Sunday, 19 January 2014


Yesterday, I attended a fascinating symposium organised by WOIRN (Women on Irish Research Network) on ‘Irish women, religion and the diaspora’ at the University of Liverpool’s Institute of Irish Studies. You can find the programme here. This was thanks to an invitation from my wonderful school-friend, Claire, whom I first met in maths in year eight, and who studied at the Institute. While she used to steal my textbook so I had more time to chat and less time to do algebra, in our comparative old age, she’s now expanding my intellectual horizons!  

I know very little of Irish history. When beginning to research my doctorate, I toyed with the idea of comparing British women missionaries’ activities in India with those of their Irish counterparts, particularly nuns of the Loreto sisters whose hill-station schools were populated by children of the Empire. Yet, due to the constraints of time and the availability of sources, I chose to concentrate upon British women alone – women who did not go to India to serve the Raj, but whose nationality inevitability tied them to the imperial regime. Yesterday, however, I found that there were many similarities between the experiences of Anglican women missionaries of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel and the Church Missionary Society and those of their Irish Catholic sisters.  

There were eight papers, covering subjects including female philanthropy, the importance of ‘faith’ to voluntary action, emigration, place, and the construction of identities. Two papers were especially relevant to a scholar of spinsters!

Susan O’Brien of St Edmund’s College, Cambridge, spoke of her research on Irish members of the Daughters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul. This was a French order, founded in the seventeenth century for the care of the poor and sick, and it continued to have a strong French identity. Between 1855 and 1940, over 1000 Irish born women belonged to the British mission, and from 1885, province of the Company. Although houses were founded in Ireland, the majority of these sisters lived in Britain itself. The Company’s Father General was based in Paris, however, and all sisters undertook formation there, learning the language. Susan argued that these Irish sisters, domiciled in Britain as members of a French order, developed a distinctive, transnational ‘Vincentian’ identity. Her research suggests that Irish sisters were not treated any differently than their British and French colleagues. Although when the British province was established in 1885, the figures of authority were English upper-class women, an Irish sister was elected head in 1925.

I was particularly interested by a point Susan made about the backgrounds of the Irish Vincentian sisters. Many seem to have had aunts and sisters already in convents in Ireland. By becoming members of a French order, indeed an order with annual rather than perpetual vows, they were breaking from family tradition.

Grainne O’Keeffe-Vigneron of Universit√© Rennes 2 also spoke about nuns – this time, Irish nuns in a religious order in France itself. She had carried out oral research amongst a French congregation, examining Irish sisters’ reasons for joining, their experiences of migration in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, and their adaption to their new lives in a foreign country. I was amazed to discover that there were approximately 19,000 nuns in Ireland in 1967! Again, by choosing to leave to join a French order, the women interviewed by Grainne had been more adventurous than their peers.

When Grainne explored these women’s decision to become nuns, I found there to be many parallels with my own work on SPG and CMS recruitment. While it is true that becoming a nun brought employment and security for ‘surplus’ spinsters, compensating for a lack of eligible bachelors, it is important not to underestimate the genuine sense of vocation felt by recruits. Like the majority of British women missionaries, the nuns spoke of feeling a distinct ‘call’ from God to service and a pressing desire to help those in need and to sacrifice themselves for others. Unlike the middle-class recruits of SPG and CMS, however, many of the nuns were from poor rural backgrounds. Donning the habit gave them the status to carry out the social work they desired. For one nun in particular, who expressed a wish to work with children, it was less limiting than becoming a wife and mother at home. She could become a mother to many more children in need.

Interestingly, Grainne suggested that for many of the nuns, the decision to join a French congregation might have been simply an accident rather than a sign of adventurousness or rebellion. Mother Superiors and special ‘recruiting nuns’, chosen for their ability to communicate, were sent from France to Ireland on recruitment drives. Young women were simply attracted by their words, and tales of the order’s work, only discovering later its location overseas.   

Grainne spoke of Irish recruits’ sense of displacement upon arrival in France – everything was different, the language, the regimented daily life, the dress, the food. Great efforts were made to suppress recruits’ previous identities, cultivating a congregational identity above individualism. Indeed, being forced to speak in a new, foreign language made the expression of personality especially difficult. Family members, close friends, and women who had grown up together in the same parishes and villages in Ireland were placed apart in separate congregations in France to avoid the development of ‘special’ or ‘particular friendships,’ which distracted from community life and reminded recruits of their previous existence.

