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Theophila Coyte

She was an “Associate and benefactress who gave gifts for the work in this place”, says a memorial in the Convent Chapel, on the wooden panels behind the altar (although I may not have remembered the words exactly). The only other fact we knew about Theophila Coyte was that she died in 1907. There was quite a lot of work done in the Sanctuary in 1906/7, including a black reredos (later removed), a new red velvet dossal and curtains (also later removed), and the panels mentioned above. For those of you who know the chapel, these panels remained unpainted until the 1920s. It seems likely that Theophila had contributed to some or all of this work; whether by donations during her life, or whether just the 1907 work in a bequest in her will, I do not know. Theophila Coyte is a name everyone in the Community would know well, yet all we knew about her life and her connection with the Community had been lost, as the Sisters who knew her died. What I have just told you is all we know; or, rather, it was all we knew. I can now tell you rather more.


Born in 1828, Theophila Reynolds was the daughter of John and Frances Reynolds; John, a Priest, seems to have moved around. Theophila was baptised in Hertfordshire; by 1841, the family are based in Bury St Edmunds; John and Frances later moved to Norfolk. Theophila was one of the middle children in a large family. In the 1861 Census, she was registered with her brother, Jacob, who lived with his family in Lancashire. Jacob is an underwriter, and Theophila’s occupation is ‘clergyman’s daughter’. In the same year, her cousin, Arthur Coyte, was a beer Merchant in Suffolk; his firm, Dawson and Coyte, was dissolved in 1865, and he married Theophila the following year.  They settled in Thorpe Road, Norwich, where they lived for nearly twenty years. In 1885, Arthur died tragically after a shooting accident. He knew it was fatal, and his thoughts went to Theophila, saying ‘give my love to my dear wife’. He left her a widow, with no children. She continued to live in Thorpe Road, although in a different house, until she moved to the Cathedral Close sometime in 1895. In the 1901 census, she is not at home, although mentioned as head of household; two servants were both present. She died in January 1907, and probate went to Arthur Wallis Preston, solicitor, and Herbert Preston Reynolds, Insurance Broker (both, I suspect, relatives). She left effects of £8198 14 s 1d; although how much this was worth at the time, I have no idea. Both Arthur and Theophila are buried in Earlham cemetery in Norwich.


What I can also tell you, is that Theophila was an Associate of the Community, having been admitted as a Sister Associate on May 24th 1887. At that time, we had two orders of Associates: Sister Associate (later 1st order) and those of the 2nd order. They would have had different rules of life; Sister Associates would be comparable to Oblates today, I believe. Both orders involved commitment to God with the Community, and it underlines Theophila’s own devotion.


She was also very committed to the work of St Augustine’s Lodge, a refuge that we ran in Norwich. St Augustine’s had been started, originally as Greyfriar’s Lodge, by an organisation known as the Norfolk and Norwich Ladies Society for the care of Young Girls, who asked us to run the Lodge, which we took on in May 1887. It was very vital work, providing a kind of halfway house for girls before they went to the House of Mercy, or similar institutions elsewhere. What I don’t know is whether Theophila had been involved in the Ladies’ society, and come to us through them, or whether her involvement was primarily with the Community. There are records of the Society in the Norfolk Record Office, so maybe sometime I shall discover more. We know she gave donations to the work of St Augustine’s, but she also gave of her time. In the All Saints 1907 edition of East and West (the Community magazine, published until 1919), we find the following comments about her death: “not only one of the oldest and dearest friends and Associates of the Community, but our energetic, devoted and admirable Hon. Treasurer – Mrs Coyte. For over 16 years she had filled this post and very very dear was the work to her. Even to the end her advanced age was made no excuse for leaving anything undone. She worked nobly and ably; her last work was that of settling up the yearly accounts only a few days previous to passing away on the Eve of Epiphany, 1907. R.I.P.”


There is much about Theophila’s life that we still do not know; much about her giving, both financial and of her time, that we may never discover. Yet what we do know now, is how committed she was: to her husband, her faith and to the work done by St Augustine’s Lodge. Work that was never easy, but always vital; work that could be life changing for the girls involved. Theophila’s work as Treasurer may not have been as cutting edge, or seemingly as exciting, as those who worked directly with the girls. But it was vital work nevertheless, as anyone who has ever run an organisation will tell you. What we also do not know, and can only read through the lines to guess at, is her faith. Faith that may well have been formed as a small girl, as a vicarage daughter; but faith that saw her though her husband’s sudden death; that saw her commit to the Community as an Associate; and faith that saw practical outworking in her support for St Augustine’s. Faith that is known and honoured by God, however much it might be forgotten on earth.

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