St. Francis in Soho: Emmeline Pethick, Mary Neal, the West London Wesleyan Mission, and the Allure of "Simple Living" in the 1890s

By Ross, Ellen | Church History, December 2014 | Go to article overview

St. Francis in Soho: Emmeline Pethick, Mary Neal, the West London Wesleyan Mission, and the Allure of "Simple Living" in the 1890s


Ross, Ellen, Church History


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The author would like to thank the scholars who have read various versions of this paper: Christopher Oldstone-Moore, Pamela Walker, Paula Michaels, Judith Walkowitz, Seth Koven, Jacqueline deVries. Susan Thorne, Sally Alexander, Amy Johnson, the members of the Duke-UNC Global British History seminar, and the participants in the Gender Studies seminar at the National Humanities Center. I also received help and advice from Jennifer Lloyd, Phyllis Mack, and Hugh McLeod. I would also like to thank audiences who have heard this as a talk at Goldsmith's College, Columbia University, the Institute for Historical Research, the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians, the North American Conference on British Studies, and the Middle Atlantic Conference on British Studies. Esme Cleall assisted ably with the research. This paper's references will demonstrate how much Seth Koven has contributed to this article, which is really a "prequel" to his own study of the Lester Sisters and Kingsley Hall.

In the winter and spring of 1894 and 1895, two Methodist missionaries in London encountered a Roman Catholic saint, Francis of Assisi, through a striking new biography by French protestant clergyman Paul Sabatier.1 The two were Sisters of the People attached to the West London Mission (WLM) in the poor and overcrowded central London district of Soho: Emmeline Pethick (1867-1954), later suffragist, feminist, League of Nations Union campaigner, and wife of politician Frederick Lawrence; and Mary Neal (1860-1944), pioneer folklorist, music educator, and children's magistrate.2 Others among their contemporaries were taken up with women's suffrage, Progressivism, Ibsenism, trades unions, or aestheticism, but these Sisters and others of the mission staff eagerly discussed the ideas and gestures of a medieval mystic. The new biography intensified a Franciscan revival that was already underway throughout British culture, inspiring a large and diverse group of slum investigators, urban settlers, and political activists. In the case of Neal and Pethick, their introduction to the thirteenth-century mendicant set them on a path leading out of the mission and into a movement of Franciscan-inflected socialist urban settlers.3

It was the story of Francis of Assisi more than unhappiness with mission life or a loss of faith that led to the two Sisters' departure. Emmeline and Mary were enthusiastic and respected members of the WLM staff almost to the moment of their resignation in the autumn of 1895. Pethick had arrived at the mission in the late summer or early fall of 1891, Neal having already been there for three years.4 The Sisterhood to which they were recruited, Emmeline via family connections and Mary through word of mouth, was a progressive institution. It consisted of a group of volunteers, as many as forty in the WLM's heyday in the 1890s, who chose work for the mission or its immediate community and lived in quarters nearby. Most of the Sisters had come from wealthy nonconformist industrial families, though others were daughters of prominent Methodist educators, and a few of the early Sisters were Anglicans;5 several were childhood friends of Katherine Price Hughes, the mission superintendent's young wife.6 Clad in distinctive dark serge gowns and bonnets fitted with violet-lined trains, Sisters moved unchaperoned about Soho's seedy streets day and night. Katherine, the founder of the Sisterhood and a dedicated feminist, served as its "Sister Superior;" she was a kind of transitional object for many of the sheltered women who came to serve as Sisters. The "comparative freedom" of their new lives was a "bombshell" for Mary and Emmeline; the mission itself "a new adventure," as Emmeline later wrote.7

Both Sisters had grown up in comfortable and sheltered surroundings, encountering urban poverty in the 1880s only through books, such blockbusters as Edward Carpenter's Toward Democracy (1883), Mearns's Bitter Cry of Outcast London (1883) and Walter Besant's Children of Gibeon (1886). …

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