Sister Josephine’s story

Unlike her famous song namesake, Sister Josephine did not found a pontoon team in her convent nor sit with her boots up on the altar screen. Instead she co-founded the English mission of the Sisters of Joseph of Annecy in the Wiltshire market town of Devizes, and went on to lead a prestigious convent and well-respected school. But a holy life and fulfilling her God’s work did not mean that everyone respected her choices, and at one point she was stoned for her efforts.

She’d been born as Elizabeth (Josephine was a name she took later on in life, when she dedicated herself to the convent), in Loughrea, County Galway in Ireland. She was born a few years before the famine, which hit rural Ireland hard in 1845, and she had a sister – Maria – born three years later. It’s unknown exactly what her father did, but he appears to have moved the family into Galway city at some point during the next few years, probably due to the famine, as a land tax record finds the family there in 1857.

Therefore, the family did not leave Ireland during the famine, but Josephine appears to have come over of her own accord at some point. Josephine moved to Chippenham in Wiltshire. She was the first godmother mentioned in the baptisms of the original St Mary’s Church in St Mary’s Place, Chippenham, which start in 1857. The church was founded in 1855, and operated as a catholic school where Josephine – at this point still called Elizabeth – must have taught. The original church is now used as the modern-day church hall, a new building having been established in the early 20th century on Station Hill.

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The original St Mary’s catholic church in Chippenham, now used as the church hall

The first census to feature her is the 1861. She appears to have come to England to become a teacher, and found a place at a convent school in Birmingham. Aged 22, she had gained the position of assistant school mistress, and was in charge of various teenage girls being educated at the convent.

Josephine, having worked in a convent for several years, decided to take the cloth herself. She went to the founding convent in Annecy, France, and became a novice in the order. It was from there, in August of 1864, that the English mission of the Sisters of St Joseph of Annecy was founded. Two sisters – Sr Athanase (sometimes Antoinette) Novel, who was originally French, and Sr Stanislaus Bryan, who was of Irish extraction – travelled from the sisterhood’s Indian mission in Kamptee by ox cart to the coastal port of Yanam and thence on to France, in order to found the English mission.

Mother Athanase and Sister Stanislaus

The impetus for founding the mission came from a British Army officer, Captain Dewell, who had seen the good work of the sisters in Annecy and asked them to come to his home country of Wiltshire. Since Josephine had already been teaching in Chippenham, about ten miles away from the intended site in Devizes, she was perhaps the obvious choice to accompany Sisters Athanase and Stanislaus on their endeavour. They travelled across Europe to Devizes, took up residence in the town’s Wyndham Villas – a former priests’ residence by the Kennet and Avon Canal – and founded a school in Monday Market Street, in a rented warehouse.

It was then that the trouble started. Despite the fact that the school, and the mission, were founded with the best of intentions, educated poor children for just a penny a week and gave out clothing to those in dire need, the three nuns were met with suspicion by the Devizes population. The struggles between Protestantism and Catholicism in the UK were nothing new at this point in the 19th century, and Devizes was no different though perhaps more vociferously anti-Rome than most, but Catholicism was starting to gain a foothold in England again after the Irish famine of the 1840s and the arrival of many destitute people in need of work. The moralising tone of the educated middle and upper classes, which was reported in the newspapers of the day, implies that the destitute Irish were an underclass and therefore somehow a scourge on the land and were bringing their unsavoury religion with them. And they were taking local jobs too.

A speaker at a Devizes function at the time warned of the new nuns, saying of the “necessity of avoiding the follies of Catholicism and of shunning the nuns who dappled (sic) in witchcraft.” The Devizes and Wiltshire Gazette scathingly reported on the “opening” (inverted commas theirs, not mine) of the Catholic Church in 1865, describing it as plain and ugly, and that the nuns were, with one exception, foreigners. Feeling continued to run high, and in 1866 1,600 people in Devizes attended a talk on the evils of Catholicism, and how convents should be ended. Such was the hostility the three sisters – Josephine, Athanase and Stanislaus – were even stoned by local residents as they went about their work.

