Ian McCormack looks at issues of class and gender in the revival of the Religious Life in the Church of England


A story is told at Mirfield about one possible explanation for the dramatic decline of the Religious Life in the second half of the twentieth century. Reverend Mother at Ascot Priory once – probably in the 1970s – explained to Fr Dominic Whitnall CR that the problem the Community was facing was that ‘we’re simply not getting ladies joining us anymore’. So there we have it – the collapse of the religious life explained purely on the basis of class, and specifically the lack of ladies joining convents. In this article I want to look not at the decline of the religious life, but at its beginnings, and see what role gender expectations, and class expectations and realities had to play within them.

The first religious community in the post-Reformation Church of England was founded in Park Village, West London, in 1845, by a committee of priests and laymen. In part because there was no dominant female leader within the community, merely a committee of well-meaning men with a variety of sometimes opposing aims for the new sisterhood outside of it, the Community always remained small and unstable. But critically, it was a start. In 1848, Priscilla Lydia Sellon, inspired by Dr Pusey, founded a community in Devonport, Plymouth. This became known as the Society of the Most Holy Trinity, which subsumed the Park Village sisterhood and eventually moved to Ascot Priory in Berkshire. Other communities quickly followed, usually started by a double-act of Tractarian clergyman and inspirational female foundress. Although not all of the communities flourished, many were purely parish-based and began on unrealistic foundations, the movement as a whole did. Michael Hill estimated that there were at least 660 professed sisters in the Province of Canterbury alone by 1878, and by 1912 at least 1,300 in the whole of the Church of England.1 A. M. Allchin claimed a far higher number: between two and three thousand in 1900.2

This is not the place to retell the story of the revival of the religious life in its entirety: Peter Anson’s The Call of the Cloister and A. M. Allchin’s The Silent Rebellion are still the sources to turn to for that, along with Susan Mumm’s more recent Stolen Daughters, Virgin Mothers. But for all sorts of reasons the new sisterhoods met with a huge amount of opposition, both within the church and outside it. And the propaganda produced by those hostile to these communities is a good place for us to start.

Scandalous allegations were made against the first convents: accusations of kidnap, sexual impropriety, torture even; but also significant was the suggestion, powerful in Victorian England, that by joining a sisterhood a woman transferred to the Mother Superior and/or the Father Founder the obedience that should naturally be due to her parents or her husband. Here we start touching not just on ludicrous and libellous accusations, but on the very real perception that sisterhoods struck at the heart of respectable family life, and thus of English civilization.

The expectation of polite society was not just that well-to-do women would pass from obedient daughter to obedient wife: it was also that once safely married they would cultivate the art of elegantly doing nothing, since this in itself would be a sign of social status and financial security (for the family as a whole, not the woman on her own). Michael Hill, who is that rarest of creatures, a sociologist who can write history, has written of the ‘cult of uselessness, which for middle class women was a basic part of the demand for conspicuous consumption… Since a wife had to spend money so as to produce the greatest possible impression of wealth as a mark of status, a great deal of time and energy was spent on refining manners and cultivating “ornamental” tastes’.3 In other words, one of the key methods by which a woman became a lady was by being wealthy enough to do nothing all day.

Alongside this trend was the simple demographic fact that at this time in England there was what the sociologists call a ‘female surplus’. Put simply, there were half a million more women than men in England, the proportion being 104 women to 100 men. This meant that for many women the fear of becoming an ‘old maid’ – of moving from obedient daughter to obedient sister or ‘useful’ maiden aunt – was a real one. But these expectations and fears were, by and large, a middle- and upper-class concern, because the working classes had more practical and immediate things to be worrying about.

This is the sociological and demographic background into which the sisterhoods were parachuted, and so among the fears that they provoked was the idea that they would become clubs – but potentially dangerous ones – for women with more money and time than sense. And so it was in this climate that the satirical magazine Punch published a ‘report’ in October 1850 of an imaginary new sisterhood called the ‘Convent of the Belgravians’. Now Punch lampooned all sorts of individuals and institutions, but they knew that in attacking the new sisterhoods they were digging into a deep seam of popular discontent. The cartoon which accompanies the text shows two young ladies who have simply added wimples to their usual fine attire, and sit before a mirror vainly admiring the results. The text reads as follows:

‘Everybody who has a proper veneration for the reredos, and who, without holding extreme opinions on the subject of the dalmatic, feels correctly on that of the alb … will be “ryghte gladde” to hear that it is proposed to found a Convent, on Anglican principles, under the above title. The vulgar, who think that a minority is necessarily a sect, will, of course, call it a Puseyite nunnery: that cannot be helped.

