Saturday, 12 April 2014

Portslade - St Marye's Convent

by Judy Middleton (2003 revised 2014)


copyright © J.Middleton
Portslade Manor / St Marye’s Convent was photographed on 20 March 2014. The exterior is covered with what was
 called Roman cement, which was popular at the time the manor was built.  But it does make the building look austere. 
The cross on top of the chapel can be seen on the right. 
The title of Portslade Manor belonged to two separate buildings. The first one dated back to Norman times and is a very rare example. Unfortunately, in the nineteenth century the owners decided to destroy it some time before 1840. But they did not obliterate everything and what remained became a Grade II* listed building on 19 July 1950. Today the ruins have been stabilised and restored and people can visit it by arrangement; the official opening ceremony took place on 17 March 1995.

Meanwhile a ‘new’ Portslade Manor was built in 1807 and it is the building still in existence today.

copyright © J.Middleton
This close-up shows the elegant ironwork at the south-west angle of the house. 

From Manor House to St Marye’s Convent

Miss Kathleen Nelson purchased Portslade Manor and gave it to the Order of the Poor Servants of the Mother of God who took up residence on 24 April 1904 and thereafter the building became known as St Marye’s Convent.

Fanny Margaret Taylor founded the Order of the Poor Servants of the Mother of God. She was born in England in 1832, the youngest of ten children of an Anglican rector and his wife in Lincolnshire. When Miss Taylor was aged 22 she became one of the second group of lady nurses sent out to tend the wounded in the Crimea. She joined the Roman Catholic Church and was eventually known as Mother Mary Magdalene.

In October 1904 St Marye’s Laundry was registered as a factory under the Factory and Workshops Act 1901. Before the chapel was built, Mass was celebrated in the large community room, which was reached by ten steps.

In the 1920s the nuns were given a Buick motor-car but they soon removed the top so that they could more easily transport hay and other commodities.

St Marye’s Convent owned other land in addition to the grounds surrounding the house, the garden reached by a tunnel and the field to the south of Manor Road between Easthill Park and Portslade Lodge. The other land consisted of four fields north of Drove Road and from time to time Portslade Council would cast envious eyes in their direction. In 1932 the council wanted to use some of the land to provide housing but instead they received a frosty letter dated 19 April 1932 from the Sister Superior saying they had no intention of disposing of their land.

copyright © J.Middleton
The field between Easthill Park and Portslade Lodge was photographed on 2 August 2002.
But the idea did not go away. In June 1936 the same fields were the basis of a stormy debate at a Portslade Council meeting. Some members were of the opinion the land should be acquired for public purposes including allotments, housing, public open spaces and a burial ground. But the nuns were unwilling to sell and Mr H. Durrant commented that if compulsory purchase were resorted to, it would stir up a hornet’s nest. Besides there was other land available. Mr A.J. Campbell opposed the acquisition of the fields. He stated the convent cared for 80 girls who were ‘either mentally defective or morally degenerate’.

The fields were used not just for grazing cows but also to teach the girls agriculture and dairy work. (These fields were eventually sold but not until the 1970s and Peter Gladwin School was built on one).

The large wing housing the girls was built on the north side of the convent while a chapel was erected on the east side. Both were formally opened on 11 January 1933.

copyright © J.Middleton
The flint structure is not part of the Norman Manor House. It is a folly created in Victorian times from some of the
 material used in the old house. In the background can be seen the new wing built in the 1930s. 
It was said that during the Second World War some bombs fell on or near the convent. On 8 February 1946 during a fierce gale, a corrugated iron roof blew off a cycle shelter at the convent and struck a passing car, causing head injuries to the driver.

The nuns wore full black habits with only their faces and hands visible. They were obliged to keep silence most of the time. Like the girls, the nuns too slept in dormitories in the early days. They had no idea what was taking place in the world outside because no newspapers were allowed and there was no radio. The nuns and the girls attended Mass at 7 a.m. every morning.

But for Sister Leila who arrived at St Marye’s Convent in the 1930s, her most vivid memory sixty years later was the endless scrubbing, as if cleanliness really were next to Godliness. Sister Leila said ‘I’ll never forget the scrubbing of floors and the poor sore knees but we didn’t complain.’

Some much-needed light relief was provided by the concerts staged by the girls and by the celebration of the great Christian festivals. The Feast of Corpus Christi in the summer was a great event when there would be a grand procession starting off from the church of Our Lady, Star of the Sea and St Denis in Church Road, Portslade, up to the convent. All the Catholic children took part, the young girls wearing white dresses, the priest in fine vestments, the server with swinging censer – it was indeed a sight to behold and this event continued until the 1960s. Today, looking at the congested conditions at the Southern Cross crossroads, it is hard to imagine it happening so recently. 

