Ushaw College 1808-2011

In Omnibus Sumentes Scutum Fidei

A little piece of history is about to be consigned to the recycle bin of fond memories (well, for some anyway….). Yesterday I took a train journey up to Durham, and a short bus-ride out to Ushaw College to ‘celebrate’ the last “Grand Day” of its 203 year history.

Ushaw College has been the principal Catholic Seminary for the north of England for 2

Aerial view

centuries, and was established from Douai College in northern France even before Catholic Emancipation became official in 1829.  Read more here. The College has had a long and complex history, culminating in its fight over several recent years to survive the tides of change. After a couple of ‘stays of execution’, it has finally thrown in the towel and announced its closure in June of this year. The reasons given are entirely financial.

When I joined the College in 1961 as an 11 year old, I joined what was then a flourishing Junior House that formed part of the extended College, which trained students from the beginning of secondary schooling right through to ordination at the age of 24/25 years. There had been a post-war boom in vocations, and the Catholic church had invested hugely in seminary training from a young age, inculcating a curriculum that was heavily biased towards the classics with a quasi-monastic existence (which didn’t appeal to everyone!). It probably was not surprising that there was a high drop-out rate. The 60s and 70s heralded massive changes in society. Some say that if you can

St Cuthbert's Chapel

remember that period you weren’t really a part of it. Those of us at Ushaw watched the 60s unfold from the touch line, and most couldn’t resist running onto the pitch to be a part of the great melée. Hence, the Junior House eventually closed down and the College continued as a Senior Seminary in liaison with Durham University becoming, at one time, a residential University College.

Exterior of St Cuthbert's Chapel

This year’s “Grand Day” (ie Old Boys reunion) was the final Act of the 203 year drama. About 300 former students of all ages, many in the ordained ministry, but perhaps the majority (like myself) lay members, gathered together for Mass in St Cuthbert’s Chapel (a historic monument in its own right) and a convivial meal afterwards in the Refectory, a place that conjured up so many memories for all present. Like most Grand Days, the celebration was rounded off with a game of Cat (a French game inherited from Douai College and unique to Ushaw in the UK).

As I hastened down the long drive to catch a bus into town, I chanced by another Ushawman from the 1940s who shared a number of fond memories of his time at the College. But what stood out for

The game of cat: precursor to baseball and rounders?

him (a little painfully, perhaps) was that when his brother joined him at the College, his parents always sent letters to be shared by both of them, and they were always addressed to his younger brother. For several years, he had never received an unopened letter from home. And at the age of 76, that was still a little unresolved grievance for him.

So, many of us were meeting up for the first time since our College days. I counted at least nine from my own year group, and some of us were celebrating 50 years since we joined the College in 1961. And how we had all changed!! Memory has the habit of playing tricks on us. As we scanned the ranks for familiar faces, we conserved the memories of classmates as they had been 50 years ago, and that could be very deceptive. But by the end of the afternoon, we had all located each other, and this is the result. Happy days!!

Class of 1961-1974


About Frank Burns

Looking for the extraordinary in the commonplace………taking the road less travelled……..striving for the ‘faculty of making happy chance discoveries’ in unremarkable circumstances. Click on the Personal Link below to visit my webpages.

Posted on March 22, 2011, in Personal history and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 28 Comments.

  1. Frank,

    Hope all is going well. Enjoy reading your blogs. When are you due to finish? John

  2. Elizabeth Flanagan

    I have always been fascinated with Ushaw College as my mother was one of a group of Irish girls who went to work there as domestics from Wicklow and Wexford in the late 1930s under the watchful eye of Sister Hilary with whom my mother corresponded for many years. I went to see Ushaw College in the aerly 1990s and have been drawn back to that part of England on many occasions. I came across this blog purely by chance . My mother has since passed on but her warm recollections of her youthful years during the war in Co. Durham live with me still. Kind regards

    Elizabeth Flanagan

    • Just found a slip of paper in my mother’s prayer book that had the name of Ulshaw college mentioned on it. I had been aware from her best friend that she had come there from her home in Carnew Co Wicklow in the late 1940’s early 1950’s. I will read about the history of the place; my mum never mentioned it.
      There was an interesting radio programme on radio 4 last week; Hail Mary’s and Miniskirts, that gave information relating to women coming from Ireland to make a better life for themselves and to enable them to send money home.

  3. Those are very interesting reflections, Elizabeth. Thank you for sharing them. My own mother came over from Limerick at the same time as your mother, but she was nursing near Cambridge, where she eventually met my father.
    As a corollary to the Ushaw situation: it would seem that some deal might be made with Durham University for the College to continue as an institute of Advanced Catholic Studies. We’ll have to wait and see.

    • Hi Frank,
      I am trying to locate my Godmother’s family, Mrs Margaret Bridgehouse of Manchester. Her son, Bernard Paul Bridgehouse died at Ushaw College on the 8th of October 1960 at the age of 17. He died whilst on a cross country run at the College and he is buried in the Ushaw College Cemetery. Apparently this information is in the College magazine.
      If anyone has any knowledge of the circumstances around Bernard’s death or the whereabouts of any family member I would be most grateful. Thank you.

      Bernadette Carroll
      Canberra, Australia

      • Great to hear from you, Bernadette. I arrived at Ushaw in 1961 at the age of 11, so Bernard was a little older than me, and his death had occurred the year before. But I do remember talk of an incident where a student had died when out running. I will put your message out to members of St Cuthbert’s Society (the old boys’ association) to see if we can pick up some leads. I can say, however, that there is a small cemetery behind the College where former students are buried. Perhaps Bernard’s grave is there.