The Convent will be under the superintendence of a Lady abbess, who will be a real Countess, at the least. One principal object of the institution is to recall the good old times when the gentle blanche or the high-born brunhilda, taking the vows and the veil, connected the hallowed cell with the heraldic griffin, the coronet with the cloister.

The Nuns will all make an engagement of celibacy; but, to preclude them from contracting any rash obligation, only for so long as they may remain in the Convent, which they shall be at liberty to quit whenever they please, at a month’s notice – or the equivalent alternative. Each Nun will be required to contribute to the necessities of the Convent at least £10 a week, that sum being the minimum at which it will be possible to defray the expenses of the establishment, and keep it select. She will be, also, expected to bring two silver forks, and all the usual requisites of the toilet.’

It has to be said that in comparison with some of the salacious stories being spread about convents at this time, the Punch article is relatively tame, suggesting as it does that the convents are, more than anything else, the foolish playthings of middle- and upper-class young ladies – we can see that in the fact that the abbess will be a countess, at the least, and in the references to silver forks and the payment of £10 per week.

The article continues with more of the same:

‘The costume of this sisterhood will consist in a judicious admixture of the conventual style with the fashion of the day. The Nun will not be obliged to sacrifice her hair, but only to wear it plain a la Madonna, and it will be permitted to be partially visible.’

The nuns would ‘appear in society, in order to display the beauty of sanctity’, and their chief occupations would be ‘devoted to practising the charities of life by making morning calls, and occasionally visiting soup-kitchens and model lodging houses in a properly appointed carriage, or if they walk, attended by a footman. Otherwise their leisure will be employed in illuminating books of devotion, practising ecclesiastical tones, and working slippers for the younger clergy.’ There will be no fear of ‘perversions’, which at the time primarily meant conversion to Rome, but was beginning to take on the suggestion of sexual deviance; and indeed, ‘The hard multitude will rather say that the Puseyite sisters are only playing at Roman Catholics, and the vile monster will remark that their Convent is more a Monkey House than a Nunnery’.

    Now that is clearly a parody, and class – in the shape of deluded and fanciful well-to-do ladies playing at being nuns – is one of the tools which the author uses to mock the sisterhoods. What is interesting is that some of the material in favour of the sisterhoods was not so far removed from the parody. Fr Butler of Wantage said in an appeal that ‘it seems necessary that [Houses of Refuge] should be carried on by Ladies, united as a Sisterhood, since these poor persons [the penitents] require constant watchfulness…’ An appeal for another House of Mercy said that the lives of the Sisters would inspire the penitents, since ‘they see these ladies of gentle birth and nurture, whom they know to be in every possible way so superior to themselves, living among them as friends… for the sole purpose of guiding them into the way of peace’. And a speaker at the Church Congress of 1866 spoke of bringing penitents under ‘the rule of Christianity in its very highest form – and surely there is no higher form than that of a highly educated, devout English women…’4

What all of these examples have in common of course is that they were written by men, outsiders to the communities themselves, but defending the sisterhoods to a potentially hostile and critical public. I have found no evidence that the sisters themselves thought in such terms, and indeed there is plentiful evidence to suggest that within the successful communities, at least, any romantic or fanciful notions about the religious life were quickly dispelled by the cold reality of the novitiate and the hard work that was expected of all its members.

What all of this suggests is that, right from the start, it was people outside the communities who were interested in class. In amongst the popular propaganda against the sisterhoods was the suggestion that the new communities were middle- and upper-class indulgences, where well-to-do women with more time than sense, spurred on by effete and morally suspect clergymen, could live out their medieval and gothic fantasies. Conversely, at least some of the (male) discourse in favour of the sisterhoods strongly emphasised the role of ladies within them, because this was felt that such an emphasis would both attract recruits, and defend the communities from accusations of modern slavery, destroying the family unit, and exposing the sisters to the risk of being corrupted by those in their care.

What was the reality? Well, in general terms, the communities may have attracted a minority of people with the kind of outlook satirized by Punch – as religious communities and even parish churches still do today – but there is plenty of evidence to suggest that such fantasies were quickly quashed – not least by the cold reality of hard work that was life in most novitiates.5 One of the things that made some communities successful was precisely the fact that they recognized that middle- and upper-class women would need training in domestic work that had previously been done for them by servants. There isn’t space to go into this in more detail here, so for now it will suffice to say that the communities simply would not have survived for long without this hard-headed realism. So then, what sort of women did join these fledgling communities?

