Tag Archives: Diaries

Exploring Christmas at Syon Abbey

My name is Sophie and I am currently a third year student at the University of Exeter, studying for a BA joint honours degree in History and Archaeology. In September I began volunteering at the University’s Special Collections, allowing me to gain valuable work experience, as I hope to pursue a career in the heritage sector. I have spent my time as a volunteer working with the Syon Abbey archive. My main role has been cataloguing the 99 diaries of the community from the late nineteenth to the twenty-first century at item level. I have enjoyed this task as it has provided me with a detailed insight into the daily life of the community.

Sophie with a sheet of 1950s Christmas wrapping paper found inside one of the diaries in the Syon Abbey archive

References to Christmas in the Syon Abbey diaries

As Christmas is fast approaching, I wanted to share some details of the celebrations that are recorded in the diaries. Many of the diaries mention the sisters’ festive decoration of the Abbey. For example, in a diary kept in 1955, an entry states that ‘the sisters’ gifts were hung on a large Xmas tree gaily decorated and illuminated with colourful lights’ and that ‘all danced around the tree and sang the Jubilee song’ [EUL MS 389/ADM/5/53]. This heart-warming image of the community is particularly festive and is one of my favourite entries from the diaries.

The sisters gave gifts as a sign of their love and affection for each other, especially during the Christmas period. The diary for 1906 contains a beautiful handmade paper snowflake, given to the abbess as a gift [EUL MS 389/ADM/5/1]. The community’s enthusiasm for gift giving can also be found in the diary for 1954 which records the gifts given to the Abbey’s gardeners and farm hands. The presents included: an electric kettle, socks, tobacco, biscuits, cake, pudding, butter, tea, and a hen [EUL MS 389/ADM/5/51]. This particular diary contains many more festive references, and even an inserted piece of 1950s Christmas wrapping paper. It also contains a lovely anecdote about how the Abbess ‘thoroughly enjoyed herself’ when she carved the Christmas turkey!

Elsewhere in the Syon Abbey Collection…

In addition to the diaries that I have been working with, the Syon Abbey Collection (which includes the archive and collections of printed books and manuscripts from the Syon Abbey library) contains further material relating to the celebration of Christmas. For example, within the Medieval and Modern Manuscript Collection is a Syon manuscript entitled ‘A Discourse or Entertainment for ye sacred time of Advent’, written by the abbess in 1657, containing instructions for activities that the nuns should undertake during Advent [EUL MS 262/add1/B/5].

 

A particular favourite of mine in the Syon Abbey archive is a box containing small illuminated prayer cards with detailed calligraphy and hand drawn images relating to Christmas [EUL MS 389/97/1]. These beautiful pieces of art were created by Sister Mary Veronica during her religious life at Syon Abbey between 1933 and 2008.

EUL MS 389/97/1 – A Christmas prayer card created by Sister Mary Veronica Kempson, c 1933-2008.
Provided for research and reference only. Permission to publish, copy, or otherwise use this work must be obtained from University of Exeter Special Collections (http://as.exeter.ac.uk/heritage-collections/) and all copyright holders.

The Syon Abbey Medieval and Modern Manuscript Collection contains an illuminated transcript of the words and musical notation for ‘In Vigilia Nativitatis’ (which translates to ‘On Christmas Eve’) from the Roman Martyrology [EUL MS 262/add1/A/38]. This is a proclamation of the birth of Christ and would traditionally have been chanted or recited on Christmas Eve. It also contains a note on the back which details that the ‘Syon melody’ was originally taken from the Lisbon book and was handed down orally with some alterations. This ‘Christmas Martyrology’ was created in 1952 by Sister Mary Stanislas, of whom more artwork can be found in the Syon Abbey archive.

EUL MS 262/add1/A/38 – ‘In Vigilia Nativitatis’, created by Sister Mary Stanislas in 1952.
Provided for research and reference only. Permission to publish, copy, or otherwise use this work must be obtained from University of Exeter Special Collections (http://as.exeter.ac.uk/heritage-collections/) and all copyright holders.

To close…

The Syon Abbey Collection contains an array of fascinating material, including many insights into how the community celebrated Christmas. To find out more about the Syon Abbey Collection click here, or head to the Special Collections website to search our online archives catalogue. For those feeling festive, why not take a look at our Twitter account, where we are posting images from across the collections in our very own virtual Advent Calendar.

By Sophie Morgan, Volunteer

Britten, Kennedy, Duncan

The 22nd of November 1963 was the day of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. The first broadcast assassination of a world leader, the murder of the President of the USA at the height of the Cold War, this was the epicentre of a political and media cataclysm the resultant ripples of which are still present in our thinking.

