Fixed on God.
Sr Harriet was a widow, which makes finding her background more complicated. In addition, she was born in Ireland, so may or may not appear in the English census before she joined the Community, depending on when she came over here. However, I like a challenge - although, to be honest, that depends very much on the nature of the challenge; but I like this sort of challenge. I have found some information, although I cannot be one hundred percent sure that it is correct, or that I have found the right Harriet Johnson. I searched for Harriet in the 1871 Census, the one before she entered the Community – and I found a Harriet Johnson, married to William Johnson, with a daughter, Isabella, aged 3. Harriet was born in Ireland. My instinct was to reject this – if Harriet had a three-year-old daughter in 1871, she wouldn’t have been old enough for Harriet to join the Community in the mid-1870s, even if her husband had died. However, something prompted me to look at the original census (rather than the transcript). This Harriet Johnson was born in Waterford, Ireland; and our Harriet was also born in Waterford. It was worth following through. I cannot find the family in the 1881 Census, although I also cannot pin down William’s death. The family lived in London, and although some William Johnson’s of the right age did die in the early 1870s, there was nothing I could find that pinned it definitely to this particular William.
There was, still, Isabella. Could Harriet have lost both her husband and her child? Well, searching for Isabella Mary Johnson brought a different result. Isabella hadn’t died, she was a pupil at All Hallows Orphanage, Ditchingham – which, as some of you may know, was run by our Community, and was on the Convent site. Moreover, Sr Harriet in 1881 was working at the Orphanage. Could Harriet have possibly felt called to join the Community after her husband’s death – and would we have accepted her while her daughter was still a child? It wouldn’t happen now, but I am looking back a long way, into a different culture, and one whereby Isabella would have been cared for and educated, with her mother nearby. It is interesting that in 1891 and 1901 Sr Harriet is involved in rescue work, rather than the Orphanage. 1891 finds her at the Rescue Hospital in Heigham [where girls needing medical treatment were taken] and in 1901 she is at St Saviour’s Lodge, Ipswich, where the work was transferred in 1893, when the Rescue Hospital closed, and which also took in girls for training. [These girls would have been ‘fallen women’, mainly teenagers and young women, who were trained as servants and taught to live as Christians]. St Saviour’s Lodge closed in 1909, and I am uncertain where Sr Harriet was in 1911, as I haven’t found her yet. But it strikes me that there was another house in Ipswich, and it is worth looking there. But it seems that, after an initial stint at the Orphanage, possibly while her daughter was a pupil, that Sr Harriet spent her life caring for girls whose lives had gone astray. She died in February 1922, aged 81.
What of Isabella? In 1891 and 1901, Isabella is living with her paternal aunt, Mary; she has her own means to live on, so was one of the few Orphanage girls who didn’t need to earn her own living. The fact that she is living with her aunt lends extra probability that I have found the correct family. Yet I am left with questions. Would Harriet have placed her daughter in an Orphanage – even one attached to her Community – while she followed her own vocation? It still seems unlikely. Yet I am looking at this with 21st century eyes. In an age when many children had a nanny, and when girls as well as boys were sent away to school, it may have felt less strange. I also don’t know how Harriet was left when her husband died, or what means she had to educate her daughter. As a half-orphan, Isabella would have been eligible for lower fees; she would have had a good education; and, of course, we know that Harriet was there, at the Orphanage, for at least some of the time, so Isabella would have had contact with her mother, and Harriet could keep an eye on her daughter. It is also quite possible that Isabella arrived at Orphanage, as the best place for her education, and that Sr Harriet’s links grew out of that.
Still, I cannot be certain this is the correct family, or the right story. As ever, it leaves open many queries, some unanswerable. Assuming this is the correct story, how did Isabella feel, losing her father, and then having her life uprooted? How much contact did she have with her wider family? They appear to have kept up the connection. as Mary Johnson and Isabella are later living in the same house. Mary and William are the only children present at their parents’ home in 1861, and Mary seems not to have married, so Isabella may have been their parents’ only grandchild.
How did Harriet feel? What was her sense of vocation? Did she like working at the Orphanage, or was it just while her daughter was there? Was her calling to the Community. and wherever she was sent beyond that, or did she feel particularly drawn to rescue work? A work that was on hold until her daughter had grown up. She seems to have been a capable woman – she is Sister in Charge in both 1891 and 1901; it may be that the Community gave her a means to use her gifts in ways that she may not have been able to otherwise. Whatever her actual story, Sr Harriet’s life did not go in the way she had planned; by the age of 40, she had been widowed and then joined a Religious Community, whereas on her wedding day, she may have anticipated a life with her husband, and children. It did not turn out that way. But by entering our Community, Sr Harriet was able to spend her life working with girls whose lives had gone astray far more than hers had, and to give them a chance of a new life, with firmer foundations. She was able to use her gifts to give those who were often shamed by society a means of rehabilitation; and she was able to do this in a context whose primary vocation was a life offered to God, beyond all other ties. Sr Harriet may well have done the best she could for her daughter, and enabled her to have a good start in life; but she definitely helped the daughters of others who needed to begin life anew; and she did so, at root, with her heart fixed in God.