Postcard showing alter bread being made.

House of Mercy

The House of Mercy, Dovecote Lane, Horbury is located in an elevated part of Horbury, adjacent to Horbury Cemetery and was founded in 1858 "for the reception and protection of women who had led unchaste lives, with a view to their reformation, either in some reputable calling by which to earn a livelihood, or otherwise."(1)

Postcard view of the Saint's Garden.

Photo of the House of Mercy taken in 1864. With permission of Sister Robina of St Peter's Convent.

The idea of establishing a place to house those who needed "rescuing from sin and destruction, the increasing multitude of fallen women", can be traced back to one person. A lady who expressed a long held "anxious desire" to do something practical to deal with this ever increasing Victorian problem. Henrietta Louisa Farrer, later the wife of Rev. Henry Sidney Lear, Bishop of Salisbury, was that lady.

A cousin of the Incumbent of Horbury, Canon John Sharp, she came from Clapham, North Yorkshire. Born in 1824, the daughter of James William Farrer and The Honourable Henrietta-Elizabeth Scott, her grandfather was the 1st Earl of Eldon, Lord Chancellor of Great Britain. 

Henrietta Louisa was not your ordinary Victorian lady. She was the author of several books and for the time, quite a popular writer.

Along with some of her personal friends she soon had sufficient money available to realise her dream. Permission was given by Canon Sharp to commence her project in Horbury, and a rented cottage on Millfield Road was secured for the purpose.

On Maundy Thursday 1858, the first 'penitent' was brought to the Home by her own father. Only the previous day, a Mrs Terry had taken up residence in order to receive the girl. On the 12th April, she was joined by Sister Emily of the Community of St Michael, Bussage, and on 30th April by Sister Emma from Oxford. Seven more girls were admitted one by one and the Home was full.

Towards the end of the following year the cottage adjoining the Home was purchased and connected, to provide accommodation for seven more girls. The Church Penitentiary Association gave a grant of £60 towards furniture & fittings.

The original institution at Horbury consisted a Visitor (The Bishop of Ripon); a Warden (The Rev. J. Sharp); Superior Sisters; a Council; Trustees and two Treasurers. The Sisters were of two distinct classes: those fully admitted after probation and Sisters probationary. The Sisters had to be members of the Church of England and, if under the age of thirty years, have the written consent of their parents, before admission to the House. Besides these Sisters, several ladies worked at the Institution as Associates and they assisted the nuns by collecting alms (money, food, or similar items given to the poor as a charitable act); finding work, situations and the means of livelihood for the women penitents at the House of Mercy.

With the High Anglican Oxford Movement in full swing in England in the 1860s, a great many upper and middle class single women found an outlet for both their religious fervour and their desire to help others less fortunate by joining together into sisterhoods and entering into communal living. One such woman was Minna Gwynn, from a well-to-do English family living in Reading who joined the Horbury House of Mercy as an Anglican Nun in the 1860s and became the Mother Superior of the House by 1891.

Postcard view of the gate house entrance.

Postcard view inside Holy Cross Chapel.

On 31st December 1859, £1,000 had been invested in a building fund, which was set up to raise money to erect suitable long term buildings for a permanent Home.

After opening up in 1858, the House was always full and in 1862 it was decided to build a new House of Mercy to house thirty or forty women penitents. The following extract is from the Report of the House for the year 1862:

"The House has always been completely full, in fact, very inconveniently crowded; for, whereas, there is only proper accommodation for thirteen, there have been fourteen throughout the year. Five have been sent out, and five others admitted; in addition to which thirty-one applications for admission have been rejected for the want of room. The following is an account of those sent out: one returned to her friends; two sent to other Penitentiaries and two sent to service."

On the 27th March 1862, Canon Sharp told the Council of the House of Mercy that a plot of land had been bought for £600. This was a site of 4 acres, which had been occupied by the Horbury Allotment Society. Plans for a new House of Mercy and costings had been prepared by Mr Henry Woodyear, the architect of similar Houses at Clewer and Ditchingham. Sufficient funds were in hand to commence the north andwest wings plus the water tower. This was approved by the Council.

Postcard view of the dining room.

Postcard view of the embroidery room.

The foundation stone was laid by Dr Bickersteth, Bishop of Ripon, on the 19th July 1862. The new House of Mercy was opened on 14th September 1864.

At a service in St Peter's Church, Horbury, the Hon. A. W. Duncombe, the Very Reverend Dean of York spoke of:

“A House of Mercy, which was governed by a worthy staff of Sisters – ladies who had devoted themselves to the self-denying work of rescuing unfortunate girls who had fallen from the paths of virtue and of bringing them back under God's grace to a life of penitence and love. Here the girls were trained and tended by women who, as a labour of love, sought gently to lead them back to the loving mercy of God.”

