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Image of God

Stubbornness has its good qualities – especially when trying to find information about the past. Phyllis Green is a case in point: in 1861 she was living with her grandparents, Charles and Mary Green, along with most of their children, many not much older than her. Indeed, the youngest, Phoebe, was the same age. Finding Charles and Mary Green in 1871 was easy: they now had just their oldest son and youngest daughter living with them, most of the rest of the girls being ‘in service’ somewhere, including the next up from Phoebe – Eva, age 13, a nurse maid at a nearby farm. Phyllis is not there, neither does she appear to be in service (at 10 both she and Phoebe were still at school). Neither had I found any sign of her parents, but I was thinking that her mother may well be Charles and Mary’s oldest daughter, Martha, who in 1861 was working as a servant at the Essex Arms. She, too, is unfindable in 1871. In the end, I searched in the 1871 census for a Phyllis, living with a Martha, in Essex – and found the following: in Mile End, Colchester, Thomas and Martha Alexander are living with their children, the oldest of whom is called Phyllis. Both ages are right, and Phyllis was born in Layer de la Haye, an Essex village, as Phyllis Green was. Further research found that Thomas Alexander had indeed married a Martha Green, whose father was Charles Green – although not until 1865. But it seems I had found my Phyllis, whose surname was presumably either changed to be in tune with the rest of the family, or possibly whoever took the census assumed the family’s surname to be the same. By 1881, she is back to Phyllis Green, and is established at the Community of Hallows, where she is working as a Parlour Maid in the House of Mercy. She joined our Third Order as Sr Phyllis Faith.

The Third Order was established for girls who had been at the House of Mercy and who wanted to live their lives at Ditchingham. It was always a very small order, and very much of its’ time, but those who joined have a special place in the Community’s history. Each Third Order Sister took ‘Faith’ as a second name. As girls who had been at the House of Mercy, each would have had a troubled past: the House of Mercy was for fallen women, and although we know that some who came were not fallen, their lives would have been going astray somehow. Each girl taken in to the House of Mercy was trained in domestic service, thus giving them a way to earn their own living, and taught how to live as Christian women. Every annual report contains the numbers of those baptised, confirmed or ‘restored to communion’ that year. They stayed two years, and were found a job on leaving; many felt happier in their second place of employment, being slightly further from their troubled – and shaming – past. Not all girls succeeded in putting their past behind them, but many did; some kept in touch, and occasionally sent a gift; the Annual Report contains a list of those who had donated, and sometimes ‘a former penitent’ will appear. The girls were known as penitents, not from any punitive reason, but because that is what they were supposed to be: penitent, sorry for their sins, willing to change their lives. A House of Mercy was NOT a Reformatory, although from the number of times this appears in Annual Reports, I guess it was sometimes treated as such. The use of the word penitent was phased out, as times changed, and it would become apparent that many of the girls (usually only in their teens and early twenties) would have been victims far more than sinners.

But for Phyllis Green, back in the nineteenth century, she would have been a Penitent; she would have worked either in the Laundry, or the workroom, depending on her strength; and, at the end of her two years, would have been given a uniform and found a job somewhere. Until I can check the House of Mercy register, I’m not sure when she was at the House of Mercy, and I have no idea of the process for joining the Third Order, but I imagine girls would have been encouraged to work first, and there may well have been a lower age limit. Be that as it may, at age 20, she is back at the House of Mercy as a servant, with Jemima Porter, also from Essex and another member of the Third Order, and two others, whose names I don’t recognise. (She wasn’t a Penitent at this stage, as they were stated as that in the Census). I’m not sure, from the Census, whether Phyllis and Jemima were members of the Third Order, or on their way to joining. The Community did use servants, but it is also seems that members of the Third Order were also stated as servants in the earlier Census records. She was still at the House of Mercy in 1891, when she was the cook, and after that is either registered at Holy Cross House (which was built alongside the Convent for the Third Order) or the Community House (later Convent). She died in 1947.

There is much in Phyllis’ story that is clear, and much that remains unclear. Without her birth certificate, I cannot be certain of her parents, or whether she was illegitimate or not; I do not know exactly what brought her to the House of Mercy, and may never find out. Indeed, at this stage I am only assuming she was there because she was a Third Order Sister. I do not know whether her background made life more difficult for her, and contributed to her arrival at Ditchingham. What is likely, even with my limited knowledge of Victorian history, is that an illegitimate child would be shameful, for both mother and child. If Phyllis Alexander and Phyllis Green are one and the same, then I would think this likely to be the reason for the change of surname (whether it was ever official or not). Yet each person registered at the House of Mercy in each succeeding census, whether Sister or servant or penitent, was a person made in the image of God; a person, born capable of being filled with the love of God. The shaming of society, for whatever reason, must have made this more difficult; the limited options open to some girls also made a ‘fall’ more likely. Many of the girls in the House of Mercy came from strained backgrounds, for whatever reason; backgrounds that may well have lessened their chances of ‘going straight’. For some, families encouraged the circumstances that led to their daughters going astray, but some had lost either or both parents, making life more testing.

So it makes me think: how, today, do we treat people? Do we see them as made in the image of God, or do we see some as lesser beings, without maybe realising? What is our true attitude to those who sleep on our streets, to those teenagers whose lives have gone astray? Can we see that some people may have a much more likely chance of ‘going wrong’ simply because their lives have given them less of a chance? and what about today? Does each child in our society have as much chance as the other? Do those whose families are struggling to pay bills really have as much chance as those who are more comfortably off? It can be so easy to ignore these issues, for there is little we can do about them. Yet, at least awareness will give us a capacity to respond when the chance occurs. At least, we can try to see each person we meet, each person we pass, each person we read about as made in the image of God, whatever they have done. I will never forget the conversation I had in a group, which shall remain obscure, about a group of teenagers who had done – I forget what – and the response of one person, who shall remain nameless, who simply said ‘yobs’. A word I hate: it leaves no chance of reform, no acknowledgement of what might have brought these young people to do whatever it was. And whatever it was, was wrong, may have been a crime. But it was that dismissal of them as ‘yobs’ that I rejected – although, cowardly, only in my mind and not out loud. That was also wrong. So maybe that is one thing we can do: to speak up when anyone is being treated as less than someone made in the image of God, to point out when someone is being talked of as a lesser human being. We may be laughed at, treated as naïve, dismissed: those fears which prevent us from speaking up. Yet, still: those people whom we don’t stand up for because we are scared are still made in the image of the God we profess to follow.

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