Project Canterbury

George Rundle Prynne
An Early Chapter in the History of the Catholic Revival
by A. Clifton Kelway

London: Longmans, Green and Co, 1905. 248 pp.


The cholera at Plymouth (1849)--The work of Miss Sellon and her Sisters--Horrors of the visitation--The Bishop's sympathy--Institution of the Daily Eucharist:at St. Peter's (1849)--The Rev. G. H. Hetling on the work of the Devonport Society.

THE Popish practices at Eldad and the Tractarian sympathies of Dr. Philpotts were, however, soon forgotten by Plymouth people in their consternation at the terrible epidemic of cholera which broke out in their midst during the summer of 1849. The first case was discovered on board an emigrant ship in the port early in June, and rapidly this dreaded scourge spread through the insanitary and over-crowded slums of the Three Towns, raging with special severity in the densely populated quarters with which St. Peter's district abounded. Shortly before the outbreak, owing to a grant from the Additional Curates' Society, Prynne had been able to secure the assistance of a fellow-worker, the Rev. G. H. Hetling, who was also a medical man, and his services were invaluable at such a juncture. Noble assistance was also rendered by Miss Sellon's Sisters of the Society of the Holy Trinity, which infant community was at work in Devonport, having been established in the neighbourhood early in the previous year. The Sisters were not working in St. Peter's parish at the time, but when the cholera broke out Prynne had a visit from Miss Sellon one evening which he thus describes: "'I am come,' she said, 'to ask if you will accept the services of myself and Sisters to visit the sick and dying in your parish.' A distrustful thought crossed me. Shall I bring these devoted ladies, I thought, from another parish, to such scenes and such dangers? I must have hesitated and said some words to this effect. 'You must not look upon us as mere ladies,' said Miss Sellon, 'but as Sisters of Mercy, and the proper place for Sisters of Mercy is amongst the sick and dying; if you refuse our aid we must offer it elsewhere.' 'I will not refuse,' I replied; 'come with me.' And together we went, accompanied by Mr. Hetling, into the very worst of it. From that night their work began, and abated not until, through God's mercy, the sickness itself did."

No one can fully realize the horrors and anxieties of the cholera period. Night after night Prynne and his fellow-worker, Mr. Hetling, came back tired out with their exertions and the terrible scenes they daily witnessed amongst the sick and dying all around them. And here it was that the heroic bravery of Emily Prynne, the young wife, was perhaps seen to the best advantage. She who had been the admired belle of many balls, and whose earliest days were spent in a luxurious home, not only willingly faced the comparative poverty of her husband, but entered heart and soul into his work. Night and day she was ready and willing to help in attending the sick; but it was more especially the children of the poorest that received her special care. No trouble seemed too great, no action was grudged, in the effort to comfort the little ones, many of whom were made orphans by the cholera scourge. During this period she lived with the ever-present dread that any one of the household might be attacked by the dire disease. One day Prynne returned home feeling completely worn out, and with pains and sickness upon him, which even the doctor thought were the first stages of cholera, and ordered him, if possible, to get some moorland air on the following day. This he succeeded in doing, and Prynne said afterwards that one day seemed to give him new life for the strenuous work that was to follow.

On one occasion, in one of the small dirty courts leading out of Stonehouse Lane, he was visiting the sick, and, receiving no answer from the inmates of one house, he opened the door and went in, but only to find the whole house reeking with the most horrible stench, and in a state of indescribable disorder, with every single inmate dead--some lying on mattresses and some on the floor--and he and Mr. Hetling had to help in removing the dead from the house. This is only one of many instances of a similar character.

Writing many years afterwards, Prynne gave this touching and graphic account of a time which will long be remembered in Plymouth:--

"For three months we seemed to be living amongst the dying and the dead. A large wooden hospital for the whole of Plymouth was erected in our parish. We set up an altar in the largest ward, in order that everything might always be ready for communicating the dying. As the visitation reached its climax the deaths became very frequent and rapid. I was walking out one morning at about nine o'clock. I met a woman hurrying along, and in answer to my inquiry, she said she was going to fetch the doctor for her husband, who had been seized with cholera. In the evening both she and her husband were in their coffins! The woman had died first.

"A day of humiliation was set apart. Our church was crowded with awe-struck, anxious worshippers, many of whom had not been to the church before.

"From a missionary point of view the cholera visitation was a great help to us. It showed the people that the Church cared for them. It helped us also in another way by bringing us sympathy and assistance from friends at a distance. The Bishop was specially sympathizing and liberal, as he ever was in helping those who were in distress. He liked to hear how we were getting on from time to time. His kind letters were a great help and encouragement to us. The following is his reply to a letter which I had sent him, giving an account of the way in which the day of humiliation was observed:--

"'September 21, 1849.

