This biography was supplied by Steve Bellis and is based on the several weeks he spent researching the subject of Lancashire’s Catholic army chaplains in Jesuit archives in Dublin and London. Steve also provided the biography for another Preston priest, Fr Tom Baines.
Father Myerscough belonged to a well-known Preston Catholic family. His father was Alderman Myerscough who gained some notoriety by refusing mayoral office due to his unwillingness to attend a Protestant church on ‘Mayor Sunday’. Ecumenism was not on the agenda in the 1900s.
Born in Preston on 20 May, 1895, John was educated at St. Ignatius’ Higher Grade School and Preston Catholic College before attending Ushaw College Durham, this as a lay student not seminarian. Most attending that college were financed by diocesan funds; it is not clear whether young John was financed that way or by his father. In any case the hope was that during study the student would discern a vocation for the priesthood. As we will see, this was not an automatic process. His other love, steam locomotives, provided a powerful adversary to the priesthood, thereby delaying his eventual decision to become a Jesuit.
Lancashire’s Catholic chaplains on the Western Front
Preston priests go to war: Fr Bernard Page and Fr Tom Baines
Great War conscription and Preston’s ‘class ceiling’
Friargate’s Catholic ‘chapels’ 1605-1990
When Preston’s Catholics had to lie under ye Bushel
Christopher Tootell – a 17th-century Preston priest
When 19, John Myerscough followed his passion for trains and became an apprentice at Horwich with the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway Company at the princely sum of £50 p.a. However, despite this genuine enthusiasm he gradually started thinking of the priesthood.
His growing vocation is captured by the Society of Jesus in their comprehensive obituary of John. In his noviceship ‘little flower’, he wrote:
… my two years with the L & Y were the happiest days of my life. In Whitsuntide 1904, whilst travelling about in quest of different types of locomotives, to see where they differed from the Horwich product, I received an inspiration, I could almost remember the exact hour, to become a Jesuit.
After discussion with Edward his elder brother he entered Manressa (Dublin) on 7 September 1904. His Jesuit journey after noviceship and two years as junior took him to Gemert, Holland, for a year of philosophy, completing the course at St. Mary’s Hall Stonyhurst. He taught at Stonyhurst between 1911 and 1915 before attending St. Bueno’s, North Wales, for theology instruction. He was ordained on 25 April 25 1918 and immediately volunteered as military chaplain to the forces (C.F.).
Many chaplains, for a variety of mostly administrative reasons, left little testimony of their war years. However, we are indebted to the Principal Chaplain on the Western Front 1916-1920, Fr. Bernard Rawlinson O.S.B., for preserving at least some of the inter-chaplain correspondence and for the Abbey at Downside for maintaining the files. From these we can extract some of Fr. John’s somewhat up and down existence.
First we should examine his arrival. In accordance with desperate pleas for more chaplains some 12 Jesuits from the English province were rushed out. As they disembarked, they were met in late May 1918 by Fr. Francis Woodcock S.J. Senior Catholic Chaplain (S.C.F.) who offered a résumé as to their merits from either past experience or subjective first impressions. The idea was honourable, to provide feedback for Rawlinson so that he might deploy his chaplains effectively and quickly.
Alas, Fr. Woodlock from the English Province, who was himself born in Ireland, exhibited much of the smugness of the age, its snobbishness, racism and unkindness which dominated his assessments. He was a man who characterised ‘muscular Christianity’. Hence, those chaplains with a background encompassing the Officer Training Corps, encouraged at Stonyhurst, were welcomed, for example ‘Fr. Tempest, an O.T.C. man who knows Army ways’; but generally his comments were negative, ‘Gallagher, a wild Irishman. I hope he will swallow his politics for the duration’. But his dismissive attitude to Fr. Myerscough was particularly unkind:
A little, insignificant man to look at. Very ‘Lancashire’ (Preston being the hub of the universe!). Would do well with Lancashire troops, (related to half of Preston! Son of Alderman Myerscough, rector of St. Joseph’s Preston).
Hopefully Fr Myerscough was unaware of these criticisms which he had endured throughout his life as his obituary informs, ‘Although a great talker … he abhorred tittle-tattle’. He was aware of his lack of height which added to his depression in later years but as a younger man he overcame this by outdoing his peers, ‘the smallest of his year, he would outwalk the lot, leading up Pendle Hill, talking and joking all the time’. Today we might consider this a defence mechanism, if it was we will see that he would deploy this technique throughout his life.
But what of his time at The Front? When asked to contribute to the post-war recollections by Fr. Rawlinson he submitted a small number of articles, but as he said, ‘I have offered some of the less ghastly businesses in which I have been involved … and only those bearing priestly duties in which I have been involved’. Despite his coyness we can mention one distinctly vivid occasion. It is a very important tale because it illustrates the main difference between Catholic chaplains in the field and their colleagues from other denominations – namely the universality of the Catholic Church. This meant soldiers and civilians from any country were offered chaplaincy services.
In this example he described a bizarre and confusing situation in battle, where the Allied and German armies had blundered into each other. In the confusion Fr. Myerscough stumbled into a group of German infantrymen. Identified as a Catholic priest, he was not captured or put under arrest, instead he was simply ushered towards one of their dying comrades:
I was led to a group of Germans, who opened for me – I passed into their midst. Here I saw a German soldier lying on the ground mortally wounded. There I received a devout Confession, gave Extreme Unction and administered viaticum with the Last Blessing.
