OLD PLYMOUTH . UK
www.oldplymouth.uk
 

  Brian Moseley, Plymouth
Webpage created: July 19, 2017
Webpage revised: May 27, 2021

        

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SAINT DUNSTAN'S ABBEY

The entrance to Saint Dunstan's Abbey in North Road, Plymouth.
From a postcard.

In January 1848 Miss Lydia Sellon (1821-1876) read an appeal from the Bishop of Exeter for help to relieve the spiritual and moral destitution of Devonport.   Being the daughter of a Naval captain, she immediately responded to the challenge, dropped her plans to go abroad and, with the financial help of her father, rented a room in George Street, Devonport, where she set up a school.  She was described as being 'a remarkable woman, with great force of character and exceptional attainments.'

The Quadrangle at Saint Dunstan's Abbey, Plymouth.
From a postcard.

Amongst her many local achievements was the creation of the Sisters of the Holy Trinity and the founding of Saint Dunstan's Abbey in North Road West, Plymouth.  Miss Sellon laid the foundation stone on October 5th 1850 and largely paid the whole of the cost of the construction.  The Abbey was designed by Mr William Butterfield, who was also responsible for Keble College, Oxford, and Rugby School.  He declined the fee, which was just as well because the design was later "toned down", with the refectory becoming the chapel instead of having the large church that he had planned.  The Abbey was dedicated to Saint Dunstan of Glastonbury, who had been the reviver of monastic discipline in the Anglo-Saxon church.  The Sisters set aside a special room for the sole use of the Reverend Doctor Edward Bouverie Pusey (1820-1882), who had supported Miss Sellon throughout her activities in Devonport.

 The gateway and Doctor Pusey's Room at Saint Dunstan's Abbey, Plymouth.
From a postcard.

Shunning publicity, and doing good almost by stealth, the Sisters lived within the precincts of the Abbey and carried out their work in strict seclusion, maintaining only a very restricted contact with the outside world.  They vowed to devote seven hours a day to prayer and meditation amid a life of Spartan simplicity and severity.  They conducted a small school and another part of the building was used as a penitentiary.  Miss Sellon, who had trained as a printer as a young woman, even set up printing presses within the Abbey because she saw printing as a suitable form of employment for women.

Miss Sellon was installed as Abbess in the Oratory of Saint Dunstan's Abbeymere in March 1856, on her 35th birthday.

But by the beginning of the twentieth century, the numbers had dwindled and there were only two Sisters at the time closure was announced on November 9th 1905.  The aged Lady Superior was at that time lying ill at the associated Priory in Berkshire, to which the remaining Sisters were transferred in 1906.

The sale of the buildings and grounds was placed in the hands of Mr J M Andrew, auctioneer, of Princess Square, Plymouth.  It was hoped in the first instance to find a purchaser who would maintain the buildings, which included a small chapel overlooking Victoria Park, and the three acres of grounds as a religious institution.    Failing that, it would be offered for housing.

In April 1907, thanks to the efforts of the Vicar of the Anglican Church of Saint Peter the Appostle at that time, the Reverend Downton, the property was transferred from the Sisters of the Holy Trinity to the Community of Saint Mary the Virgin at Wantage, who continued their educational endeavours under the title of Saint Dunstan's Abbey School for Girls..

Finally, the last two Sisters of the Society of the 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 Miss Sellon's legacy.