  4. Vincent Smiles

    Thanks for the summary of grand day, Frank. Wish I could have been there. I’m sad that the place is closing, though it was probably inevitable. Sorry I will not be able to be present in October. I still have very fond memories of my Ushaw days (’61–’70) and will always be grateful for so much that I received there. Best wishes to you and those who gather in October.
    Vincent Smiles (Smiler)

    • Great to hear from you, Vince. Outwardly, the College looked in great fettle and many sections of the main house had been modernised, but inwardly they just couldn’t make ends meet. Anyway, I’ve heard on the grapevine that there might be a plan afoot to make use of the buildings.
      No doubt our gathering on the October 29th will bring to the fore many stories and photos of our days in the College. I left in ’68 to go to Valladolid, and stayed there until ’70, so we had a similar career.
      Next time you are in the UK, let’s arrange to meet up.

  5. Kevin Slattery

    I have written a biography of Fr Gerald Ward who founded the first Australian Conference of St Vincent de Paul at Melbourne in 1854, after arriving from the parish of Runcorn to Melbourne in 1849.
    He was ordained from St Cuthbert’s Ushaw around 1840. He was 52 when he died in 1858 so was probably born in 1806. We are very keen to learn of his birth date, if possible. Would anyone know of how this birthdate could be obtained?
    Many thanks,
    Kevin Slattery, SVDP Archivist, Victoria, Australia

  6. Hi Frank,
    Great to see the details and photographs included.
    I was an ‘Ushawman’ from 1966-1978. Many happy memories and some brilliant friends.
    Very interesting to read your blog.

    • Great to hear from you, Jim, and glad you enjoyed the posts about Ushaw. Did you start in Underlow in 1966? If so, you were probably in my brother Dominic’s year group.

      • Hi Frank,
        Sorry I have not replied but I have not looked at your blog since my post.
        Yes, I remember Dominic well and I did start in Underlow in 1966. What is he doing now?
        Many of your readers may have heard about the sad death of Tony Power (Powerpack) recently. He was also in my year.
        A very intelligent person with a natural flair for football. The local retired miners, who passed the college every day and watched the football, all knew Tony by name.
        Tony was a practising solicitor in Stanley and leaves a wife and two grown-up boys.
        Requiescat in pace.
        Jim Duffy

  7. Good to hear from you Jim. Dominic is now retired from teaching and living in Epsom.
    I do remember Tony Power, and I am so sorry to hear of his premature death. You may have heard that there was another “final Grand Day” last month, and well attended.

    • Hi Frank. Thanks for the reply. Good to hear that Dominic is now retired. I did hear about the 2012 Grand Day.
      Could you please deleted the fist of my replies from yesterday since I noticed, too late, that there were several spelling mistakes! Hence the second one was corrected.
      Give my regards to Dominic. Is he married? Children? Send him my email and I can bore him with my details etc.

  8. John McDonald

    It seems odd to me to read former students comments about ‘fond memories’ of Ushaw. I was there from about 1955 to 1960 and hated the place. I find it extremely difficult to recall any positives. Unfortunately negatives a plenty.

  9. Thomas Peacock

    Hi. I was at Ushaw from 1960-64, sharing good and bad times with good friends. Sadly visited in 2012 as a final goodbye to glorious architecture and memories… Leo Pyle, Bernard Gilmour, Turnbull, Hollis, Milburn etc as tutors. Have old photos I could copy and send to you if you could put them on the blog. RSVP. Tom Peacock

    • I would be delighted to receive your photos, Tom. Can’t guarantee they will all be uploaded, but I’m sure some will.
      I started in Underlow in 1961, so you might have been in the school above me in the Junior House. All those names you mentioned were there during my time.
      Good to hear from you.

  10. Carlo LOFTUS

    Frank, just passing. Saw the notice from bernadette Carroll re Paul Bridgehouse. I have a photo taken a few years ago at ushaw s cemetery which I’m trying to include with this note. If I do not succeed do you an address to where I could forward the photo? Cheers, carlo.

  11. Anthony Heller

    I was at Ushaw from 1941 to 1946, and hated it !I am now living in New Zealand and feel nostalgic about the old place, and feel sad that it has fallen into disrepair. I visited it in 1961 aged 60, and it was still going. I have recently seen an episode of a TV program where Ushaw was depicted as a girls’ school.

    • Sorry to hear of your experience Anthony….but it is surprising that you should feel nostalgic about a place you hated.
      Oh btw, if you were 60 in 1961……then you must now be 113……. 🙂

  12. Frank!
    If you have the time between rides, head on over to the Ushaw College Alumni group page and join the group. I created it so old boys can upload pics from ‘the old days’ and not intermingle with their own personal pages. Also, if you have .jpgs (or other images) please upload them there or send them to and I’ll make sure they get on the site. Feel free to invite others to do the same. The more the merrier.
    Have a great holiday!
    Liam Graney

  13. I missed out one important piece of information. It’s a Facebook Group. 🙂

  14. I’ve just had a message from Tom Keating giving me the heads up for Grand Day at Ushaw on 20th July, 2016. I’ll be scooting over from Las Vegas for this one – but not cycling! From your Grand Day photo collage, am I to understand that there’s a dress code? If so, I’ll have to pack some long trousers. The only tie I have left is a black one and a red bow tie.

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