Questions for Lord Alton for Liverpool Hope University Alumni Magazine

What are your key memories of studying at Christ College?

Exactly 30 years ago Fr. Alexander Jones put the scholarship of Christ College firmly on the map through his translation and publication of the Jerusalem Bible. Deeply affected by the Second Vatican Council, he had been hugely influenced by the cross-currents of Christian thought in the post war years: aggiornamento – keeping abreast of the times – and approfondimento – the deepening of theological thought. Working with great scholars, like J.R.R. Tolkien, Fr. Jones passionately rejected the idea that Christianity was a relic and irrelevant or that it had “nothing to say to the mind.”

On arriving at Christ’s in 1969, I experienced this confident ethos, which was still prevalent. An extraordinary spirit of purpose and mission pervaded the College. The Departments of Divinity and History, where I studied, were imbued with energy and commitment. To young men and women who wanted to give their lives to teaching there was an endless stimulus to the mind and, through the spiritual life of the College, to the heart and soul as well. As a teenager, at a school founded by Jesuits, I had toyed with the idea of working on the African missions and maybe teaching there, then discovered politics. I thought Liverpool would be a great place to be a student and to decide what to do next. I came from a family where Higher Education was a novel experience. My mother was an immigrant from the West of Ireland, her first language was Irish and she had left school at 14. My father had been a Desert Rat and a shop floor worker at Ford Motor Company. Just two of us from the Council estate where I grew up made it through the scholarship to my Grammar School so I had already learnt not to take opportunities for granted – and that education is both a privilege and the key to everything else in life.  Happily, as I hadn’t applied to go anywhere else,, Monsignor Bernard Doyle, then the College Principal, offered me a place. Quite literally, from the moment I arrived, I knew I was part of a special community where people really looked out for one another.  The College had been built by Catholics to serve the needs of the Catholic community – and as I quickly discovered through College visits to inner city schools, this was a city which needed help in fighting disadvantage, discrimination, and poverty. I felt particularly at home in the unique British-Irish mixture that gives Liverpool its vitality, its warmth, its generosity, and its humour.  Those early encounters with poverty led me in to “community politics”. But I was also finding my feet in the Student Union. My first successful foray was a motion to oppose sporting links with white-only South African apartheid teams.  A month before my finals I stood in a “hopeless” Council seat in the inner city, Low Hill Ward, and at 21 found myself elected as a student to the City Council. My only helpers on the ground had been half a dozen other Christ College students. There was quite a reception committee waiting for me when I arrived back at Newman Hall that night and the partying ended in the small hours of the morning! The morning after, and of more immediate concern, were my finals. A note from the wonderful Sister Winifred, who taught history, told me I had better come and see her. She gave me some extra notes and not a little encouragement and it was really she who deserved the results which happily followed.

Did you live in?

I lived in Newman Hall in my first and third years; and with three other Christ’s students in a house off Smithdown Road – a neighbourhood I would one day represent in Parliament – in my third year.

Do you still keep in contact with any fellow students from your time at Christ College?

Just a week ago I was spoke to the Sixth form at Maghull’s excellent Maricourt School. With great selfless dedication, Tony Grieco, who was a student with me, has taught there throughout his teaching career, and our paths have often crossed. He was also in Newman Hall. John Henry Newman, who had some very decided views about what a university should be, would be able to take some satisfaction from the idealistic teachers who were moulded during that period. Recently, through the Good Citizenship Award scheme which I set up, and which is available in over 1,000 schools around the region, I often meet contemporaries from my days at Christ’s. I also keep in touch with some of the inspirational people who taught at Christ’s. A few weeks ago I had supper with one of them, Mary Lonsdale. Mary was a guest at a lecture I organised for Gervaise Phinn, whose books and talks capture the spirit that pervaded Christ’s in my time there.  I often hear from College friends via e-mail. Inevitably, these days it is sadly sometimes news of illness or death. I was really distressed to hear that Clare Downey, who studied with me – and whose husband, John, was at school with me, died on Christmas Day last from tumour of the brain. Clare was the perfect example of what Christ College was all about: the bedrock of her deep faith inspired her to give a life of real service to education.