The 22nd of November 1963 was also Benjamin Britten’s 50th birthday – occurring on the feast day of St Cecilia, patron saint of music. Despite some public fanfare, Britten’s birthday must have been all but forgotten in the furore emerging from the USA.

In her diary entry for the day, Rose Marie Duncan, Ronald Duncan’s wife, noted both events:

‘Bunny rang up in evening to say Kennedy had been shot. State of shock and amazement and real sorrow – watched T.V – news etc – and also tribute for B[enjamin] B[ritten]’s 50th birthday – rather boring and sententious – shot of R[onald] in very long floppy shorts, going off to play tennis, flanked by Ben and Peter like warders.’

The next entry continues the connection in the most unexpected of ways:

‘Still upset about Kennedy’s death. Watched 1-0 news on TV – pictures of Mrs K and general mix up – also the assassin – looking like a young Benjamin B[ritten]!’ (Rose Marie Duncan, 1963 Diary, EUL MS 397/18/1/9)

At 50, and a year on from his completion of his seminal War Requiem, Britten was no longer the ‘promising young composer’ to whom Ronald Duncan had been introduced, probably in 1936, by his college friend Nigel Spottiswoode. (Ronald Duncan, All Men Are Islands, Rupert Hart-Davis 1964, p. 130) Facilitated by the interest of all three men in the Peace Pledge Union and by Spottiswoode’s involvement in the production of the GPO Film Unit’s enduringly popular Night Mail (for which Britten wrote the score), the introduction led to a fast friendship between the two writers and instigated a creative exchange that would interest them for the remainder of their careers.

The first buds of this exchange appeared in the form of the Pacifist’s March, a ‘youthful’ work which Britten apparently showed little interest in revisiting later in life; (Duncan, 1964, p. 131) their creative engagement blossomed more fully in the late forties, following Duncan’s intervention in the libretto for Peter Grimes. This period saw the creation of The Rape of Lucretia, which was swiftly followed by works including a wedding anthem (Amo ergo sum) for their mutual friends George Lascelles (Lord Harewood) and Marion Stein, and music for the plays This way to the tomb, Stratton, and The eagle has two heads. Not all of their ideas were to come to fruition, and it is tantalising to know of works that were never realised, including at least one opera (based on Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park), a large work referred to in correspondence as St Peter, and a response to the bombing of Hiroshima (referred to as Mea Culpa), which Duncan lamented as the potential War Requiem that never was. (Humphrey Carpenter, Benjamin Britten: A Biography, Faber and Faber, 1992, pp. 242, 405; correspondence, Benjamin Britten to Ronald Duncan, EUL MS 397/644)

The traces of their friendship and collaboration kept in the Ronald Duncan Collection include photographs, libretti, news-cuttings, programmes, letters, copies of musical scores, and audio recordings including elements of the rehearsals for This way to the tomb. Amongst the more touching items is Lament for Ben (EUL MS 397/1046), a song contrafacted by Duncan from the trio of Schubert’s Piano Sonata in A minor (No. 16, D. 845). Duncan underlaid the score in minute and heavily revised scrawl with a new poem lamenting the passing of his great friend, and signed it at the foot of the page ‘RD. 4.XI.76’ (Britten died on the 4th of December 1976, rather than the indicated November). The choice of Schubert is a poignant one: not only was Schubert Ronald Duncan’s favourite composer, but Britten himself performed and recorded a not inconsiderable number of Schubert’s works, and would play some of them for Duncan in the early days of their friendship. In his autobiography, All men are islands, Duncan wrote: ‘Britten and I were now constant companions. He used to play Schubert to me. I had been looking for Britten for ten years. Sometimes he would play Chopin, but it was Schubert that I would make him play over and over again.’ (Duncan, 1964, p. 132) And so, almost exactly forty years later, Duncan memorialised Britten through a piece that Britten may well have played for him in their youth.

The text of this appropriated song is barely legible in situ, but the poem Lament for Ben appears in the collected poems – albeit in a form that does not quite match the lyric so tortuously worked out under the musical score. Working from both the manuscript and the published poem, I have attempted to reconstruct this very personal tribute. In order to do so, I have blended the printed poem with that of the manuscript, adjusted one or two rhythms and word placements, and transposed the piece into a key more amenable to the average voice. Finally, I have made a recording of myself singing and accompanying the song to give a sense of what Ronald Duncan may have had in mind – possibly its first singing in any public sense.

And so, with apologies for the recording quality and my mid-November cold-filled voice, a musical offering from the Ronald Duncan collection in time for Britten’s birthday on the feast of St Cecilia: a song which, by coincidence, is not wholly inappropriate to the more lamentable events for which the date is sometimes remembered.

This post was written by our Digital Support Officer Andrew Cusworth.


Recorded in the Mary Harries Memorial Chapel, University of Exeter, with thanks to the chaplaincy and director of chapel music for permission for the use of the piano and chapel.

