Anglican religious communities have been at the heart of the Anglican Church for over 150 years, but in the later 20th and 21st centuries, they have been the quiet prayerful centre of the church, and over the past 40 years, increasingly hidden from view. As the religious communities become hidden, so does the extraordinary history of Victorian women’s communities, the sisterhoods, their phenomenal growth during the 19th century and the extraordinary impact that they had on social care and the development of professions in that field. This short piece is a very brief outline of this incredible movement and its work.
The Angel in the House
The role of women in 19th century England was very clearly defined by what was felt to be women’s physical, emotional and moral attributes. As women were believed to be physically weaker than men and were seen as virtuous and morally superior to men, as well as being innocent and childlike, they were believed to be totally dependent on men (Hughes, 2014).
Through industrialization, working patterns were changing and men were increasingly having to commute to work. With this increasing distance between home and work the spate spheres started to develop and harden, as did the roles of men and women within those spheres, and the development of the ‘angel in the house’ notion which became the ideal of a Victorian woman. The protective environment of the home was seen to be more suitable for women due to their moral superiority, physical weakness and their virtuous nature. It was where they could be protected from, and be a counterbalance to, the moral taints of the outside world (Hughes, 2014). It was believed that the Christian vocation of a woman was being exercised through marriage, as helpmeets for their husbands, and their education reflected this (Gill, 1994). Women were trained in accomplishments such as music, art and needlework. If they were educated they were advised to soften their erudition gracefully, as it was not thought attractive for a women to be educated (Hughes, 2014).
This rigidity of role for a woman fitted well with Anglican thinking at the time: that people were born into their sphere, and such was the order of things. This was reflected also in church activities which were deemed suitable for women, such as running Sunday schools, visiting the sick and comforting the aged (Gill, 1994).
Of course, reality never fits an ideal, and what to do with unmarried women and women who were parentless were a pressing concern for Victorian society, including the Anglican Church. In response to the growing problem of ‘superfluous women’ ways were developed for women to serve the church which were appropriate to their sphere (Mumm, 1999). The first, significant group of Anglican women church-workers were Deaconesses. This ministry was developed by evangelical churchmen, and Deaconesses were to live in a parish and were to be handmaids to the clergy, supporting the parish priest in his parish-visiting, and exercising other ministries that were seen as suitable for women (Gill, 1994).
Anglo-Catholic life could offer a fulfilling one for a woman, with daily services, regular self-examination and an obligation to work with the poor (Shelton-Reed, 1998).
In 1845 the first Anglican community for women was founded. The Sisterhood of the Holy Cross, or Park Village Community, was formed by a committee of prominent men, including Gladstone, in memory of Robert Southey (Mumm, 1999). Southey, the poet laureate, had a vision for a community of women; he envisioned a refuge for unmarried women who could become a resource, where they could be trained as nurses and learn to support the poor (Mumm, 1999).
The idea of religious communities for women was not a new one. For example Mary Astell in 1701 proposed a community of women who attended cathedral offices, attended the Eucharist, undertook charitable works and who would be given a religious education which they could then use to propagate religion in the world (Gill, 1994). In 1737 Archdeacon Sharpe of Northumberland wanted to found a nunnery of well-born women who, although not under vows, would be supervised by a prioress and a diocesan bishop (Gill, 1994).
The role of the sisters of Park Village was to visit the poor and hospital patients, visit prisons, feed, clothe and teach the poor and assist in burying the dead. Within five years of the foundation of Park Village six sisterhoods had been established, and one of the most well-known of the sisterhoods was the Society of the Most Holy Trinity, better known as Ascot Priory (Mumm, 1999).
Ascot Priory was founded by the daughter of a Naval Commander, Priscilla Lydia Sellon. Miss Sellon came under the influence of the Oxford Movement in the 1830’s and had visited Park Village, but was repelled by the extreme aestheticism (Banerjee, 2009).
In 1849 the Bishop of Exeter appealed for workers to help in the appalling slums in the Devon seaports. Miss Sellon formed her community in response to this appeal, recruiting and training sisters. The community grew rapidly, training sisters in nursing, and supplying nurses to Florence Nightingale (Banergee, 2009). The community continued to expand rapidly and built an orphanage-training school for boys, a refuge for girls, a home for elderly sailors, a large industrial school, six lodging houses, a soup kitchen, a convalescent home and a hospital (Mumm, 1999). Despite her work, Sellon suffered malicious attacks from anti-sister propaganda, perpetuated by the press and clergy who felt challenged by the notion of the sisterhoods having no male leadership. This criticism would dog the community and damage them later on (Shelton-Reed, 1988).
