In the last of her regular history columns for East Grinstead Online Caroline Metcalfe finds out a little more about Sister Ann, the founding Mother Superior of St Margaret’s Convent, who is remembered in the naming of the new road at Meridian Village.
THE name for the new road to the Meridian Village estate built on land formerly owned by the Old Convent is Sister Ann Way and honours the first Mother Superior of the Sisters of the Society of St Margaret.
The sisterhood was founded in 1854 by the Rev John Mason Neale who was Warden of Sackville College from 1846-66. Sister Ann Gream was the daughter of the Rector of Rotherfield, already used to parish and nursing work, and in her forties when Mason Neale approached her.
Some of the first Sisters lived in rooms at Sackville College and nursed sick residents there, but Sister Ann’s father was elderly and needed nursing, so Mason Neale rented a house in Rotherfield for the Sisters, allowingSister Ann to nurse her father and be the Mother Superior of the small community. The house was called St Margaret’s.
The Sisters led a life of prayer but also had some nursing training so that they could go out into the community and assist the sick, especially the sick who were very poor – there was no State health service in the 1850s.
John Mason Neale himself suffered from ‘serious lung trouble’, which was probably tuberculosis, and at that time incurable. Yet when he felt well, he had great energy and regularly walked to Rotherfield and back, some 14 miles each way, to see the Sisters.
Sometimes he went by horse and cart, and once the horse fell, trapping Neale, who was lucky not to be killed, in the reins.
In 1856, Ann Gream’s father died and Neale rented the first of several houses in Church Lane for the Sisters, putting them right next door to Sackville College. Neale wrote of an idea to turn the house at Rotherfield into a ‘cottage hospital’ – I do not know if this ever happened but the comment shows his continuing concern for the sick and the poor left behind.
The setting up of the new sisterhood coincided with Florence Nightingale’s work at Scutari during the Crimean War, and Neale wrote in search of nursing recruits to Mrs Sydney Herbert who sometimes sent him suitable candidates to become Sisters.
The work was very tough – one Sister wrote that where she was staying, the family’s pig had better accommodation than she did – but despite the harsh conditions the nuns did a huge amount of good,setting up a soup kitchen in East Grinstead for the poor, and running a school and an orphanage.
Work on the Convent buildings began in John Mason Neale’s lifetime and he saw the foundation stone laid before his death in 1866, aged only 48, probably of tuberculosis.
Designed by Neale’s friend, the architect G E Street, the Old Convent buildings are considered some of his finest work, and since the departure of the nuns have been divided into private houses.
The work of the Society of St Margaret lives on – in Chiswick, Colombo, Sri Lanka and in Duxbury, USA. And there are autonomous, independent communities of the Society of St Margaret at St Saviour’s Priory, Hackney and The Priory of Our Lady in Walsingham.
So next time you go past Sister Ann Way remember the first Mother Superior of the Society of St Margaret – and all the good women who worked with her for the good of East Grinstead.
Photo top right Bonx Trigwell