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Despite this, Josephine and the others persevered. They opened a school for middle- and upper-class children in Wyndham Villas, in addition to their work with the poor children, and walked the ten miles to Chippenham every Sunday to Josephine’s original church, to teach the Catechism and play harmonium for mass. They also undertook work in Westbury, several miles to the south of Devizes.

In 1866, however, the Sisters of St Joseph of Annecy opened a new convent and school in Chippenham’s Marshfield Road, and needed a mother superior. Josephine came back to Chippenham from Devizes and took over that role. Situated in Suffolk Villas, the 1871 census has her with two female scholars, neither of whom were born locally, and two other nuns, running the convent and the education of the school, and providing space for a religious visitor to live. Stanislaus and Athanase remained in Devizes.

There does not appear to have been the local opposition to the establishment of the convent in Chippenham that was experienced in Devizes. There are no reports of witchcraft or stones being thrown. It is probable that the establishment of St Mary’s in the 1850s probably paved the way, and the townspeople were more accepting of the Catholics and foreigners. However, newspapers of the time have virtually nothing about Catholic activities in the town, so it’s likely that much of Josephine’s activity flew under the radar.

Ten years later, however, the convent did not have any pupils, and perhaps could not be called a school in the strictest sense of the word. Josephine was still mother superior, with four other nuns serving in the institution, and they had three other women boarders or visitors. Convents would often house Catholic widows as they were trying to get back on their feet after their husband’s death, and St Joseph’s Convent in Chippenham was clearly no exception. The convent would have offered a calm and serene atmosphere, with a structured timetable and considerable prayer.

The lack of pupils probably played a part in the ending of the Chippenham convent in 1884, when the house moved to new St Joseph of Annecy premises in Malmesbury – about six miles to the north of Chippenham but still in Wiltshire. There was no further convent in Chippenham until the 1930s, when St Margaret’s established on Rowden Hill.

There had been a foundation in Malmesbury since 1867, when Friar Larive – part of the male portion of the order – had left Devizes to establish a base there. Josephine, after her period as mother superior in Chippenham, also took on this role in Malmesbury. In 1881 there were four other nuns besides her, in addition to several boarders and three domestic staff – meaning that Josephine could devote herself to more spiritual matters than running a household. This would have been a step up for her.

By the turn of the twentieth century Josephine had crossed the River Severn, and was established as mother superior at the Stow Hill Convent and School in Newport, South Wales. This establishment had been founded from Devizes in 1873 (using money from the dowry of Sister Mary Joseph, who had been educated there), and Mother Athanase had gone from there to be the first mother superior taking most of her household with her. Only two sisters and a postulant were then left in Devizes, Westbury’s work ended in 1875, and the focus of the Sisters of St Joseph of Annecy became this new school and convent in Newport. By 1901 Mother Athanase was getting on in years, and had stepped down as mother superior, leaving the UK for the Sisters’ base in Annecy, where she spent her dotage. Josephine, at this point in her early 60s, became the head of operations in Newport.

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The Newport Convent

The Newport school was a huge undertaking. Josephine had fourteen teachers underneath her, teaching art, music, needlework, French, German and basic elementary subjects like reading, writing and arithmetic. There was a full complement of domestic staff – including ladies’ maids – boarding pupils aged between 12 and 17, and a host of young women in their early twenties who are referred to on the census as resident students but are probably novices in training to become nuns. There is even a resident artist. Many of the teachers, like Josephine, are Irish-born, but the cooks are both French. The students, in contrast, are mostly drawn from the local area – except one who was born in India.

This convent and school appears to have thrived. Josephine was still mother superior in 1911, but by now in her early 70s she had taken a step backwards from the day-to-day life of the school. Her jurisdiction was over the novitiates and teachers, of which there were many, but only five boarding pupils were in her household. The convent and school, however, spread over four houses, and with many teachers employed most pupils would have attended just in the daytime. The school and convent eventually outgrew its premises in the 1940s, and was moved to Llantarnam Abbey a few miles north.

