Exeter Civic Society

Exeter Civic Society

Sisters of the Community of St. Wilfrid

The plaque, on 27 Bartholomew Street West reads: The Community of Saint Wilfrid. The sisters lived here 1866-1966. Church of England.

The Reverend John Gilberd Pearse, Rector of All Hallows-on-the-Wall Church, was increasingly concerned about the welfare of the many poor families who lived in the West Quarter of Exeter. He founded the Community of St Wilfrid’s, a Church of England Order of nuns, in 1866. The Community, based in Bartholomew Street, visited and nursed the sick and elderly, set up soup kitchens for the unemployed, established an orphanage and gave practical help to disadvantaged families. In early days St Wilfrid’s Orphanage, 19 (later 25) St David’s Hill, Exeter (established 1866) excluded the illegitimate. In 1950 the orphanage in St David’s Hill, still run by the Sisters of St Wilfrid’s, closed.

The community’s legacy today is St Wilfrid’s School on St David’s Hill. In 1870 the government passed the Education Act making education compulsory for all children. Many new schools were needed to accommodate the sudden increase in children attending school for the first time. Father Pearse decided he should open a school, with the nuns offering a caring environment in which to learn: having forty places – it was known as the ‘Forty School’. Standards of education were not high in late Victorian times and the curriculum was limited to the abilities of the Sisters. Under the watchful eye of Sister Matilda, the first headmistress, they taught the Three R’s and French, Art, Deportment and Dancing. In 1900 the school moved to the Mint because it needed larger premises: numbers quickly doubled!

As the years passed the Sisters were trained as professional teachers and some specialist lay teachers were also employed. More subjects were included in the curriculum and standards of education improved. By the 1930s Science, Mathematics, History, R.E., Geography and Sports were well established and older pupils started to take external examinations. A strong PTFA organised fetes each year to raise money with the view to funding a new, even larger school. Over the next few years the school moved to St David’s Hill. The sloping vegetable and fruit garden was levelled to make a playground a laboratory, a domestic science block, a library and an outdoor swimming pool were constructed.

Until 1967, apart from young boys, St Wilfrid’s was solely a girls’ school. However, when Mount Radford School closed in 1967 the decision was taken to make the school fully co-educational. Under Reverend Mother Edith, the last Sister to be a teaching headmistress, St Wilfrid’s became the first independent co-educational school in Exeter. St Wilfrid’s pupils were often seen in the city throughout the 1970s and 1880s taking food parcels to elderly residents of local almshouses and singing Christmas Carols in the High Street; for many years traffic was stopped as pupils processed to Exeter Cathedral for an annual St Wilfrid’s Day service every October.
In 1988, with increasing curriculum demands, the ageing Sisters (no new recruits had joined the Order since the 1950s) decided they were no longer able to run St Wilfrid’s School. The Senior department became a separate school with its own head-teacher and financial control, while the Junior department continued under the Sisters’ leadership. Fortunately, the split between the Junior School and Senior School was short lived and the Junior School was invited to rejoin the seniors in 1994. By this time there were only two remaining Sisters: Sister Elsie (who died in 1997) and Reverend Mother Lillian (who died in 2004 at the grand age of 107!)

Information from Saint Wilfrid’s School website.