Mary Adams found convent life very hard, not that she had ever been consulted about being there. She was born in 1930 and came from a broken home, being despatched to boarding school at the tender age of four. She arrived at St Marye’s Convent in 1947, having been told that she would stay for two years in order to learn domestic skills. After that time she hoped to find a job and also perhaps a husband. But her mother thought otherwise and insisted she stay on at the convent; she remained for 21 long, hard-working years. Her mother continued to hold sway over her life. For instance, in 1963 when Mary was enjoying her domestic duties in the priest’s house, her mother was furious about the arrangement and insisted she stayed in the convent.

Mary Adams used to get up at 5 a.m. to let around 200 hens into their run. There were six cows to look after and four large fields where potatoes, cauliflowers, parsnips, Swedes and sprouts were grown. Although there were male gardeners, Mr King and his son, there was still a great deal of work to be done by the girls. Haymaking was particularly hard work with old-fashioned pitchforks and it was a hot day’s toil from 8.30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Discipline was harsh and after several warnings because she had failed to clean her Wellington boots properly after work, Mary was made to kneel with the offending boots strung around her neck in the middle of the dining room for three entire meal times.   

It must be stated that in the early days a convent was sometimes used as a dumping ground for illegitimate girls to save their families from embarrassment or for girls who had given birth outside marriage. At St Marye’s there were rumours that some girls came from high-born families but there is no way of ascertaining if there was any truth in the matter or whether it was an over-active rumour mill at work.

copyright © J.Middleton
This charming grotto was created in honour of Our Lady of Lourdes – you can just see the statue of Our Lady
with St Bernadette kneeling at the side. 
Major change came to St Marye’s in the 1960s when the convent became a residential home for women with learning difficulties. No longer was the discipline so harsh and the girls were not expected to do all the domestic work by themselves. They were each given £6 a month for pocket money and outings and holidays were arranged. Some of them were not Roman Catholic and those that were Anglican were allowed to attend Sunday services at St Nicolas’s Church, next door to the convent.

For the nuns too, it was all change. The nun’s traditional habit was consigned to history (to the regret of some it must be said) and they wore more convenient and comfortable clothing but kept a short veil that was less cumbersome. The nuns were also allotted their own bedrooms and they were allowed to hold conversations. 

copyright © D.Sharp
The statue of Our Lady & Child
formerly stood in St Marye's Chapel
and was presented to St Nicolas Church,
Portslade in 1996 by the nuns.
In 1972 there were over 100 women living at the convent of all ages over sixteen. There were seventeen nuns and Sister Marissa, Mother Superior, was voted Catholic Woman of the Year.  Three of the sisters taught at St Mary’s School, Portslade.

In April 1990 there were nine nuns living at St Marye’s. Sister Anna was the Mother Superior, Sister Emanuel was the bursar and the oldest nun was 84-year old Sister Leila. There were 63 women residents with learning difficulties.  But by the 1990s the convent began to lose its main role when the local authority took over responsibility for the women in their care. It was felt that the women did not need to be cooped up in an institution and would be better off living in the community.

In June 1991 it was stated that there were only eight nuns left at the convent where once there had been a thriving community of 32 sisters. Sister Margaret, Mother Superior, was brought over from Dublin by her Order to see what ought to be done. Sister Margaret was unlike the traditional nun of former days because she enjoyed an occasional glass of wine, besides listening to Simon and Garfunkel and playing tennis and badminton. Among the nuns still resident at St Marye’s were Sister Bernadette, Sister Cecilia, Sister Rose and Sister Bertrand. There was some talk about moving out because all the sisters were aged over 40 and three were in their seventies.

On 25 November 1994 Mother General from London arrived at St Marye’s to inform everyone that the convent would close in two years’ time. The Summer Fete had been a Portslade institution for over 50 years and the last one was held on 22 June 1996. Soon afterwards, the nuns left Portslade.

In November 1996 it was stated that Sussex Emmaus was negotiating to purchase St Marye’s Convent for around £500,000. Churches in Sussex donated £20,000 to help set it up and later there was also a grant from the Government’s Single Regeneration Fund. In February 1997 Emmaus moved in.

Sources

Adams (Mary) Those Lost Years (1995) QueenSpark
Argus
Encyclopaedia of Hove and Portslade  


Copyright © J.Middleton 2014
layout by D.Sharp