A Review of our March Talk - by Rosemary Doman

Why did a group of nuns, originally English but from a French convent, come to Woolton in 1795, and why did they stay just twelve years? On a chilly Sunday afternoon in March, Dr Janet Hollinshead gave us a lucid, engaging and sometimes humorous account of the nuns' stories, based on the account of one who kept a journal.

Story one begins during the French Revolution, when anti-clerical laws in 1793 saw the nuns in Cambrai, one of about twenty convents in Northern France and the former Spanish Netherlands (Belgium), put under house arrest. A few days later, after an inventory was made, the nuns were given just fifteen minutes to leave with one bundle apiece - in their haste not choosing the wisest things, noted the journalist. An escort of light horsemen took them in carts to Compiegne, where they were imprisoned - all in one room! - for nineteen months, at risk of the guillotine. The fall of Robespierre allowed them to leave for England, paying for their own wagons and ship. After twelve days in London, during which one very sick nun died, the remaining sixteen were sent to Liverpool. On 21st May they began a new life in Woolton.

Why Woolton? Story two concerns Father John Bede Brewer, a wheeler-dealing Benedictine with his eye on the main chance of establishing a school: if not for boys, after two failed attempts, then for girls. As successor to Father Catterall, former chaplain to the Molyneux family, who had built a chapel in Watergate Lane, Father Brewer ran a small mission. The Relief Acts twenty years before the nuns' arrival tolerated Catholic clergy, provided they took a vow of allegiance.

Story three covers the twelve years living at numbers 45/47 Woolton Street, later also at number 43. The Land Tax Register showed the abbess, Mrs (Lucy) Blyde, as the occupier, though Father Brewer was the owner. The journalist records that the nuns had to equip their houses with all the basics, from furniture and linen, to wheat and straw for the underbeds. They had to pay for services, glaziers, joiners, chimney sweeps, etc. An order for blue flannel, grey linen, thread, bonnets and sixteen pairs of shoes shows the nuns having to devise their own clothes, the public wearing of habits being forbidden. Three years later, purchases of pea sticks and garden tools suggest they were more settled. The penniless nuns depended on donations in cash and food, firstly from their own families, but also from sympathisers locally and in the wider North West. The government paid them each a monthly pension of one guinea. Their school for young ladies from 5 to 13 years, at a yearly cost of 18 guineas, eventually expanded to 18 pupils, who studied French and Geography using maps and globes, as well as the traditional arithmetic, English grammar and, of course, R.E. with Father Brewer.

Having tried in vain to recover their property in France under Napoleon, in 1807 12 of the original nuns, plus another 7, moved to the Worcestershire house of a benefactress, Mrs Stanford. In the 1830s they built a convent and church at Stanbrook, still extant. Four who had died lie in Childwall churchyard, a poignant reminder of the nuns' story.

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