After leaving College and entering Parliament, you put your teacher training into practise on Merseyside. What are your memories of this time?

During two of my summer vacations, as a student, I worked on the South Liverpool Holiday School, staying in what was World Friendship House, in Falkner Square, run by a charismatic Anglican, Canon Goddard. I was teaching immigrant children English. In later years one of the Chinese children asked me to be Godfather to her daughter and so I am still in touch with that family. After leaving College, I spent two years teaching in Kirkby, at English Martyrs School. Staring forty children in the face, on my first day, I’m not sure, even now, who was more apprehensive, them or me! Many of their parents had been arrested for taking part in a huge rent strike. The local estate was seething. The school was an oasis and the staff utterly committed to the children.

Years later I met one of the lads I had taught and he asked me if I could remember giving him the books of C.S. Lewis. He introduced me to his 8-year-old and told me he was now reading The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe to him. I think that a lot of education is like passing on the baton in a relay race. At 23 I gave up my job in Kirkby to fight a General Election. There were two elections that year and having notched up a good second place in a seat uncontested since 1950, I decided that I would have another go four years later. Meanwhile, I needed another job. So, I spent five years working for Sefton Education Authority with children who have special needs. It was the first time I had encountered serious disability. That made me think a lot about issues like eugenic abortions, about discrimination against disabled people, and the right to life. The last child I taught was dying of Cystic Fibrosis. He and his family taught me rather more than I taught Ian. He died just a few weeks after I entered the House of Commons.

Have you been back to the Childwall campus recently, and if so what are your thoughts in relation to the way it has changed since the late 60’s, early 70’s?

When Lizzie and I married, in 1988, we chose the chapel at Christ College for our wedding and we held our wedding reception there. One of my closest friends, the late Fr. Paul Thompson, performed the marriage, with the help of my father-in-law, the Revd. Philip Bell, who is sixty years an Anglican priest. Paul – who later baptised two of my children and was Godfather to another – was Derek Worlock’s press officer.

The ecumenism of the Worlock-Shepard years was obviously going to be needed in an inter-denominational marriage and I sensed that Christ College was coming to terms with that need too.  Liverpool had a deeply divided sectarian past and David Sheppard and Derek Warlock were right to confront and attempt to heal that. The amalgamation of Christ’s, St. Kath’s and Notre Dame, was a logical expression of that desire. My only anxiety is the danger, one which I know that Professor Pilay will resist, that Hope should not become yet another secular institution, with a Christian past, striving to accommodate everyone but standing for nothing.

How much of a part did politics play in your life while you were studying at Christ College?

The Jesuits say “give me a child until he is seven and I’ll give you a man for life.” They drove it into us that we should be “men for others” and use the opportunities we were being given for the common good. Strongly influenced by this belief and by the events and things I saw around me, at College I quickly realised that even though you might not be able to change the whole world, it was not an excuse for changing nothing. These were the years in which Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King had been assassinated; wars in Biafra and Vietnam; apartheid in South Africa; Russian tanks in Czechoslovakia; troops being sent to Northern Ireland. It was hard not to be political.

If I had felt a call to be a career politician I would have joined a big political party. I joined one with just 6 MPs and 5% of the popular vote. But I knew that doing nothing ever changes anything: and I have always like a challenge!

So, I spent almost all of my free time at College engaged in politics – and my College room sometimes resembled an election committee room. Gradually, I spent more and more of my vacation time here too, staying with the Davies’s, a local Jewish family. Harry stood as council candidate in Childwall, and I was his election agent. A year later we came within 35 votes of winning, so I realised that hard work and commitment paid off.

In 1972, you were elected to Liverpool City Council as the country’s youngest councillor. What drove you to stand for office?

I stood in the Low Hill Ward, where half the houses had no inside sanitation, no running hot water or bathrooms and half the streets were still lit by gas lamps. Yet the houses were quite capable of renewal and improvement – not the demolition favoured by the Council. The people living in Kensington Fields agreed with me and elected me. At one level or another I then represented that particular community for the following 25 years. In 1978 as the City’s Housing Chairman and deputy leader of the Council I was able to “pension off the bulldozer” and created the biggest house improvement programme in the country.

