St. Mary’s Church, Ryde – Catholic Parish Life in Victorian England

from a talk given by Peter Clarke in 2003

In Victorian times the Catholic Church in England depended greatly on wealthy benefactors. A generous patron or benefactor often meant a fine church with interesting architectural features. This is evident in Ryde on the Isle of Wight. Elizabeth, Countess of Clare returned from the “grand tour” of Europe in 1841 having been received into the Catholic Church in Rome by Thomas Grant (later Bishop of Southwark). The Countess took the lease on a large town house overlooking the sea. From this attractive, Italianate style terrace house with its panoramic views of the Solent, she would watch from her balcony as the naval vessels and great liners of the day navigated Southampton Water and Portsmouth Harbour.

By this time there were already two small Catholic churches at Newport and Cowes. While the Countess travelled to Sunday Mass by pony chaise she would pass people walking from Ryde in all weather and determined to build a church. It was of concern to the Countess that she considered her house to be superior in style and architecture to the two Catholic churches on the Island. “I want the House of God where I attend Holy Mass to be better than my own abode”, she is reputed to have said; and as she possessed a grand and fashionable house, ny church that she built would clearly be a fine edifice which would reflect the sincerity of her conversion. She was thus determined to provide Ryde with a church fitting for Catholic ceremonial and devotion that she had experienced on the Continent, and she acquired a site in Ryde High Street in 1844 where she built and endowed a gothic style church dedicated to St. Mary.

The Countess (grand daughter of the Duke of Ancaster) was separated from her husband John, second Earl of Clare (family seat at Mountshannon, Limerick) although they maintained cordial relations. She set up home in Ryde with a lifelong friend, Charlotte Elliot, whom she had met at the London Season. Originally living in the adjacent apartment to the Countess, the 1861 census shows that they combined their two homes by removing some internal walls and lived together with eight servants who were housemaids, lady’s maids, cooks, a butler and a page. This was the normal complement of household staff for two aristocratic Victorian ladies. Their daily routine would have had little variation and the servants would have anticipated their demands and been conscious of their needs. The house was run like an edition of “Upstairs, Downstairs”, with a hierarchical structure typical of the deferential attitude of Victorian society. Miss Elliot was the Countess’s confidante and companion. She was apparently a most generous lady, especially to the poor, and was frequently seen giving bread to those in need.

The Countess had her own private chapel above the sacristy at St. Mary’s. It had its own altar and tabernacle and was in many ways a “church within a church”. This is a rare example of a private chapel within an English Catholic church with an altar, tabernacle, stained glass windows; in fact virtually everything that you would expect to see in a church. The side windows of the chapel overlooked the high altar in the main church below. From here she could see the priest in the pulpit and seated at the sedilia. These early English style decorated windows with geometrical tracery are supported by three corbel figureheads of Sts. John, Elizabeth and Clare of Assisi, expressing her hope for the future. John and Elizabeth were the Earl and Countess (her husband and herself) and Clare was not only the name of the family Earldom, but another saint upon whom she modelled her life. The Countess of Clare hoped and prayed that one day this chapel at St. Mary’s would become a family chapel, with her husband returning to her and adopting the same Faith that she had joined in 1841. Although he occasionally visited her in Ryde, this anticipated reunion never materialised.

There was a clear lack of parish social life and little evidence of the activities, promoted mainly by women, that are a feature of parishes today, such as jumble sales, bring and buy sales, coffee mornings etc. Parishioners were encouraged to spend any leisure time praying privately in the church in front of the Blessed Sacrament or developing their children’s faith at home by the recitation of prayers, especially the rosary.

One aspect of a priest’s life that must have been onerous was the necessity for record keeping and correspondence. There was no parish secretary nor any form of communication or data collection that we take for granted today. Yet nevertheless Fr. Telford’s letters portray ample evidence of his enthusiasm for his ministry and his gratitude to Almighty God that he had been called to serve the Church in the Holy Priesthood.

