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Harriet Monsell: A Memoir

By the Rev. T. T. Carter

New York: E.P. Dutton, 1884.

Chapter IV. The Origin of Penitentiary Work at Clewer

"Each morn and eve the Golden Keys
Are lifted in the sacred hand,
To show the sinner on his knees
Where heaven's bright doors wide open stand.

"On the dread Altar duly laid
The Golden Keys their witness tear,
That not in vain the Church hath prayed,
That lie, the Lord of souls, is there."

Lyra Apostolica.

ONE outcome of the revival of life in the Church of England was the desire to transform our penitentiary system by substituting for paid service, which had everywhere prevailed hitherto, the principle of self-devotion, and at the same time securing a truer Church teaching. The instrument raised up in the Providence of GOD to impress these new ideas on the public mind, was the Rev. John Armstrong, then Vicar of Tidenham, near Chepstow; afterwards Bishop of Grahamstown, Southern Africa, where a few years of exhausting labour acting on an enfeebled frame hastened him to a premature grave. [May I refer to a Life of my friend, written by myself, and published some years ago by Mr. Parker, of Oxford?] He was gifted with a single-hearted, affectionate earnestness, and a rich fund of simple eloquence. By various appeals he succeeded in awakening the sympathies of many hearts, and enlisted the aid of a circle of sympathetic friends in the cause to which he had devoted himself. The way was thus prepared for any movement that might anywhere arise, such as Mr. Armstrong had sketched out.

It generally happens in the quickening of life within the Church by the Blessed Spirit of GOD, that incidental effects arise in unexpected quarters, independent of the central movement; and so it was in the present case. While Mr. Armstrong was looking out for some person to organise and carry on a work such as he had designed in his own neighbourhood, a remarkable combination of circumstances caused Clewer to become the scene of the earliest development of this new form of Church work.

The author of this Memoir was at the time Rector of Clewer; and he had as his assistant curate the Rev. C. Wellington Johnson, who afterwards took the name of Furse, and is now the well-known Canon Furse of Westminster Abbey. Mr. Johnson, then a private tutor at Eton, kindly gave such part of his time as he was able to parish work at Clewer, and specially had charge of a district now covered by a large population, and known as Clewer S. Stephen's. It was then a mere hamlet in which, beside some few respectable cottages, there was a group of as wretched hovels as could be found anywhere in England, and inhabited by as wretched a set of abandoned women. In this district there lived at the time a poor widow woman keeping a dame's school, one whose motherly nature and devotion fitted her admirably to be the agent of any work of charity among her outcast neighbours. Through Mr. Johnson's efforts, and this poor widow's ready helpfulness, some of those fallen women were led to desire to abandon their dreadful trade. The question was being deliberated how to arrange the sending them to the Magdalen Asylum, then the best known and nearest Refuge for such cases, when Mrs. Tennant, a lady living in the village of Clewer, being asked to help in the difficulty, offered to receive at once into her own house as many of these outcasts as desired to come.

Mrs. Tennant was a Spaniard, the daughter of a Spanish officer. They had come to England as Refugees. The daughter, a woman of great intelligence, had by dint of the study of the Bible reasoned herself out of her Roman Faith, married an English clergyman, and now, a widow, was living at Clewer with the sole companionship of an Italian maidservant, occupying a house lent to her by relations. She was well known to the Rector for her good works among the poor, but no one was prepared for the truly wonderful act of self-devotion for which she now offered herself. Her maidservant was heartily disposed and well fitted to second her mistress. The very evening of the day, June 29, 1849, on which Mrs. Tennant was asked to help in the disposal of the, so-called, Penitents, she at once received two into her own house, and four others on the day following. They were women of the lowest and coarsest kind. The fame of what had been done quickly spread, and within a few days two other women rang at the gate and asked for admittance; another came from a neighbouring village; a few were sent by friends from a distance. Within four months no less than eighteen were housed under this most hospitable roof.

Mrs. Tennant, though with very uncertain health, was possessed of unusual energy, with much originality of mind, and warm affections. She managed, almost with her own unaided efforts, to control and reduce to comparative order these objects of her loving care, women of most undisciplined and impassioned natures, and attached them to herself in the most marvellous manner. At first it was thought that the housing of these women was to be for a time only, till means were found of transferring them to some permanent institution. But as they became fondly attached to their benefactress, and her singular power over them became evident, and her own desire to devote herself in their behalf was very strong, and no asylum existed in England at the time, where any treatment of a similar kind could be looked for, it was resolved to endeavour to found a permanent House of Mercy, to be conducted in the same spirit in which the work had been commenced.

Two or three ladies, hearing of what was going on, offered themselves to assist, as far as other duties permitted, and came on visits, taking turns; so that after the first few weeks Mrs. Tennant was never left quite alone; yet the main burden of the work lay always on her and her maid.

Twice she had to move her strange household; once, because the house, which had been temporarily lent, was sold; when two contiguous houses in the upper part of the same parish were rented, and fitted for the purpose; and secondly, when the estate which became the permanent settlement of the House of Mercy having been purchased, the old house then standing upon it was prepared for the reception of the Penitents. After the most devoted toil, vinceasingly maintained for somewhat less than two years, Mrs. Tennant was constrained to surrender her enormous task. In February, 1851, she committed to others what she had thus far accomplished. She removed to Windsor, where after a short time she was visited with a severe illness, which proved fatal. She died on February 21, 1860, and was buried in the churchyard at Clewer, within a very short distance of the house where her work had begun, and under the shadow of the church to which she had for some months taken her little band of penitents, the first fruits of the House of Mercy.

That with feeble health Mrs. Tennant accomplished what has been imperfectly described, and left such substantial fruits of her labours in a state to be perpetuated by others, involved an effort of self-devotion and ardent love of souls for CHRIST'S sake, such as it would be difficult to parallel. How her work was taken up and carried on after her withdrawal, and became permanent, and how fresh forms of power for good grew out of it, will form the subject of the following chapter.

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