I went to Xaverian College, Manchester, UK, when it was a boys’ grammar school.
It was a direct grant grammar school. It received funding from central government and the local authority and so it was possible to go there without having to pay fees, but you had to pass an entrance exam called the 11+. Later it became a sixth form college. I explain more at the end of this piece.
Xaverian College, Manchester has a long tradition going back to the 19th century. The Xaverian Brothers have origins in the north eastern United States. The Xaverian Brothers’ residence is located in Danvers, Massachusetts, north of Boston. They run 13 schools in five states.
We often forget that in the past, many schools were grim places, more like prisons than places of education. Just watch the film ‘Kes’ to see what many schools were like. But Xaverian was different.
Brother Cyril was a man of few words but had huge presence and authority. He commanded deep respect amongst students, parents and staff.
Teachers I remember included music teachers Mr Sellers, and his successor, Mr Challinger, Mr Lackey, who suggested I should learn German, Mr Halstead, the French and German teacher, Mr Underwood, who taught me A level English, Mr MacEvoy the French teacher and Mr Connolly, the English teacher. They all had a big effect on me and set high standards that, at times, I felt I couldn’t live up to. Their influence is still with me today.
For me the most interesting thing about Xaverian College is the number of people who became successful as creative artists or were creatively talented in some way.
- Martin Hannett producer of Buzzcocks, Joy Division, New Order, Durutti Column, the Stone Roses and others, went to Xaverian College.
- Tim Willocks, who was in the same year as me, is an internationally successful novelist and famously was a companion of pop singer Madonna.
- Len Grant, who as in the year above me, is a well known photographer of Manchester who has also developed a successful career in sketching.
- Jan Chlebik, who was in the same class as me, has achieved success and recognition as a leading photographer in Manchester.
- Chris Ofili, who won the Turner Prize in 1998 for his paintings which included elephant dung, is a graduate of Xaverian Sixth Form College.
- Andrew Newton, the controversial stage hypnotist, was a contemporary of mine, and was in the same A Level music class as me with teacher Mr Challinger.
- Julian Evans the concert pianist was born in Romiley, attended Xaverian College and went on to study at the Royal Northern College of Music.
- Anthony Burgess, author of ‘A Clockwork Orange’, was a student at Xaverian College during the 1930s.
- Bernard Hill actor famous for role of Yosser Hughes in ‘Boys from the Blackstuff’ went to Xaverian in the mid-50s.
- Gary Mounfield (b.1962) of the Stone Roses and Primal Scream is an ex-Xaverian grammar school boy.
- Mark Collins of the Charlatans was a student at Xaverian College.
- Andy Quinn, musician who helped to produce Thin Lizzy co-founder Eric Bell’s, solo albums and autobigraphy, was in the same class as me.
- Rick Turner, musician, producer and entrepreneur was in the year below me at Xavs.
- Liam Grundy has built a successful career as a musician, playing Rocking Country and Americana with a Rockabilly Edge. I studied French in the same class as him with Mr MacEvoy.
- Most Rev Bernard Longley, Archbishop of Birmingham since 2009, was three years above me at Xaverian College and was a talented singer. I once saw him performing Fauré’s Requiem at the Friend’s Meeting House in Manchester.
Adele O’Rourke, my daughter, who is highly creative in music and art, went to Xaverian sixth form college until the Corona lockdown shut down the college midway through her second and final year.
I met Brother Cyril on the 18th of July 2007, while he was on his annual visit to Manchester to visit his sister and some of ex-colleagues from Xaverian.
Click ‘Play’ to listen to the recording of the interview I did with him. The transcript is below.
I am brother Cyril, a Xaverian brother. I was born in June 1925 and I ended my career as headmaster of Xaverian College from 1962 to 1989. Now I am living in retirement.
What was the date on which you were born?
Third of June, 1925.
Can you tell us a little bit about the background to Xaverian College from when it started up to the present day?
Well, it was founded in 1862. It would be a small school. It was charging fees of about 2d a week I think, and it was quite close to Saint Bede’s. Saint Bede’s was founded in the same area. And then the school moved to Victoria Park site in 1907 and became known as Xaverian College at that point and it’s still there.
And the original location was at All Saints, next to the present Saint Augustine’s church?
That’s right, well it was in All Saints in the building which later became, when we moved out, it later became the Ear Nose and Throat Hospital.
What was the main reason for moving to Victoria Park?
Well, in order to expand and there were problems arising in that area, and it was better for the school to move out a little way, and in Victoria Park there were properties becoming available, probably through impoverishment of the owners. They had gone there, bought a house there, a property there in more splendid times for themselves and then found a need to sell, and we bought the property, as I say, in 1907.
So how did the school develop than from 1907 and up to the present day?
Well, I suppose it would be classed as a private school, but some places were given to the local authority, but it was a small school and I think that at the time the War came, it had it had probably something like 350 students.
And then the big development came after the War, when it became a direct grant grammar school, and that meant that the students who came didn’t have to pay any fees at all. There were fees, but they were paid by the local authority. And also because we got a grant from the central government for each student and that gave us sufficient income on which to live, and provide, as well as we could anyway, for the education of the boys who came to us.