The dangers of ‘particular friendships’ were also identified by mission societies and this is a theme I will explore further on this blog in later weeks. They were seen to be as detrimental to life on a remote mission station as they were to life within a religious community. If two missionaries alone on a station were to develop a strong attachment to one another, it could limit the efficacy of the work. If two out of three missionaries on a station had such a relationship, all kinds of hurt, hostility, and jealousy could ensue.

Following the papers, there was a period of general discussion, during which I took the opportunity to point out all the similarities to my own research!

I thoroughly enjoyed my foray into Irish history and am keen to explore further the backgrounds and motivations of Irish nuns and their transnational encounters. I’ve made a note of several books to hunt out in the Bodleian, but any recommendations would be much appreciated!  

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Happy New Year! Working in the missionary archives has introduced me to some fascinating individuals. Let's begin 2014 by putting one remarkable woman in the spotlight... 

WOMAN OF THE WEEK: Miss Eva Fiennes

Eva Fiennes in November 1954
Archives of St Stephen's Community, Delhi
Miss Eva Fiennes was a handful. Stubborn, self-denying, tireless, and fiercely-independent, she was at once an exceptionally effective missionary, an extremely generous philanthropist, and an extraordinarily difficult colleague. Her companions in St Stephen’s Community in Delhi (an association of single women missionaries allied with the high-Anglican Society for the Propagation of the Gospel) regarded her with a mixture of frustration, admiration, bewilderment, and awe. ‘I, for one, always felt rather breathless and inadequate when from time to time, I shared some piece of work with her,’ admitted Cecilia Norris, a former Head of the Community, when writing Eva’s obituary for the Delhi mission news in 1963.[1] 

For the vast part of her missionary career, which began in 1904 when she was thirty-one and finished with her retirement in 1961 at the age of eighty-eight, Eva Fiennes worked as an evangelist in remote Indian villages surrounding Delhi. Quite often, she lived in a ramshackle Indian house alongside a smelly buffalo, and spent her days trekking through the fields to teach Indian village women and children. Her energy, intrepidness, and personal austerity were infamous. ‘She worked and lived utterly regardless of physical ease or comfort and drove herself to the limit of human endurance, sometimes beyond it,’ Miss Norris recalled.[2]

To the villagers of Rohtak and Gurgaon, Fathepur and Shahabad, Miss Fiennes must have seemed an extraordinary specimen! Certainly, her first appearance in an unknown village could be a tremendous shock. On one occasion, Cecilia Norris recounted that Eva’s ‘large, khaki solar topi, her deep voice and manly stride’ sent the village women scattering, covering their faces in terror. “Main log’ai hum, log nahin” cried Eva (“I am a woman, not a man”)! Panic over, the village women gathered round the missionaries and she began to teach, singing bhajans and explaining their Christian message.[3] Indeed, once initial introductions had been made, Miss Fiennes appears to have been outstandingly effective at winning villagers’ trust, attention, and affection. She had a keen memory, becoming familiar with the intricacies of their family histories and their educational progress. She prepared many villagers for Baptism and Confirmation, and helped them to find work. They called her the ‘Bari Missahib’ and constantly asked of her whereabouts on the rare occasions when she was absent from a preaching visit.[4]

While the Indian villagers grew accustomed to Miss Fiennes, however, the members of St Stephen’s Community found her a continuously tricky co-worker! A much younger colleague, Violet Hayes wrote at length of her experiences of preaching expeditions alongside the indefatigable Eva in her autobiography, Sent Out To Serve. At the time, Violet was twenty-seven, and Eva, sixty-six:

‘‘What are you running for?’ she would shout back over her shoulder. ‘Only to keep up with you,’ I would pant... Lunch did not happen at all... As the hot weather approached, I asked Eva if we could take a flask of water with us... But only after many pleadings would she agree to such pandering to the flesh and she stopped on the long and baking hot walk back to the car, only just long enough to take a sip.’

Poor Miss Hayes was so famished after a few days’ itineration with Eva that she instructed her colleagues to raid the larder of St Stephen’s Home upon her return to Delhi![5] Into her late seventies, Eva continued to walk 4 ½ miles from Mehrauli to Fathepur, and back again, in one day to visit and teach the villagers.[6]

The humble, self-sacrificing manner of Eva’s existence in India was in stark contrast to her origins. She was not the typical missionary recruit: daughter of a middle-class cleric. Instead, she came from a large aristocratic family with a long tradition of clerical and military service, whose present-day descendents (including the explorer, Ranulph, and the actor, Ralph Fiennes) continue to populate the pages of Burke’s peerage and Who’s Who. She was born, The Honourable Eva Caroline Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes, in July 1873 in London to Lieutenant-Colonel the Honourable Ivo de Vesci Edward Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes of the 9th Lancers, and his wife, Isabella Emily Gregg. Her father was the third son of the 10th Baron Saye and Sele of Broughton Castle, Oxfordshire. He died when she was just two years old.[7]

