Letters  from the Past

"A lady out of her mind” 

Yorkshire to London 1830


This letter is one which intrigues me, and makes me wish that I knew the end result.  It is addressed to Capt. Page, New Street, Bishopsgate Street, London,  written by Catherine Sissons in Catterick, in the north of England. It has three postal markings, 1) the CATTERICK undated name stamp in red,
2) the charge mark of 1/1,  (Catterick is 228 miles from London, and in 1830 the charge was 12pence or one shilling (1/-) for a distance between 230 and 300 miles) and
3) the morning duty arrival CDS in London  6 FE 1830. (Fig.1)

front of letter

The letter was written from Clare Lodge, a large house surrounded by an extensive garden, on the east side of the village of Catterick, near Scorton,  which has had a chequered history, and at the time this letter was written was being used as a convent – or nunnery.It is an amazing letter, filling all sides of the paper, and written by two different people.

“Clare Lodge, Feby 3rd 1830
Sir,
            From the tenor of your letter to Sister Aloysia Clare, by this days post we have been induced to detain her until we hear further from you; although, her Trunks were packed and she equipped ready to step into the Telegraph.” (Fig.2)

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Note : this was the mail coach, all of which had specific names.  The White’s trade directory of 1840 shows a list of the carriers and destination for Richmond and it has this entry :-
Coaches: The Van from the King's Head, to Catterick to meet the Telegraph Coach, at ¼ past 9 mng., to Leeds, and to Newcastle, 6 evening.

The letter then continues with bad news:-

“Upon perusing yours, she became very violent and treated with the utmost contempt all those who presumed to approve of its contents, I am quite at a loss to know what is best to be done,  unwilling for the credit of our State, to have her travelling about, and feeling convinced that she is not at all times, accountable for her actions, for which reason, it is highly improper that she should be at her own disposal.
 I must therefore beg the favour of you, as her Brother, and the representative of her Parents to say how we are to proceed. She is continually occupied with the ideas of going to Rome, Paris, and Gravelines, at the Convent at the latter place. She considers herself as the Abbess, which office she will yield to no one, in short, she is not two days in the same mind. She has written several times to Dr. Smith the Catholick Bishop of this district to ask his permission to write to Gravelines, to that he has declined answering but that she thinks of no consequence when ever full authority comes in contest with her inclinations, she without scruple or ceremony sets it aside until this morning’s rencontre.” (= meeting or encounter)

Note: Gravelines was the place of origin of the “Poor Clares’ of which Clare Lodge was a nunnery.  Mrs Mary Ward a pious and zealous member of the Church of Rome founded the Poor Clares at Gravelines in 1609 the last members of which, after enduring great privation and afflictions through their ejection in 1793, were ultimately received by the community at Clare Lodge near Catterick.

“She has upon the whole, been tolerably moderate, having rarely been contradicted but when positively told that she should not quit the house till we heard from you, she looked like one distracted, & reviled both me, and my Community, who have with undiminished endeavours to make her comfortable, ever since she has been under our roof. We at a very long period  were convinced, that her temper would require great management and of course, avoided whatever might be likely to disturb her, but this days occurrence has convinced me that if she be not kept in proper subjection & obliged to submit she will in time become quite unmanageable, so little is she acquainted with her own character, & of the forbearance requisite to live in peace with her that she attributes our detaining  her to interested motives poor soul, she claims our commiseration rather  than displeasure & we should have parted excellent friends had we only yielded to her wishes.
I am sorry to be under the necessity of being so diffuse upon this unpleasant subject, but to you as her nearest relation I consider myself obliged to speak my sentiments, without reserve, hoping to hear from you at your earliest convenience & beg you will offer our united Compts to the family,
I remain, Sir
Yours very sincerely
Catha Sisson.”

I have checked various sources and found in the White’s directory of 1840 for Scorton, that Catherine Sisson was the Abbess of the Nunnery. Then, in the 1841 census there were 30 nuns and 20 pupils.   Catherine Sisson was aged 80, so was 70 when she wrote this letter. No wonder she was fraught. Another member was Elizah Leadbetter aged 50.

The letter is then continued in a different hand writing, giving Captain Page even worse news.  (Fig.3)

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“Feby. 4th

Mother Abbess was prevented posting this last night and feels so much distressed as to be unable to give you the sad tidings of sister Aloysia’s having this day quitted the Convent unobserved by anyone between the hours of twelve and one at noon in her habit veil  &tc. We have sent persons in every direction but can hear no tidings of her. The Convent out buildings and small riverlet which bounds the grounds have been searched and re-searched but no vestige can we find of her. I cannot express the consternation and grief it has thrown us into and I entreat of you should she make her way to any of her friends that you will give us the earliest information of it. She has not to our knowledge a sixpence in her pockets.”

But then it looks like good news - the letter continues on the outside (Fig 4.)) with a word that is indecipherable, but seems to indicate they have found her.

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“Thank God the object of our solicitude has <turned ?>   up.
Have the goodness to write immediately and say where she is to be placed.
In great haste
M.A. Leadbetter”

            This is where my imagination takes over. I find it hard to believe that a lady in a nun’s habit would have been able to walk off during the middle of the day, and not be spotted by any of the local inhabitants. The sisters must have been frantic, knowing that she had no money, or other clothes, and was to their way of thinking, not in her right mind. 

            There was no entry in the 1841 census for her under her actual name of Juliana Page, so either she had not survived, or had managed to go abroad to another convent, or had renounced her calling and returned home to her brother Capt. Page. I doubt if I will ever know the outcome.

       This article was first published in Stamp News the Australian monthly magazine.

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