1 - The History of the Society of the Good Shepherd

From a document found at Douai Abbey

The following is an extract from the History of the Society of the Good Shepherd found in their records deposited at Douai Abbey in Berkshire. We recently visited the Abbey knowing the records were there but not knowing what we were going to find. 

Markhouse Road, Walthamstow

The Society of the Good Shepherd was founded in 1909 by Sister Janet Mary (Catherine Jane Lisabel Cheeper) a former member of the Society of S. Margaret, East Grinstead, or rather of S. Saviour’s Priory, Haggerston, a daughter house of that Society. She was there professed under Life Vows on the Feast of S. Stanislas Kostka in 1890. In 1896 she was placed in charge of the Mission at S. Saviour’s Walthamstow, working there under the Vicar, the Rev. H.T. Maitland. Sister Agnes, of the same Society, professed on the Feast of the Annunciation 1896, was later sent as her assistant, and remained with her from that time.   In 1900 the Parish changed hands, and as the new Vicar did not wish to retain the Sisters work, they were transferred to the Parish of S. Anne’s South Lambeth.

Difficulties between the Mission House and S. Saviour Priory soon arose, chiefly on points of Constitutional rule but the work was persevered in, until in 1908 matters came to a crisis, and after long and painful deliberation, the two Sisters asked to be released by their Chapter from their obligations to the Society of S. Margaret, this being the form of procedure laid down by the Constitutions in dealing with similar cases.   They had already consulted their Warden, the Rev. R.A.J.Suckling, but he, although most sympathetic, declared himself unable to interfere unless requested to do so by the Chapter. They then approached the Bishop of London, Dr. Wilmington Ingram, but before his letter, appointing a date for an interview, arrived they received notice from the Chapter at S.Saviour’s Priory that their release had been formally granted them.

The Bishop saw them at London House on Tuesday December 15th 1908, and having assured himself that they had no wish to seek release from their Religious Vows, he received their formal renewal of them in his Private Chapel. Questioning them as to their future movements, he fully approved of their intention of accepting the offer made them (on Father Maitland’s recommendation) by the new Vicar of S.Saviour’s Walthamstow, of resuming work in their former Parish. They had already secured the house they had formerly occupied there, and to this plan the Bishop of S.Alban’s had given his consent. About six months later the Bishop wrote desiring the Sisters to form themselves into a Community, and to submit to him a draft of their proposed Rule. At the same time the large house and grounds (212 Markhouse Road) adjoining the Church, was given to the Parish by its benefactor, Mr. Richard Foster, to the a centre of religious and social work. The Sisters with a few helpers whom they had gathered round them, moved there, and on November 27th 1909 Sister Janet Mary was installed as Superior of the Society of the Good Shepherd by the Chaplain, Father Johnson. Two of their helpers, Margaret Hope Christie-Thomson, a certificated Queen’s Nurse, and Elizabeth Evans, were clothed as Novices the same day, and on the following day, November 28th, the Convent was blessed by the Bishop of Barking.

The household then consisted of the Rev. Mother, Sister Agnes, Novices Margaret and Bessie, Patricia Christie-Thomson, Novice Margaret’s sister and a life-long friend of the Community until her death in August 1924, and a domestic helper.

Novice Margaret and novice Bessie were professed under Life Vows on the Feast of S.Lucy 1911. On the Feast of the Epiphany 1912 three more Novices were clothed, Novice Clare, (Anne Stapley) Novice Ruth (Ruth Davis) and Novice Theola (Minnie Whiting). The last named withdrew from the Community after a few months.

The Great War (1914 – 1918) was a time of much anxiety to the small band of women in Markhouse Road.   The Convent was a very old house with extensive cellars, and these were opened as free shelters for women and children during the air-raids. Neighbours from smaller houses readily availed themselves of them, and on every alarm they were packed to the utmost limit, mattresses and blankets were laid down for the children who for the most part slept peacefully, while their elders sipped cocoa, or sang Mission hymns to drown the sound of the guns outside. Although terrible and fatal havoc was wrought in the Lea Bridge Road, the Convent and its refugees came unscathed through the ordeal.

