Growing up Catholic in the 1950s and 60s

Top left, friends Maria Cox and Claire Hill, first year secondary school, 1964. Photo: author’s own.

I was born in the 1950s, in a market town on the outskirts of Manchester. Looking back on that time, over 60 years later, it felt like a time when everyone seemed to be trying to recover after the seismic trauma of the second world war. The war seemed horribly recent; rationing had only just finished. There was an overwhelming feeling that it was too disturbing and painful to talk about, so there was a strange, agreed silence for much of the time – and certainly in front of us children.

This elephant in the room was only referred to when those of my parents’ friends who’d been directly affected were visiting: people who’d survived the camps, were kinder-transport children or had lost children or relatives; we knew quite a few who fell into this category. From my perspective as a child –and I remember this feeling – some people seemed fragile.

So, against this background, there was the spiritual sustenance that was allegedly provided by the religion that my family belonged to: Catholicism. This was very different from the more ‘flexible’ approach to Catholicism that prevails now (and I’m definitely not criticising that – far from it), but the Catholicism of catechisms and hour-long Latin masses (where I understood not a word), of learning about hellfire and burning forever, and perpetual childhood nightmares about this. 

At the time, I thought it was just me who felt this way, but when I went to secondary school and talked to my closer friends, it transpired that most of us were similarly afflicted.

Sex…the word that must not be said

In 1964, I moved up to secondary school – it was a Catholic grammar school and we all had to pass the 11-plus in order to go there. To say that my parents were relieved that I passed is an understatement: they were ecstatic, because it was not expected: I was very average.

I was duly kitted out with the candy-striped blazer (vile) and the white nylon gloves (ridiculous), the sensible flat shoes (dowdy) and the navy velour hat (for winter wear). As I expected, religious statues were everywhere. We were also required to say a prayer at the beginning of each lesson and the ‘Angelus’ at twelve o’clock every day.

At the age of 11 we were still children. My close friend Maria (a lifelong friend) and I loved reading Enid Blyton novels and Bunty comics, but as we started to progress through the school, we began to be aware of the boys’ school next door and we really couldn’t help lobbing our tennis balls over the adjoining walls so that we could go and retrieve them. 

The mysterious brown envelope

In the second year (now called Year 8), we received a plain brown envelope just before we were due to go home. My friend Angela, who sat next to me, in the mahogany antique desks with ink wells, nodded sagely; she knew what the brown envelope contained: a ‘booklet for girls’. Angela had older brothers and sisters so she was therefore the fount of all knowledge. This is how the conversation went, I remember it quite clearly…

“This is all about periods,” she informed me darkly.

“Well, they’re a bit late in the day with that, most people have already started,” I answered.

“I know, but it’s just to reassure us that it’s normal, because the Virgin Mary had them,” replied Angela.

“How does anyone know whether she had them or not?” I asked.

“She just did!” replied Angela firmly, before saying: “Well, we think it’s all about periods. The word isn’t mentioned once, but we just guessed that this is what it’s about.”

I think it was, but I’m still not sure.

The contents of the brown envelope. Photo credit: Maria Cox.

Dating rules … and miniskirts

Later that academic year, Angela started telling me what the Catholic Truth Society had to say about dating.

“These are the rules.” she said. “No one takes any notice of them, because they’re ridiculous, but this is what the booklet tells us.”

1. Do not hold hands with your boyfriend/girlfriend until you have been going out with each other for six months.

2. If a girl sits on her boyfriend’s knee, there must be a thick newspaper (preferably the Catholic Herald?) placed between his knees and her backside.

3. Once the couple are engaged, they can kiss.

All this was very incongruous because this was the era of miniskirts, a vibrant pop scene and free love, whatever that was (probably something that happened in London).

In addition to wearing skirts halfway up our thighs, we wore thick mascara, had long flowing hair and white lips. (Yes, white lips – this was Miners makeup, marketed by Woolworths). We thought we looked fabulous, but our lips looked as if they had been surgically removed from our faces. 

Claire Hill, aged 16, complete with white lipstick. Photo: author’s own.

Mixed messages and rule breaking

So, there was a lot of mixed messaging going on: on the one hand, we were wearing very short skirts (but not at school) and quite heavy make-up; on the other hand, there was no reference to sex by any teacher and certainly not by the nuns. We were all fairly obsessed with it, although few of us actually ‘did it’.

Inevitably some girls fell through the cracks (unsurprising because we were so poorly informed) and I remember at least one girl being sent to a mother and baby home (often nightmarish institutions, we now know). There were also some who became pregnant and very hastily got married. 

Rumours about ‘convent girls’ and their racy lifestyles didn’t apply to anyone I knew. Talking to my friends at the time, very few parents (even mothers) felt comfortable about discussing sex. These were the times when if you invited the opposite sex into your house for a cup of tea, it really was a cup of tea (and possibly a snog). 

As a result of my strict religious upbringing, I felt different from anyone who wasn’t Catholic, because even though my friends and I started to ignore the rules, we still felt guilty all the time for breaking even the most minimal of them. My adolescence certainly veered beyond the narrow perimeters defined by the Catholic Truth Society, but that’s another story…

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