Michaelmas (September 29th) brought Sisters Sheila and Elizabeth to Norwich for a meeting, following which they were planning to see the Dippy exhibition at Norwich Cathedral, before attending the 12.30 Eucharist. They wondered would I like to join them for the latter and a bite of something to eat afterwards? Sorry, I’m volunteering with Dippy from 12.45… So I joined them to look round Dippy instead (as a regular volunteer, I had seen it before, but it’s always worth seeing again). A good time was had by all, although it did seem a little strange to look around an exhibition shortly before volunteering there all afternoon. (Dippy, in case you hadn’t realised, is the Natural History Museum’s Diplodocus cast, which has been on tour, and is at the Cathedral until 30th October).
Michaelmas has always been a special festival for the Community, its official title being St Michael and All Angels. Michael is one of the Archangels mentioned in the Bible; in the book of Revelation, it says that Michael and his army threw down the dragon, which is Satan. (If you see a statue or picture of George and the dragon, check to see if ‘George’ has wings; if wings are present, then it’s not George but Michael!).
When the first half of the House of Mercy was dedicated at Ditchingham in 1859, it took place on Michaelmas; hence, when a name was sought for the House once ‘House of Mercy’ became inappropriate, ‘St Michael’s Home’ [later House] was the obvious choice. The House of Mercy was where we took in ‘fallen women’, trained them as domestic servants and taught them to live as Christians. The term fallen women is inappropriate, as they were mostly only teenagers, some in their early twenties, and most I suspect more sinned against than sinning. Nevertheless, these girls had been caught up in a lifestyle that society disapproved of, and a House of Mercy was somewhere they could come and turn their lives around. They stayed in the House for approximately 2 years, having spent some time in a ‘halfway house’ first, and were initially known as penitents.
This may seem very negative to our 21st century eyes, but they were supposed to be sorry for their sins (i.e. they were called penitents because they were supposed to be penitent). I know this was not always the case, as repeated Annual Reports mention that the House is not a reformatory, but somewhere for girls to come who want to change their lives. Many lives were changed, as the Annual Reports and our magazine East and West (published from the late 1880s till 1919) bear out. The magazine, in particular, contains excerpts from letters written by former girls, some many years later. A few of the girls stayed at the Convent, becoming members of our third order; others would send money or gifts back to the House of Mercy, as treats for the girls.
The only information I have for the House of Mercy is that left by our Community, so it is obviously looking at it from one side only. I can only read between the lines, but I gather they were well treated. Each girl had her own room, which would have been unusual, I think, in Victorian times for working class girls, although those rooms were small, as those of you who remember St Michael’s House pre-update can testify! At one point, I think they had their own gardens, and the wall along the side of the main drive to the convent was built to give them privacy. There is talk of treats, games on special occasions. It was hard work: not just working with these girls to change their lives around, but hard, physical work. They ran a commercial laundry, partly to bring in much needed money, but also because it was a way the girls could be sure of earning their living. Only the stronger girls went into the laundry, the others went into the workroom, where there was plenty of sewing to be done for the house itself. But the laundry girls were bringing money into the House, contributing to their keep, and I gather that this was a source of pride and, I imagine, part of their rehabilitation.
The workroom girls were soon given the same opportunity, with adverts for sewing going in East and West. Some girls did fall back into their old ways; in an early Annual Report one girl is mentioned who was doing well in the job found for her on leaving, until she went back to visit her mother, when she got drunk. It is sad to say that some girls were in the position they were due to family influence; some of these were encouraged to emigrate, to provide the necessary distance from bad influences. But others did well, and went on to make respectable marriages; one such girl took over the running of a commercial laundry with her husband, and I think it was the same girl who wished to become a Matron in a House of Mercy, giving something back that she had received.
All this is coming from my memory of the Annual Reports and East and West, by the way. The originals are safely in the Norfolk Record Office, and I haven’t seen them for a few years, so they may or may not be accurate! But it does give a general flavour of the work at the House of Mercy. We have records for each girl who came to the House between 1854/5 and the early 1920s. It is only one line, but it is precious information.
Unfortunately, there are very few records of any sort for the 1920s and 1930s, except the Annual Reports. I gather the work went on as it had been, but I think the nature of the girls coming in changed, and/or attitudes towards them did so. I imagine that at some point the term ‘Penitent’ was dropped, but I cannot be certain without looking at the Annual Reports. I do know that in 1930 the name of the House was changed to St Michael’s Home, I believe after requests from the families of the girls, the name ‘House of Mercy’ feeling inappropriate. I’m assuming that the girls coming in would still have been troubled somehow, they may even have been ‘fallen’, but they were presumably seen as more in need of help, and less as sinners needing reclamation.
I’m fairly sure Sr Violet’s History says the name change happened after the Second World War, but the Annual Reports have it as 1930. The nature of the House did change after World War 2, as we started working with Social Services, and taking in girls under their care. This was a fairly major shift in the life of the Home, as the nature of their education and training changed. It was no longer appropriate to train girls as domestic servants, they needed to be trained to live and work in the Britain of the mid-late 20th century.
One story I do remember being printed in East and West was an appeal for help for the younger sister of a former Penitent. The mother of these girls had died, and the younger girl was living with another family (I’m assuming the father paid for this, but I’m not sure). Several of the House of Mercy girls had lost their mothers, and the Community had established an Industrial school (also known as the Cottage) to care for girls who had lost either or both parents and train them as servants. I think it was kind of prevention is better than cure; far better to take girls when they were young and ensure they had the skills to earn their own living, before anything happens and they go astray.
Anyhow, this younger sister was living with a family, who presumably didn’t treat her well. No blame necessarily attaches to the father, who must have been in a difficult position, needing to earn his living and care for his family. But the older sister, the former Penitent, could see the life her younger sister was living. She was too young to have got into trouble as yet, but the older girl could see that it was inevitable she would if she stayed where she was. She was desperate for her to be accepted at the Cottage, and was prepared to pay some of her wages towards the fees. But she couldn’t afford to pay it all, and neither could the Community afford to take her for free. I think we would if we could have managed it, but we had too many free or low paying girls at the time, and literally could not afford another. A plea went out in East and West for some good person to pay for this girl to come to the Cottage; it would make a complete difference to the rest of her life. Thankfully, subscribers were found to pay the fees, and the girl came safely to live at the Cottage.
These anonymous donors made a complete difference to the lives of two girls: the older one, able to be secure in her new life knowing her younger sister was safe; the younger girl, being given a secure environment in which to flourish. We don’t know the names of any of these people, or the lives they lived, or even how easy or difficult it was for the donors to pay. But they are known and precious to our God.