In 1917 Father Johnson, the Chaplain, resigned, and the spiritual care of the Community was taken over by the Society of the Divine Compassion, Father George being the first and greatly beloved Warden. On his death in April 1922 his work was carried on by Father Barnabas until, on his withdrawal in January 1936, the Abbot of Nashdom was elected Warden by the Chapter, and kindly consented to accept the Office.

In the intervening years the Society had made many advances Sister Catherine was elected Novice in October 1914, and professed under Life Tows in September 1917. Sister Louise, a trained nurse, was clothed in January 1920 and professed in March 1922. Sister Mary, clothed with Sister Louise in 1920, was professed in April 1923.

Chapter II

So far nothing has been said, of the financial state of the Convent. Only two of the Sisters possessed any regular income, and the two amounts together did not reach £200 a year. The taxes, repairs &c of the Convent were paid by the Vicar from an annual sum granted to him on behalf of Sister Margaret who had undertaken the sick nursing of the Parish. ( At that time, as there was no pro­vision for that work in all Walthamstow, her services were in much demand in many eases outside the Parish, and were as far as possible gladly given, with the consent of the Mother and the Vicar) The Vicar also allowed the Sisters to hold a Sale in the Parish Hall every Christmas, material for which was provided entirely by their own private friends, and no appeal was made to the Parish. A sum of about £100 was generally realised by the two days Sale. The income was further supplemented by appeals to friends for regular subscriptions. These were met with a ready response, and Sister Margaret began the “begging” which was a powerful aid in the development of the Society.

In 1921 the death occurred of May Clayton, a friend of the Convent whose Father had been nursed by the Sisters through a long and terrible illness, and who herself had only been prevented from trying her vocation by extremely delicate health. By her Will a sum of about £4000 was left to the Society, and on the advice of her Lawyer. Counsel’s opinion was sought as to the advisability of drawing up a Trust to safeguard this sum, the first property possessed by the Society. This was duly carried out, the Mother and Sister Agnes being appointed Co-Trustees. The money was invested in War Bonds, and on the realisation of these in 1932, was laid out in the purchase of house property in Westcliff. Two houses were bought, one for permanent tenants and a smaller one as a rest house for the Sisters, which could also be used for tenants for the greater part of the year. Under the Mother’s management it became possible to make further purchases, and finally three other houses were bought and their profits became a valuable source of income.

The Convent Building

It is now necessary to go back some years in this history. In 1910 an offer of land, on Canvey Island, Benfleet, Essex, was made to the Community, and the Mother who much wished for a Rest Home for the Sisters within easy reach of Walthamstow, gladly accepted the offer. Through the Kindness of Miss Gray of Oxshott, and later of Mr. Edgar Taylor (Messrs Taylor & Sons, Queen Street, London) the first part of the present convent was built, and was Blessed on S.Peter’s Day 1911 by the Bishop of Barking.

From henceforward this place became a refuge, not only for tired Sisters, who spent the month of July there every year, but for numberless women and girls who found renewed health and energy in the wonderful air of the Island, and the quiet of the Convent surroundings. The first gift of land, 12 plots, was afterwards added to by purchase, and by generous gifts from Mr. Arthur Clark, the chief landowner on the Island (to whom the Sisters owe much gratitude for his unvarying kindness) until the property attained the not inconsiderable size of 9-10 acres.

By the year 1922 the work of the Society had increased to such an extent that it was beyond the power of the Sisters to cope with it, and also to keep up the standard of the Religious Life of the House; furthermore it became increasingly difficult to train Novices and Postulants in such a busy atmosphere. The Mother therefore decided that the Society should make their permanent home on Canvey Island, and give up the Convent at Walthamstow as soon as the Vicar could find another Community to take over the work. This was done in 1924 when the Sisters were replaced by the Sisters of S.Elizabeth of Hungary.

Considerable alterations and additions were needed at Canvey before it could be regarded as a permanent home; a drainage system provided, main water laid on, and electric light installed by means of a Patter Engine, there being at that time no electricity on the Island. Finally, by the kind help of the well-known Church Architect, Sir Charles Nicholson, a beautiful Chapel was built adjoining the Convent, and was blessed by Bishop Warman on December the 15th 1924.

