Anglican Notables – Harriet Brownlow Byron (Religious) – 3 August

Anglican Notables – Harriet Brownlow Byron (Religious) – 3 August

[This is a series of biographical sketches of Anglican men and women whose lives have been exemplary in virtue and/or have made significant contributions to Anglicanism’s expression of the Gospel.  Written from the perspective of full communion with the See of St. Peter, including such papal statements as St. John Paul II’s encyclical on ecumenism, Ut Unum Sint, this series will occasionally acknowledge differences between Anglicans and Catholics where they exist and will do so in a spirit of charity and respect.  However, the intent is to focus less on differences than on opportunities for mutual enrichment between the Anglican and Catholic traditions and on shared spiritual treasures that already unite us.]

Harriet Brownlow Byron – Foundress of the All Saints Sisters of the Poor

Born: 1818 – Died: 3 August 1887

[ Image: photo of Mother Harriet Brownlow Byron, date uncertain.]

[ Mother Harriet Brownlow Byron founded one of the religious communities that came into being within the Church of England of the Victorian era.  This community, the All Saints Sister of the Poor, can be considered one of the more successful of these efforts because its existence has continued, in different iterations ( Oxford, England: All Saints Sisters of the Poor – an Anglican religious community of women in Oxford; Catonsville, Maryland: All Saints Sisters – As having nothing yet possessing all things ), to today.

Perhaps part of the success of the All Saints Sisters is in the fact that their charism (a modification of the Augustinian rule) insisted on due importance paid to prayer and contemplation, not solely to active ministry, as noted below.  But also, Brownlow Byron seems to have lived St. John the Baptist’s “He must increase, but I must decrease,” since Mother Harriet’s personality quickly fades from view in the annals of the community’s early years.  One has the impression Mother Harriet wanted this particular way of living the Gospel to speak for itself and not rely on the charisma of the founder.

Following is a significant excerpt from Susan Mumm’s book on the early years of the All Saints Sisters of the Poor.  It gives an idea of the kind of faith and resolve and sheer stamina called for in these early years, not only because of working in difficult physical situations but also because of the challenges faced in the way of resistance from the people these women served and from those in authority in the Church of England. ]

In 1825 the idea of religious communities for women within the Church of England was almost inconceivable: by 1900, over ninety [such societies] had been founded and were operating within that church. Although the first community was not founded until 1845, the idea had been under discussion in ‘advanced’ Anglican circles since the late 1830s, but little or nothing was done until a committee agreed to fund the establishment of the Park Village Sisterhood in the slums near King’s Cross. This was the only attempt to found a religious community by committee during the Victorian period: the committee of gentlemen, which included Gladstone, E. B. Pusey [who had become the de facto leader of the Oxford Movement after Newman was received into full communion with Rome], and Lord John Manners [seventh duke of Rutland (1818-1906); Young Englander, Tory cabinet minister, and Anglo-Catholic], were unable to find a suitable woman to lead the society. After a few years of floundering half-life, Park Village was absorbed by Ascot Priory, the community founded by the charismatic and controversial Priscilla Sellon.

Later foundations followed an entirely different path. Communities were ordinarily established by individual women of extraordinary character, who felt called to devote their lives to God and to the poor. … Only the rare women who were convinced that they had a vocation to found a religious community would be able to withstand the opprobrium and hostility that greeted the early foundations.  [These fledgling religious communities of women during the Victorian era] were accused of being outposts of Fenianism, of being Roman Catholic orders in disguise, of holding women against their will, of financial chicanery, of cruelty to members and to those for whom they cared and of allowing free rein to power-mad and sadistic mothers superior. None of these accusations was true. But the outpouring of paranoia which greeted [these communities] suggests that they pinched a painful nerve in the Victorian psyche.

Founders of successful communities were powerful women, whose combination of leadership and charisma meant that they could not only attract, but keep, other women as members of the order. In these early days of Anglican religious orders there was little of dignity or beauty to appeal to those whose primary interest was aesthetic. Houses were rented, normally in slums, habits were improvised, the offices were recited in basements or attics hastily fitted up as chapels, and the kitchens were infested with blackbeetles, and required incessant scouring to render them useable. Money was always in short supply.

