ushaw family” appear to be as excited by the reunion as they were on their first day.

Each of those present today have contributed to a fascinating oral history of the sprawling Durham estate, which served for two centuries as a seminary for the training of Catholic priests. 

Now, the buildings and gardens have been reborn as a visitor attraction, and the oral history forms one of the current exhibitions on show, giving a fascinating insight into life at Ushaw from the 1930s until it closed in 2011.

Veronica Chapman, now 80, has been reunited not only with old friends but with the black Singer sewing machine she used from the age of 15 when she started as a seamstress. A stitch in time, she’s clearly happy to be “home”.

Ushaw was in the blood. Her father – the magnificently named Alointious Dowdry – had been a cobbler there, as had her Uncle Tom. She met her late husband, Alan, in her best shoes at the dance hall in Langley Park, and he got a job as a boilerman at Ushaw, such was the estate’s importance as a place of employment. At its peak, in the 1950s, Ushaw accommodated 500 pupils and staff.

“The atmosphere was so nice, they were happy days,” says Veronica, giving her sewing machine an affectionate little stroke and remembering the endless collection of priests’ albs it helped her produce, along with curtains, and patched-up clothes.

“It was upsetting when it closed, and sad to think all that history might be lost, but it’s good to see it thriving again,” says the mum-of-six.

A community all of its own, Ushaw even had its own farm – complete with slaughterhouse – and Joan Sedgewick was a member of the Dixon family whose lives revolved around it. Her father, John George Dixon, reached the dizzy heights of farm manager and, as far back into her childhood as she can recall, Joan did whatever jobs were needed, from feeding chickens to “leading” the hay from field to barn.

Sitting close by in Ushaw’s formal dining room is John Harper, who started his working life by looking after the pigs when he was 15. His mother worked in the kitchen, his father laboured on the farm, one grandad was first horseman, and the other was head gardener.

“So much history and it was almost on the way out a few years back,” says John. “It’s nice to see the old place coming back to life.”

“It was always immaculate and still is,” adds Joan. “Wouldn’t it be nice to see the farm come back one day as well?”

Canon Alec Barrass was a boy of 12 when he walked through Ushaw’s imposing doors as a pupil in 1943. Stockton-born, he went on to be ordained in 1958, served as Junior House Master at Ushaw from 1962 to 1968, and went on to be diocesan treasurer.

He confesses to feeling sad that the old junior school building lies in ruins, though there are hopes that will also be rebuilt one day soon. Otherwise, he’s thrilled at Ushaw’s rebirth as a cultural centre over the past five years.

“It’s lovely to see the place alive again – it brings back so many memories,” he says. “It was hard at times but it prepared us well for life. I loved the camaraderie, though I can’t say I enjoyed the sport.”

In contrast, Tony Flynn, another former pupil, was “fanatical” about sport, especially football and cricket, and was a proud member of Ushaw’s “cat” team. Cat was a sport, resembling rounders, that was exclusive to Ushaw and was originally played at Douai, its founder institution in France.
Tony started at Ushaw at 11 and became a probation officer and leader of Newcastle City Council for ten years until 2004.

“There were times when you felt a bit locked up, but my love of sport meant it suited me,” he says. 

There’s a smile and a glint in the eye that suggests Tony Flynn would relish the chance to turn back time and get back outside in the fresh air with his “cat-stick”, smashing a small wooden ball out of Ushaw’s historic grounds.  

FATHER Richard Harriott, Darlington-born and an Ushaw student from 1949-1961, recalls the time in the 1950s when the Archbishop of Bombay was a Jesuit called Thomas Roberts.

He came to the view that it was wrong for an Englishman to hold such an illustrious post, so he resigned in favour of an Indian archbishop and returned to England.

One day, Monsignor Roberts was giving a lecture at Ushaw, in the days when the toilet block was at the east end of the estate. The block was known as “The East” and answering the call of nature commonly referred to as “popping East”.

Imagine the guffaws amongst the 300 boys when the Most Reverend Roberts began his lecture by announcing: “I have just returned after ten years in the East.”