"'I heartily thank you for the very gratifying report which you have made to me of the devout manner in which the solemn service of Friday last was observed in your parish. May it please God to accept, bless, and strengthen those pious aspirations which He was pleased, by His Holy Spirit, to grant to so many of the people of your long-neglected town.

"'I entirely approve your affording to your people the opportunity of offering their private prayers to God in His house at all hours, provided you can make due provision for securing that blessed place from profanation by the intrusion of unholy visitors.

"'P.S.--I had almost forgotten the £10 which I promised to give to the Cholera Relief Fund, and £5 towards the maintenance of the little orphan whom you have received under your roof.'

"The little orphan here alluded to was one of our choir-boys, who, with his sister, was made an orphan by the death of both his parents in one day, as I have just recorded. I must not dwell upon details which a long life can never obliterate from my memory, and which it would take a volume fully to describe. Some of the scenes would rival in their tragic horror even those recorded in De Foe's ' History of the Plague of London.'

"I well remember on one occasion having been called to see a poor woman lying on a mattress on the floor in the agonies of cholera, and close to her confinement. It was in a low, overcrowded room. I had to step over one dead body to get to her. Another dead body had just been put into its thin coffin and was being lowered through the window into the court below. The staircase was too narrow to allow of the coffin being taken down that way. The screams of the people below, many of whom were Irish, in their terror and excitement, were most thrilling. Women would throw themselves on their knees in the street and catch hold of my knees, entreating me to come to the aid of some stricken one." I cannot pass over this subject without speaking of the devoted and heroic labours of the Sisters of Mercy, then recently established by Miss Sellon, during this visitation, and of the invaluable assistance which they rendered us. They were a band of heroines in the army of God; the thought of personal danger did not seem to enter their minds. They had a tent in the field near the hospital to harbour and feed the orphaned; children. One morning my assistant-curate, Mr. Hetling, met one of the Sisters carrying something, which seemed heavy, folded up in her arms.; He asked what it was. She had to admit that it was the body of a child that had just died of cholera, and that she was carrying it to the house where the ready-made coffins were kept. Another instance of self-sacrificing devotion of a still more striking character soon after came to my notice. A poor woman, struck down with cholera, had just left her infant child that she had been nursing. Her sufferings were aggravated by not having the accustomed relief. A Sister was kneeling by the side of the poor woman and doing the infant's part in relieving her, when the doctor came in and I caught her in the act. 'Sister A----,' said he, 'you must promise me never to do that again.' The Lord seemed to have taken away all fear from those I who were ministering to His suffering members.

"It was strange, but the only Sister who died of cholera was one who had not visited any cases; the duties assigned her were confined to the house, then at Stoke, about a mile from St. Peter's. I was sent for late one night to see her, and found her in the agonies of cholera, but perfectly conscious. I gave her Holy Communion, which she longed for, and in the morning she was dead. It was during the raging of the cholera that the Sisters asked to be allowed to receive Holy Communion daily to strengthen them for their daily work."

It is believed that this was the first restoration of the Daily Eucharist in the Church of England since the Reformation; and, save for a short interval, it has continued at St. Peter's during the more than fifty years that have since intervened. In days like the present, when in hundreds of parish churches and several of our cathedrals the Holy Eucharist is offered daily, it is of interest to recall the striking circumstances with which its restoration was associated, and the way in which it was connected with that other great revival of the religious life in the Anglican Communion.

Another eloquent and pathetic account of the distressing scenes which marked the frightful visitation of 1849, was written at Prynne's request by the Rev. G. H. Hetling and addressed by him to Dr. Philpotts in March, 1852, when bitter and unscrupulous attacks were being levelled against Miss Sellon and her work at St. Peter's. Mr. Hetling says:--


"In compliance with your expressed desire I subjoin to Mr. Prynne's statement of the parochial work of the Sisterhood a few particulars of their exertions during the cholera. It were too long and too sad to retrace and describe all that occurred during that sad visitation. It has been my lot in life for one quarter of a century to have seen and borne an active part in very much of suffering, pain, and death. Formerly, in medical practice, I have seen the whole course of cholera in London, Paris, and Bristol, and lastly here in my office of deacon. I have beheld many acts of self-devotion to its sufferers and victims, yet never have I witnessed anything that surpassed, or even equalled, the self-abandonment and self-sacrifice of these humble Sisters. It was not merely the nursing and tending the sick, or the performance of something more than the ordinary duties of nurse; but it was the doing of these acts in that spirit of love and sympathy to the members of Him, Whose very body these poor sufferers were, which characterized their exertions.

