OLD PLYMOUTH . UK
www.oldplymouth.uk
 

  Brian Moseley, Plymouth
Webpage created: July 19, 2017.
Webpage updated: July 19, 2017

        

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SAINT DUNSTAN'S ABBEY

While waiting in Plymouth in January 1848 for a passage to Madeira, where she was going for health reasons, Miss Lydia Sellon read an appeal from the Bishop of Exeter for help to relieve the spiritual and moral destitution of Devonport.   Being the daughter of a Naval captain, she immediately responded to the challenge, dropped her plans to go abroad and, with the financial help of her father, rented a room in George Street, Devonport, where she set up a school.  She was described as being 'a remarkable woman, with great force of character and exceptional attainments.

She collected up the 'wild and neglected children' from the area and persuaded them to join one of her classes.  Some of these were boys between the ages of 11 and 16 who were already working in the Royal Dockyard but who came to her classes in the evenings.  They were often unruly and one night a clergyman was brought in to control them but walked out shrugging his shoulders and left her to sort them out.  Soon there were around 50 children attending classes every evening.

With financial support from the Dowager Queen Adelaide, Members of Parliament and the clergy, she set up an orphanage for girls.

So successful did her work become that in 1849, Bishop Henry Phillpotts, the Bishop of Exeter, visited the establishment and consecrated her as a daughter of the Church, signalling his approval to her setting up what was known as the Church of England Sisterhood of Mercy of Devonport and Plymouth.  It was sometimes known as the Devonport Society.  The Sisters spent six hours a day visiting the poor, tending the sick and teaching in the schools.

The Sisters dressed very simply in a black woollen dress with long flowing sleeves and a girdle with a small ebony cross.  Over their closely cropped hair they wore a white cap with long black strings.  When out visiting they also wore a cloak, large black bonnet and a black crepe veil.

Very soon the Sisterhood was running homes for destitute girls, five schools, an industrial school for young women, a college for boy sailors and evening classes for adults.

In June 1849 a case of cholera was discovered on board a ship in Sutton Harbour and it spread very quickly through the slum area around the Barbican.  It even reached Stonehouse Lane, close to Saint Peter's Church.  Miss Sellon volunteered her services to the Vicar of Saint Peter's and the Sisters risked their lives treating the sick and dying.  She erected a temporary wooden hospital on ground later known as Abbey Field.  It held sixty beds and an altar was placed at one end where prayers could be said and Holy Communion given to the dying.  It was the first place Holy Communion had been said in a Church of England establishment for 300 years.

Two marquees were also erected on the site, for the accommodation of the nurses and the children orphaned by the plague.

The Sisters of Mercy helped to check the spread of the disease and to finally stamp it out.  The epidemic lasted only three months but 177 patients were discharged from the hospital before it closed, compared to the 121 who died.  

Miss Sellon then founded the Sisterhood known as the Society of the Holy Trinity.  They established the Abbey in Plymouth, a Priory near Ascot, in Berkshire, and the Sisters of Charity in London.  The Abbey was dedicated to God the Father, the Priory to God the Son and the Charity to God the Holy Ghost, hence the title of the Holy Trinity adopted by the Society.

Miss Sellon laid the foundation stone of the Abbey on October 5th 1850 and largely paid for the whole cost of the construction.  The Abbey was designed by Mr William Butterfield, who was also responsible for Keble College, at Oxford University, and Rugby School.  He declined the fee, which was just as well because the design was later "toned down", with the refectory becoming the chapel instead of having the large church that he had planned.  The Abbey was dedicated to St Dunstan of Glastonbury, who had been the reviver of monastic discipline in the Anglo-Saxon church.

Shunning publicity, and doing good almost by stealth, the Sisters lived within the precincts of the Abbey and carried out their work in strict seclusion, maintaining only a very restricted contact with the outside world.  They vowed to devote seven hours a day to prayer and meditation amid a life of Spartan simplicity and severity.  They conducted a small school and another part of the building was used as a penitentiary.

The garden of St Dunstan's Abbey, Plymouth

The garden of Saint Dunstan's Abbey, Plymouth.

When in October 1854 Lord Nelson called for nurses to be sent to the Crimean War,  the Abbey was large enough to send a number of Sisters to help Florence Nightingale in her task of nursing the wounded.   Two of the Sisters, Elizabeth Wheeler and Sarah Anne Terror, received particular note at the time and the latter was awarded the Royal Red Cross by Her Majesty Queen Victoria in 1897.

Miss Sellon was installed as Abbess in the Oratory of Saint Dunstan's Abbeymere in March 1856, on her 35th birthday.

But by the beginning of the twentieth century, the numbers had dwindled and there were only two Sisters at the time closure was announced on November 9th 1905.  The aged Lady Superior was at that time lying ill at the associated Priory in Berkshire, to which the remaining Sisters were transferred in 1906.

The sale of the buildings and grounds was placed in the hands of Mr J M Andrew, auctioneer, of Princess Square, Plymouth.  It was hoped in the first instance to find a purchaser who would maintain the buildings, which included a small chapel overlooking Victoria Park, and the three acres of grounds as a religious institution.    Failing that, it would be offered for housing.

In April 1907, thanks to the efforts of the Vicar of Saint Peter's at that time, the Reverend Downton, the property was transferred from the Sisters of the Holy Trinity to the Community of Saint Mary the Virgin at Wantage, who continued their educational endeavours under the title of Saint Dunstan's Abbey School for Girls..

Finally, the last two Sisters of the Society of the Holy Trinity died during 2004 at the Ascot Priory.  Sister Rosemary died on January 16th and the Mother Superior, Cecilia, died on February 12th, thus closing Miss Sellon's legacy.