A fortnight later, the whole household moved in to the new buildings. At the same time a hospital block was built with money provided by Rev John Keble, author of The Christian Year. It could house six patients.

By 1868, the number of penitents at the House was 46; in 1869 it was 49, of which about half were from outside Yorkshire. In 1870, it was stated that the new buildings were capable of containing 80 inmates and at that time the managers intended to add to the buildings to be able to take in twice as many. The total cost expended on the building extensions was £10,000, a large sum in those days, whilst the current yearly expense of maintaining the establishment was in 1868 about £865, and in 1869 about £970.2 These costs and the cost of extending the Horbury House of Mercy came from voluntary gifts.

On 4th August 1870, the foundation stone of the chapel and south wing was laid by the Earl of Beauchamp. The debt on the first two wings having already been cleared. The blessing of the completed chapel took place on 28th November 1871. It was solemnly dedicated to God's service under the name 'The Chapel of the Holy Cross'. The Superior's room, the community room & the refectory were also blessed. A dormitory, which had been used as the chapel up to this point, was quickly furnished, after which the House could accommodate 50 girls.
 From the earliest days of the Community, Canon Sharp had insisted that the Liturgy & the Divine Office were of primary importance and so the first sisters, faithful to this ideal, laid the foundations of the Community's spiritual life. Drawing their inspiration from the Sacraments and in a spirit of love, they undertook the work of spiritual and moral restoration of the girls in their care.

Postcard view of the Retreat House.

The House of Mercy was successful. In 1872 Canon Sharp wrote "...more than half the girls turn out definitely well.”In 1874 Horbury had 15 out of 20 favourable results, ranking it second amongst Houses in the Church Penitentiary Association. In 1878 and for the next four years, the House was top of the league table. Other Houses began to take notice and looked to Horbury as a benchmark. Staff came from other places to learn by practical experiences. Four other Houses adopted the 'Horbury Rules'. During 1877, a small detached building was erected as an infirmary or isolation block. In 1882, the Council decided to complete the quadrangle of buildings with the east wing. Plans were accepted from Mr. J. T. Micklethwaite, the architect of Keble College & Westminster Abbey. The work was undertaken by Messers. Longley of Leeds and the foundation stone laid by Mr. T. K. Sanderson of Wakefield on the 26th June. The east wing was completed in 1884, enabling 72 girls to be accommodated

On the 26th September 1892, the "Sheffield and Rotherham Independent" newspaper reported the following case from the Pontefract Board of Guardians, which is perhaps typical of the plight of some of the girls and women who found themselves as "penitents" at the Horbury House of Mercy:

"Mrs. E. Leatham of Wentbridge had interested herself in getting a young girl named Emma Moss, deserted by her father, into the Horbury, House of Mercy. The young girl who is only sixteen years of age, since her admission to the Workhouse, has become a mother, and will be the subject of Police Court proceedings against her own father. The Board, in acceding to the girl being taken from the Workhouse, thanked Mrs. Leatham for her kindness."

Messers Fallas and Chappell of Horbury were engaged to build new laundry buildings. But by 1893 it was necessary to build an even bigger laundry, due to the amount of work to be done. In 1908 the Golden Jubilee of the Community & the House of Mercy took place. The council decided to celebrate it to some extent in memory of Canon Sharp, who had died in 1903, by unveiling a plaque in the chapel. The 'Canon Sharp Memorial Fund', established in 1904, stood at £1,515 9s 6d. This was for the endowment of the chaplaincy of the House of Mercy, as per his express wishes.

In May 1880 a small High School was built in the garden, at the cost of the sisters. By 1884 there were 50 pupils and by 1902, a house was bought adjoining the Convent grounds to house boarders. Both the school & this house were greatly enlarged in 1908 but closed in 1914.

On 21st January 1921, a Home Office Inspector, Mrs Russell, visited the House. In her report she wrote, “At Horbury the aim is not to repress, but to develop....Health is well cared for...the diet appears to be very good...there is marked improvement since my last visit...It is a pleasure to find a 'home' where so much individual understanding, sympathy and friendliness are displayed towards the girls.” A year later the same Inspector said, “For a single year's progress the above is a fine record and deserves to be held up as an example to every rescue and preventative home in the country.”

With the second World War came major changes for the House of Mercy. The number of girls coming to the House, which for 84 years had been a voluntary act, declined steadily & by the end of 1949 the Approved School was discontinued. In its place a boarding school for 'maladjusted' children aged 11 – 16 was established. In 1950 it opened with only 2 girls. Also in 1949, a Preparatory School was opened in the same buildings as once housed the High School. This was dedicated to St Hilda. It eventually became part of the Silcoates Foundation in 1993.

