Sometimes, the history of our Sisters is quite clear; at others, it is almost impossible to discover; there are times, though, when what the evidence shows leaves me uncertain that I have found the correct family, and highlights my lack of knowledge of Victorian social history. Sr Lucy is a case in point. A Sister for only twenty years, she was a crucial figure in our history, being elected as our third Reverend Mother, and the first woman to lead the Community who wasn’t one of the two foundresses. Yet her family background leaves me very unclear.
According to the 1881 and 1891 Censuses, Lucy Anne Hipkin was born in 1841 or 1842 in Gaywood, Norfolk. We know from our own records that she was professed in 1881, and was a Choir Sister. This makes sense: only Choir Sisters could take on the role of Reverend Mother. Therefore, it also made sense when I found her in the 1871 Census, as a Governess, age 30, at The Rectory House, in Gaywood. She would have had the education, and presumably the social background, to work as a Governess, and therefore become a Choir Sister on joining. However, it proved to be more complicated than that. The only Lucy Hipkin that I can find as having been born in Gaywood in the early 1840s was the youngest daughter of John and Frances Hipkin; John was a journeyman carpenter. A skilled trade, but still, I think, a working-class occupation. All three of their children were educated, and in 1861 Lucy is a boarder with a family of Drapers in Southwold, working in their shop.
This seems something of a jump to become a governess, especially as I think a governess would have needed to teach the correct social skills, as well as academic learning. Now this is not to say that a Carpenter’s daughter could not have had the intelligence and skill set to become a governess, or indeed Reverend Mother; of course, they could. It is more that I’m not sure whether it would have worked like that in Victorian Britain. This is where my lack of background knowledge shows up. It seems that the Hipkin family did have that skill set: John and Frances’ only son, also John, became a National school master, and head teacher.
What I do know is that it was that Lay Sisters could become Choir Sisters, if they showed the ability, although I’m not sure how often this happened. So, Lucy the Carpenter’s daughter could easily have become Sr Lucy, Choir Sister of the Community of All Hallows, and future Reverend Mother. Could Lucy the Carpenter’s daughter also have been Lucy, the governess? I don’t know; I suppose it’s possible someone may have seen her gifts and ensured she had the requisite skills, especially as she was employed in the place where she was born and grew up. I just don’t know.
Whatever her background was, Lucy Hipkin joined our Community and was Clothed as a Novice, probably in 1879; in 1881, as a Novice, she was an assistant at our Cottage Home Refuge, near Caernarvon Road, Norwich. This was a kind of half-way house for girls to spend some time before moving on to our House of Mercy, or similar institutions elsewhere. As she was professed later in 1881, it seems she entered as a choir novice (lay novices had a longer Novitiate, yet it seems from her time in religion that Lucy was only a Novice for two years, as choir novices were). This makes it more likely that Lucy was the governess. How long she spent in Norwich I do not know. In 1891 she was registered at the Community House and we also know that she spent some time at the Hospital. M. Adele mentions in one of her letters, dated 1891, that Sr Lucy was given up to Miss Nelson at the Hospital; presumably Miss Nelson was a patient. It’s probable that she was Sister in Charge at the Hospital for some of the 1890s.
In 1896, M. Adele died; she had been the Community’s Superior since M. Lavinia’s death in 1890, and the only other Sister to have been with her since the Community’s foundation. It must have been a blow; it also left the Office of Reverend Mother vacant. Lucy was elected; only in her 50s, she may well have been thought to provide the Community with some stability after M. Adele’s death. She was presumably also seen as an able leader; her time as Sister in Charge at the Hospital would have given her some experience. However, the Community was in for a shock. In 1899, aged only 58, M. Lucy died. I have no idea why, whether this was as the result of an illness, or whether it was a sudden death. But it must have been a difficult time for the Sisters, as they lost their third Superior in just under ten years. M. Mary Rose, M. Lucy’s successor, was the first Superior to step down from the role.
Whether or not Lucy was the carpenter John Hipkin’s daughter, and so far it is the only option I can see, what her story underlines is the importance of trying to give all children the chance to grow and develop the skills they have, whatever their social background or their parents’ income. This seems so much more urgent now, with the pandemic having interrupted education, and rising living costs impacting families. All children should have the chance of an education that will give them the chance to have whichever career suits their skills and interests. Unfortunately, we do not yet live in that kind of society, and some children will have better opportunities than others. It also shows how we should try and treat people as who they are, not as their background or educational attainments might proclaim them to be, that we might not limit others’ lives by our judgements upon them. Whatever her background, Sr Lucy developed the necessary qualities to lead our Community, this only cut short by her early death. May we encourage others to develop their own skills also.