Some names of Sisters recur throughout our history: Mary, Rosamund, Margaret, Elizabeth, Catherine … I wrote about one Sr Catherine back in October 2022. Now I come to tell you about the first. Catherine Maria Rotch was the oldest daughter of Thomas and Catherine Rotch (nee Wason). Born in France in 1834, she is with her family in Scotland in 1841, where they are living or staying with her uncle, Edward Sidney Wason, and his family. By then, Thomas and Catherine had three more children: Eliza, Emily and William. William was at school in 1851, but the rest of the family don’t appear in the census that year, so far as I can find. It is possible that they were abroad, as in 1852 their mother, Catherine, died in Boulogne; she was buried in Kensal Green cemetery in London. Catherine, her daughter, was only 18, and the youngest child, William, was only 11. The family seem to have moved around, but for at least part of this time they were based at Drumlamford House, in Ayrshire. Thomas married again in 1855 to Sarah Wason, the widow of his brother-in-law, Edward, who had died in the early 1840s. I think the family moved before 1861 to Guernsey, where Catherine and Emily are both living. I cannot find either Thomas or Sarah, but again it seems likely that they were abroad. The 1861 census took place in early April, and Thomas died at Wiesbaden on the 14th. Sarah and her stepdaughters moved to London sometime after this. William may or may not have been with them; in 1865, he was called to the bar, and I’m not sure at what point he started to live independently.
It was around this stage that Catherine moved to Ditchingham to join the Community; she was clothed as a novice in 1866 and made her vows in 1868. She was one of the very earliest Sisters. In 1871, she is found working at the Orphanage, but moved later to the House of Mercy. (The Oratory at the Orphanage is pictured). We know she worked as treasurer, both for the House of Mercy, and for the Community as a whole. There is a newspaper report of an open day at our Hospital in 1873, shortly after it opened, stating that she was the Treasurer of the Sisterhood, as the Community was known then. She was also head of the House of Mercy during some of the 1880s. She died in 1886 at the Community House, in her early 50s, and must have been missed by the Community, especially as she had performed some fairly major roles. The work of the treasurer may have involved much more in an era when the finances of the Community were uncertain. We know that Sr Catherine herself bought an income into the Community: in the 1861 census, she is described as an ‘annuitant’, so she had her own income, and the records of the Great Western Railway show she had shares, which were left to the Community and handed down, initially to Sr Mary Sophia.
What of the rest of the family? By the time she died, Sr Catherine had already lost one of her sisters, Eliza, who died in 1878. In fact, it is Eliza’s death that proves beyond doubt I have found the correct Rotch family. Catherine and Emily were her executors, and in the probate record it states ‘Catherine Maria Rotch of Ditchingham’. Why Eliza died, I do not know; it seems likely she had been living with her stepmother, Sarah, and her sister, Emily, in London, where they were in 1871. Sarah and Emily were still there in 1881, until Sarah died in 1884, when she was also buried in Kensal Green cemetery. So, in less than ten years, Emily lost both her sisters, and her stepmother. Emily herself is still living in the same house in 1891, on her own means, with three servants; whatever income she had, it was sufficient for her to maintain her household independently. Emily died in 1910, in her early 70s. William is not registered with his sisters in 1871, but was living not far from them with his wife and daughter, working as a barrister. He later moved away from London, and died in Cheshire in 1908, in his 60s. Emily outlived all her siblings.
It is not always obvious from the Census exactly what an individual did in their daily life. William, we know, was a barrister, which gives some indication, and there may or may not be surviving records giving more of an idea of his practice. But the women? Often they are only given ‘home duties’ or ‘living on their own means’ as an occupation. It tells us how they financed their life, but not exactly what they did. We know something of how Sr Catherine lived; we know which houses she worked in, and we know that she had responsible roles. We know, from other Community sources, that she would have spent a proportion of each day in private and communal prayer. But Eliza and Emily? I have no idea. Eliza’s death certificate would tell us what she died of, and therefore how ill she may have been in the years before. But I would assume that Emily’s health was quite good for most of her life, and she may have been able to live as active a life as appropriate for a woman in her class. She may have lived a life of leisure, attending Church only on a Sunday; she may have been involved in charitable work and/or lived a quite prayerful life, but without the specific vocation of her sister. She may even have been an associate of a Religious Community, which we wouldn’t know unless we came across it in their archives, assuming they still exist. It is all conjecture. Whatever it was that drew Catherine into CAH, it wasn’t there for Emily. She may have needed to stay and care for her sister and stepmother. But Emily, Catherine and Eliza’s lives were all of equal value. Each person has their own calling from God; that vocation can be to a ‘professional’ religious, or to a more secular calling; it may be to something steady throughout one’s life, or it may change as life goes on. But whatever God calls us to, we try to stay loyal to that calling, to accept our own vocation, and not seek after that of others. We are not called to follow other people’s vocations but our own; we are not called to live other people’s life, but our own, in whatever circumstances we find ourselves.