Not only was there little glamour in [such communities], there was a lot of very hard work, both in the convent and among the poor. It was a hard and demanding life. But that it was a satisfying life as well is testified to by the fact that women poured into [these communities], and continued to do so throughout the century; more than 10,000 had tried the life by the end of the century. By then, only teaching and nursing were larger professions than being a ‘Sister of Mercy’, according to the census [domestic service not part of the census since it was unskilled labor].  Sisters worked as nurses, teachers, district visitors and ran orphanages. They organized some of the first creches in London, provided midwifery and mortuary services, founded schools, established convalescent, children’s and accident hospitals, and sheltered prostitutes and addicted women. In general, they provided an extremely wide range of services, mostly for women and children, and always for the very poorest in their society.

The work of the sisters did not end at the convent door. Their communities became large and complex institutions, with plenty of work for women with talents for management, finance, architecture, music, painting, needlework, gardening, fund-raising, writing and public relations. All of this work was carried out within an all-female structure of authority, which made [such communities] probably the largest women’s institutions in Victorian Britain.

Who were these women? Most were of the professional and gentry classes: in the profession rolls that most sisterhoods kept, their fathers were overwhelmingly described as clergy, gentry, of no profession or as members of the aristocracy. In many [communities], these women either donated capital or paid an annual sum toward the community’s work; in some communities, their brains and their energy were the only required donation. Working-class women could and did join sisterhoods, but only in relatively small numbers, and mostly from the upper end of the artisan and small shopkeeper scale. In almost all communities, they carried out the domestic tasks associated with a large institution, where upwards of one-hundred sisters might be living under one roof. All Saints and some other communities did allow working-class women of talent to train as teachers or nurses; one or two even rose to the dignity of mother superior, but these were rare exceptions. Most working-class women who joined toiled in kitchen or laundry, much as they might have done in domestic service.  But there was one important difference: as lay sisters they were full members of the society, with an absolute right to be cared for in sickness and old age, as well as enjoying the dignity of the title ‘sister’ and the chance to pursue their vocation.

[These early Anglican religious communities] were founded for work; for many, the growth of the religious life of the House was subordinated to active work for many years. They worked among the poor, mainly in London, but also in other urban and a few rural areas. All Saints, the subject of this volume, is an exception to this general rule: it followed a mixed life, incorporating an emphasis on the development of the interior life with external work, from the very beginning. Virtually all of its fellow societies pursued the active life until the end of Victoria’s reign, or thereabouts: the only important exception was the Society of the Sisters of Bethany, whose founder was trained in the All Saints’ noviciate.

The founder of All Saints Sisters of the Poor was Harriet Brownlow Byron, the daughter of the deputy lieutenant of Hertfordshire, who had been an M.P. for Hertford until Catholic emancipation. Born [1818] into wealth and privilege, she deviated from the expected life of a woman of her class and time when she did not marry. In 1845, at the age of twenty-seven, she became involved with the Anglo-Catholic revival, and through that met William Upton Richards, the curate of the proprietary chapel that was to evolve into the parish of All Saints, Margaret Street, Marylebone.  [Upton Richards first went to Margaret Street in 1845; in I 848 he was appointed to the new parish of All Saints, Marylebone, and in the same year Miss Byron made her first confession to him. From 14 April 1850 he instituted the first daily celebration in the Victorian Church of England. – Mumm’s f.n.]  Around the same time she also trained as a nurse at King’s College Hospital. Together Upton Richards and Brownlow Byron first discussed the possibility, and later, the practicalities, of founding a new Anglican community. Brownlow Byron had travelled much on the continent, and knew several catholic orders for women as intimately as any Protestant could know them. She had friends who were Catholic religious, and who seem to have given her a privileged glimpse of their inner life, as well as of their daily routine.  [She had also been educated by a French governess, who was a devout Catholic. Brownlow Byron retained a strong attachment to her for the remainder of her life. – Mumm’s f.n.]  She had also visited the embryonic Anglican sisterhoods already in existence, but felt that none of them shared her vision of the religious life.

The growth of the community was spectacular. In 1851 Harriet Brownlow Byron spent six months working alone in the slums of Marylebone before anyone else joined her community. She and two other sisters were professed in 1856, and Brownlow Byron was elected superior for life later that year. By 1900, thirteen years after the foundress’s death [of cancer, to which Byron finally succumbed on 3 August 1887 – Mumm, 36], over 400 women had been professed as All Saints sisters, and the Society was working in Britain, the United States, India and South Africa. Many more women had tried the life and found it was not for them; others had been rejected by the community as unsuited to the life and work. This fast growth was not unique to All Saints: a number of early foundations, including the Society of St John Baptist, Clewer, the Community of St Mary the Virgin, Wantage, the Society of St Margaret, East Grinstead and the Sisters of the Church, Kilburn, grew at a similar rate, suggesting considerable pent-up demand amongst Anglo-Catholic women for an alternative to marriage that would develop their potential – intellectual, active and religious – to its fullest extent.