As for Josephine? She lived to be 97. At some point she would have given up being mother superior, and would have been cared for by her household at the convent. She died in 1933, and is buried in Newport.

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Theodosia F’s story

The current special exhibition at Chippenham Museum, in Wiltshire (WWMM’s home town, if it wasn’t obvious) is:

What’s in Store: Behind the Scenes at Chippenham Museum

They have on display many objects that people have donated to the museum over the years, which reflect the history of the town but are not always the sort of object that you might associate with a display, alongside information on the history of the museum and how they care for its objects.

One of their objects is this lovely sampler:

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Beautifully stitched, it was made by Theodosia Faulkner, who was seven in 1788. This gives her a birth of around 1781, so WWMM couldn’t help but investigate.

It turns out that Theodosia wasn’t from Chippenham at all. She was born to John and Rebecca Faulkner in Birmingham – over 100 miles away – and baptised at St Phillip’s Church in the July of 1781.

She appears to have been their third child. There were brothers called John and Joseph born before her to the same parents, and a younger brother James followed a couple of years later.

At this date very little was recorded about jobs and economic conditions of the family, so it is unknown what her father did, but in later life one of her brothers was an accountant – which speaks of a fairly wealthy family. The fact that Theodosia made a sampler of this quality also indicates a fair amount of money in the family – rather than having to help with domestic work, wealthier girls at this age were taught decorative needlework, mostly cross stitch, and produced work like this as a test of their skill. They demonstrated the knowledge and accomplishment of the young girl – hence why her tender age is usually included – and were seen as a sign of virtue, achievement and industry. More history and information on samplers can be found at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

Without a visit to Birmingham records office, it’s hard to find out much more about Theodosia’s family. It’s possible that there may be further record of her father there. But what is possible to deduce is something of what happened to the family later through church records.

Theodosia’s brother James died in 1790, aged around six. He is one of many children on the burials page, often given with their parents’ names, showing that loss of a young child in this area at this date was far from a rare occurrence.

Her brothers John and Joseph grew up and married, and had children of their own. It was Joseph who became the accountant.

Theodosia herself died in May 1798, when she would have been nearly 17. As she was under the age of majority, her parents’ names are also given on her burial record. Her brother John had a daughter called Theodosia in 1808, probably named to remember his sister.

How did this young woman’s work happen to be in the stores of Chippenham Museum though? It would have been donated by someone local to Chippenham to be preserved – which they have done – and looked after, and it’s in the nature of all museums to care for any object they’ve had donated, regardless of where it originated from.

Birmingham to Chippenham at this time does seem a little bit far though, until you read some of the town’s street directories – published since 1877 by local printing firm Spinkes – and census records, and realise that there have been Faulkner families in the town for at least 150 years. Perhaps Theodosia and her family were relatives of these families, and her work and legacy was passed down through the generations, and now is cared for in the capable hands of Chippenham’s museum.

Phillis Dowson’s story

While the internet is full of references – and even the text of – an American version of a Women’s Suffrage Cookbook, published to aid the cause in the States in 1915, the earlier British version is less known and considerably hard to get hold of.

The Women’s Suffrage Cookbook was compiled and edited by “Mrs Aubrey Dowson”, who held up the British tradition of resigning her own name to that of her husband despite her political views, in the early years of the 20th Century. One reference gives its publication as 1908, but several others say 1912, so whichever is right the book was in existence at the height of the women’s suffrage campaign.

The project had two real objectives – to raise funds for the suffrage cause, and to provide quick easy dishes for women to prepare for their family so that they’d have more time for campaigning.

Whether it was her brainchild or not, the book was put together by “Mrs Aubrey Dowson”, who was born Phillis Ellen Heaton Atkinson in 1876 in Frimley, Surrey.