The Society of the Most Holy Trinity (SMHT) – founded in Plymouth in 1848 and later moving to Ascot Priory, as the first Community which survived, will serve as a good example. As we have already seen, SMHT was founded, under Dr Pusey’s guidance, by Priscilla Lydia Sellon, whom her biographer Thomas Jay Williams describes as ‘The restorer after three centuries of the religious life in the English Church’. That she was a formidable and autocratic figure, there can be no doubt. She was the daughter of a naval commander, who (unusually) approved of the work his daughter had started in Plymouth, to the extent that he permitted her to use the money she had inherited from her mother to finance the fledgling sisterhood, and indeed ‘made over to her the share of his own estate which would be hers at his death’.6

Other early members of the Community included Catherine Chambers, the younger sister of another naval officer; Amelia Warren, the daughter of the Revd Dawson Warren, late Vicar of Edmonton and sometime Chaplain to the Duke of York; Elizabeth Turnbull, described as ‘a member of an ancient Scottish family’; Charlotte Richards, a daughter of the Rector of Farlington, Hampshire; and Augusta Wale, a daughter of Sir Charles Wale. These were the types of women that formed the earliest communities: the daughters of wealthy clergy, naval officers, shire knights, and the minor aristocracy.

Alongside the professed sisters and the novices at SMHT at this time were what Sellon’s biographer calls ‘several ladies “in residence” … helping in the various activities of the Society’. They included ‘the Lady Olivia Stratford and her younger Sister, Lady Georgina, daughters of the late Earl of Aldborough, whom Mother Lydia was sheltering during a time of family crisis; Miss Augusta Straine [who went on to join the Clewer community], and Miss Maria Bowring, a daughter of Sir John Bowring, author of the hymn, “In the Cross of Christ I glory”, and Mother Lydia’s half-sister, Patty Caroline Sellon’. This slightly odd list is the closest the reality gets to the Punch parody, but it must be made clear that these ladies were explicitly ‘hangers-on’ and not professed members of the Community, though there was a trend across several communities that the more useful and realistic of their ‘ladies in residence’ went on to become fully professed members.

What of other communities? A very brief survey suggests a similar situation to that at SMHT. The All Saints Sisters of the Poor (ASSP) were founded in 1851 by the ‘immensely rich’ Harriet Brownlow Byron, daughter of a former MP and Deputy Lieutenant of Hertfordshire. Marion Hughes, who in 1841 became the first woman in England to take a vow of celibacy since the Reformation, but was not free to join or form a community until the end of the decade when she founded the Society of the Holy and Undivided Trinity (SHUT), was the daughter and sister of successive Rectors of Shenington in Gloucestershire. The Community of St John the Baptist at Clewer was founded by Harriet Monsell, the daughter of an Irish MP and baronet and the childless widow of a priest. Monsell had family ties with important people such as Archbishop Tait and members of the royal household, and Clewer drew more than its fair share of members from the aristocracy and upper gentry. It is of Queen Victoria’s visit to Clewer in 1864 that the story – possibly apocryphal – is told of Her Majesty’s anger that sisters kept curtseying as they passed, as such formality was inappropriate for what was a strictly private visit. ‘The sisters are curtseying to me ma’am,’ came the reply from the formidable Mother Foundress. Whether or not the story is literally true or not is beside the point – the moral is clear: there was only one queen at Clewer.

We can conclude then, that the early communities were, by and large, founded and led by women of middle-class backgrounds and higher – women of independent means, at the very least. In part this was inevitable: only such women would have had the education and the network of friends and potential supporters necessary to get an institution such as a sisterhood off the ground successfully. There is some evidence that by the turn of the century there was a far greater social mixture among the communities. Walter Frere observed in 1914 that ‘in most of them there is a considerable blending of classes, the well-to-do and the poorer each contributing some Sisters to the community.’7


Fr Ian McCormack is the Vicar of Grimethorpe with Brierley and a member of the Council of Forward in Faith. This is an edited version of the first part of his Clumber Lecture, delivered on 30 May 2015.


1 The Religious Order (1973), p. 280.

2 The Silent Rebellion (1958), p. 120.

3 Hill, Religious Order, p. 272.

4 Hill, Religious Order, p. 283.

5 See Susan Mumm (ed.), All Saints Sisters of the Poor (2001), pp. xxiii-xxiv.

6 Williams, Priscilla Lydia Sellon (1965), pp. 15-16.

7 Quoted by Hill, The Religious Order, p. 285.