The History of the Bar Convent1

 

Sister Gregory Kirkus I.B.V.M.

The Bar Convent, York


On November 5th 1686 Mother Frances Bedingfield, alias Mistress Frances Long, purchased for £450 a house and garden just outside Micklegate Bar, York, and founded there a Convent that has remained on the same site for three hundred years. The transaction was made possible by a gift of money from Sir. Thomas Gascoigne, a prominent north country Catholic. He had already stood trial for his life in 1679 when, although over eighty and very deaf, he had been accused of complicity in the Popish Plot, and the most damning piece of evidence produced against him was that he had “established a nunnery at Dolebank, near Ripley” for these same religious. Contrary to the advice of the presiding judge, the jury of Yorkshiremen acquitted him and he spent the rest of his life in Lambspring Abbey, Hanover, leaving Mother Bedingfield to make the foundation in York. The portrait of this remarkable woman hangs in the Great Parlour of the Convent and supports our evidence of her energy, humour and practical ability as well as of her faith and vision. Since joining the Institute of Mary in 1632, she had enjoyed companionship with its foundress, Mary Ward, 2 and she had been present at her death-bed in 1645. A few years later she accompanied the bereaved community to Paris and Rome, returning to England to be Superior of the foundations in Hammersmith and at Dolebank. Though she had studied Hebrew, Greek and Astronomy, we are not surprised to learn that in the former house “at their first beginning, and for some years, she went herself to the washing-tub [and] washed among the servants from 12 at night until 8 in the morning.” She would have been a woman after Florence Nightingale's own heart.

 

Mother Frances came back to York in 1686 to fulfil Sir Thomas Gascoigne's wishes. She was three times imprisoned for her faith in what an old necrology describes as “loathsome holes, dark and verminous, with a poisonous atmosphere.” On the third occasion, in 1694, she wrote from Ousebridge Gaol to Archbishop Sharp, saying [after some formal courtesies] “... My humble petition to your Grace is to begg you to shew and procure us all the favour and charity you can for our releasement. I know your Grace is full of mercie and pitty that you can't but think a prison must go hard with one who want but 2 years of 80 years old, and I am sure none ... will say other but we have carried ourselves in quiet and civilly and always under great submission to the Lord Mair and Aldermen .... It seems possible that other influential persons procured her “releasement,” but released she was, to pursue her courageous career, sustaining visits from pursuivants and, in 1696, a violent mob-attack on the Convent. Then in 1699, at the age of eighty-three, she was recalled to Bavaria by the General Superior. Since the Institute as such could not own property, she at once had a conveyance drawn up, making the house and garden over to her “niece” - actually her second cousin - Mistress Dorothy Bedingfield, alias Paston, and Mistress Helen Walker. As soon as the deed was completed, the indomitable old lady was off to Munich, where she did in 1704.

The little community struggled on. Though it was illegal to do so, the nuns ran a boarding school for “young ladies of Roman Catholic families,” and in 1699 they opened a day-school for local girls. The “Annals” prints a list of pupils from 1710 onwards; with its Actons, Arundels, Arrowsmiths, Bedingfields, Eastwoods, Vavasours and Welds, it “reads like a roll of honour of the English Catholic resistance.” The nature of the establishment was something of a mystery to the outside world, as it was both rumoured and denied that it was a nunnery. A local parson wrote to the Bishop of London in 1705, “The house is reported to be as full of papists as it can hold .... They have a private backdoor in the lane, for their priest and papists of the place to go unobserved.” It was from the Established Church that the next persecution came. Dr. Jacques Sterne, uncle of the novelist and Precentor of the Minster, visited the convent early in 1748 and ordered the community to quit the house by August 22nd. He threatened to put into force the penal laws if he were not obeyed, and the situation became so menacing that friends begged the nuns to disperse for a time. In the course of discussion, Mother Eleonora Clifton declared “I have consecrated myself to the service of God to labour for the salvation of souls in this house and, whilst a wall of it is standing, I will never leave it. If they drag me out, I cannot help it, but I will never go otherwise,” and her attitude was adopted by the rest. Not only did the storm blow over but Dr. Sterne became a friend and supporter of the convent.