In 1979, you won a seat in Parliament but as well as being the youngest member of that Parliament you also set a record for the shortest tenure. What happened?

In March 1979 a by-election was held after the death of the Labour MP for Edge Hill, the seat where five years earlier I had been a candidate, and the constituency where my council Ward was situated. Very inconveniently and inconsiderately, the night before the election, the Callaghan Government collapsed, having narrowly lost a vote of no confidence. A General Election was called.

The following day Edge Hill went to the polls and with a 38% swing I became the youngest MP of the Parliament but also the shortest-lived MP! I had to make my maiden speech two hours after taking my seat. Every other MP was packing their bags to go back and fight the General Election. I could have been an after dinner joke for the rest of my life if the good voters of Edge Hill hadn’t sent me back again four weeks later.

Happily, after the constituency was merged with Mossley Hill, I went on to hold the seat again in 1983, 1987 and 1992, until I stood down, after disagreeing with my then Party’s decision to make abortion a Party policy.

You have worked with our Chancellor, Baroness Caroline Cox of Queensbury. What has been the nature of that work?

Having thought that I had escaped the parliamentary penitentiary in 1997 I was given a life sentence for bad behaviour. In the Lords I sit as an Independent on the Crossbenches. I have particularly used this opportunity to pursue human rights issues. In the mid 80s I co-founded Jubilee Campaign and Jubilee Action ( and they have done a huge amount of work on human rights, religious persecution and issues like the exploitation of street children. Through this work I got to know Caroline Cox extremely well. During my visits to the Karen refugee camps on the Burma border and in the bombed and ravaged villages of Southern Sudan, where 2 million people have been killed, I was deeply struck by the numbers of people who told me how much they appreciated the help they had been given by Caroline. She is a true “voice for the voiceless.”

Two years ago Caroline and I travelled together to North Korea and raised humanitarian and human rights issues with the regime there. Subsequently we set up a joint Parliamentary Committee on North Korea, which I chair, and of which Caroline is Vice Chairman. It’s a modest attempt to ensure that the plight of the suffering people of that forsaken land are not entirely forgotten.

How would you rate Liverpool Hope’s choice of Baroness Cox as our Foundation Chancellor?

I was really delighted that Hope had asked Caroline to be the Foundation Chancellor. She is an extraordinarily brave and courageous woman: one of the truly great people you are privileged to meet in life. Her energy and compassion are a by-word; her understanding of higher education a real asset; her international profile of tangible benefit.

But the greatest thing Caroline brings to Hope is her faith. St. Francis of Assisi famously said that we should use words to explain our faith, but only when we have run out of deeds. Caroline, who is a member of the lay Anglican third-order of St. Francis, is the embodiment of that thought and synonymous with the values which shaped the colleges from which Hope has sprung.

Cornish Pilgrimage

Universe Column August 2002

David Alton
As a very young child my late mother took me to Croagh Patrick during one of her visits home to Mayo. It made an indelible impression on me; I have been back many times since – most recently climbing it with two of my own children, Marianne and Padraig.

The pilgrim way is a never-ending one – always with another unexpected encounter around every corner. Rabbi Menahem Mendl of Kotsz pithily summed up the never-ending nature of life’s journey when he wrote: “He who thinks he is finished is finished.”

Pilgrimage can be a moment to pass on something of the faith – and the trials, suffering and endurance of those who went before us. During a family holiday there is always a place of Catholic interest nearby.

In Cornwall this year we managed to explore two of the West Country’s Catholic shrines.

St. Michael’s Mount, near Penzance, is home of the St. Aubyn family and is owned by the National Trust. It was originally a Benedictine priory built in the twelfth century and a daughter house of the famous Mont St. Michael in Normandy (which the French intend to restore as a true island). St. Michael’s Mount is a huge granite crag, dominating the skyline, often shrouded in a magical mist, surmounted by an embattled castle, and a pre-reformation place of pilgrimage.

St. Michael’s Mount is an island at high tide but can be reached by a walk over the sands at other times. This trick of geography makes an important point to the modern pilgrim – perhaps recalling John Donne’s verses that “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. Any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind.”

