It was cold as they crossed the fields. Hoarfrost was sparkling the grass in the small circles of light created by the several oil lanterns carried by a group of men well-muffled against a winter night, but aware of the chill on nose and face.
They didn’t have far to walk. Maybe 20 minutes from their lodgings to the once-great Bockleton Manor, sometimes known as Bockleton Hall or Bockleton Court. Readers who call England their “old country” and hail from Worcestershire or Herefordshire may recognize those names, which have been in record books in one form or another since the Domesday Book was published in 1086. The group of men now hustling through the cold and dark of a 1942 pre-Christmas night have no knowledge of the history of the manor house they are walking to.
All they know is that the manor, now looming massive in the fragile light of moonrise, is a temporary “home” for children in care of the Birmingham Royal Institution for the Blind. The blind children had been evacuated from the city in the early months of the Second World War, with boys relocated in Kinlet Hall, Shropshire; the girls in Bockleton Manor or Court.
The motley group now knocking on the ancient front door are on hand to provide an evening of entertainment for children and BRIB staff — and the Lord of the Manor and his family if they were in residence and cared to attend. Ushered into the entrance hall, then led to the great hall where they were to perform, the nondescript group of a dozen or so males was viewed with curiosity and a touch of quizzical amusement. It was an unspoken but obvious thought: What on earth is this ragtag, bobtail crew going to do to pleasingly entertain a large group of blind children, their discerning teachers and a handful of upper-crust gentry?
They had no way of knowing that in what looked like a clean but dishevelled gang of farm labourers was a concert pianist, two classical violinists, a former conductor of the Welsh Junior Symphony Orchestra, four magnificent voices from Welsh Chapel choirs — one bass, one baritone, two tenors — and two regular cast members from the long-running British vaudeville show, The Fol-de-Rols.
The ‘;‘;Fols” started as seaside show in Scarborough, Yorkshire, in 1911, grew to become one of the most famous and best-loved year-round touring shows in Britain until the 1970s, when changing times and tastes rang down its final curtain. It was once written of the Fols that the shows always “had an air of class about them;” and that is what the two former Fols were determined to deliver to this audience of blind children and their mentors.
Together with the musicians, they had scripted a close to two-hour show featuring favourite songs old and new, piano and violin solos and duets classical and popular, skits with emphasis on loud slaps, bangs and shouts and terrible puns that brought laughter and cheers from the children — and groans from the adults. There were touches of Christmas throughout the concert, it being that time of the year, but it wasn’t overwhelming.
When the final chorus was sung and the cast had taken its bow, one of the blind schoolteachers said the children would like to say “thank you” by performing a song they had learned by heart and could sing without accompaniment.
The Great Hall seemed to pause in time. What would the blind children sing? Silent Night, maybe? Away in a Manger? Hark the Herald Angels Sing? A teacher gave them a note and in joyous voice the girls of the Birmingham Royal Institution for the Blind sent the ancient walls of the manor echoing with: “The stars at night are big and bright, deep in the heart of Texas,” and the triumphal four hand claps that followed each short verse.
It sounds bizarre writing about it 70 years later. But in 1942, it was a burst of sheer, unexpected joy and a magical experience. On the walk home, the hoar frost had thickened on the grass, the sky was clear, the moon bright enough to walk without lanterns. And the talk was on the girls, some very young, some in their teens who had chosen for their “thank you” an upbeat, happy song about big bright stars they had never seen and never would see.
As if on cue, the group stopped and looked beyond the moonlight to the stars, then walked the rest of the way home in thoughtful silence. I know all this because I was there, a minor but privileged player, in a Christmas story to be remembered.
And I hope, for all of you who read this piece, that the next few days bring you a Christmas as bright as the stars. One to be remembered with joy for as long as you live.
© Copyright 2013