Nevertheless the nuns continued to keep a low profile. Instead of religious habits, they wore slate-coloured gowns, caps and hoods, and they were addressed as Mistress or Madam. When they died they were buried under nameless graveslabs in Holy Trinity Churchyard, Micklegate. To the people of York they were just the “Ladies of the Bar,” going out to feed and nurse the poor. They eked out their livelihood by keeping sheep, cows and hens, but even so they could barely survived. Their numbers were few, averaging only ten over more than a century, for new arrivals were constantly offset by the deaths of older members. The school was small - about forty pupils - and resources were too scant to provide financial stability.

With hindsight one can see that the tide turned in 1727 when two novices joined the community, each destined to make a notable contribution to its development. Elizabeth Stanfield, a little cripple, brought with her a modest fortune which, after complicated financial transactions necessitated by her religion, paid the convent's debts. Ann Aspinal, an old pupil of the school, had a good business head, determination, perspicacity and a flair for building. She was appointed Superior in 1760, and the school soon began to prosper. “I never knew a larger number of pupils than we now have,” she wrote to the General Superior in 1767. And so, with a healthy financial situation and a flourishing school, she embarked upon an ambitious building project. She chose as her architect Thomas Atkinson, who had recently been engaged on Bishopthorpe Palace, and together they planned the demolition of the original house and the construction, round an open courtyard, of a new school and community accommodation. Strangely, the façade came last. In 1787 the Mayor and Commonalty granted “Ann Aspinal of the Suburbs of York, Spinster, leave to erect a new front wall to her house”; and so, thus modestly described the striking Georgian façade was built. In 1790 a clock face was inserted in the pediment and connected by a driving rod with the original turret-clock which looked onto the courtyard. This clock was made before 1770 by Henry Hindley, who was “so rabid a Jacobite” that he was not allowed outside the city walls without special permission.

The first edition of Drake's Eboracum, printed in 1736, describes the convent as “a large brick building ... a boarding school for young ladies ... the site, the gardens and agreeable walks beyond it make it convenient for that purpose.” Small wonder that later editions add, “It has been of late years much enlarged by elegant buildings backwards, which proves that either the number of scholars or other boarders by whatever denomination the reader chooses to style them, hath greatly increased.”

Most important of all these “elegant buildings” was the chapel. It was still illegal to build a Catholic Church, and even a private chapel was at risk in every upsurge of anti-papal agitation. Undeterred by such considerations, Atkinson and Mother Aspinal pursued their course. Choosing as their model a church near Rome, they modified the plan only by lowering the dome so that the whole chapel is sunk in the general complex of buildings and completely hidden from the outside observer. The dome is further camouflaged by a sloping slate roof, but anyone exploring the upper floors of the convent may be startled to come across its curved segments protruding into the “galleries” or corridors. How conscious Mother Aspinal was of the penal laws she was flouting can be gauged by the fact that a priest's hiding hold was constructed under one of the transepts.

Work on the chapel began in 1766, but as late as 1769 Mother Aspinal wrote to the General Superior “Our chapel is not yet finished,” adding with pride, “It is said that when completed it will be the handsomest and most commodious in these parts.” In May she was able to report: “We have entered our new chapel to our great satisfaction and consolation.” No doubt the words came straight from the heart, for in addition to its religious significance the chapel is a gem of neo-classical art. The white dome, supported on eight Ionic pillars, is enriched with gold rococo swags and garlands and surmounted by a glazed cupola. A gold pelican in her piety, also designed by Thomas Atkinson, stands under the altar, and the four Latin doctors of the Church are seated majestically above the tabernacle.

To pay for this extravagance in architecture and decoration, Mother Aspinal appealed for financial help from her friends and from local Catholics, carefully putting the contributions aside; and in a little note-book we read that when the first bills came in she “took £300 from the red purse.” In all, the sum of £757.15s was collected, and many handsome gifts in kind were added. A “Memorandum of all those who were so charitable as to contribute to the building of our house, 1765” makes interesting reading. Foremost among the donors were the Catholic gentry - Lady Dowager Arundell, Lord Petre, Lady Stourton and Lady Gerrard, William Constable of Everingham and others. But the names include those of the widow of a York upholsterer and undertaker, a schoolmaster and a retired draper. It is clear that the chapel played a significant part in the life of the local Catholic community, though it was granted a licence at the York Quarter Sessions only in 1791, when the law requiring attendance at Church of England services was repealed for avowed Roman Catholics. The chapel remained public until 1828. It was here that the historian John Lingard was ordained on April 18th 1795, and that Joseph Hansom, the architect of Arundel Cathedral and Birmingham Town Hall and the inventor of the hansom cab, was baptised in October 1803.