In 1856, Ascot Priory absorbed Park Village. Park Village, having been founded by a committee, lacked natural leadership and had started to fail. It was not a model for future sisterhoods who usually had a charismatic, determined and clear-minded woman leading the community. Frequently these women had an aristocratic background. One such example was Harriet Monsell.
Harriet Monsell was the daughter of an Irish MP, Edward O’ Brien, and niece of the Marquis of Thomond, and the widow of Charles Monsell. She founded the Community of St John the Baptist, better known as the Clewer Sisters, which was founded as a refuge for prostitutes (Mumm, 1999). The Clewer Sisters was a more fashionable community, having influence through Monsell with high profile individuals such as Archbishop Tate, even receiving a visit from Queen Victoria in 1864 (Mumm, 1999).
Governance and vocation
Although sisterhoods were supported by clergy, they were self-governing communities, led by the Mother Foundress who tended to hold the position for life, and then later by Mother Superiors who were elected by the sisters in chapter. This independence and refusal to subject themselves to male authority alarmed many, as it directly challenged Victorian ideas of the role of women as subservient and dependent on men. This self-sufficiency and some of the work that sisterhoods were undertaking, was greeted with considerable opposition as it took women away from what was seen as appropriate work for a woman, and life in the sisterhoods was even viewed by some as unnatural (Shelton-Reed, 1988). But, as Shelton-Reed describes it, it was a silent rebellion by women who were seeking a different life from what was believed to be the appropriate life for a woman (Shelton-Reed, 1988).
Sisterhoods attracted intelligent and ambitious women from all backgrounds, such as Harriet Day, a farmer’s daughter who founded St Mary’s Wantage, another well-known community which offered a refuge for prostitutes, which trained teachers, and built and ran schools. Wantage was a non-discriminatory community with no separation of sisters into choir or lay sisters, and progression to more senior positions in the community was open to all sisters (Mumm, 1999).
Unlike Deaconesses, not all women recruited for the sisterhoods were profoundly religious; and the religious call was not always the first focus of attention for some of the sisterhoods. Some women felt that they were called directly by God, that their vocation set them apart from the world (Mumm, 1999). However, some of theclergy found this challenging as it was in direct conflict with what they believed was the primary vocation of a woman: to be a wife and mother (Mumm, 1996).
Some communities focussed on a woman’s willingness to work. Clewer wanted to recruit practical, sensible women who were not afraid to work. Even women with doubt, who met the criteria that the community had set out, were still encouraged to apply, as it was believed that community life would foster and nurture religious faith. (Mumm, 1999)
The work of the sisterhoods was at the heart of the movement. Sisterhoods undertook teacher training, supported the poor, undertook social work, running schools and running orphanages, as well as offering many other types of service (Shelton-Reed, 1988). What was especially notable about the work of the sisters were the changes that they made in the fields that they worked in. Two of the most notable areas of work where the sisters made a significant difference to people’s lives, and helped to foster professionalism, were the refuges for women and the field of nursing.
Penitentiaries (more commonly known as Houses of Mercy) set up by sisters were houses for women who were seen to have fallen. A ‘fallen’ woman was anyone who had had sexual relations outside of marriage, so they were not only prostitutes, but for example women who had lived with men outside of marriage or those who were victims of sexual violence (Mumm, 1996). The penitentiaries were set up to remove women from the situation that they were in, so that they could become respectable again.
Women who admitted themselves to penitentiaries normally undertook a two year process of labour (Mumm, 1996), and then were trained in a profession, usually nursing, teaching or specialist domestic service so that they could support themselves and maintain their respectability (Mumm, 1996). However, none of the women was forced to stay for the full two years. The penitentiaries were not prisons or centres for any kind of penal reform. The women in these institutions were not bound to them and were free to leave at any point during their two year reform process (Mumm, 1996). Unlike the visions conjured up by media such as the film, ‘The Magdalene Sisters,’ the penitentiaries did not use punishment systems to stop women abusing the penitentiary, but reminded them of their obligation to show gratitude for the opportunities offered to them. At the end of the two years the women did not have to leave, and some stayed, sometimes for life. Indeed some even joined the sisterhoods.
