On February 9th 1840, a child was born, a girl named Rachel. Her parents, Matilda and Thomas Cook (or Cooke), a labourer, lived in Halstead, Essex, where Rachel was baptised in1845 or 1846. She joined the Community of All Hallows as a Serving Sister in 1859 or 1860, and at the time of the 1861 census was living, as a novice, at the House of Mercy with three other Sisters: M Lavinia, M Adele and Sarah Wash, presumably another novice as we have no record of her. Not long after that census, on the 14th April 1861, Sr Rachel (n) fell down the apple house steps, a fall which killed her; she was buried four days later in Ditchingham churchyard, aged 21.
Which apple house steps remains something of a mystery. I was told that it was the orphanage, but we have a later date for that. It was blessed in 1864, along with the second half of the House of Mercy, and I assume would only have been accessible that year. The most logical place is the House of Mercy itself, which at that time would have been just the north and west wings plus outhouses. There may well have been an apple house with steps at that point. (An Apple House is where the apples were stored after being harvested). As Sr Rachel was a serving Sister, which I think was the original name for lay sisters, it is quite possible she would have had reason to visit the apple house. (Lay Sisters were working class women, who did more manual work.)
What is also interesting is the way this story has survived. There were very few Sisters in the Community in 1861, and the only professed Sisters at that time whom we have records for are the two Mothers. It is possible that they were the only ones who remembered Sr Rachel, who was the first Sister to die. But the story must come from somewhere. I have gleaned the other information from various sources, but falling down those steps is a story that seems to have been passed down the Community from generation to generation. How accurate it is I have no way of telling, but I am assuming it has some basis in truth, and that this Sister who did not survive her Noviciate was remembered and acknowledged as the story of her death was retold. It must have been quite traumatic for so young a Sister to die so suddenly. Maybe that is why the story has come down to us; a regular retelling of this sudden death being part of the process of mourning, continued by Sisters who did not remember her, but continued to tell why this Novice died. I have always had a sympathy for her, for hopefully obvious reasons. She may not have lived long, but she lived her life dedicated to God.
Sr Rachel died 140 years ago, and is remembered mainly by her Community, and primarily by the manner of her death. The Duke of Edinburgh had a much longer life, and his legacy is likely to be lasting, not least amongst those who take part in his award scheme. He is truly mourned not only by his family, but by the nation. As stories are told of his life and character, those of us who did not know him realise what a remarkable, though human, person he was. There are many others who have died over the past year. Some well-known, most known mainly by their families and friends, just as truly missed and mourned, those who died young and those who died after a long life, each leaving a gap amongst those who knew them. Each person leaves their own footprint, each have those who mourn and miss them. Each is a person unique in the sight of God.