The later history of the Bar Convent cannot be read in bricks alone: we rely for the details of family life upon the letters, diaries, account books and other documents stored in the Convent archives. Here, written in fading ink on yellowed paper, are the vows by which the nuns promised lifelong poverty, chastity, obedience and devotion to the care of young people. Here are the copies of the letters written to the General Superior in elegant French, and the wills by which the property was handed on from one Superior to the next, for it was held by individuals until the Convent could become a legal entity. Among the books of customs and rules of office, many written in a stilted style, the researcher is refreshed and delighted to come upon a small black exercise book inscribed “Anecdotes of the Bar from the year 1735.” The title is misleading, for it is largely an inventory of accessions, occasionally with costs, kept by Mother Davies who “took ye office of Procuratress, Nov. ye 13th, 1735.” The torrent of entries provides a fragmented but vivid peep-show into community life two hundred and fifty years ago. Much care was lavished on the chapel, and we read of “2 little images for ye niches of ye Tabernacle,” “the Chapel candlesticks new gilt, 1741,” “a crimson cord and tassel for ye chapel lamp,” and many other embellishments. For the nuns, economy is a dominant note. “Madam Paston's chimney-board” is made into “a table for ye day scholars,” a screen is fashioned from an old pulpit at the cost of 6s 6d, one of the old school benches becomes “a cheese shelf,” and a “tynn case to put candle ends into” is provided. Chairs are constantly re-covered or “new-bottomed” and beds given “new sacking bottoms.” The old tapestry taken from one room is made into “carpits” for another. Bed quilts are made out of old gowns or “vamp'd up of old raggs.” The nearest thing to a new quilt is described as “one side new check, the other old sheet.”

Very properly, the pupils fared better. For “the misses' room” there are purchases of new bed hangings, new bolsters, new testers and new ticks to be filled with feathers purchased from Lincolnshire at 9s 6d a stone. There are chests of drawers for “the high rooms” (still so called) and “a sett of peggs for ye Misses to hang their cloaths on.” In addition to “muggs,” Mother Davies bought the children new Delph tea-porringers at St. Luke's fair, and there were tea-cups with handles and “a China tea-pott” for them, although tea was an expensive luxury. For their recreation, there is a cribbage board, “a swing to rock in,” and a copy of Robinson Crusoe The picture is rounded off by mention of “2 new hooks for ye Shepherdesses” and “a new black bagg for ye King's hair,” which seems to refer to school plays.

Visitors, quaintly described as “strangers” are provided with a set of coffee cups, “a mahoggany tea-tray” and (surprisingly) “an ugly carpit in ye parlor.” In the kitchen quarters the list of accessions included a jack for the stove, “2 flatt irons, 5d,” “a Chocolat Mill,” a new bucket for the well, and innumerable “tubbs” for the brewery, scullery and kitchen. But we learn much more of the activities there from a MS recipe book, tattered and enchanting, dated 1753. In it are described various remedies (“nervis pills,” eye ointment, “receipt for ye kings evil,” etc.) side by side with recipes for Gingerbread, Shrewsbury cakes, orange pudding and damson wine. The cooks must have expended much time and energy for, to take only two examples, the beating up of “best butter” and sugar for Tunbridge Cakes “will be about an hour dooing,” and for Prahsia Cakes they had to take “8 ounces of apricock kernels, blanch em and beat em very fine.”

Out of doors, Mother Davies related that the “little garden” is turned into “a garden of more profit than asparagus was.” The strawberry bed is dug up in “ye great garden” and half of it is planted with raspberrys. The garden walks are “gravelled with rubbag” and “Rose Mary set against all ye Buttresses in ye Garden Wall.” The “Dogg Kennell” is “new roofed for ye young Whelp” and the “Hogg stye” several times improved.