The sisterhoods setting up penitentiaries was a turning point for the penitentiary system. Prior to the involvement of the sisterhoods penitentiaries were mainly run by men, and were more focussed on punishment, often encouraging the women to go overseas after their time in the penitentiary. (Mumm, 1999) Married women and women eligible to marry were not viewed as suitable for the work as there was a fear that the work would create ‘feelings of disgust and indignation where there should be admiration and obedience’ (Mumm, 1996). But with the involvement of sisters a new dimension of respectability came with the work. Many of the sisters working with the women were from an aristocratic or a middle-class background and were seen to be a suitable moral influence for the women in the penitentiaries (Mumm, 1996).
By the end of the 19th century the penitentiaries graduated 7000 women a year. After World War 1 the penitentiaries started to transform themselves into homes for unwed mothers, titling themselves as ‘Mother and baby homes,’ distancing themselves from the emphasis on repentance, and they continued to flourish until the 1960’s (Mumm, 1996).
Another area wherein the sisterhoods made a significant impact was nursing. The work of the sisterhoods in the nursing field was a critical part in changing the culture of nursing, taking it from a disreputable occupation to a respectable profession.
In the 1840’s and 1850’s few hospitals were willing to train nurses or even believed that nurse-training was even necessary. (Mumm, 1999) Sisterhoods developed a core of nurses, recruiting trained nurses who trained other sisters in nursing. In 1854 Ascot Priory opened their own training school for military nurses, and in 1857 the Society of St John the Divine took over the training for King’s College Hospital (Community of St John the Divine, 2009), with sisterhoods providing nursing staff to several London teaching hospitals and supporting Florence Nightingale during the Crimean war with a large number of nursing sisters (Mumm, 1999).
Sisters could face considerable challenges from hospital authorities and from doctors. For example some doctors felt belittled by having nurses who were sometimes from an aristocratic background, feeling that this challenged the perceived social superiority of their role (Mumm, 1999).
At a time when nurses were seen very much like the Dickensian character, Sarah Gamp, dissolute, drunk, sloppy and dirty, the sisterhoods showed the direct opposite: reliable, clean, neat and dedicated. If a sister was unable to undertake her nursing shift, there was another sister who could step in and take her place. Their dedication to their work was total and they were fearless in challenging superiors, usually men, when they felt that nursing care was being compromised (Mumm, 1999).
By the end of the 19th century the sisterhood was the largest group of full-time women church workers – there were 3000-4000 by 1900, and 60 recorded communities, with 90m being funded in the first 5 years. The 1901 census shows that Sisters had become the third largest group of professional women over 45 (Mumm, 1999).
Anglican sisterhoods were ground-breaking, independent groups of women that challenged the social norms and social thinking, especially about women and the poor. They took on a floundering social-care system, professionalising and reforming areas such as nursing and social work and creating a foundation for modern social care.
Katherine Black works for the University of Durham, based at Ushaw College. She read Theology at St David’s College, University of Wales, and Library and Information Studies at Aberystwyth University. She has a particular interest in Victorian Anglicanism and Victorian social history.
Bibliography and suggested reading.
Banerjee, J. (2009) Women’s Religious Orders in Victorian England. Retrieved 10th November, 2017 from http://www.victorianweb.org/gender/banerjee.html
Community of St John the Divine. (2009) The Community of St John the Divine. Retrieved 10th November, 2017 from http://csjd.org.uk/history.html
Gill, S. (1994) Women and the Church of England: from the Eighteenth Century to the present. London: SPCK.
Hughes, K. (2014) Gender roles in the 19th century. Retrieved 10th November, 2017 from https://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/gender-roles-in-the-19th-century
Moore, J. R, (1988) Religion in Victorian Britain: Sources. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Mumm, S. “Not worse than other girls”: The convent-based rehabilitation of fallen women in Victorian Britain. Journal of Social History. 29:3 (1996) pp.527-546
Mumm, S. ‘A peril to the bench of bishops’: Sisterhoods and episcopal authority. Journal of Ecclesiastical History. 59:1 (2008) pp.62-78
Mumm, S. (1999) Stolen Daughters, Virgin, Mothers. London: Leicester University Press.
Shelton-Reed, J. “A female movement”: The feminisation of nineteenth-century Anglo-Catholicism. Anglican and Episcopal History. 57:2 (1988) pp.199-238
Shelton-Reed, J. (1998) Glorious Battle: the cultural politics of Victorian Anglo-Catholicism. London: Tufton.
Vidler, A. R. (1961) The Church in an age of revolution: 1789 to the present day. Harmondsworth: Penguin.