She was one of six children of Edmund Atkinson, an author and professor of physics at one of the Oxford colleges, and his wife Mary—the daughter of Bristol-based soap magnate Christopher J Thomas.

She grew up in Surrey, with a full complement of servants in the household, also spending time in Bristol with her grandfather. Educated well into her teens, she didn’t work afterwards, indicating that the family finances were solid enough for her to devote herself to other pursuits. Her father died in 1900, leaving a considerable amount of money to Phillis’ mother. At the age of 27 — in 1903 — Phillis married Aubrey Osler Dowson.

Aubrey had been a prominent rugby player in his youth—he played forward for New College Oxford and Leicester, and later for Moseley. He also played in the starting XV for England versus Scotland in 1899. By the time he married Phillis he had settled into a career as a glass manufacturer, but perhaps his prominent name was a factor in her choosing to be known by it rather than her own.

Aubrey’s aunt, Catherine Osler, was also well-known suffragist, who was perhaps part of influencing Phillis’s political leanings. Aubrey worked for the Osler family glass manufacturing business, and they probably had close ties with the firm.

Phillis and Aubrey had no children.

By the 1911 census Phillis was fully involved in the women’s suffrage movement, and declared herself as a women’s suffrage philanthropic worker. Her mother also expressed support for the suffrage campaign on her census return.

Many of the recipes in Phillis’s cookbook were drawn from suffrage campaigners working in the Midlands, around the Warwick and Birmingham area where she and Aubrey were living at that time. However, some well-known figures appear in the pages – Millicent Fawcett contributes some recipes, as does Helena Swanwick. She appears to have published nothing else following this cookbook. Phillis became secretary for the Midland Federation for the NUWSS.

Despite being almost 40, Aubrey signed up for military service during the Great War, leaving Phillis alone at home. He survived, but his record is one that was destroyed in a fire.

In later life, Phillis and Aubrey travelled to exotic places—Morocco and Indonesia.

They moved to a farmhouse at Hanging Langford, near Salisbury in Wiltshire, for their last years.

Aubrey died in 1940, but Phillis was not an executor of his will—he left a considerable amount of money to a solicitor and a civil servant.

Phillis outlived her husband by four years. When she died, in 1944, she left £70k to her bank.

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The Women Who Made Me actively welcomes submissions from anyone who has a story to tell about women from their family. To submit a woman from your family for inclusion in The Women Who Made Me project, contact Lucy of Once Upon A Family Tree. If you don’t think you have anyone, she begs to differ and can help you discover your female relatives’ lives.

 

Hannah Y’s story

Direct marketing isn’t as modern a concept as you perhaps might think. Product placement and endorsement occurred from the late Victorian times onwards, as the benefits of a media hungry and increasingly literate population came to be realised by manufacturers, and advertising their products could have a direct impact on sales.

One such product endorser was Hannah Y, from the north of England, who promoted the use of gas stoves, beef extract, baking powder, gelatine, and,… er… enemas. And she gained such notoriety that her husband changed his name to hers when they married, rather than the other way around.

Born in Birmingham in the late 1850s, Hannah’s father Cornelius was a glass mould maker in the burgeoning industries in the Midlands. She was her parents’ oldest child, and was gradually joined by a succession of siblings – many of them short lived. By the age of 2 the family had left Birmingham for the glass industry at Gateshead in the north east of England, at that point located in County Durham. Here they shared a house with another family, also employed in the glass industry, and Hannah’s mother – also called Hannah – gave birth to four children, two of whom didn’t live to see their second birthday.

With the decline in the glass industry in the north east, the family moved again – this time bringing their three surviving children to Lancashire. Here Hannah studied at school until at least the age of 12, and their family survived again by finding work at the glassworks. After school, Hannah went on to gain a first-class diploma in cookery demonstration and a special merit medal from the Berkhamsted Mechanics Institute. She would have been taught cookery and household management as part of her elementary education, and probably excelled – hence travelling as far away from home as the Home Counties to further her studies as a young, single woman. In the meantime, she gained two more brothers, one who lived and one who did not.