Catholic involvement in contemporary society may well be at a price – and steadfastness can even lead to death (think of Pakistan). A visit to Launceston, Cornwall’s lovely historic county town, will soon remind you that religious freedom has been won at a price.

The dungeon at Launceston Castle was where St. Cuthbert Mayne was held before he was taken to the town square and executed. Born near Barnstaple in 1544, he was educated at Oxford University and was a contemporary of Edmund Campion. He went to Douai to train for the priesthood and on his return to England ministered to the numerous Catholics in the West Country.

Arrested at the behest of Richard Grenville he was executed on a scaffold in the market place on November 30th 1577. His shrine may be visited at Launceston’s Catholic Church.

Not far away is a pilgrim site that has been re-reborn over the past few years: the shrine of Our Lady of Liskeard at Ladye Park.

And at all these places an appropriate prayer might by the Lord’s Prayer – the Pader Agan Arluth -in the ancient Cornish tongue:


Agan Tas-ny, us yn nef, Benygys re bo da Hanow, Re dheffo dha wlascor, Dha voth re bo gwres, y’n nor kepar hag y’n nef. Ro dhyn-ny hedhyu agan bara pup deth-oll; Ha gaf dhyn agan camwyth, kepar del aven-nyny dhe’n re-na us ow camwul er agan pyn-ny; Ha na wra agan gorra yn temtasyon, mes delyrf ny dyworth drok. Rag dhyso-jy yu wlascor, ha’n gallos, ha’n gordhyans, Bys vyken ha bynary. Amen.

School Days: Recollections for The Universe

by David Alton

Joan O’Neill was my first teacher. She was from the same part of Mayo as my mother and by a happy coincidence she had also arrived in London’s East End – where I had been born within the sound of Bow Bells. My dad was also a Cockney and had just been demobbed from the Eighth Army. He was a Desert Rat.

Joan eventually moved back to Tourmakeady and by another stranger coincidence her son became the village teacher in the West of Ireland school where my mother and grandparents had been taught. Even in the East End I was never far from my Irish

Roots. I’m proud to have an Irish passport as well as a British one – and so do my four children.

Whenever we get over to Mayo I try to see Joan and even in the face of persistent questioning from my children she has been admirably loyal in not revealing the wayward doings of her five-year-old charge.

In the late 80s, when I was in the Commons, and challenging the abortion laws, I met  some pretty rabid hostility and opposition.  I was particularly encouraged when a letter arrived from Joan, encouraging me, and reminding me of the first prayers which she had taught us infants at St. Anthony’s, Clover Road.

Years later, I presented the prizes at the neighbouring secondary school and afterwards they asked me if I would like to see the church. A Franciscan priest showed me the baptismal register and my entry in it. I asked him what had happened to Fr. Andrew, the priest who had baptised me: “That’s me” he said with a mischievous grin. The baptism had been more than 40 years before.  Incidents like that remind you of the years of dedicated service which devoted men and women have given the Church – and especially to deprived neighbourhoods and immigrant families.

At five, my family were rehoused to a  flat on an overspill Council estate near Brentwood. I began primary school at St. Helens. The school was run by the Sisters of Mercy. My first teacher there was the charismatic Sister Vincent. She was always unfailingly kind, vivacious and full of energy – lifting her habit and dancing on a table to a gramophone record of ceilidh music, playing children’s songs on the piano, introducing us to an unexplored world of language and stories. Other children said she had taught their parents and even grandparents but she never seemed to age.

Later, other sisters, like our head-teacher, Sister Thecla, taught us catechism and the foundations of the faith.

Under their tutelage I also had my first lessons in fund raising. A huge wall chart was put up in school and we were each given a child in the Congo. Every penny we raised moved our child another rung up the ladder.

I was thinking about that when I went to Congo last year. Four million people have died there over the past decade and through Jubilee Action, which I helped to set up, I’m still trying to raise money for Congolese children.  It says it all that the biggest donation for the new shelter for street children in Kinshasa came from the Sisters of Mercy and one of  the patrons of the project is the Bishop of Brentwood. Their influence and commitment really does live on.

After passing my scholarship at 11, I went to a brand new Jesuit grammar school named for the Jesuit martyr, St. Edmund Campion.