 

Lament for Ben
(to Schubert’s Trio Opus 42)

Is life, this life, his life
now lost, was that a dream,
And death, a dream too?
Whose sleep, whose dream
Are we who live?
This death, his death
makes all of us die too.
His life was ours;
His death is ours;
We grieve, for whom?
We grieve for ourselves.

May Bach and Purcell
Bend down to this bier
But let music sing
to sing their song
Their song, their song
Though poetry’s dumb.

In this waste, this grief
these notes alone lend us
yields us
give us
some relief
though brief
though brief

(Ronald Duncan, ed. Miranda Weston-Smith, Collected poems, Ronald Duncan Literary Foundation, 2003, pp. 226-7)

An adapted score for Ronald Duncan’s ‘Lament for Benjamin Britten’ set to the Trio from Schubert’s Piano Sonata D845

Why not try playing it for yourself?

Exploring daily life in the twentieth century at Syon Abbey

What was life like for the community at Syon Abbey in the twentieth century? What did the nuns and sisters do during the day? And did major world events have an impact on life in this enclosed community? These questions and more can now be explored through recently-catalogued material in the Syon Abbey archive.

Photograph of the community in 1961. From ‘The Poor Souls’ Friend’ 1960-1, p. 178.

Community Diaries

A valuable archival resource for exploring daily life at Syon Abbey are the 101 diaries, kept by the community between 1890 and 2004. These diaries provide details relating to spiritual matters, such as prayer, feast days, and religious ceremonies, but also offer greater insight into the intricacies of day-to-day life in a religious community. These include references to: recreation; visitors to the Abbey; growing crops and raising livestock; construction and repairs to buildings; correspondence sent and received; and observations about the weather. The diaries also reveal that the Syon nuns were aware of national and international news outside of the enclosure, including the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II and the death of Joseph Stalin. Furthermore, the diaries indicate that global events, such as the First and Second World War, did have an impact on the community. For example, the diarist writes much about the Belgian refugees living in the local town of Chudleigh between 1914 and 1916, as well as the American soldiers who in the 1940s were encamped on land belonging to Syon Abbey. Finally, the diaries also bring to light the personalities and interactions within the community through several light-hearted as well as heartfelt entries.

The community diaries can be searched in our online catalogue here.

Syon Abbey Community Diaries (Ref: EUL MS 389/ADM/5)

Diary 1947-1950 (Ref: EUL MS 389/ADM/5/47) The entry for the 26 April 1947 reads: ‘1st annivers:[ary] of Lady Abbess Consecration – day opened with a chimney on fire in Presbytery – sung mass – tea & happy recreation.’

The Book of Customs

Another useful document for gaining insight into the daily routine at Syon Abbey is the so-called ‘Book of Customs’ or ‘Customs Book’, which provides guidelines on community life, both spiritual and secular. It includes instructions on conduct in the choir, where and when silence should be kept, and how often different types of laundry may be washed. The Book of Customs also contains details of the duties of the different offices the nuns could hold, such as those of the cellaress (responsible for food and drink), the sacristan (responsible for church furnishings), and the infirmarian (who nursed the sick). There are a number of manuscript copies of the ‘Book of Customs’ in the archive, transcribed into notebooks and dating from the late nineteenth century to approximately the mid-twentieth century. Several notebooks contain handwritten amendments, indicating that the Book of Customs was revised regularly.

Material relating to customs can be searched in our online catalogue here.

The Book of Customs (Ref: EUL MS 389/RUL/4)

Minutes of the Chapter and the Council

The minute books of the Chapter (all the sisters in solemn vows, as well as the sisters in temporary vows who had been professed for three full years) and the Council (a small group of advisors to the abbess) shed light on a broad range of matters regarding the management of Syon Abbey. The Conventual Chapter generally discussed and voted on matters such as the election of abbesses and councillors, new admissions to the Order, and any sister wishing to make her vows. The Council would meet with the abbess to discuss issues on a wide variety of administrative matters relating, for example, the appointment of staff, revisions to the constitutions, and the management of the estate. The minute books of both the Chapter and the Council provide fascinating insight into the day-to-day administrative challenges of managing a monastery in the twentieth century.

The Minutes of the Chapter can be searched in our online catalogue here.

The Minutes of the Council can be searched in our online catalogue here.

Notebook entitled ‘Minutes of the ‘Discreets”, 1898-1907 (Ref: EUL MS 389/ADM/2/2)

On a personal note…

As an archivist with little knowledge of religious orders and women religious prior to embarking on the Syon Abbey archive cataloguing project, these records were invaluable in gaining an understanding of the community and the day-to-day operation of a monastery. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did!

By Annie Price, Archivist, Syon Abbey archive