1828 - 1865

The Growth of the Catholic Community in Wolverhampton (part 8)

Catholic convents and schools

It was not only the building of new churches which marked the progress of Catholicity in Wolverhampton, for the convent and the schools were also signs of a growing community. In the summer of 1860, the Sisters of Charity announced their intention to erect a House of Mercy in Temple Street which was to be "a refuge for friendless young women of character in want of situations as domestic servants". 4[WC 22nd Aug 1860] On Tuesday 21 August 1860, the Sisters were allowed to hold a bazaar in the grounds of the Molineux to enable them to raise funds. When the House of Mercy opened in the following year, the Nuns became involved in a legal battle against the Corporation over the latter's decision to charge rates on the Convent. It was claimed that, because money was paid for the laundry that was done there, it could be classed as "a beneficial occupation" and therefore should be rated. The Sisters argued that the amount of money concerned was very small, and that washing formed only a minor part of the training they offered to the young women. After due consideration, the Bench at the Borough Police Court judged in favour of the Sisters. [WC 17th July 1861]

By the end of 1862, when the Nuns opened their doors to the public on two open-days, it was estimated that around 200 young women had received help and training from them. [WC 17th Dec 1862] Though the convent soon became generally accepted as a useful social agency in the town, some of the local people found the rituals practised by the Sisters difficult to tolerate. In the correspondence columns of the Wolverhampton Chronicle, "A Sufferer" complained that "next to the 'Galvanising', the greatest nuisance that we poor mortals have to succumb to, is the mournful tolling of the 'passing-bell' at the Convent of the Sisters of Mercy". [WC 3rd Jan 1866] The bell was rung at frequent intervals throughout the day, from 5.45 am until 8.30 pm. In a spirit of reconciliation, the Nuns agreed to a later start for the bell-ringing, and the folk residing in the immediate vicinity were able to enjoy an extra hour's sleep.

If it was difficult trying to build enough church accommodation to keep pace with the growing Catholic population in the town, maintaining sufficient school provision was an even greater problem. The old school attached to SS Peter & Paul's in North Street, and the schools of St Patrick and St George, Little's Lane, which had been opened in 1849, were continually struggling to raise standards. In March 1850, Father O'Sullivan, Chairman of the Governors for Catholic schools in the town, reported that "Mr Marshall, the Government Inspector of Poor Schools, had lately been at Wolverhampton and had expressed himself not satisfied with the manner in which the Boys' school was conducted". The Committee of Governors agreed to approach the Presentation Brothers, a religious body specially trained as schoolmasters which was based in Dublin. [Minutes of Meetings of Catholic School Governors [hereafter CSG] 21st Mar 1850] A request for two schoolmasters was made with an offer of £40 salary for each, but even the Presentation Brothers were not attracted by this. [ibid 24th April 1850].

To keep the schools operational, various loans had to be secured: Rev Jones of Brewood offered to lend the Committee £130 in April 1850; £70 was borrowed from the Orphans' Fund in July 1850; Bishop Ullathorne was asked for £230 in December 1850; and Rev Longman offered to lend £70 to the Committee in the same month. [ibid 1850] The problem of finding suitable teachers who were prepared to accept very low rates of pay was an impossible task. In April 1850 Mr Pettit was offered the job of schoolmaster at a salary of £50 but eleven months later, on hearing that his "conduct as schoolmaster not being satisfactory", was duly dismissed. [ibid 1850] His successor, Mr Fagan, was appointed in May 1852, but his term of office was even shorter, his resignation being accepted in September 1852. [ibid 14th Sept 1852] As a consequence of the lack of funds, SS Peter & Paul's school became "dilapidated and unsuitable" and for this reason the Government grants were withdrawn. The schools of St Patrick and St George were in a more fortunate position with regard to Government grants. In 1855-6, they were in receipt of 6809-19-83/d, the highest for any school in the town. [Meeting of the Committee of Council on Education [hereafter MCCE] 1859-60 p213].

In the Blakenhall district of Wolverhampton, the new Catholic school of St Mary's, Cobden Lane, won the praise of H.M.I. Marshall who described it as one of those new schools which "have been erected with much judgment, and have considerable architectural merit". [ibid 1855 – 6 p520] He also noted that, while arithmetic was taught with least success in girls’ schools generally, the Catholic Girls’ School in Wolverhampton was one of the exceptions. In the Wolverhampton Catholic schools "pupil-teachers had made fair progress in algebra", [ibid p521] and, on the whole, "pupil-teachers had completed their apprenticeship with more than average credit". [ibid p526] In 1859, H.M.I. Stokes reported that St Patrick’s and St George’s, and St Mary’s Blakenhall were "superior school premises". [ibid 1858 – 9 p640].

On Wednesday 2 January 1861, the new school on Snow Hill, adjoining SS Mary & John’s Church, was officially opened. It had cost £1,600, exclusive of the site [WC 9th Jan 1861] though part of the cost had been defrayed by the sale of the building sand which was discovered on the land on which the school was to be built. [Nicholls op cit p16] While the lower floors were to be used as a boys’ school, the upper room, "a handsome, spacious compartment, 70 feet long, 30 feet wide and 40 feet high, called St Mary’s Hall is intended for more advanced educational purposes, and also for meetings and lectures for which it is well adapted". [WC 9th Jan 1861] In its first year the new school helped to educate 700 children, of whom 400 received free instruction, and the total debt was reduced to £1,200. [WC 15th Jan 1862] As far as Father Kelly was concerned, the seal of approval was achieved when "a number of Protestant men [the Cambridge Examiners] recently held their central examinations for the midlands District in that very room [St Mary’s Hall]". [WC 14th Jan 1863].