At some point in the 1870s her father changed jobs, first becoming a whitesmith – someone who worked tin – and then working as a gas engineer for Fletcher, Russell & Co in Warrington, who manufactured gas stoves. Gas stoves had been invented in the early part of the 19th century, but did not really take off until pipelines had been installed in most bigger UK cities. Cooking on a gas stove took a different skill to cooking on coal-fired ranges and open fires, as it was far easier to control the heat, and Fletcher, Russell & Co employed Hannah as a demonstrator of these new methods.

She ran a programme of lectures and workshops to show women how to operate the new stoves they had purchased from the company, thus endorsing their wares. This led to a cookery book that she wrote and published in 1886, with the company’s backing and blessing. Called “Domestic cookery: with special reference to cooking by gas” the book gave a selection of recipes that Hannah had developed that were plain, practical and economical, and not high class – perfect for the new owners of gas stoves. The Victorian preference for plain and simple cooking was refined and subtly developed by Hannah’s recipes, and it was reprinted many times in the years that followed.

A second book, Choice Cookery, followed in 1888 when Hannah was around 30. Like the first, this book offered further recipes adapted and refined for gas cookery, and contained adverts for gas stoves, and other appliances, alongside fine leaf gelatine and baking powder – which were used in several of the recipes – and other kitchenwares.

By the early 1890s Hannah had set up home in Sunderland, and married a Lancashire doctor. Unusually for the time, he took her surname to unite the family name rather her taking his. This meant that she did not lose the name she had been making for herself, and thus kept her notoriety and career.

After her marriage, she had business interests in Chester and ran a temperance hotel with an assistant. It was from here that Hannah took mail orders for the kitchen products that she endorsed.

In 1893 her only non-recipe book was published. This, entitled Health Without Medicine, advocates a contraption to give a self-administered enema using water – “nature’s great remedy”. Enemas were often used as a contraceptive by Victorian women at this time, but if this was Hannah’s aim it failed as she gave birth to her daughter the following year, while living in Sunderland.

Hannah’s reputation for new product endorsement led German meat extract manufacturers Liebig to employ her to promote their product in the mid-1890s. Hannah published the Liebig Company’s Practical Cookery Book, which contained many ingenious ways to cook using meat extract. She also spent time back home working in Lancashire, living next to her brother – who was also employed by the gas stove manufacturers.

Her final book, Home Made Cakes and Sweets, was published in the middle of the first decade of the 20th century, when she and her family had moved to Cambridgeshire. Here Hannah continued to sell specific ingredients and equipment from home, as well as lecturing and demonstrating cookery, alongside her husband’s work as a general practitioner.

Her daughter grew up and married a doctor, and her husband and son-in-law practiced together in Cambridgeshire, the family living together in one large house. Her husband died in the late 1940s, leaving his money to their daughter. Hannah died about a year later, aged 90.

Sarah W’s story

Born at the tail end of the 18th century Sarah W was the daughter of a reverend, and made a good match with a metal merchant from Birmingham. His business was successful, and she might have expected to comfortably live out her life in the city, until they made the decision to emigrate to South Australia in 1840.

South Australia was never a penal colony, instead offering land and living to those willing to travel to take it. Many men who took up this offer later called themselves “gentlemen” as they now owned land.  She, her husband, and their four sons all underwent the months-long voyage to the other side of the world, and settled in Adelaide. They were among the first settlers there, as the city had been founded just three years earlier in 1837.

The family thrived in their new country, with one of her sons becoming the premier of South Australia on several occasions.

Sarah returned to the UK in the 1850s when her husband was seriously ill and advised to come home for an operation – medical care being sparse compared to that available in Britain during the earlier years of the settlement. He died in London, and she subsequently went to live out her final years in Scotland with her second son, who had also returned from Australia and settled in Edinburgh.

Her passion was collecting silver teapots. She bought them with the help of her sons, who she owed money for various vessels after her death.

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