He was escorted back to British lines by a grateful adversary. This commitment to serve a dying man, regardless of nationality and at great personal danger, indicated how this man rose to the occasion despite his rather difficult earlier life: ‘It was not generally known that from his youth, Fr John was unduly conscious of his small stature, so that he always felt on the defensive’. It might be added that his German language competence was gained at Ushaw, part of the missionary requirement of would-be priests.
This was hardly the work of an ‘insignificant little man’. His Senior Chaplain Fr. Jones commented, ‘Fr. Myerscough will overdo it, in spite of what I say to him. Any other man would breakdown with the work he undertakes’. Rawlinson also confirmed his value to Catholic chaplaincy in his testimonial, December 2, 1919: Character – Excellent: Health – Good: Suitability for post as Chaplain (post-war) – suitable: Other remarks – 18 months service, very satisfactory.
He was demobbed in December 1919. This raises a few eyebrows as it appears that Fr. Myerscough lived something of a Jekyll and Hyde life. We have seen how he had a constant battle to overcome nature, this he achieved by outdoing his peers and taking on a jocular demeanour. We will see how this burden would affect him at war, as it would in later life. Fr. Jones S.C.F. had written to Rawlinson on November 28 1918:
I wonder if you could possibly manage to obtain Fr. Myerscough a release from the Army, now that the ‘war is over’. Poor little chap, he now informs me that he has had far from kind treatment, and is dying to return to England to be an ordinary priest again. Up till today he has carefully concealed everything from me, but now that there is not the urgent necessity for priests he has asked me if I could possibly arrange his release. I need hardly tell you he has done his duty splendidly and sacrificed himself to an extraordinary degree to ensure the sacraments for the men at the guns: on many occasions he has escaped being killed. I believe the trouble is that he has not been sufficiently an officer and too much of a priest and the beggars have been slighted! I hope you understand.
Alas, Fr. John was not demobbed until December 1919, probably because despite the ‘war being over’ the Army certainly didn’t assume so. Even after the war was actually over on June 28, the Treaty of Versailles posed its own requirements of policing the newly constructed boundaries, potential political uprisings including interfering in the Russian Civil War. As his testimonial suggests he must have been held in high regard by the authorities.
However, the officer versus priest debate needs some explanation. The Catholic Church by its very nature consists of priests from across all sections of society and in peacetime attempts to place them to meet the requirements placed on it. Some will, therefore, be more comfortable with working class parishes, some in wealthier situations, and others in a wide range of occupations from administrators, educationalists to diplomats and many more.
Normally the officer class might expect a clergyman equipped with the niceties of their class; but equally the vast majority of troops would have preferred a priest with the common touch. The difference between war and home is that at war such careful and appropriate allocation of chaplains was almost impossible, even if it was indeed desirable. Fr. Myerscough was in a situation many of his colleagues would encounter and the question of whether a priest first or an officer was a constant preoccupation for senior chaplains at The Front. Of course the expectation from Catholicism was to first be a priest, but the Army was not a Catholic establishment and saw things through their own eyes.
Fr Myerscough was, in conclusion, a man of many facets. Part dedication and courage, part a victim of others deprecation. This continued throughout his post war ministry. Teaching was his major role, first at St. Bueno’s then at St. Xavier’s Liverpool between 1926 and 1935 before working at retreat houses and various jobs including accounting and supply work. It is not known how the war affected him but it is clear that at times he became depressed and irritable. His obituary contributed to by various Jesuits and written by Fr. W’Andria sums up the two sides of his character and perhaps gives us an insight of the long-term damage that early mocking can inflict:
He did much good work for the Society. A man of sterling character, he had great zeal for souls and great charity for those in need, qualities which were hidden behind a comic outlook. He was subject to depression but would often joke to avoid affecting others by his own mood. As a raconteur he was unrivalled: he not only told his own stories but acted them so that repetition never failed to amuse. As a teacher he was a clear exponent, sure of his matter because of careful preparation. Unfortunately, he gained a reputation for undue severity, terrorising small boys who, now in middle age, have unhappy memories of him. It was not generally known that from his youth Fr. John was unduly conscious of his small stature so that he always felt on the defensive. To this were due, especially when he suspected he was being imposed on, his unpredictable outbursts of anger, aggravated in old age and his heart condition.
Contrast this with observations from the same sources:
As a confessor he showed a power of sympathy and understanding of souls which always gained him a following … he had a great loyalty to friends and to former superiors. A trained musician, he frequently played the piano until latterly he was too exhausted.
Later in life he devoted some of his time to writing accounts of Catholic martyrs, beginning with The martyrs of Durham and the North-East, followed by A procession of Lancashire martyrs and confessors, and, completed only a week before his death in 1958, Martyrs of the Lake District. There are several copies of his book on the Lancashire martyrs in branches of the county library. The Lake District book does not seem to have been published.
Fr. John Myerscough’s life was punctuated by depression and ill health: but also a sense of comedy, a total devotion to his Faith and an enduring loyalty to Lancashire. His recital and repetitions of ‘good old Lancashire stories – real or invented’ entertained members of the Society and pilgrims alike. Perhaps in the end, this complex man would smile, in fact derive great comfort from Fr. Woodlock’s spiteful remarks: ‘Very ‘Lancashire’ (Preston being the hub of the universe!). Would do well with Lancashire troops’.
When this dedicated, albeit flawed man, chose to become a Jesuit priest, he probably denied the Lancashire and Yorkshire railway the services of a very fine engineer!