The collection of Bishop Foley [collection reference: DDFY], Roman Catholic Bishop of Lancaster (1962-1985), is a varied one reflecting not only his faith and work, but also his interest in Catholic history and travels to Italy. An intriguing inclusion to the collection is a series of letters written by Thomas Clarkson, a Catholic priest at Coppull, near Chorley. At the age of eleven, Thomas went away to school and during this time kept in touch with his parents and siblings through letters home. The letters chronicle his studies at school, his time at the seminary preparing for his ordination, up to his second posting in Weld Bank & Coppull, where he stayed until his death in 1952. It isn't clear how Thomas' letters to his family came into the possession of Bishop Foley, or if there was any connection between the two priests, but their survival is unusual and highlights the types of letters which many children at boarding schools must have written home.
Thomas was born in 1883 in Barton, near Preston, to Thomas & Elizabeth Clarkson. He was the youngest of their children and had elder siblings: Mary, John & Susanna.
The first letter in the series is dated 16th September 1894 and is written to his parents to reassure them of his safe arrival at St Edward's College in Liverpool. The letter displays the large and slightly uneven handwriting of an eleven-year-old child, which can be seen to improve over time, as well as numerous crossings out.
Thomas' letters from St Edward's detail the subjects he was studying (Latin, French, English, algebra, geometry, mathematics, British history, Grecian history & Greek), his daily routine (up at 6.30am for mass followed by an hour of study before breakfast) as well as his worries about public speaking and his homesickness, especially at Christmas time.
Letter written in December 1894 as Thomas faced his first Christmas away from home
They also reveal the social and leisure activities at the school as trips out, plays, fret work and ice skating are a regular feature in the letters. Soon after arriving at St Edward's in 1894, Thomas wrote home asking to be sent some ice skates and he and his fellow pupils appear to have often gone skating on Sefton meadows, which were a popular skating venue during the winter months.
Ice skating continues to be a feature of Thomas' letters and later in 1907 he was warning his mother not to skate unless she was sure the ice would take a traction engine.
Thomas had clearly made up his mind to become a priest at an early age. In his first letter to his sister written after his arrival at St Edward's, he writes "Pray for me that that I may continue and become a good Priest and I will pray for you and God will bless us both". Later, in a letter to his parents in 1899, Thomas wrote
I am looking forward to the time when I shall have to go 'to the front' [the letter was written against the backdrop of the Boer War], not in a worldly sense, but to the battle for Christ's sake. If it be God's will I shall be a priest in 7 years. How long it may appear & yet how short it is. Every day must be spent well & then the reward will come.
It isn't clear when Thomas left St Edward's, but his last letter from there is dated March 1899. After leaving St Edward's College, Thomas attended St Joseph's, a Roman Catholic seminary in Up Holland. There are fewer letters from his time here than at St Edward's, but the surviving letters do give an idea of his time leading up to his ordination. His letters reveal the lighter side of life in the seminary including pranks played by fellow students.
The other night as I was kneeling by my bed after all the gases were out, I heard a musical organ merrily giving forth its tune. I listened & wondered, then I guessed the little prank. I had guessed aright, for some of the students had place a musical box under Mr Howards (Joey Howards) bed which the had a string attached. When they thought that he would be in bed they pulled the string & he was roused by the unexpected noise & could not make out whence it came. We all enjoyed the little joke.
His last letter to his parents before his ordination shows his conviction about his decision to become a priest.
As the time approaches – how quickly it is springing upon us – I look back upon the past & cast my eyes upon the future. I am so soon to be married – for what else is it then taking the church & Jesus Christ for better or for worse. No doubt I have left a good deal in the world pleasures of many kinds; but I ask myself do I regret my choice? Ten thousand times no.
Thomas was ordained on 9th June 1906
There is then a gap in the letters, during which Thomas served as curate at Lydiate. His letters resume shortly after his arrival at Weld Bank, where he appears to have settled in well
At the time Weld Bank church also served the population of Coppull and it was partly due to the efforts of Thomas that St Oswald's Church was built for the people of Coppull in 1927. Some of his last letters detail his visits to the houses of local people & the school, as well as the theft of two candlesticks from the church.
The large area in his care meant that Thomas quickly realised that he would need transportation and was later remembered for travelling around the district on his motorcycle.