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Gently

Researching the background of our Sisters throws up some interesting comparisons, as well as the occasional tragedy. Take Sr Marianna: born in 1820 in Suffolk, the fourth of five children, and the oldest girl. Her father, John Medows Rodwell, farmed 1200 acres, according to the 1851 Census, employing at least 35 labourers. By 1851, only Marianna and her younger sister Jane lived at home, the three boys all having moved on; two were clergy, and the third an estate agent and (later) landowner. Although they were all adults, it must have come as a shock to them when their mother died in 1859 only eight days after their father’s death.


For Marianna and Jane, it presumably also meant a house move; in 1861, they are together in a property in Great Waldingfield. Life had not finished with the sisters yet; in 1866, their brother Josiah died, aged 45. That same year, there is a notice in the London Gazette declaring Marianna Rodwell and Jane Charlotte Kirby Rodwell, spinsters of Great Waldingfield, bankrupt. I have no idea why, although there was a financial crisis in 1866 which may have contributed; nor have I any idea of the outcome, although it must have been sorted out before Marianna joined the Community.


I can only imagine the feelings that lay behind these events. It also seems to have prompted a separation between the two sisters, possibly simply because Marianna moved to Norfolk to test her vocation. This must have happened in the late 1860s, as she was professed in 1870; where Jane went is less clear. There are records of a Jane Rodwell, living in London, initially as companion to a woman called Elizabeth Gay, an accoucheuse (or midwife); later Jane follows the same occupation. Her age doesn’t quite fit, but the place of birth does. I do know that Jane died in London in 1913, and I am assuming the Jane who became a midwife is our Jane, although I cannot be certain. Sr Marianna had a varied life within the Community: in 1871, she is at the House of Mercy; in 1881, she is at All Hallows farm, as head; in 1891, she is running our rescue home in Greyfriars Lane, Norwich, the only Sister there, and by 1901 she has moved to the Norwich Mission House. She died in 1903, aged 83.


Sr Eleanor’s story contains some similarities with Sr Marianna’s. Born in 1864, the youngest of eight children, we find her age 6 in 1871 living in Chertsey, Surrey with her mother (a widow), her siblings, her aunt and cousin, together with a lodger and three servants. Searching for her father, I found his burial record: on April 5th 1871, James Christopher Gregory, age 62, was buried in Chertsey - and found, to my surprise, that Ann Gregory, James’ wife, was the very next entry in the burial register: April 14th 1871. I don’t have her exact day of death, but it is clear that she died only a couple of weeks after her husband, aged only 45.


Leaving eight children aged between 17 and 6. What happened immediately afterwards is unclear: I only know the position ten years later, at the 1881 census. It seems that family rallied around: the two youngest children are living with aunts in 1881: Aubrey, aged 18, was living with his maternal aunt in London and Eleanor, aged 16, was living with her paternal aunt in Brighton. The oldest son, Christopher, an articled clerk in 1871, was ordained by 1881 and a curate in Folkestone. Another brother, James, was an undergraduate at Cambridge, and he, too, later became ordained. Three of the siblings, Mary, Florence and Arthur, seem to be living with Christopher in 1881, so whatever happened in the aftermath of their parents’ death, the siblings must have maintained contact with each other. In fact, it is interesting that at least four of them ended up living in the Dorset area.


What I don’t know is how much time Eleanor spent with her siblings. In both 1881 and 1891, she is living with her aunt, Harriet Gregory, in Brighton. None of the other siblings are there, although that is not to say they hadn’t been. Harriet died later in 1891; what happened to Eleanor after that? She had her own independent income, although it may or may not have been enough for her to live on her own. She may have stayed in Brighton, or she may have joined a sibling or another relation somewhere. There was a space for her to consider her future, before she joined the Community in the late 1890’s; she was professed in 1900. In 1901, she was in the Community House at Ditchingham, but not long after seems to have moved down to the Mission House in Ditchingham (where she joined Sr Laura, see last week’s blog). She died, aged 53, in 1918.


Both Sr Marianna and Sr Eleanor lost their parents within an extremely short time, although at very different ages. Whether they knew this, I’m not sure: Eleanor only joined the Community about five years before Marianna’s death, and the latter would have been in Norwich for much of that time. Neither do I know how their experience affected their later lives. There is so much we do not know about these women, and much that we may never discover. But is this not true for ourselves as well? Who we are now has grown from who we have been in the past, and there is so much that we do not know about the pasts of those we meet and engage with every day, to say nothing about those we pass judgement on whom we have never met. Maybe we could try to tread more lightly on the lives of others, whom we may not fully understand

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