It is strange that this inventory makes no reference to the library. Probably the splendid collection of some 2,000 books dating from the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was built up during the more prosperous years of the late eighteenth century. But there is evidence that some of the volumes were in the possession of the earliest members.

There is no shortage of later customs books, indicating how the community lived in the early and mid-nineteenth century. But they strike a sad note to those who admire the robust spirit of the earlier generations, for in them the Bar Convent seems to have suffered a change of identity. The advent of French emigré priests brought in Jansenistic ideas, and at the same time all contact with the Institute in Italy and Germany was severed by the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. Totally isolated, the community allowed an enclosed, monastic style of life, for which they were altogether unsuited and which they did not understand, to be imposed upon them. A single entry from some nineteenth century rules of office for the portress makes the point. “As soon as she hears the bell ring,” it reads, “she must hasten to the gate and dispatch those of a different sex with as few words as possible.” This is a far cry from the days of Mother Eleonora Clifton who, in the mid-eighteenth century, used to run a kind of clinic in the Convent porch for all the sick and unfortunate of the neighbourhood and who even received an offer of his hand in marriage from a young workman whose damaged leg she had bound up. “I am much obliged to you, sir,” she replied, “but I am already engaged.”

The story of how the Bar Convent recovered its freedom belongs to the story of the Institute in general, and is too long to be told here.

However withdrawn from the world the nuns might be, they were never unaffected by the march of events. The emigré priests have already been mentioned. Many received temporary shelter in the Convent and one became a permanent resident there. They taught French in the school and in the city, and the compassionate nuns made shirts for them. The Revolution brought other visitors. Mother Rouby, the Superior, used to send trustworthy friends to “watch” travellers coming by coach and to report the arrival of foreigners. The “Annals” has a passage on this subject that deserves to be quoted in full.

One autumn evening in 1794, Reverend Mother Rouby's “spies” brought news that a heavy coach, containing foreign ladies very like nuns, was standing at Dringhouses, a suburb of York, about a mile from the Convent. Word was sent to the foreigners to stop at the door, the Community meanwhile repairing to the parlour to receive them. Out of the coach stepped sweet smiling Carmelites overjoyed to find themselves once more in a religious house. The York nuns wept to see their forlorn, poverty-stricken appearance. Their clothing consisted of whatever they had been able to beg during their flight. One wore a man's hat; another, a huge pair of priest's shoes; and as far as colours, their dresses exhibited all the hues of the rainbow. Seeing the tears of their hosts, they said, “Oh! do not cry; we are very happy; we are quite contented; God's will be done.”

These Carmelites had been driven from their home in Brabant. They stayed in the Bar Convent for a few days and then went further north, finally settling in Darlington where the foundation still exists. The following year parties of Poor Clares, exiled from Dunkirk, were welcomed at the Convent and a few months later it was the Canonesses of the Holy Sepulchre, in flight from Liège, who were receiving “the most friendly hospitality” of Mother Rouby. No doubt the nuns at the Bar enjoyed these opportunities to help the exiles. but the full horror of the Revolution must have come home to them when a novice of their own community, Louise Guyon de Beaufort, heard that first her father and later her mother and only brother had died under the guillotine.

In the 1820's Resurrection Men were very active in York. The greatest demand for corpses was from the medical schools of Edinburgh, and as direct coaches ran between the two cities, a macabre trade in “subjects” developed in York. The nuns feared that the bodies of their sisters buried in Micklegate might be exhumed for dissection, and so Mother Coyney, Mother Rouby's successor, laid out a private cemetery within the Bar Convent grounds. The chaplain planted it with yew trees, and Mother Coyney herself was the first nun to be buried there.

The nineteenth century's spirit of expansion finds some reflection in the history of the Convent. It must be admitted that Mother Coyney was very timid about new foundations. She was once persuaded to make a journey to Leeds, to inspect a house that might be converted into a convent. “But,” says the chronicler regretfully, “the affair ended with that day's drive.” It was perhaps unwittingly that Mother Coyney played a part in far wider expansion. In 1813 she accepted into the noviciate Mary Aikenhead and Alicia Walshe, whom Archbishop Murray of Dublin designated to the first members of his proposed Congregation of the Irish Sisters of Charity. These two sisters received their religious training in the Bar Convent and adopted the Rule of the Institute before returning to Ireland in 1816, to found the Congregation which is world-renowned for its charitable work and, above all, for its Hospices for the Dying - the first of their kind - in Dublin and Hackney.

