Ex-pupil and Croome Volunteer - Peter Chlebko
Peter Chlebko is a volunteer at Croome in Worcestershire and an ex-pupil from when Croome was home to the St Joseph’s School for Boys.
When did you begin your time at St Joseph’s?
I started at St Joseph's in late summer of 1964.
What are your memories of your time at the school?
I have lots of memories of my time at the school. Two key memories are being told off all the time, punished for no reason at all and being hit on my knuckles with a ruler. I can’t remember what I had done to deserve it. I also remember having to do chores during the week and not being able to go outside to play after school.
Where did you go after St Joseph's?
After leaving St Joseph's all boys at the age of 13 moved up to Besford Court School, this was our senior school. I was at Besford Court for next two years until I was 15, and then I was allowed to leave and go home to my parents. My time spent at Besford was a happy time, although I missed my parent’s and brothers.
In the last four months of my schooling I was sent on work experience, where I could earn a wage working at the newly opened motorway services on the M5. This was a good experience as it taught me how to fend for myself after spending my childhood in care. On returning home to my parents, life was still tough growing up on a council estate. I think because of my experience of working at Besford I had a step up the ladder. I wanted to work and earn money for myself.
I worked for the next 18 months on various jobs, including working in a wood machine yard using a circular saw, with a man who had previously lost his fingers on it – so I didn’t last long! I then worked on a building site as a labourer, where I encountered a tradesperson. He told me that I should get myself a trade to get somewhere in life. I asked the people in the office how I should go about applying for an apprenticeship and was told to write to head office. Within weeks I was accepted as an apprentice and four years after that I was a fully-fledged bricklayer.
From then on, I worked on various building sites up until 1980 when I became self-employed. I’ve had a successful career since.
Things in life haven’t been easy; I think that’s because I was in care so had more things to overcome than most.
I met my future wife who had two children who I accepted as my own. We married and have been together ever since. Both my stepchildren have left home and we have grandchildren - I’m extremely proud of all of them and what they have achieved.
I have had a good life, especially since meeting my wife. Her children and my grandchildren have become the loves of my life.
What was it like returning to the site of St Joseph’s school as an adult?
When I came back to Croome in 2011, it was for our first reunion. I remember looking down from the church at the top of the hill towards the house; the view of the Malvern Hills took my breath away. I hadn’t taken any notice of the view when I was a child.
As I approached the house I stopped at the top of the outdoor steps. I was shaking and looked at my hands, it was so strange I couldn’t control them. As soon as I walked through the entrance I stopped shaking. I now know it was not the house that was the problem; it was the memory of the nuns that ran the building when I lived in it. As with all the rooms in the Court I have no problem with walking around and seeing where everything went on.
Have you kept in touch with other ex-pupils?
I have kept in touch with a lot of ex-pupils, especially the ones that join me in providing tours for visitors. Now and again I will get a phone call from one of the boys just for a chat, it’s important that we have someone to speak to. When we have our reunions in July I try to talk to as many boys (men now) as I can on the day. If they want a longer chat, I will call them, or they call me after the reunion. I must say this; we really appreciate what the National Trust does for us, in putting on the reunions.
What does volunteering for the National Trust mean to you?
Over the years of coming back to Croome for the reunions, going to meetings to develop projects, I thought it might be a good idea to see if I could give something back for all the things that the National Trust was doing for us ex-pupils. Back in late 2016 I asked if we could lead tours, take visitors around the Court to explain what life was like when it was a boarding school run by the Catholic Diocese. I was overjoyed at the prospect of being able to tell my story of my time at Croome.
For the last two years I have been telling my story about my time at St Joseph’s School, explaining why I was sent there and my experiences. I’ve met people from all walks of life. It’s helped me to tell my story, but sometimes it can be hard when people tell me their stories about similar experiences of life in the care system. Sometimes people ask if it’s helped me get over my experience in the care system –having the opportunity to talk about my life at Croome, I reply "yes". In the beginning it helped me to talk; now I recognise that need in others, so I try to listen and help.
What was your involvement in the What Is Home project?
All of the ex-pupils who National Trust had details of were invited to be part of the project.
We were invited to loan an object to the project that meant home to us. We took part in a workshop with the artist Kashif Nadim Chaudry. It took me some time to decide what my object was, I spent a long time discussing it with my wife, and this helped me decide. My item is a book written by Enid Blyton from the Famous Five series. I loved to read these books when I was little, my mum used to send them to me when I was in care before I came to Croome. But when I got to St Joseph's I wasn’t allowed to read books like this, and I missed my books.
What are your hopes for the What Is Home exhibition?
My hopes for the exhibition are that it helps people from all walks of life understand about the reality of what it’s like to be a vulnerable child, and the history of the Court as a place where people like me and my friends lived, it’s not just the aristocracy that have lived in houses like this, and it’s important that our stories are told too – you have to tell the full history. The effects of cruelty on children can be very traumatic and long lasting; I know it took me a long time to get over certain things that happened in my life. Life is precious for all children. Through telling our stories I hope that we can in some way help others.
As I mentioned earlier, I would just like to say thank you to the National Trust at Croome for helping the ex-pupils share their story and the staff for looking after all of us at the reunions, you do a great job. Thank you again.
Hear more about Peter's story by watching this video.