A Measure of Success

Including an address by Christine Nicholas

Over a hundred people gathered at St Cuthbert’s Church in Blyth, a town on the coast of Northumberland on the afternoon of Saturday 24 August 2010, to hold a service of rededication for the war memorial which records the deaths in the two World Wars of the boys from Wellesley Nautical Training School.

Founded in the nineteenth century, Wellesley was an Industrial School which provided nautical training for boys. It was first based on a former battleship (one of the “wooden walls of England”), and then, when that was burnt down, it moved to a site then on the edge of Blyth. The School was eventually handed over to Sunderland Council to run, and they closed it down.

The School itself has now been razed to the ground and if all goes to plan, the site will soon be redeveloped. In the process of demolition the School bell (probably a ship’s bell) disappeared and the war memorial was nearly broken up. Fortunately it was rescued and kept safe in Ferguson’s Transport yard in Sleekburn. Now it is sited outside the western entrance to St Cuthbert’s Church and it looks as if it has been there for decades.

The remarkable thing about the story is that it was the men who as lads had been to Wellesley and who are now in their sixties and seventies, together with some former members of staff, who rescued the slate monument, preserved it, negotiated its resiting and organised the event. They are all proud to have been at the School, and many had careers at sea on leaving. Hearing their life stories, it is quickly apparent that Wellesley not only offered them a nautical training but it helped them to grow up and mature as well. They spoke warmly of the staff who helped them without making any pretence that life at the School was easy or that they enjoyed every moment.

When the Approved School system was dismantled as a result of the Children and Young Persons Act 1969, the main criticism was the “success rate” – the percentage of boys and girls who were found guilty of re-offending within two years of leaving. It was a crude measure that was unrelated to what the Schools were trying to achieve.

Certainly, some Schools were of poor quality and in some the children were abused, but much was lost with the closure of the Schools, and it would be hard to argue that the confusion which followed the demise of the Schools served the boys and girls any better. The men who met to rededicate the monument were living proof that some Schools were able to get through to boys with difficult histories and backgrounds, and give them a useful basis on which to build their careers.

Wreaths were laid by three former Wellesley boys – Brian Ali, Michael Hendryk Majer and Maurice O’Brien, by Jack Earnshaw, a Trustee of Wellesley, and by Captain Haydn Davies Jones, Commanding Officer of the School from 1953 to 1961. It was a moving occasion, attended by people of all ages, including the partners, children and possibly grandchildren of the former Wellesley boys. Some had not met for fifty years; some were remembering those who had died; and the event was, of course, commemorating those who had lost their lives for their country.

An address was given by Christine Nicholas, the daughter of the late ex-Wellesley boy who had paid for the monument to be made.

I am honoured today to represent my father, George Nicholas, at the dedication of this memorial in the grounds of  St. Cuthbert’s.  He passed away in July 2004 but I know he would be proud that my mother, sister and her family were here today to remember with you the Wellesley boys who lost their lives for their country.

George Nicholas was a Wellesley boy from 1938 – 1940.  He came, like many of his contemporaries, from a broken home but Wellesley became his home, his strength and his direction.  He would never forget his time at Wellesley.  Many years later when he visited his old school he noticed a plaque on the wall of the Chapel honouring some of the old Wellesley lads, some only 16 or 17 years old, who had sacrificed their lives whilst serving their country at sea during the War and this moved him to offer to Wellesley a more permanent memorial.  He commissioned this stone, carved from Lakeland sea green slate which was officially dedicated at the Wellesley Nautical School on 15th June, 1988.  The face of the stone is smooth but the rest of it is as it came from the quarry, with undulations, both gentle and rough,  to represent the different moods of the sea.

Although the slate was estimated to last for 2000 years it was almost demolished in 2007, only 19 years after being commissioned, along with the Wellesley School itself.  Had it not been for the Trustees of Wellesley, it would have been lost forever along with other memorabilia from the school.  They had the foresight to put it in storage pending an appropriate new home.

Thanks to their generosity and the determination and, dare I say, the stubbornness, of the ex-Wellesley Lads, it has now found the best home possible in the grounds of St. Cuthbert’s, where we hope it will remain as a registered war memorial for many years to come.

At the dedication in June 1988, George Nicholas spoke with great affection and admiration about Commander Frank Stone who was the Commanding Officer of the school when my father was there. He said he was a great disciplinarian but that he was also very kind and just.   He quoted from his words which were recorded in the Wellesley Tatler just before the outbreak of hostilities in 1939.  I will also quote from that now:

If war should come, and we cannot ignore the possibilities of such a tragedy, then you lads at sea will be playing a very important role in bringing us the food and the things we shall need from across the seas.  It will be a man’s job and I sincerely trust that every old Wellesley boy at sea will do it nobly and prove worthy of the task”.

Two months later war was declared and very soon afterwards Commander came to one of the assemblies at the school to announce that his own son, Albert John Stone, had been killed in action.  It was a sad day.  Many Wellesley boys were to follow him during those first hectic years at sea.

The Wellesley School did much to prepare young boys for the rigours of life which many of you here will understand.  It was from this training that my father recognised that a person only gets out of life what he puts into it.  He lived his life by this standard.  George Nicholas would have been 86 years old today, 24th July, and had he still been alive, he would have been honoured to take part in this dedication and see you all here today.

My family and I, on his behalf, give thanks to St. Cuthbert’s and  to all of you who  have made this day possible,  and we honour all those who have family or friends named on this stone or who died serving their country during World War Two.

Thank you.

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