This article was compiled by Susan Neale, a member of Olney & District Historical Society. The article was first published in 2004 in the booklet ‘Olney Continues…’ , an ODHS publication. Susan attended the Convent School at Olney during the period 1944 to 1956.
Ed. Note: Click any image to obtain a larger and clearer picture.
The Olney and District Historical Society is indebted to Sister Anne-Marie Davies for the use of her extensive translation from the French of the annals of Olney Convent. Use has also been made of a talk given by Sr Josephine Egan at a ‘girls’ reunion’ at Olney on 19th September 1998.
Arrivals from France
The Convent, known to the older residents of Olney as ‘St Joseph’s Convent’ was founded by the ‘Daughters of the Holy Ghost’, a religious Congregation that had been founded in France, in 1706. From their earliest days at Le Legue, a small fishing village near Saint-Brieuc in Brittany, the Sisters cared for the sick and provided schooling for the young children. The Congregation survived the hardships of the French Revolution, but the anti-clerical laws that were passed at the beginning of the twentieth century resulted in the Sisters being expelled from many of their communities and schools. The French Government of the time did not want the Church to have any involvement in education.
Expelled from their houses, the ‘Daughters of the Holy Ghost’, like many other religious Congregations, sought refuge abroad. The Bishop of Northampton, Arthur Riddell, was asked if he would allow the Sisters to come into his diocese, and with his consent, the ‘Daughters of the Holy Ghost’ made their first English foundation, at High Wycombe. A few months later another was made at Olney, where the parish priest, Fr Carton de Wiart, was keen to start a little school for the local Roman Catholic children.
There were some who doubted the need for such a school, given the relative proximity of Olney to Bedford and Northampton, which were already well served. Nevertheless, on the 4th October 1902, accompanied by Sr Marie Angélina, the Bursar General, and by Sr Marie Théodose from the General Secretariate in Saint-Brieuc, the first three Sisters arrived, Sr Marie Dominique, Superior, Sr Marie de l’Incarnation and Sr Hélène. Having met with Fr Carton de Wiart, and seen the two little red-brick cottages the Sisters were to occupy, Sr Marie Angélina and Sr Marie Théodose returned to Saint-Brieuc.
One of the first challenges to be met by the Sisters was to learn English. So it was that soon afterwards, seven young Sisters were sent to Olney to study for their Oxford Senior Examinations. They had as their full-time tutor, a certain Miss Walsh. These Sisters sat their examinations in July 1903, at the Notre Dame School, in Northampton. All seven passed in their main subjects: Religious studies, English, French and Maths, which qualified them to teach as Assistant Teachers. Only two of the seven stayed in Olney; of the remaining Sisters, four were sent to newly founded communities in the USA.
The Olney Advertiser on the 22nd August 1903 published the following item on ‘Local Successes’, ‘In the division lists announcing the results of the Oxford Local Examinations we are glad to notice the names of several Olney students. In the Senior Division every one of the seven candidates presented by St Josephxs Convent, West Street has been successful.’
Whilst these Sisters were busy studying, the building of the new Convent and adjoining elementary school had been going on apace and by the end of August 1903, the Sisters were able to leave the cottages and move into the new St Joseph’s Convent.
The Elementary School
The Elementary School was a day school set up to educate the children of the Catholic population of Olney. It opened on 31st August 1903. On the first morning 39 pupils were admitted and the following morning this number increased to 51. The maximum number allowed at that time was 64. No fees were required for attendance at the school.
The first headmistress was Miss Walsh who left in October 1905. She was followed by a Miss MacDonald who stayed until July 1907. She in turn was replaced by Sr Marie Albertine who, with four other Sisters, had just obtained her Teacher Training Certificate.
The Elementary School was formally inspected by the Board of Education on New Year’s Day 1907. Although the school was recognised as efficient by the inspectors, it did not qualify for a grant from the government. Oliver Ratcliff, in his book entitled ‘Olney Bucks’ published in 1907, comments that local opposition to the school prevented the award of a government grant. Consequently, funding for basics such as text-books and writing materials, not to mention teacher’s salaries, presented huge problems for the financial stability of the school. Lack of adequate funding remained a problem for the Elementary School throughout the 23 years of its existence.
