Tag Archives: Syon Abbey

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

Introducing the Syon Abbey Archive

Hello everyone, and a very warm welcome to this blog.

My name is Annie and I joined the team in November 2016 as the project archivist for the Syon Abbey Archive.

Syon Abbey was a monastic house of the Order of our Most Holy Saviour (also known as the Bridgettines), and the only English community of religious to have existed without interruption since before the Reformation. The house was founded directly from the Mother House in Vadstena in Sweden in 1415, and the community followed the Rule of St Bridget of Sweden. This enclosed Bridgettine community – comprising both monks and nuns and governed by an abbess – was renowned for its dedication to reading, meditation and contemplation. In the course of Syon Abbey’s almost 600-year history, the community faced great upheaval and demonstrated remarkable strength. In the wake of Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries, the community split into smaller groups and continued their religious practice, with some remaining in England whilst others sought refuge abroad. Although Syon Abbey was restored in England under the Catholic rule of Mary I, following the accession of Elizabeth I and the return to Protestantism, the community went into exile. The community then spent over half a century wandering through the Netherlands and France, experiencing, at times, extreme poverty and hunger, and along the way encountering rioters, war, and even pirates. The community eventually found a new home in Lisbon, Portugal in 1594 and remained there until 1861, at which time the sisters (the last brother of Syon Abbey having died in 1695) were able to return to England, initially residing in Spetisbury, Dorset. Following a further relocation in 1887 to Chudleigh, Devon, the community finally settled in South Brent, Devon in 1925. 86 years later, in 2011, on account of the decline in numbers and age of the remaining community, the decision was made to close Syon Abbey.

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

Of course, the archive – deposited for safekeeping with the University’s Special Collections in 2011 – has many more fascinating stories to tell from Syon Abbey’s extraordinary history than have been briefly summarised above. It currently spans around 114 boxes and comprises material from the 16th to the early 21st century, although the majority of records date from the 19th and 20th century. The archive is large and complex, containing a range of different records relating to daily life; worship; religious rule; the management of land, property and finances; relations with other religious communities; and much, much more. Once catalogued, the archive has the potential to be a rich and powerful resource, particularly for anyone interested in the history of women religious, ecclesiastical history, and women’s studies.

When I arrived, my first priority was to look at different material from the Syon Abbey archive and to learn as much as possible about the community and its history. This understanding then enabled me to draft out a hierarchical structure for the archive that reflects the main functions and activities of the community and provides context for how the records were originally used. Although an original order can be identified in several of the boxes in the archive – for example, some related papers have been kept together in chronological order – in other boxes the records are a little more jumbled up. Consequently, the arrangement of the archive that has existed up to now has meant that it would be difficult for both users (you!) and the archivist (me!) to find the information we are looking for within the archive and to understand how one record relates to another. My job as archivist on this project, therefore, is to arrange and describe the archive in a way that will make the records easier for you to search, find, understand and use.

Over the next year I will be re-boxing, cataloguing and promoting the archive, with an aim to make it more discoverable and accessible, and to encourage its use in teaching, learning, research and innovation. By the end of March 2018, the archive should be catalogued to at least file level, and be searchable using the online catalogue. I hope you will join me on this exciting journey as I share my progress, as well as highlights from the archive, with you via this blog and on Twitter @UoEHeritageColl.

Talk to you again soon!

Click here for more information on the Syon Abbey archive and other related collections.

Click here to search the University of Exeter’s archival collections via the online catalogue.

 

By Annie Price, Archivist, Syon Abbey archive