The Society opened its first branch house outside London, in Harlow, in 1860. Little is known of the work done by the sisters here: it probably consisted largely of district visiting. In 1862, they took over the nursing at University College Hospital; in 1866, they responded to a request to provide the nursing staff for the workhouse hospital at Chorlton, Manchester. The next year the convalescent hospital at Eastbourne, the first of its kind, was begun; the large hospital which they eventually built there was staffed by All Saints sisters until 1958.

The 1870s was the decade which saw expansion beyond England. In 1870 the Society commenced work in Edinburgh, where they were to stay for more than half a century. In 1871 a branch house was opened at Clifton, and in the following year the Society began work in the United States, where All Saints remains active today. The year 1873 saw the beginning of work in Bradford, and the commencement of the children’s hospital there. In 1876 the sisters accepted an invitation to work in South Africa, and they moved into India in 1878. In the meantime, work had also begun in Lewisham, Liverpool and Helmsley, Yorkshire. This was also the decade in which the Society sent nurses to the Franco-Prussian war.

In the 1880s, the Society undertook projects of various types in Westminster, Leeds, St Leonard’s-on-Sea and Finsbury. In that decade they took over the nursing at the Metropolitan Hospital and also accepted the gift of the Oxford hospital for incurables which today is the Society’s motherhouse. In the following decade they responded to calls to work in Wolverhampton, Beckenham, Hendon and Hammersmith, as well as taking over a hospital in Osnaburgh Street which had once been the responsibility of another Anglican sisterhood.

This apparently scatter-shot list of branch houses, hospitals and assorted projects conceals an underlying unity. The Society was set up to serve God through caring for the sick and the poor. How this was to be done was never planned in advance; Brownlow Byron and the women who joined her simply responded to the needs of those around them; the Society’s council minutes make it clear how reluctant the sisters were to refuse any call for help. Today, when the Society looks back on its own history, they see it as a pattern of pioneering work in response to invitations from outside. Eventually, within a few years, or many decades later, it became possible to pass the work on to others.

As mentioned earlier, from the very beginning All Saints was different, in one crucial respect, from other Anglican communities of its generation. It embraced, quietly and almost invisibly, the mixed life. Virtually all of the other early Anglican foundations were active orders, dedicated to charitable work among the poor. As demonstrated above, All Saints also worked among the poor, primarily as a nursing order. The community, along with another Anglican nursing sister­hood, St John the Divine, and the Nightingale training school, was considered to provide the very highest standard of nursing available in England. But it would also seek to protect and enhance its members’ … life of prayer. Its spiritual models were Roman Catholic, and the community borrowed much more directly from Catholic teaching than most other early sisterhoods.

Given the anti-Catholic animus of the age, the community’s mixed life was played down when the group came into the public eye. What it chose to emphasize in its contacts with the outside world was its active work with the poor. As decades passed and the idea of Anglican sisterhoods ceased to be shocking, the development of the internal life of the community perhaps became dominant over the active work….

Unthinking and virtually automatic anti-Catholicism saturated British society down to the very bottom. Even the very poor among whom [the All Saints Sisters] worked suspected them of being disguised Roman Catholics in the early days. The suspicion of Catholic tendencies was also the sisterhoods’ most serious obstacle among the middle and upper classes whose charitable support was to become necessary to the communities’ financial stability.

The Society must be understood in the context of its emergence during the first wave of women’s communities to emanate from the Victorian Church of England. The first [such community, the Sisterhood of the Holy Cross (Park Village), founded in London in March 1845; the superior was Emma Langston. This group amalgamated with Ascot Priory in 1856 – Mumm’s f.n.], was established in 1845; All Saints followed in 1851. Like other early foundations, its purpose was to permit Anglican women both to work among the poor and also to develop a regular community life for themselves.

Unlike the Roman Catholic women’s [communities] to which they were so often compared, Anglican religious orders were seldom founded with episcopal or structural support from the church.  Rather, they were established by individual women of extraordinary character, who felt called to devote their lives to God and to the poor.  For decades their Anglicanism was largely self-defined, as the church’s hierarchy continued to view their communities with outright hostility or, at best, grudging and suspicious tolerance. 


Mumm, Susan, ed. All Saints Sisters of the Poor: An Anglican Sisterhood in the Nineteenth Century. Church of England Record Society, v. 9. Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK ; Rochester, NY: Boydell Press, 2001.


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