"Stretched upon the bed, saturated with the sickness of this dreadful disease, their persons and dresses steeped in its poison, I have seen the sick and dying encompassed with their arms, the cramped limbs embraced and chafed, their heads reclining on their necks; now wiping with a gentle hand the fatal dampness from their sunk faces, now with affectionate entreaty pouring the medicine into their mouths, and then, in the intervals of repose, with lips close to their half-dull ears, whispering some kind words of love, hope of pardon for past sin, or repeating a short prayer or sentence of the Litany; taking their hasty necessary meal from the common stock in the centre of the room, or often by the bedside, often leaving it unfinished to perform some menial act. And all this, too, amidst the gloom of that long array of shrivelled, collapsed, and leaden forms and faces, behind whose outward shroud Death was riding triumphant. They were awful times and solemn scenes. There was one redeeming feature--there was a halo of sanctity thrown around the persons of these calm Sisters which inspired hope and even confidence, and which, more than all, checked and repressed that irreverence and untimely merriment and pleasantry too common in the wards of a hospital. That hospital was a sacred place. The medical gentlemen, who indeed right nobly exercised their high profession, often expressed the security in which they left the nurses under their direction.

"With this 'Mother in Israel,' as she (Miss Sellon) is styled in scorn, and with some of her little band, did I, the first night they began their labours in our parish, visit most of the houses where the visitation was most raging; with her have I literally, in one house, where nine of one family were swept away, stepped over the yet unclosed coffin of the dead, moved aside on the floor the miserable straw bed, where life was sinking fast, to reach the almost forgotten child. . . . Night after night, and half through the night, have I known her remain in the hospital, or in these crowded rooms, with but fragile health herself, and then has she gone to Devonport for the same work.

"One young lady in our parish had just lost two brothers; her two sisters were taken ill; her father and brother were engaged in removing them, and in attending others of the family sick; they were all worn out with toil. A note was sent in haste to the Home. The poor lady was watched, nursed hour by hour by two Sisters, each in turn of twelve hours, and by God's mercy she recovered. Let such a scene be realized-- the dead brother in an adjoining room, not a soul in the house beside (for the servant had left in terror), the patient wandering in fever after the cold-stage; one lone Sister, with nothing but her little basket of cold refreshment and her book of devotions. True to her trust, she kept her long and silent watch. How pure and steady was her love, how sacred and hallowed her patience! . . .

"One poor girl was brought into the hospital from the workhouse, her whole face soiled and marred with the unmistakable stain of early and continued sin. It was a heavy tale I listened to from her husky lips. An unkind word at home, too hastily acted upon, a hurried journey to Plymouth, arrival at night without food or shelter; allured by proffered relief, wronged and betrayed, and flung back in scorn upon the wide streets--the too common fate. Poor bewildered thing! she was very penitent for her sin, very forgiving to him who had made the wreck; but I know not how it was, she could not, would not, hope for her pardon. I strove very hard with her to assure her of peace, but it availed not; her life was mouldering away beneath a blank despair of the future; joy had forsaken her breast. I spoke to the Sister. Hour after hour, for nearly two days and a night, she scarcely left her side; her gentle voice recalled to the poor ruined girl her earlier days of innocence and purity. Her shame soon vanished beneath the tender tones of that dear Sister. Could such, so pure as she, speak and yearn so tenderly over her defiled self? Then there was One above Who would. From time to time, as I passed, I watched the progress of the light that was beaming upon her soul; she sank calm and happy in the prospect of an undying world of bliss. Less than a Sister, I believe, could not have done this work.

"I could write very much more, but I wish to be simple in statement, and those who did these works would shrink from their exposure. I do not wish to imply that others shrank from duties, or that there are not many who earnestly and faithfully helped to relieve and minister to the general distress; but what I do directly assert is, that there were some things done which a Sister of Mercy's unselfish pity, untiring patience, and self-denial could alone achieve."

This letter is of interest not only for the graphic description it gives of a visitation, the severity of which, we may trust, could never be paralleled in these days of improved sanitary and hygienic conditions; but it is also a faithful record of perhaps the very earliest Sisterhood work in a parish of the Anglican Communion. The Community of St. Mary at Wantage was not founded until a little later, and that of St. John the Baptist, Clewer, in 1852. The cholera lasted about three months, gradually abating towards the close of the year 1849; but the good works begun by Miss Sellon at this time continued in the parish for many years, the Mission owing a great deal to the labours of this lady and her Sisters, one of whom still survives, Sister Mary Hilda, now Mother Superior of St. Mary's Abbey, West Mailing. This lady's recollection of Prynne goes back to the beginning of his work in her native town of Plymouth, where, to use her own words, he was from the first "conspicuous for his saintliness of character and high sense of duty."

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