Inside the Chapel

In May 1925 the first resident Chaplain, Father Cotton, took up his residence at Canvey in the small house known as the Chaplain’s Lodge, and the Sisters soon learned to look upon him as a valued friend. He not only refused to accept any stipend, but being himself a great gardener, the grounds at Canvey were much improved, not only by his generous gifts, but also by his personal and untiring work. He remained at the Convent until 1930 when he retired, deeming himself too old for such a charge, but he eventually returned in 1932 and remained with the Community until April 1934. Feeling that his health was breaking down he went to the Hostel of S. Luke for treatment, and there passed away suddenly after a very few weeks.

In 1927 Sister Margery (Marjorie Mary Pitts) was professed, and in November 1930 Sister Gertrude (Elsie Senier) made her Profession in life Vows. In 1931 Sister Gabrielle, formerly of Burnham Abbey, a Sister in temporary Vows, received the habit of the Society, and after a years probation, was professed in life Vows.

In August 1930 Sister Theodora, from Belper, was, at the earnest request of the Belper Mother, allowed to transfer to the Society of the Good Shepherd, and received the habit after a short probation. Sister Monica Agnes, from the same Community, followed in June 1931. Sister Theodora was mentally unstable, and proved a constant source of trouble to the Community. Shortly before the death of the Mother Foundress it was decided, on the advice of the Abbot of Nashdom, to inform Father Murray, her brother and trustee, that her conduct made it impossible for her to remain in a Religious House, and that he must therefore remove her. This was carried into effect shortly after the Mother’s death. The correspondence relating to it has been filed In the Community records.

In 1929, chiefly through the generosity of the late Sir Leicester Harmsworth, a long desired wish of the Mother’s was fulfilled by the dedication of the Hostel, a large house in the Convent grounds destined for the reception of aged and infirm gentlewomen. This was Blessed by Bishop Wilson on October 29th, and has proved a great blessing to many needy and pathetic cases.

On All Soul’s Day 1932, a Cemetery, designed for members of the Society and patients whom they had nursed, was Consecrated by the Bishop of Chelmsford, Dr. Wilson, and in March of the following year Sister Margaret was laid to rest there, after a long and most painful illness. Her death was the first gap in the Society, but two others followed in the next few years, Sister Emily on May 11, 1934, and Sister Scholastica on June 22, 1936. After Sister Margaret’s death Sister Ruth continued with the begging; she and Sister Margaret having done it together since 1913.

In May 1933 the triennial election of the Rev. Mother fell due, and at a Special Chapter it was decided that no further election should be held, but as Mother Foundress Sister Janet Mary should retain her Office for her life-time

After the Great War (1914-1918) the character of the Society’s work on Canvey was entirely changed.   The rapid increase of population and crowds of summer visitors made it impossible for the Sisters to be responsible for the young girls who had formerly spent so much time with them. They therefore determined to restrict their visitors to those who came only for health or devotional purposes. Retreats were arranged from time to time until the increasing number of the Community made it impossible to accommodate any but permanent guests.

In 1937 it became evident to all that Mother Foundress” health was rapidly failing.   She succumbed, and after much suffering borne with unwavering patience and courage, she passed away on April 7th 1938.

A Night watch was kept in Chapel, and on the morning of the 9th a Requiem was sung by the Abbot of Nashdom, and she was laid to rest at the foot of the Cross in the Convent Cemetery.

R.I.P .

In the afternoon of the day of the funeral of the Mother Foundress, a Conference of the Sisters was held in the Common Room, presided over by the Abbot of Nashdom.

After some discussion as to the appointment of a new Superior, it was put to the vote, and unanimously carried, that the choice should be left to the Abbot. The Sisters then asked that three conditions should be adhered to in the event of a suitable Superior being selected;-

1.That the Community should not be merged with another, but should preserve its own identity.

2.That the Dedication should be retained.

3.That no change should be made in the habit.

To these conditions the Abbot gave his hearty assent, saying he did not think that God had brought them on thus far to let them lose their dedication as an individual body in the Church; that the dedication was admirably suited to the work of the Community, and the grey habit fulfilled all the requirements of S. Benedict’s Rule. With this Rule they would in future be more closely associated, as it was hoped soon to carry out the long planned revision of the Rule, a matter earnestly desired by the Mother Foundress, though her failing health had prevented it being carried out.