The Convent High School – the early years
The St Josephs Convent High School was both a Day School and a Boarding School and catered for Catholic and non-Catholic pupils. It was a private school for which fees of two guineas were payable for children under twelve years and four guineas for those over twelve, presumably per term.
An item advertising a High School for Young Ladies, West Street, Olney appeared in Oliver Ratcliffexs book of 1907. This advertisement stated that: ‘The course of studies comprises all the branches of a solid and complete education’, and: ‘The Sisters give advanced lessons in French, Drawing, Painting, Needlework, Embroidery, Lace-making etc by their specialists in each branch’. Pupils were prepared for the Oxford and Cambridge Local Examinations and also Music Examinations.
The available written sources of information for the history of St Joseph’s Convent do not provide any precise details as to when the High School was opened, but it is believed that it opened within a year or so of the Elementary School.
As the community annals indicate, the growth and development of the High School was due, in considerable measure, to Sr Marie du Christ. She was one of the original seven Sisters who passed the Oxford Senior Examination in 1903. In the following year she was awarded a King’s Scholarship which qualified her for a place at a teacher training college. She did not attend college because she was irreplaceable in the High School where, as well as being Headmistress, she prepared pupils for the Oxford Junior and Senior Examinations. A second group of seven Sisters arrived at St Joseph’s in 1904, of which six subsequently passed their exams to become Assistant Teachers.
The work entailed in preparing candidates for examinations, added to the duties of a Headmistress, became too much work for one person, and at her Superior’s request, another Sister was sent to help Sr Marie who was the mainstay of the High School for over twenty years. Although the Sisters were obviously very hard working, they were seriously poor, particularly in the early years. In 1906, in desperation, they wrote to an organisation, called the ‘Denier des Exiles’ which sent them just one donation of 100 francs.
In 1904 a dispensary was opened; it was run by Sr Marie de St Martin, who had little, if any, knowledge of English. She also visited the sick in their homes. The local press reported ‘One of the Sisters of St. Joseph’s Convent, who has had many years of experience in nursing, has opened, with the approval of the local Doctor, a small room in one of the outbuildings of the Convent where she will be ready to attend, free of charge, to any case which might be brought to her, and which does not require the doctor’s attention, or which might be sent by him’.
For the next six years the people of Olney gladly availed themselves of Sr Marie de St Martin’s services. Oliver Ratcliff was particularly complimentary of the Dispensary services provided at the Convent. However, concerns were expressed by her superiors that, because she spoke so little English, people did not always grasp what she was saying and that they feared that problems might arise. These concerns were justified when a child under Sr Marie de St Martin’s care died, and an official enquiry was held to investigate the circumstances. Although Sr Marie de St Martin was cleared of any responsibility for the death and the Dispensary was asked to continue its work, her superiors decided that she should be replaced with a nursing Sister with a better grasp of English. Sr Marie de St Martin was returned to France, but unfortunately a replacement could not be found and the Dispensary closed in 1910.
1910 to 1926
The annals of the Convent have no entries during the period of the 1914-18 war. This period must have been a sad and worrying time for the Sisters, all of whom came from France.
In 1922 Sr Marie du Christ’s superiors noted that she was suffering from the strain of her heavy workload and she was returned to France for a prolonged rest. Subsequently she was sent to another Convent in Pontypool, South Wales.
In 1925 the General Council at Saint Brieuc decided to close the Convent in Olney, a move which would jeopardise the future of both the Elementary School and the High School. Sr Marie du Christ was recalled to Olney to help resolve the crisis. The Bishop of Northampton at that time was strongly opposed to the intended closure. A protracted series of communications was exchanged between the Bishops of Northampton and St Brieuc. Sr Marie’s detailed knowledge of many matters relating to these schools proved indispensable in these communications.