In June 1814 another Irish girl, Frances Ball, who had been a pupil at the Convent, returned to York and entered the noviciate with a view to founding a house of the Institute in Ireland. In the event, this proved to be a separate branch under an independent General, but claiming Mary Ward as its foundress. The nuns, known as Loreto sisters, have spread to many parts of the world. From their Mother House in Rathfarnham a third branch of the Institute was founded in Canada and the U.S.A. It should be mentioned here that the Bar Convent did eventually make three new foundations: the houses in Scarborough and Egton Bridge were short-lived, but the convent in Cambridge, founded in 1898, still exists and runs a flourishing Grammar School.

Meanwhile, the winds of change continued to blow. Two ornamental iron benches made in Coalbrookdale stand in the Convent entrance hall, and the floor is paved with Maw tiles from Benthall, Ironbridge. These are very small indications that the Industrial Revolution did not pass the Convent by. In human terms it had far greater effects. George Hudson who enthroned himself as Railway King, brought the railways to York and made it the centre of the northern network. The unskilled labour needed for this enterprise was largely supplied by Irish navvies. For them, and mostly by their own contributions, St. George's Catholic Church was designed and built by Joseph Hansom, and a primary school opened for the children. Reverend Mother Angela Browne was asked to help, and she responded with financial support and the services of two nuns to teach in the school. On the opening day in 1852 the sisters travelled by cab, furnished with some strict rules that Mother Angela had drawn up for their behaviour. The importance of punctuality, firmness and general decorum was stressed. What happened next is better told in the words of the Annals.

The scene that met [them] on their arrival will long be remembered - a disorderly crowd of wild-looking little creatures for the most part bare-footed and bare-headed, squalid and dirty, shouting and screaming, mounting every available projection upon which they could perch themselves ....

But the harum-scarums cannot have been as bad as they looked for they quickly responded to one of the nuns who sang “in a deep, rich voice” and they were soon standing “silent ... around their tuneful instructress.” If tradition is to be believed, the parents too were quickly won over. But a later memorandum in an unidentified hand has some tart things to say abut the dirty classrooms, smoky stoves, general lack of amenities, and almost total absence of equipment, which the sisters had to cope with for more than twenty years.

For the boarders as the Convent (now styled “the young ladies”) the advent of the railways meant the welcome innovation, in 1846, of school holidays. Hitherto the pupils had lived with the nuns, uninterruptedly, for their whole school life; but as travel became easier most boarding-schools introduced holidays, and the Bar was no exception. Sometimes the railways overstepped the mark and were a threat to regular attendance at day-school, for they ran cheap excursions, and one entry in a school diary reads: “This week there were many trips to Scarborough and Manchester. Some of the children availed themselves of them.”

The development of the Railway Age is also reflected in the economy of the convent. A series of modest investments was made in the new ventures, illustrating Disraeli's assertion that the railways were financed by the savings of thousands of small investors. Perhaps it was the success of these investments that enabled the community to provide central heating in the chapel in 1860, for the sum of £34, and to install baths so that expeditions to the Fulford public baths were no longer necessary.

Since the French Wars of the early nineteenth century, the Bar Convent had lived in isolation, its members virtually cut off from those on the continent. But it never wavered in its loyalty; and its determination to win Papal approval for the Institute was evinced in 1876 when Reverend Mother Juliana Martin, with the help of Father Morris, S.J., and Bishop Cornthwaite of Beverley, addressed a petition to Pope Pius IX, asking for his approval and confirmation of the Institute. Though previous endeavours had failed, this petition was solemnly granted the following year by a Bull of February 15th 1877. The Annals relate triumphantly that “to convey the glad tidings of the Papal Approbation to all who had a right to share its privileges was the gratifying task of the York nuns.”