The removal of the Community to a less isolated place was then brought forward. Sister Agnes stated that the Mother Foundress had realised the necessity for it and had frequently discussed it with her, but it had not been possible to take definite steps about it.

The Abbot directed that for the present, Sister Agnes should hold the post of Acting-Superior, and should take charge of all business connected with the Mother’s Will and the future home to be chosen. The Conference was dismissed with the Blessing from Father Abbot.

Mr. John Richards of 3, South Square, Gray’s Inn, who had before transacted business for the Rev. Mother, was communicated with, and all necessary formalities were in time carried through. The Bank balance of £2,000 odd was transferred to the new account, and it was determined, in view of the proposed move, to sell all the Westcliff property and to try and find a purchaser for Canvey. Sister Ruth’s nephew, Mr.AJ. Davis of the Firm of Mellersh & Harding. 4 Bennett Street, St. James’, kindly took the business in hand, and transacted it so successfully that in a very short time all the houses were disposed of and a sum of over £7,000 realised.

Meanwhile Sister Clare had been appointed to the vacant Trusteeship, and, with the Abbot’s permission, Sister Agnes invited the Sisters who had been in Life Vows for over 10 years, to form themselves into an Advisory council to aid and advise her in the difficult work of the near future.

It now became necessary to put the finance of the Community on a sounder basis, and by the advice of the Abbot, it was decided to form a Company Limited by Guarantee but not having a Share Capital. This would avoid the need for Trustees, Death Duties, and also any difficulties arising from the illness or death of the Superior. The Solicitors of the Society were therefore instructed to draw up Articles of Association.

This was done and passed by the Advisory Council, and the Seal of the Company duly affixed. The Company was Registered under the title of “The Society of the Good Shepherd Limited” on the 29th of August 1928.   A plate bearing the title of the Company was placed on the door of one of the rooms in the Convent which served as the Registered Office.

The Company was composed of:-

The Rev. Mother Superior, Chairman

Sister Agnes
Sister Clare
Sister Ruth
Sister Margery Mary 

Ordinary Members
Sister Catherine Mary
Sister Louise
Sister Mary                 

Sister Margery Mary was also appointed Secretary and Bursar.

The Abbot announced in a comparatively short time, that he had approached the Rev. Mother of the Society of S.Peter, Laleham Abbey, and that she had most generously promised to spare one of her Sisters to take over the rule of the orphaned Community at Canvey. He arranged to come down with the Mother and spend a night at Canvey to discuss details, and to allow the Mother to judge for herself the needs and demands of the work.

Three places were inspected, and each in its turn Judged suitable for the new home – Notley Abbey, Taplow Priory and Dorton -, but negotiations set on foot proved abortive in each ease, and finally a suitable home was found at Yeldall, Twyford, Berkshire. It was purchased from the owner, Lady Schuster, for £6,700, a not excessive sum for the beautiful house and exquisite grounds, extending to 47 acres. It was necessary to add at once a new wing with 20 extra rooms, and this, although set in hand immediately, was not completed until June 1939, many difficulties having arisen through the extreme severity of the winter 1938-9.

On December 5th 1938 Sister Agnes and Sister Clare met the new Mother, Sister Grace, at Yeldall, and she returned with them to Canvey, where she was welcomed affectionately by all the Sisters. By the Abbot’s advice, a Chapter was held the night before her arrival, electing her Mother for a period of six months, so she was able at once to fill the place which had been vacant since April 7th. On December 16th she took the habit of the Society and was installed by the Abbot of Nashdom, and received the Badge of Superior of the Community. The Rev. Mother of Laleham Abbey was present at the Ceremony.

On February 2nd 1939, the Rev. B.Davies came into residence as Chaplain to the Community. He moved with them to Yeldall, where he remained until he was appointed Chaplain to the Forces, a post he finally took up on February 29th 1940.

On April 17th 1939 the Rev. Mother and five Sisters went to Yeldall to get the house in order and on June 5th the rest of the Community arrived, with their guests and the Chaplain, the Rev. B. Davies.

The house was decorated with the Union Jack, streamers of flags and a large “WELCOME HOME”, and Mr. West, the Workmen and Staff formed a Guard of Honour, and Mother and the Sisters were at the front door…………………………………………………….

Our part of the history ends here as the Convent moves to Yeldall and continued there until the 1970s. 

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