And of course I came in 1969 and I was there until 1976.
And then after that then came the big change.
The big change came of course. The school had grown to about 700 by 1977 and then the Catholic schools developed a system for going comprehensive. It was rather later than the authority schools had gone, and that involved Loreto and Xaverian becoming six form colleges and others becoming high schools. And there were to be no academic requirements required for entry. But of course to develop that, all the courses required to cater for people who were not looking for Advanced level subjects, it. took time to develop those but they are now fully developed. And they are now 1500 students in the college.
Where did you do your training and how did you become a teacher and then headmaster of Xaverian?
Well, I went to Xaverian College as a boy and I joined the brothers, and in order to join the brothers, you had to do what was called six months postulancy and two years of novitiate. And in that time you studied Theology and Philosophy and you led a disciplined life involving regular community prayer.
And you found out whether you liked the life or whether you didn’t and then after two and a half years you could take temporary vows for a period of three years. And after that if you still wanted to go on, you could take final vows.
After I’d completed the novitiate, I went to Manchester University and I came out qualified to teach English. But I never did teach English, as things turned out, and I taught Maths, because there was a great shortage of Mathematics teachers in those days and to satisfy that need… I always liked Maths and I always did well at it and in school. It was not part of my degree course, but I enjoyed it, and I hope the kids did not suffer because of my lack of qualification in that subject.
So you taught at Xaverian College?
So I taught at Xaverian College. I have never taught anywhere else.
What part of Manchester did you grow up in?
I started off, I was born on the Anson estate and then we moved into Levenshulme and then I joined the brothers while we were still in Levenshulme. And then, no I’m sorry we, we moved out to Marple just before I joined the brothers, and then, since that time of course I have lived with the brothers
And so when did you become headmaster and until when did you…?
I became head in 1962 and I finished at the end of 1989, so I’m not sure how many years that is.
So you were trying to achieve a certain ethos in the school. Can you tell us a bit more about that?
Well I can tell you what I was trying to do and what the staff were helping me to do.
We wanted it above all to be a place where people could come and feel wanted and respected and cared for, and we wanted staff to feel that and students, and to follow the command of Jesus Christ that we should love God and love our neighbour, and of course loving our neighbour means everybody and being concerned and caring about them. And so that everybody who comes, who is involved in the school, will feel wanted and will feel happy and will not have to worry about maltreatment or anything like that. And if you get that right, if you get all that right, examinations will look after themselves, you don’t need to make examination success a major criterion in what your objectives are.
But I think that the ethos, whatever effect it had, it brought forth quite a few creative people, creatively successful people like Tim Willocks the author and Len Grant the photographer, Jan Chlebik and others and I’ve also done my particular thing and was quite inspired by some of the teachers at Xaverian, so perhaps that ethos had a positive effect and before i went to Xaverian, my teacher at my primary school, Our Lady’s, Sister Esther, recommended that I only put Xaverian on the application. This was after I passed my 11-plus that she said Xaverian was the only school that I should go to, and I got the place.
Well, I’m glad to hear that. But I can’t measure the success. It’s not measurable, what we were really trying to do, and I am not the one to comment on it, but other people, people who went through the school can speak best about its influence upon them. I just hope that it had a good influence and did help creative people to develop themselves, and if it did that, then I’m very happy.
Yes, well I’d like to place on record that certainly, people like Mr Sellars, the Music teacher and then Mr Challinger, and Mr Lackey, who recommended I do German, Mr Halstead, the French and German teacher, they all had a big effect on me, I’m certainly grateful to them.
So how have you been enjoying your retirement?
Very much, very quietly. I haven’t undertaken any kind of part-time work. I remained on the Board of Governors at Xaverian College until 2002 and that was when the brothers gave the school to the diocese and it now runs under the auspices of the diocese, but it keeps the name Xaverian College.
And finally do you have any special message to any ex-Xaverian College boys or girls, who are, maybe, listening to this?
Well, only to say that, I hope the school was influential in helping you to become responsible people, people who realised, that they not only have rights, but they also have responsibilities and in that way I hope you’ve developed it that way so you are now in a position to make your own decisions about your life and those decisions will be such that they will make you very acceptable to your neighbour and to God.
Brother Cyril died on the eighth on the 17th of April 2014 at the age of 88. His final resting place is the Xaverian Brothers’ Cemetery, close their residence in Danvers, Massachussets.
At Xaverian College, people still speak in reverential terms about brother Cyril and his presence can still be felt on the campus.
If you go into the building which bears his family name – Birtles – just to the left of the main entrance, there is a marvellous portrait painting of him sitting in his office. It perfectly captures his quiet, pensive manner, just as I remember him.
During the Corona lockdown in 2020, I was riding past Xaverian and went to the front of the Birtles building. It was locked and deserted, but I could see the painting through the glass window and I photographed it using my iPhone. I’m sure all will agree, the spirit of Brother Cyril magically shines through out of this painting.