When the bi-centenary of the Convent approached, it was evident that the occasion justified a memorable celebration. Among the invited guests was Cardinal Newman, who declined graciously, pleading old age as an excuse; but the hierarchy, the clergy, friends of the house and local Catholics attended in great numbers. The festivities lasted several days, with magnificent High Masses followed by banquets for the guests. The latter were in the best tradition of the Victorian era and included Hare Soup, Saddle of Mutton, Pheasants, Roast Turkeys, Grouse, Braised Ducks, Plum Pudding, Mince Pies, Mayonnaise of Lobster and Wine Jelly. The annalist does not relate what the nuns had to eat, but a contemporary manuscript reveals that they recalled their long history with homely pride. A “letter” purporting to be written for the occasion by Mother Frances Bedingfield from heaven, blends poignancy with humour:

“Frances Bedingfield to Ours at the Bar, Greeting.” [It begins]. “Two hundred years this day since I put my signature to the Deed which secured to you, my children, the property you now enjoy. Our company, i.e. my dear niece Paston, Hastings, Vine, Hugalin, Cramlington, Chester, Stanfield, and More [a descendant of St. Thomas], then began the work which you continue. Imagine our feelings, when on this day we sat down to take our first meal in one of the chambers .... The recreation was a merry one, as all should have been since them - for though some of us had just come out of the prison gates, we laughed heartily and merrily, for under Heaven's protection we fared mightily grand in our new House ....”

The renewed imprisonment of Mother Bedingfield and her niece are then described, and the community is thanked for its devotion to St. Michael and St. Anthony. The letter further reminds the present members of former persecution by its use of the code words resorted to in early days. “Mitre” stood for bishop, “Bagg” for a confessor and “convictresses” for pupils. A touch of wry humour is introduced with messages from Pope Urban VIII who suppressed the Institute in 1631 and Pope Benedict XIV who refused Mary the title of foundress. “I am bid by their Holinesses to wish you well. They remember well what they writ.” At the same time “Clement XI and Pius IX of holy memories, with ample benedictions, fully ratify their blessed approval of Rule and Institute.” And Mother Frances continues, “My good friend Sir Thomas Gascoigne is well pleased with the way you carry out his design.”

The long letter ends affectionately:

The palm which is now mine I wave to you, not yet to beckon you here, but to make you bravely lift your hearts up in the strife. It will soon come to an end and then a gladsome welcome each of you will have from all our Company here, and your palms of gladsome victory will wave in never-ending Jubilee.

Your Mother, Frances Bedingfield.

This 5th day of the month of November in the year of Our Lord 1886.

It would have been an insensitive community that did not find both amusement and encouragement in the document.

The apostolate of the early twentieth century widened beyond the classroom walls. Mother Loyala Giles, for example, besides being a Novice Mistress of some renown, found time to write an impressive number of religious books, many of them translated into foreign languages including Japanese. She and her successors ran the local Boys' Brigade and a wide field of adult education was cultivated.

This peaceful development was shattered by the outbreak of World War I. The nuns' patriotic contribution was to convert the school concert hall into a hospital ward where over four hundred wounded soldiers were cared for. Sister Gerard, a member of the community, with nursing training, was on the staff.

In the inter-war years the day and boarding schools were amalgamated, and in 1929 received the status of a Direct Grant Grammar School.

World War II left a great scar on the convent, for it received a direct hit in an air-raid on April 29th 1942. Five members of the community, including Sister Gerard, were killed, and the east wing was destroyed. But within a few days the school re-opened and when peace came, it went from strength to strength. It kept its flexibility to the end, and in the 1970's accepted boys as well as girls. The last great change was associated with the national reorganisation of education. Adapting its services once more to the needs of the local Catholic children, the Bar Convent Grammar School amalgamated in 1985 with two other Catholic schools in York to become All Saints' Comprehensive School. The modern school buildings and part of the community accommodation were absorbed into the new school. The Georgian buildings have become a Museum of Catholic History, with emphasis on the history of the Convent, of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary and of its foundress, Mary Ward. Other parts of the property have been adapted to make a residential Youth Centre, a Pastoral Centre and a Benedictine Priory.

In November 1986 the Bar Convent celebrated its tercentenary and in 1987 opened its front door to the public in order to relate its unique history to all who enter there.