My song is for all those females who are disappointed for never having had this much-wanted experience in their earlier years, as well as for those lucky young maidens who were fortunate enough to ‘float the boat’ of many young men applauding their beauty as they waved joyously and applauded loudly.
One person in particular to whom I dedicate my song today is an old friend, Margaret Watson from Dewsbury. For more years than I can remember, Margaret worked as the Feature Editor and the Deputy Editor of the Dewsbury Reporter.
‘Bring Flowers of the Rarest’(also known as ‘The Fairest’) is a Marian hymn that was written by Mary E. Walsh. It was published as the "Crowning Hymn" in the Wreath of Mary 1871/1883 and later in St. Basil's Hymnal (1889).
Between the ages of 5-11 years of age, I attended ‘St Patrick’s Roman Catholic School’ in Heckmondwike, West Yorkshire. The school Headmaster was called Mr Armitage, and another teacher(one beneath him in status, but who believed herself always above him in importance) was Mary Walsh. Mary Walsh (the same name as the writer of today’s hymn) was a disciplinarian through and through. She put the fear of God into any pupil who dared to cross her.
These were the late 1940s and early 1950s and giving pupils the cane and whatever else the teacher considered to be suitable punishment was permissible within the law of the land, the law of the Catholic Church and the parental law held by every mother and father. It was no good complaining to one’s parents about the cruelty of any teacher’s punishment administered in the class. If a child was foolish enough to tell their father or mother that the teacher had caned them for some misdemeanour, one’s dad would simply add to the punishment with another belt across the bottom. Hence, any teacher like Mary Walsh could wield the cane with total impunity.
Any pupil sent to the Headmaster for caning (the normal procedure) would be caned six of the best across their outstretched open palms. Whenever the Headmaster was not present to administer the punishment, however, the task would be delegated to and carried out by his Deputy, Mary Walsh. Mrs Walsh would always cane girls on their open hands but would make any boy being caned to bend down in front of the class while she whacked him as hard as she could across his bottom. In order to inflict the maximum fear of what the child being punished was about to receive, Mrs Walsh would string out the public punishment. She would raise the cane to strike, but instead of hitting the intended hand or bottom when she brought it down, like a golfer teeing off at the first green, she would approach the body part as near as possible without making contact; then drawing the cane all the way back up again to shoulder height, she would strike with maximum force and drive!
One’s hands or bottom would have wealds for a week at least!
The only time I told my mother, she informed me that her Catholic school in Portlaw, County Waterford, Ireland was far worse. Mum’s school was run exclusively by the nuns and they were said to be the cruellest of all disciplinarians. Mum said that both boys and girls were always punished in public (as a deterrent to the other pupils). She said that the smallest punishment ever administered was ‘six of the best’ across the opened hands for merely looking directly at a nun when being verbally reprimanded instead of averting one’s eyes down towards hell. Mum said that speaking in class without having been granted permission to talk would attract a punishment of six strokes of the cane across the back of one’s legs.
The gravest punishment of all was reserved for taking the Lord’s name in vain, like saying “Oh, God Almighty!” The holy sisters considered such utterances as being nothing less than filthy and blasphemous curses. This Catholic crime was the greatest sin of all that a school pupil could commit, and my mum said that any boy or girl punished for blasphemy would be caned in front of the class, and would have to bend down after they had lowered their own trousers or knickers, before turning towards the classroom wall as they received their punishment. Not being content with beating them on their bare arse in public view of their peers, mum said the sadistic nuns wanted the rest of the class to witness the wealds and red marks suddenly appear and well up on the thrashed skin of the penitent. The nuns were nicknamed 'Daughters of the Devil' in mum's school.
Mrs Mary Walsh had her favourite hymn, just as you or I might have, and her favourite hymn is the song that I sing today, but until I was writing this post and researched the person who wrote this hymn, I never made the connection as to why today's hymn was my class teacher’s favourite hymn? It was because both my class teacher (Mrs Mary Walsh) and the writer of the hymn (Mary E. Walsh) shared the same name!