Our first headmaster, Fr. Michael Fox, tragically died just six weeks after the school opened and Fr. William Webb became the acting head.  Fr. Michael’s younger brother, Kevin, was a scholastic who taught me. Years later, having sent my own children to the Jesuit school in Lancashire, I watched as Fr. Kevin, as chairman of the Stonyhurst governing body, presented them with prizes. It  underlined for me words like continuity, fidelity, and dedication.  We should never under-estimate the incredible generosity of the men and women of Britain’s religious orders.

Many of us were from working class and tough backgrounds and sometimes there had to be a fairly tight regime but I never found the discipline oppressive. Sometimes, going home, you would have to run the gauntlet from gangs from a nearby school on the way to the railways station. I was beaten up a few times and often called an “Irish Pig” and a few other abusive things because I went to the Catholic school.  In some respects it was a useful lesson and gave me some very early opinions about treatment of minorities and intolerance.

Any negatives were more than outweighed by the extraordinary opportunity we were being given. I wouldn’t have chosen a Jesuit school for my own children if I didn’t have anything but deep and profound admiration for the Jesuit tradition – and their belief that you should use your privileges and opportunities in the service of others by being “a man for others”. That’s at the very heart of Jesuit education and I hope that more Jesuits in England will re-engage in our schools which is where their gifts are really needed.

After the school was handed over to the diocese a group of us sent a petition to the Bishop asking for Fr. Webb to be returned to us as a chaplain.  What was the point of a chapel – paid for by Alfred Hitchcock – if we didn’t have a chaplain?

We were called in to see the Bishop and the petition was a success. As Fr. Webb’s sacristan, we became quite close. Not long before he died I gave him a birthday lunch at the Commons, a suitable parliamentary venue for him to tell me that he had just finished his treatise on why he believed Guy Fawkes had been innocent! When you walk through the Great Hall at Westminster, where Thomas More and Edmund Campion both stood trial, it’s hard not to remember that our religious liberties and political freedoms have been paid for by the blood of brave men and women. So often we take our liberties and privileges for granted.

This year, on Campion Day, the school will be celebrating the 450th anniversary of the death of St. Ignatius of Loyola. The Mass will be concelebrated by priests who were at school, at Campion – of which there are an impressive number. Some were good friends of mine. The school’s current headmaster, John Johnson, was a contemporary  and he has built on the strong tradition he inherited. We had some great teachers – I was particularly inspired by my history and English teachers, some of whom were the embodiment of Mr. Chips – everything an inspiring schoolmaster should be. How could I ever forget men like Dennis Brunning and Tom McCarthy, who took us to Rome on a school trip, and their loud rendition of “Faith of Our Fathers” at an audience in St. Peter’s with pope John XXIII?

At times I talked to Fr. Webb about the possibility of becoming a missionary in Africa. At 12 I had written to the Mill Hill Missionaries and told them I wanted to go to work in Kenya. Unfortunately I hadn’t told them my age; nor had I mentioned this early career move to my parents! When a priest arrived at our flat to sign me up we had to have a long talk and put the idea on hold! In the end it was the mission field of politics which grabbed me.

I started a school newspaper, called Sanctuary – which ran some controversial stories and was briefly banned: an early lesson in censorship! I briefly horrified my then  headmaster, Phil Moloney, by being elected as Chairman of the local Young Liberals.  One of the first meetings was violently broken up by the National Front and the pictures made the local newspapers.

Once headmaster and parents got over their consternation they started to actively encourage my political interests and campaigns. So Upper Sixth was spent organising demonstrations against  Russian tanks trundling into Czechoslovakia, petitions against David Steel’s abortion Bill, and organising all night sponsored walks around the school playing fields to help war victims in Biafra. I even entered the lists in a school mock election and happily saw off the Labour and Conservative candidates but was pipped by the Communist candidate – well, it was a Catholic school where we were encouraged to have  minds of our own. He was a good friend and ended up teaching there!

During Upper Sixth the head let me do some teaching in the lower school and that decided me on what to do next. What better preparation for the road north? What better foundations for life as a student in Liverpool and for the privilege that would await me in representing its people as a City Councillor and Member of Parliament?