The nuns at the House of Mercy lived according to their own rules and within their own hierarchy. They produced a great deal of embroidery: their work on banners - including those for Trade Unions - continued until 1995. The influence of this sisterhood spread: by 1920 there were 70 nuns at Horbury and they ran activities in various cities. They visited women in prison and ran a school, which by 1913 was in Whitby. From 1928 Horbury nuns also ran a hostel for pilgrims at the Walsingham Shrine and from 1924 three nuns were attached to Wakefield Cathedral. In 1930 the new abbess, Mother Sarah, introduced stricter rules for the convent at Horbury: no-one could eat until after 12 noon and services were to be in Latin. The nuns at the Cathedral complained to the diocesan clergy and a disagreement between Sister Sarah and Bishop over the provision of chaplains sparked Sarah's departure from Horbury with those nuns who supported her. They settled in London and continued to service the Walsingham hostel. The remaining nuns were too few to maintain the House of Mercy which closed and numbers have continued to dwindle so that the sisters now have a house at Hall Cliffe in Horbury.

Mother Superiors

The first Mother was Frances Ellen White of Preston. She resigned her post in 1878 due to failing health, and she died in 1897.(5)

The second Mother is of particular interest. She was Louisa Goodenough of the Dower House, Heath. A cousin of Canon John Sharp, her father was the late Rev Robert Philip Goodenough. She loved horses and hunting and was a strong personality and character. She had a great sense of humour and was loved and respected by all the Sisters and girls. She joined the Community in 1864 and was soon appointed Assistant Superior. When Mother Francis resigned, Louisa was appointed . Her short reign of only 9 years placed the Community on a firm spiritual footing. In 1886 she was involved in a horse and carriage accident close to the Convent and never fully recovered. She resigned her post in August 1887 and died on the 28th November. Mother Louisa was the first to be interred in the garth, the private burial ground outside the east end of the chapel. The tall stone crucifix in the middle of the garth was given in her memory by an Associate. “It was owing to her munificence that the chapel & a large part of the south wing were erected. She had a true Mother's love and had presided over the Community with much wisdom & sympathy.”

Mother Louisa

A stone cross stands in the Garth at the old Convent in memory of Mother Louisa.

Mother Louisa was the first to be interred in the Garth.

The last Mother of the Community was Mother Robina, who entered the Convent in 1971. As a former member of the congregation at Wakefield Cathedral in the 1960s she was acquainted with the Sisters at the Mission House. Teaching at St. Hilda's School for 13 years, she was promoted to head teacher. In 1993 she was elected Mother, retiring in 2014 after 21 years. 

The Community is the first Anglican Community to have a joint leadership. At the start of 2018, there are only 6 Sisters, in the Community. Mother Robina remains with the other 5 Sisters in their currrent home at Spring End. 

In 2015, the Witherslack Group opened the independent Hall Cliffe School in parts of the old House of Mercy. Hall Cliffe School provides specialist education for young people with complex learning needs between the ages of 8 - 16 years featuring small classes (maximum 8) with a high staff to student ratio.

In 1994, John Kirby, on behalf of the Kirby family purchased the convent from the nuns and agreed, as part of the transaction to renovate a property on land adjoining the convent, that the nuns referred to as the "Retreat". After the renovation was cmpleted, the nuns moved into this property and it became known as the "Convent", not to be confused with the Old Convent, which they vacated and which is a listed building. St. Hilda's school remained in the old building, but was used for wedding receptions and formal dinners at weekends. The Witherslack Group now rent the entire building and the bar area used for catering were removed and unfortunately, the fine old Convent building is no longer available for public functions.

In 2011, plans were submitted to Wakefield Council to demolish the building previously known as the "Retreat", which was now occupied by the nuns, in order to build new houses on the site. Despite objections from local residents and from St. Hilda's school. The Board of Governors of the Silcoates School Foundation, the Dovecote Trust and Dovecote Services Ltd submitted a joint statement to Wakefield Council regarding the plans. It said: “The proposed application is not suitable on the grounds of highways, drainage or siting. The existing property could otherwise be utilised as an aged persons care home generating non-peak small traffic flows."(3)

In the event, the nun's home, the Retreat and the land surrounding the building they occupied were sold off to developers and the after demolition of the Retreat, luxury houses known as "The Gate" were built on the site. The nuns subsequently moved to live in a detached house on Hall Cliffe, Horbury.(4) 

1. "The English Church Union Calendar: An Ecclesiastical Almanac for the Year of Grace 1863"
2. "Walks in Yorkshire: Wakefield and its Neighbourhood" by William Stott Banks (of Wakefield) 1871
3. "Wakefield Express", 19th January 2011
4. Private correspondence in November 2017 with Denise Austin, who works for the Kirby family at the Old Convent
5. "The Community of St Peter, Horbury 1858-1958"

Special thanks to:
Sister Robina of the Community of St Peter
Father Christopher Johnson of St Peter's Church 

Stephen Wilson and Helen Bickerdike  January 2018