Another privileged function that fell to Mrs Mary Walsh was the ‘Monday morning check’. This check indicated which pupils in the school had attended Sunday Mass the previous day, and if not, why not? Another feature of this check was to also find out the pupils who had attended communion as well as those who had not. As a Catholic child who was daily indoctrinated with church scripture, all the class knew that it was a mortal sin if anyone received Holy Communion while not in a state of grace; having sinned without going to confession and having the priest forgive the sin and wipe the slate clean(or should that be soul?) Hence, it could be assumed by the teacher and the rest of the class, that any boy or girl who hadn’t received Holy Communion for over one month had a great big sin on their conscious that had not yet been pardoned by the parish priest; a sin so big and bad enough to send the offender straight to hell if they had a fatal accident before receiving their next confession!
As a general rule (in those days, but I not sure about present times), it would be the boys who were the worse sinners and born rebels while the girl would usually be like ‘sugar and spice and all things nice’.
Another of Mrs Mary Walsh’s privileged teacher functions was that she would be the sole decider of which girl in the whole school would be crowned ‘May Queen’ that year. Next to making ones’ First Communion’ or receiving the Sacrament of ‘Confirmation’ from the Bishop, a girl who was selected as the school’s ‘Queen of the May’ was the greatest of honours bestowed. This honour always went to the female pupil who had attended mass the most throughout the year, along with receiving Holy Communion. In the event of a tie, the school adjudicator then took into consideration attendances at church for any other service such as the Angelus, the Rosary, Benediction and Eucharistic Adoration, Novena, and the Stations of the Cross.
It will come as no great surprise to learn that the goodliest of all goody-goody-two-shoes in the entire school was the teacher’s daughter, Mary Walsh Junior. Mary Walsh Junior was a nice enough pupil who unfortunately had an old dragon for a mother. Being the only daughter in a strict Roman Catholic household, however, was punishment enough for young Mary whose perfect religious conduct never required more than a perfunctory penance being given by the priest in the confessional box. Mary Walsh Junior was probably the only girl in the whole of the British Isle and the British Commonwealth ever to have been crowned ‘Queen of the May’ three years running. Indeed, it was only after she had passed her 11 plus to attend Heckmondwike Grammar School, did ‘St Patrick’s Roman Catholic School’ have a new ‘May Queen’ on top of the school float instead of the Deputy Head’s spotty faced daughter.
The second memory that today’s song brought back to me was one that a dear friend of previous years once shared with me. Her name was Margaret Watson. Margaret and I were to become close friends during the 1990s when I was receiving daily press coverage for the dozens of children’s books I had written and had published, plus the many hundreds of national and international celebrities who were reading from them in Yorkshire schools every day of the week. Between the years 1990-2000, 840 famous names visited Yorkshire Primary Schools to read to the schoolchildren from my books, and the £200,000 profit from their sales was given to charitable causes. Having all these famous faces visit Yorkshire schools inevitably attracted much press and media publicity, that there wasn’t one day (apart from Sundays) when I didn’t receive a mention, photograph or have an article written about me in the Yorkshire regional press. This frequent contact naturally facilitated many good working relationships with the county’s press editors and radio and television presenters.
Margaret was the Feature Editor of the Dewsbury Reporter and the newspaper's Deputy Editor. She used to attend one of my community evening Relaxation Training courses, and we would often chat afterwards. We spoke about all manner of things and once the subject was personal regrets of something that we once did or never did. I will never forget Margaret’s personal contribution to the discussion. She had always yearned to be crowned ‘May Queen’ when she was a girl and young woman. This honour, however, never came her way. It still irked her almost 40 years after leaving school that she never had her chance of crowning glory on the procession float.
What made Margaret’s account that evening the more poignant was the fact that during her long professional career as a journalist she had scooped ‘Reporter of the Year’ awards along with numerous accolades and journalistic distinctions. Yet, I got a distinct impression as she recounted her regret that she would have willingly swapped all her lifetime’s awards for one turn at being crowned ‘May Queen’ as a young girl.
Todays’ song is dedicated to all the Margaret Watsons out there who never had the opportunity of being ‘May Queen’ for the day, along with those lucky ones among you who did wear the crown.
Love and peace Bill xxx