OLD DEVONPORT . UK
www.olddevonport.uk
 

  Brian Moseley, Plymouth
Webpage created: March 12, 2021
Webpage updated: March 13, 2021

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WHO WAS WHO IN OLD DEVONPORT

Miss PRISCILLA LYDIA SELLON (1821-1876)

Priscilla Lydia Smith was allegedly born in Hampstead, Middlesex, on March 21st 1821 although in an article about Miss Sellon in the Western Morning News dated Wednesday  August 3rd 1921 it states that her date of birth was August 3rd 1821.  Her father was Commander William Richard Baker Smith, Royal Navy.  Priscilla was baptized on October 23rd 1823 at Castor, Northamptonshire.  Her mother, formerly Miss Priscilla Lydia White, died in 1824 and Mr William Richard Baker Smith re-married in 1827.  It is said that as a result of inheriting the estate of an  aunt, Sophia Sellon, Commander Smith in 1847 changed his family's surname to Sellon.

Miss Sellon, as she now was, suffered from poor health and had planned to spend the winter months of 1847-48 in Madeira.  She was packed and ready to leave England when, on New Year's Day 1848, she read a plea by Bishop Henry Phillpotts, the Anglican Bishop of Exeter, for help in relieving the spiritual destitution of Devonport and Plymouth.  She at once changed her arrangements and after contacting the Reverend Doctor Edward Bouverie Pusey, whom she knew, was put in contact with a local clergyman.  Before the end of the month she had settled in to a property in Milne Place, Morice Town, and with financial assistance from her father and practical assistance from her companion, Miss Catherine Chambers, started her work of relieving the poor of the district.

Being particularly concerned about the young children her first task was to open a small school in a rented room in George Street.  She collected up the 'wild and neglected children' from the area and persuaded them to join one of her classes.  Some of these were boys between the ages of 11 and 16 who were already working in the Royal Dockyard but who came to her classes in the evenings.  They were often unruly and one night a clergyman was brought in to control them but walked out shrugging his shoulders and left her to sort them out.  Soon there were around 50 children attending classes every evening.  As other local ladies joined her in her work, more schools were opened. 

During her time in Devonport she is said to have opened a free industrial school for girls; a night school for boys aged twelve to sixteen years; a school for starving children; a home for the orphans of sailors; an orphanage at Mutton Cove in which 27 little girls who had lost both parents or who had been found living with vicious relatives were taught the three "Rs", needlework and housewifery; a school at Keyham for sailor boys, where French was also taught; and a home for destitute soldiers and sailors.  Finally Miss Sellon used her own money to purchase tenements in order to rent them out to the poor in return for them adopting more moral ways.  She was described as being 'a remarkable woman, with great force of character and exceptional attainments.

In 1849, with the approval of the Anglican Bishop of Exeter she formed the Society of the Sisters of Mercy of the Holy Trinity, more simply known as Devonport Society.  The Sisters wore a plain black woollen dress with long flowing sleeves and a girdle with a small ebony cross, the latter offering legitimacy and protection at night on the streets of Devonport.  When out visiting the sick they also wore a cloak, a large black bonnet and a black crepe veil.

In June 1849 a case of cholera was discovered on board a ship in Sutton Harbour and it spread very quickly through the slum area around the Barbican.  It even reached Stonehouse Lane, close to Saint Peter's Church.  Miss Sellon volunteered her services to the Vicar of Saint Peter's and the Sisters risked their lives treating the sick and dying.  She erected a temporary wooden hospital on ground later known as Abbey Field.  It held sixty beds and an altar was placed at one end where prayers could be said and Holy Communion given to the dying.  It was the first place Holy Communion had been said in a Church of England establishment for 300 years.  Two marquees were also erected on the site, for the accommodation of the nurses and the children orphaned by the plague.  The Sisters of Mercy helped to check the spread of the disease and to finally stamp it out.  The epidemic lasted only three months but 177 patients were discharged from the hospital before it closed, compared to the 121 who died.  

Miss Sellon then founded the Sisterhood known as the Society of the Holy Trinity.  They established the Abbey in Plymouth, a Priory near Ascot, in Berkshire, and the Sisters of Charity in London.  The Abbey was dedicated to God the Father, the Priory to God the Son and the Charity to God the Holy Ghost, hence the title of the Holy Trinity adopted by the Society.

On October 5th 1850 Miss Sellon laid the foundation stone in the Abbey Field at North Road, Plymouth, for what was to be named Saint Dunstan's Abbey.  It included a room for the sole use of the Reverend Doctor Pusey when he visited Plymouth.  Once in occupation, the Sisters started a penitentiary and then a school of printing specifically aimed at women.  Miss Sellon had studied printing herself as a youngster and thought it a suitable form of employment for women.  Miss Sellon was installed as Abbess in the Oratory of the Abbey in March 1856.

One would be forgiven for assuming that Miss Sellon's efforts in the name of God would have been welcomed by those involved with the Church of England but it was quite the contrary.  A Sisterhood was seen as a Roman Catholic device and the tirade of criticism from some quarters forced even the Bishop of Exeter to withdraw his support.  She also upset the Reverend Hutchison, the incumbent at Saint James the Great in Devonport, by objecting when he took the children from her charity school to an Exposition at the Devonport Mechanics' Institute, a matter which not surprisingly attracted unfavourable comment from the local press.  On the day after the visit, she simply "sent the boys round", closed the school, recalled the mistress and removed all the desks.

Her failing health forced Miss Sellon to leave Devon.  She worked tirelessly through the London's cholera epidemic in 1862.  As a result she became completely paralysed, although her mental faculties remained as sharp as ever, but she refused to give in and there is no doubt that among the poor of the Three Towns she and her Sisters had a great deal of support and, more importantly given the attitude of the Established Church, respect.

Miss Priscilla Lydia Sellon died on November 20th 1876 at Malvern, Worcestershire.  She was 55-years-old.

The schools were closed in 1906 and the few remaining Sisters were transferred to the Ascot Priory in Berkshire.  The buildings at North Road became the Saint Dunstan's Abbey School for Girls in April 1907.  The last two Sisters of the Society of the Most Holy Trinity died during 2004 at the Ascot Priory.  Sister Rosemary died on January 16th and the Mother Superior, Cecilia, died on February 12th, thus closing the final chapter.