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Sarah Wash

There are many lives that touch the Community’s, some briefly, some not so brief; some of these people we know a little, some are well-known. Many others are undiscovered, even undocumented. However, the ten-yearly census gives us the names of those who were living in our houses on that date. This includes some women who were listed as ‘Sister of Mercy’, but of whom we have no other information. These women would have been Novices, who didn’t stay; the Census doesn’t distinguish between Sisters who were Professed and Sisters who were Novices. The interest here lies in the fact that we do not have, or I have not yet discovered, any information for Novices dating back to the nineteenth or early twentieth century. But we do have that ten-year glimpse. In 1861, there were four Sisters listed in the House of Mercy: ‘Laviner Crosse’ (M. Lavinia); Adele Frances Taylor (M. Adele); Sarah Wash, aged 20, and Rachel Cooke, aged 21. Sarah was born in Earl’s Colne, Essex, the daughter of labourer Thomas and his wife, Charlotte. Rachel was born just over 3 miles away in Halstead, Essex, also the daughter of a labourer. This implies that they would both have been lay Novices, a fact shown by Rachel’s burial record, which states that she was a Serving Sister in the House of Mercy.

(I believe lay Sisters were originally known as serving Sisters). Rachel we have always known about; she died, tragically, just days after the 1861 census, one of only two Novices to die before Profession, and whom we remember on the anniversary of her death each year. But Sarah I only know about because her time in the Noviciate coincided with a census. [Pictured is a group of Sisters, probably from the 1870’s; some of these were Novices, both Lay and Choir].


Why did she not stay? I have no idea; people leave for differing reasons, and she may just have discerned that she did not have a vocation to the Community. The Noviciate is a time of learning to live the Religious Life, but it is also a time of exploration, as to whether this is the place where God is calling you. But I do wonder as to the impact of Rachel’s death on Sarah, especially if they knew each other before joining the Community. In any case, being the only two Novices in a small Community, they would have lived in close contact with each other. Rachel’s death must have been hard for Sarah, whether it contributed to her leaving the Community or not. Sarah’s life remains obscure, yet is illuminated every ten years by the Census.


Born in 1841, ten years later she is living in Earl’s Colne with her parents and 5 of her siblings. Her father, Thomas, worked as an agricultural labourer, and her mother as a straw platter. That both parents worked implies the poverty of the family. By 1871, Sarah is back with her parents in Earl’s Colne, but is the only one of the siblings still there. There were at least seven children, including Sarah: Thomas, Anna, Philip, David, Sarah, Walter and Reuben. Most moved away from Earl’s Colne to work, although I have not been able to trace them all; Anna returned to Earl’s Colne on her marriage, later moving to White Colne. Three of the brothers moved to London for work, with the youngest, Reuben, running a pub, at one point becoming Governor of the Incorporated Society of Licensed Victuallers.


In 1871, Thomas is still working as an agricultural labourer; Charlotte is a laundress, and Sarah is a dressmaker. Sarah was never to leave home again, until her old age. She continued to live with, and possibly later to care for, her parents. I don’t have the 1881 Census details, but Thomas was a widower in 1891, aged 80, still working as a labourer. By 90, he was retired, and died in the early years of the twentieth century.  Sarah continued to live in Earl’s Colne: in 1911, working as a dressmaker, she lives on her own in a house with four rooms. By 1921, she has moved, although just down the road. An OAP aged 80, she is a boarder with William French (aged 34) and his mother Elizabeth (aged 60). As far as I know, they were not relations, and the census seems to confirm that. I assume that Sarah could no longer manage on her own, whether physically, financially or both; and that therefore she moved in with the French family, who would have been neighbours. She died aged 85 in 1926.


But this leaves many questions, most unanswerable: why did Sarah leave home to join the Community? Why did she not stay? What was her subsequent life like? How was her faith expressed? How much contact did she have with her siblings, and nieces/nephews after they left Earl’s Colne? How did she hear about the Community in the first place? What type of person was she? Was she happy in her life? One of these I can guess at. Elizabeth Barter was professed in 1871; the daughter of an Oxfordshire clergyman, she was the friend/companion of one Mary Gee.  Mary lived at Colne House in Earl’s Colne. While Elizabeth joined the Community some time after Rachel and Sarah, this does give a possible link between them and CAH. We will never know for certain.


Most of us will live lives such as Sarah’s: wherever they take us, and whatever we do, they will be lives lived among those we know and love; lives lived in the background, recorded amongst those we meet, rather than having any major impact. But maybe there I am wrong: who is to say that Sarah didn’t have a major impact on those she lived among? And who is to say that we shall not do the same? A life lived given to God – as I assume Sarah’s was – will always have an impact, whether we are aware of it or not. God may well define how ‘major’ that impact is in very different ways to how we do.

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