In the presbytery Fr. Telford had the luxury of a housekeeper and cook which appear to be a rarity today. Breakfast was always after morning Mass because of the “fast” rules, dinner was at midday and high tea about 5-00pm. For those interested in Victorian domestic architecture, St. Mary’s presbytery presents an absorbing challenge. The rambling old four storey building (built at the same time as the church) has many original features, such as Gothic-style stone fireplaces (which had to be cleaned out and lit every winter morning at 4-00am).

As in most morally conscious Victorian houses there was a separate entrance and staircase for domestic servants; a dumb waiter to avoid the necessity for any female presence at meals, a kitchen range and a coal-fired copper for boiling / washing clothes. It even had its own well (23 feet deep) in the courtyard. These features, still evident today, brought relative luxury to a Catholic priest in the 1850s, as most priests, at the time, had no presbytery and lived in modest rented accomodation. There was a recognised structured way of life which, as in all large Victorian houses, stressed the boundaries between master and servant. The kitchen, with the traditional scullery, larder and pantry, was the domain of the female servants, whose bedrooms were in the attic section at the top of the house. They would only enter Fr. Telford’s rooms when he was out. Their pay, like most Victorian servants, would have been meagre. They would be expected to treat their position as a privilege; – an honour to cater for the domestic everyday needs of a Catholic priest and to live and work next to the adjoining church.

In November 1861 the Countess lost her dear friend and companion of over forty years. Miss Elliot called into the church one morning to meditate on the Stations of the Cross and died from a heart attack as she reached the third station; a fact recorded by the wall plaque, inscribed on slate and brass, which the Countess installed adjacent to the picture of the Third Station where she fell. It records the last words she said as she reached the station, “we adore you O Christ and we praise you.” Miss Eliott’s death brought upon a paroxysm of grief for the Countess. Death had an immense significance for the Victorians; especially, as in this case, the demise of a loved one or close friend. The Countess’s distress was made worse with the realization that there was no Catholic cemetery in Ryde at the time. She arranged for Charlotte Elliot to be buried in the Catholic section of Carisbrooke cemetery (opened in 1858) within sight of the castle. She determined to remedy this situation and within two years a Catholic section of Ryde cemetery was consecrated. The local Council was sympathetic to Catholics having a separate section of the local cemetery. At this time there was no cremation. Every Funeral Mas was followed by a short procession to the cemetery in Hill Street. After 140 years the Catholic section is virtually full. Many of the gravestones have weathered and the stone has eroded making inscriptions virtually unreadable. Fortunately the parish has a ground plan identifying the names of all those interred. This includes eight priests and Bishop John Baptist Cahill, who wished to be buried in his beloved Ryde where he had been parish priest for 32 years before his appointment as the second Bishop of Portsmouth. The lines of headstones both simple and grand remind us that there is no status in death and burial with rich and poor, gentry and working class buried side by side.

The Countess became somewhat of a recluse after Miss Elliot’s death (remarkably similar to Queen Victoria at Osborne after the death of Prince Albert in the same year). She appears to have had a succession of chaplains in the 1860s. They had a period of “probation” to see if they preached satisfactory sermons, showed her due deference and generally met with her approval by saying what she liked to hear! One chaplain appointed in 1862 was Fr. Edward O’Shaughnessy* from Foynes, Limerick. He was a sickly young man of 25, and coughed and sneezed most of the time in her presence. Like many other sick people at the time, he was sent to the Island by his doctor for medicinal purposes. After a month the Countess suggested to the Bishop a move to Ventnor, where a National Hospital for the Diseases of the chest, had recently been opened. Ventnor was the destination for many sick priests at this time. Its exposure to the bracing sea air was considered beneficial for most illnesses. Father O’Shaughnessy’s health never recovered. He died the following year at the age of 26. In his final words to the Countess of Clare, he asked her to apologise to the Bishop on his behalf that he was unable to give him more than one year of his priestly ministry.

