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Sister Agnes.

Sometimes, researching the past leaves me with more questions than it finds. Take Sr Agnes as an example. Sr Violet had told me, years ago, that there had been an early Sister who was at the Orphanage before joining the Community. So when I saw Agnes Bellis as a pupil at the Orphanage in the 1901 Census, I knew I had found her. She died in 1968, so Sr Violet would have known her. What this didn’t tell me is why Agnes was at the Orphanage in the first place. She could have been an Orphan, or lost one parent, but some of the girls were there as boarders; they still had both parents, but were there for their education. Occasionally, the Community would take these girls at a lesser rate, if the parents couldn’t afford the full fees. Where does this leave Agnes?

Well, in 1901 she was 16; therefore, she should be in the 1891 Census somewhere – and she wasn’t at the Orphanage then. I found her quite easily. She was living as a foster child with a woman called Emily Best (whose profession, I think, is caretaker), along with Emily’s daughter Annie, and four other foster children, one of whom is called Constance Bellis, and presumably a sister or relation of Agnes. Frustratingly, none of the foster children have their birthplaces registered. The oldest, Harriet Becknell, is ‘birthplace unknown’, and the other four just have ‘waifs and strays’. Why was Agnes registered as a waif and stray? and why was she living with a foster mother in the first place? Presumably someone was paying Emily to care for these children. Who and why?

What I also found was the birth records for Constance and Agnes: both have their Mother’s maiden name as ‘Flower’. This gave me a clue to go on: presumably their parents would be a female Flower married to a male Bellis. Indeed, in 1875 Alexander Joseph Bellis marries Helen Frances Flower. This does not ease the mystery, however. In 1881, they are living in Camberwell (London) where Alexander works for the East India Company. They have two children, Frances and Isabella. (Both Constance and Agnes were born later in the 1880s). Some searching found the 1891 census: Helen is living on her own means as a boarder in St Ives, with her youngest daughter Lilian. I have no idea where the older two girls were, nor can I find definite identification of Alexander. He seems to disappear after the 1891 census. He died at some point between 1901 (when Helen, married, is living or staying with her niece in Hendon) and 1911, when Helen, a widow, is living in a boarding house in Somerset.

The girls all seem to have been educated, however. In 1901, Constance was a governess at the Vicarage in Great Maplestead, an occupation which leads me to suspect she may have joined Agnes at the Orphanage, which largely educated girls needing to earn their own living, and governess-ing was one of the main ways of doing this. Frances was a hospital nurse in 1901, and in 1911 Isabella was the manager of a copying [typewriting] and translating office. Sadly, Lilian seems to have died in 1901, age 15.

But this does leave a lot of questions. I cannot prove beyond reasonable doubt that Constance and Agnes were sisters, or that Alexander and Helen were their parents, although both seem likely. If I could find a baptismal record, this would prove parentage. I have no idea why Helen and Alexander were apart in 1891 and 1901, or whether this was permanent; it could easily have been temporary, or Alexander could have been working abroad. None of this answers the question as to why Agnes and Constance were with the foster carer in the first place, or why Agnes went to the Orphanage; whether they knew the rest of their family, or whether Agnes spent her whole childhood either with the Foster Carer or at the Orphanage. Or where Frances and Isabella were in 1891.

What is clear is that Agnes’ background was not a necessarily stable one; neither was the background of the Sister in Charge of the Orphanage in 1891, Sr Constance Murray (see Known April 14th; NOT the same as Constance Bellis, mentioned above). Alone of all their contemporaries, something drew them into the Community which had educated and housed them as children, and where they offered their lives to God. Sr Agnes spent many years working in Norwich, where she is based in both 1911 and 1939. Interestingly, electoral registers place her alongside Sr Constance at All Hallows School (which grew from the Orphanage) in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Both Sisters would have had a unique insight into girls living away from home, for whatever reason; both Sisters will not only have been well-educated there, but also taught the faith of Christianity, a faith they made their own.

I may or may not ever find answers to the questions that Sr Agnes’ story provokes. What is clear is that at some point both Sr Agnes and Sr Constance responded to a call from God; a call which would not always have been easy; joining the Community which knew you as a child has its’ own complications. But a call, too, which may have other motivations; did their backgrounds lead them to find a home in a place which they may literally have called home as children? and did this affect their subsequent following of their call? We will never know. Whatever their motives, both responded to God’s call, as have so many other women over the years. How faithfully they followed that call? I do not know; inevitably, they will have fallen short at times – who doesn’t? Yet, ultimately, both followed their calling to the end of their lives and both spent many years caring for those whose lives touched the Community’s, as their own had as children.

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