The conclusion, or final pronouncement, from St Brieuc in 1926 was that the Elementary School would close but the High School would remain open. The reasons given for the closure of the Elementary School were the diminishing number of Catholic pupils, the lack of funds as no state subsidy had ever been received, and the acute shortage of teachers who were willing to teach under such conditions.
The High School – the later years
The St Josephs Convent High School for Girls as it was then known, continued for another 30 years, throughout which the number of pupils steadily increased. In 1935 Sr Margaret Gray BA was appointed Headmistress. She continued as Headmistress until the school closed in 1956.
Under the direction of Sr Margaret the school set and maintained a high standard of Christian education. Whereas the name of Sr Marie du Christ is closely associated with the school’s first 20 years of existence, that of Sr Margaret Gray remains linked with the last 20 years when the growth and development of the school, in difficult times, earned for it a deservedly high reputation.
The number of pupils in the school rose steadily from 50 in 1939 to 125 in 1947, due in part to the influx of evacuees from the London area, and to 235 in 1951. These increases were not without their attendant problems as the buildings had not been designed to accommodate such large numbers of pupils. When the wartime building restrictions were lifted five new classrooms and a staff room were added.
Typical fees for the High School in the 1940xs were £11 per term for children over twelve, and £21 per term for boarders.
During the later years the school offered a comprehensive education up to the General Certificate of Education (GCE) ‘O’ Level for girls up to the age of 16. Those girls wishing to attain the GCE at ‘A’ Level would continue their studies at Wolverton Grammar School or at the Bedford Convent School, or at one of the two Bedford Harper Trust Schools for girls. Boys were admitted up to the age of nine years, when they usually continued their education at one of the Bedford preparatory schools.
The catchment area for the Olney Convent School extended to Wolverton, Stony Stratford, and Wellingborough. Most pupils were day pupils, some of whom travelled to school by bus. Others from further away were weekly boarders. A few pupils were term boarders, usually those whose parents worked abroad.
The range of subjects at GCE ‘O’ Level offered by the High School in the 1950xs included English Language, English Literature, Maths, French, History, Geography, Religious studies, Art, Biology, Music. Latin was also arranged for those pupils hoping for a university place at Oxford or Cambridge for which Latin was a mandatory qualification. The curriculum also included embroidery, elocution, physical training and sports. School concerts were held in the summer term. Facilities were not available at Olney for Physics, Chemistry and Cookery.
The school playing field had been acquired before the war in 1936. The field was used for hockey, tennis and athletics. Three ‘hard’ tennis courts were added later which could also be used for netball. Throughout the years the convent school maintained a large garden and an orchard, providing fruit and vegetables for the kitchen. Hens and bees were also kept, which resulted in the Convent achieving a significant degree of self sufficiency. For most of the Convent’s existence, the grounds, playing field and garden were cared for by Mr Frank Abraham, always known as Frank. He started work there in 1927 aged 18 and continued working at the Convent until 1994 when he finally retired at the age of 85.
The closure of the Convent School at Olney was primarily the result of the 1944 Education Act. The criteria set by the Ministry of Education for recognition as ‘efficient’ could not easily be met by medium sized schools such as St. Joseph’s. The criteria involved the school premises and equipment, teaching qualifications and the number of pupils. The policy adopted by the Provincial and her Council was to build up the schools which had a realistic chance of obtaining recognition and to accept that they may have to close the remainder. Other factors that could have seriously contributed to the closure were: the diminishing percentage of Catholics attending St Joseph’s during the 1950xs, and the fact that most of the pupils already travelled some miles to school.
Consequently the proximity of the much larger Convent School at Bedford together with the adequacy of the public transport facilities to Bedford at that time made the decision to close St Joseph’s a rather obvious one. It was nevertheless a very sad day for Sr. Margaret, her pupils and the people of Olney when it finally closed its doors as a school on 20th July 1956.
After the closure of the High School it was decided to redevelop the convent as a retirement home for elderly Sisters. The old schoolrooms were demolished, and a new purpose-built twelve-bedded wing together with a beautiful chapel and sitting rooms were added for the use of the present Community.