I know almost nothing of Eva’s childhood. She had an older brother, Bertram (who died aged twenty-one), an older sister, Dorothy, and a younger brother, Nathaniel. She was educated at private schools in Ipswich and Bournemouth, and trained for the mission field at St Denys’ Deaconess House in Warminster. Interestingly, shortly before she began her training, her mother had married Eugene Stock, the hugely-influential editor, mission historian, and administrator of the Church Missionary Society.[8] Of the foundational experiences which might have inspired Eva to offer for missionary service, however, we know little. Her letters in the archives of the SPG are characteristically practical and direct – devoid of reflection and reminiscence.[9] She seems, however, to have been determined to use her personal wealth for the well-being of others.

Rather than receiving a stipend from the SPG like the majority of her colleagues, Eva’s personal wealth enabled her to offer for missionary service as an ‘honorary’ missionary. She financed her entire missionary career, paying for her outfit, passages, and daily maintenance.  As her colleague, Barbara Goucher recalled, ‘she could not bear to spend any money on herself,’ and would spend long train journeys sleeping upright on a hard wooden seat in third class. She devoted the rest of her money to sponsoring the schooling of Indian children at the mission’s village schools and helping the destitute, even giving away her own clothes and blankets.[10] In 1920, feeling very strongly the shortage of missionary evangelists in the Rohtak district, she also offered to pay for SPG to send out an additional worker to help.[11]

Eva’s disregard for herself and her independent nature made her very difficult to control. To those in authority in the Community of St Stephen, she could be a nightmare! On one fateful preaching expedition with Violet Hayes, she collapsed by the roadside, unable due to illness and exhaustion to continue. She refused to let Violet fetch help, however, insisting that her colleague continue to the village of Bagroula to take the lesson. After struggling back to her house, she also forced Violet to promise not to inform any of the Community in Delhi of her condition. Although Violet did her best to avoid her colleagues on her return, the Head of the Community noticed something was up. She and another senior member caught the next train to Gurgaon, determined to bring Eva to be treated in hospital. They returned empty-handed, however, as the formidable Miss Fiennes refused to admit defeat![12]

Eva with her St Stephen's colleagues in the early 1950s (she is second from the right in the second row)
Archives of St Stephen's Community, Delhi

On some occasions, the Community tried actively to restrain her, feeling she was more a hindrance than a help. In 1947, amidst the violence and chaos of Independence and Partition in Delhi, the Head of the Community, Evelyn Ashdown, informed the SPG: ‘We hope Nora and Barne and Ruth will have the pluck to come, we need reinforcements, but not Eva.’[13] In another letter, she explained, ‘The Bishop is determined to send her [Miss Fiennes] as far as possible from Delhi, and wisely I think. I am sorry for her, but at her age [seventy-four] she is not likely to change her methods, and she will be a real danger if she goes on as she did.’[14]

Ultimately, Eva Fiennes was a maverick! She was a wealthy English woman, who chose to live in poverty, far from home. She was difficult to work with, yet extraordinarily generous towards those amongst whom she worked. She was a highly-effective missionary, yet broke all the rules in the book. A woman to be reckoned with – to be feared and yet, admired.    

[1] Delhi. 1963. p.10.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid. pp.10-11.
[5] USPG, Rhodes House. X1254. Sent out to Serve by V.M. Hayes. p.13.
[6] Delhi. 1963. p.10.
[7] Author’s biographical database of women missionaries. Compiled from, The Times Digital Archive, Who’s Who etc.
[8] Ibid.
[9] USPG, Rhodes House. See papers of the Committee for Women’s Work (CWW).
[10] Delhi. 1963. p.11.
[11] USPG, Rhodes House. CWW 142. Original Letters Received: Assam, Bombay, Calcutta, Chota Nagpur, Lahore, Lucknow, Madras, Nagpur, Rangoon, Tinnevelly. 1920. p.74. 
[12] USPG, Rhodes House. X1254. Sent out to Serve by V.M. Hayes. pp.13-14.
[13] USPG, Rhodes House. E95/5. Delhi. 18th September 1947.
[14] USPG, Rhodes House. CMD 106: Letters received from Delhi during the 1947 disturbances. October 18th 1947.