This was an age of truly Catholic families who prayed together and put Almighty God at the centre of their lives; a time when parents actively sought to pass the Faith on to their children. They were shining examples of what the famous Fr. Peyton was to emphasise in the 1950s; “that the family that prays together, stays together.” They recited the rosary daily, went to Confession each week and never passed the church in the High Street without entering to pray before the Blessed Sacrament as they knelt in faith, in hope and in love of the real presence of Our Lord and Saviour in the tabernacle upon the altar.

The deferential attitude of the Victorian era was evident even in St. Mary’s. Seat rents were encouraged for those who could pay, with the pews nearer to the sanctuary costing more. The gentry and aristocracy had these positions. Families attended church together and would usually occupy one whole pew. Prominent members of the congregation were Lt. Col. Sir John and Lady Hamilton, Mrs Helen Gladstone (sister of the Victorian statesman), Theresa, Countess de Spaur, the Hon W. Stourton, Lord and Lady Cavendish, Sir John Simeon and Lord and Lady Dillon who resided with the Countess during the Summer season. Other wealthy members of the aristocracy regularly appeared at Summertime, such as Lady Cecilia Newburgh, widow of Marques Bandini and niece of Cardinal Giustiniani and the Marquis and Marchioness of Cholmondeley (cousins of the Countess).

Seat rents were a feature of the Victorian church. There were various grades for these rents. The wealthy paid an annual rent for seats near the front. Working class and poorer families tended to use the seats in the two side aisles. Visitors were shown to appropriate seats as exemplified by their manner and attire. The Countess of course had her own chapel overlooking the sanctuary and considered herself to be above such public “jockeying for position” in the main body of the church. Family services such as baptisms, weddings and funerals tended to be more solemn and elaborate for the upper classes. The funeral of Lady Louisa Cavendish in 1869, was attended by many members of the aristocracy, including her father, Lord Alexander Cockburn (Lord Chief Justice of England). The family were a collateral branch of the Duke of Devonshire’s family and also related to the Countess. The coffin was solemnly received on the eve of the funeral. A full complement of choir was expected and Matins was sung with the usual psalms and responses. The Solemn Requiem the following morning, with a full choir and nine priests was by ticket only. The working classes however, always lined the streets to observe the pomp and grandeur of an aristocratic funeral. In some respects it took the appearance of a fashion parade, with mourners attired in their best black finery reserved for funerals with the hat bands, scarves and gloves which were the custom at the time. This contrasted with a more simple reception of the coffin and Low (Requiem) Mass for the majority of the congregation. Such class distinction would cause outrage today from the “Equal Opportunities” groups, but it was generally accepted as the norm in Victorian times.

The Catholic school was also built by the Countess of Clare and was closely connected to the church. The priest visited on most days and checked that the children knew their catechism. The children and their teachers came in to Mass on feast days and to Benediction at regular intervals. The church and school registers for this period show the relatively high rate of infant mortality especially among the poorer families due to damp living conditions and poor sanitation. Scarlet fever, smallpox, cholera and typhoid were the most frequent causes of child deaths. For those who reached adulthood, they would be fortunate to become an apprentice and learn a skill. Many would go into service with the gentry and aristocracy or work as a farm labourer. Whatever they did, they would keep the Faith. From Baptism through to death, St. Mary’s would be their spiritual home.

Today the Catholics of Ryde realise their good fortune in having such a beautiful church in which to worship Almighty God and as a home for the Blessed Sacrament, thanks to the generosity of the Countess of Clare. It is a feature of the Catholic Church, especially in England, that it always seems to produce in every parish dedicated, selfless people, totally committed to the Faith and to the service of the Church and everything connected with it; its pastors, the poor and needy, the old and infirmed, the young and their education. The full extent of the Countess’s charity will never be known, owing to the unostentatious manner in which she lent her support.