Horbury House of Mercy

Above: House of Mercy, Horbury. Picture courtesy of Anthony Oldroyd.

The House of Mercy, Dovecote Lane, Horbury is located in an elevated part of Horbury, adjacent to Horbury Cemetery and was founded by the Sisters of St. John the Apostle in 1858 "for the reception and protection of women who had led unchaste lives, with a view to their reformation, either in some reputable calling by which to earn a livelihood, or otherwise.1"

The Community of St. John Baptist, also known as the Sisters of Mercy, or formerly Clewer Sisters, is an Anglican religious order of Augustinian nuns. The Community was founded in England in 1852 by Harriet Monsell (the first Superior), a clergy widow, and Thomas Thellusson Carter, a priest at Windsor. The purpose of the order was to help marginalised women, mainly single mothers, the homeless and sex trade workers by providing them shelter and teaching them a trade. The work of the sisters expanded to include administering and working in orphanages, schools, convalescent hospitals, soup kitchens, and women's hostels. The Community is conspicuous amongst Anglican communities for its meteoric rise in numbers from the date of the foundation. By the time of Carter's death in 1901 there were some 300 Sisters. At its height, the Community had some 45 priories and branch houses.

The original institution at Horbury consisted a Visitor (The Bishop of Ripon); a Warden (The Rev. J. Sharp); Superior Sisters; a Council; Trustees and two Treasurers. The Sisters were of two distinct classes: those fully admitted after probation and Sisters probationary. The Sisters had to be members of the Church of England and, if under the age of thirty years, have the written consent of their parents, before admission to the House. Besides these Sisters, several ladies worked at the Institution as Associates and they assisted the nuns by collecting alms (money, food, or similar items given to the poor as a charitable act); finding work, situations and the means of livelihood for the women penitents at the House of Mercy.

With the High Anglican Oxford Movement in full swing in England in the 1860s, a great many upper- and middle-class single women found an outlet for both their religious fervour and their desire to help others less fortunate by joining together into sisterhoods and entering into communal living. One such woman was Minna Gwynn, from a well-to-do English family living in Reading who joined the Horbury House of Mercy as an Anglican Nun in the 1860s and became the Mother Superior of the House by 1891.

Horbury House of Mercy

After opening up in 1858, the House was always full and in 1862 it was decided to build an extension to the existing buildings to house thirty or forty women penitents. The following extract is from the Report of the House for the year 1862:

"The House has always been completely full, in fact, very inconveniently crowded; for, whereas, there is only proper accommodation for thirteen, there have been fourteen throughout the year. Five have been sent out, and five others admitted; in addition to which thirty-one applications for admission have been rejected for the want of room. The following is an account of those sent out: one returned to her friends; two sent to other Penitentiaries and two sent to service."

The House of Mercy buildings were opened on the 14th September 1865 and by 1868, the number of penitents at the House was 46; in 1869 it was 49, of which about half were from outside Yorkshire. In 1870, it was stated that the new buildings were capable of containing 80 inmates and at that time the managers intended to add to the buildings to be able to take in twice as many. The total cost expended on the building extensions was £10,000, a large sum in those days, whilst the current yearly expense of maintaining the establishment was in 1868 about £865, and in 1869 about £970.2 These costs and the cost of extending the Horbury House of Mercy came from voluntary gifts.

On the 26th September 1892, the "Sheffield and Rotherham Independent" newspaper reported the following case from the Pontefract Board of Guardians, which is perhaps typical of the plight of some of the girls and women who found themselves as "penitents" at the Horbury House of Mercy:

"Mrs. E. Leatham of Wentbridge had interested herself in getting a young girl named Emma Moss, deserted by her father, into the Horbury, House of Mercy. The young girl who is only sixteen years of age, since her admission to the Workhouse, has become a mother, and will be the subject of Police Court proceedings against her own father. The Board, in acceding to the girl being taken from the Workhouse, thanked Mrs. Leatham for her kindness."

Horbury House of Mercy penitents

The nuns at the House of Mercy lived according to their own rules and within their own hierarchy. They produced a great deal of embroidery: their work on banners - including those for Trade Unions - continued until 1995. The influence of this sisterhood spread: by 1920 there were 70 nuns at Horbury and they ran activities in various cities. They visited women in prison and ran a school, which by 1913 was in Whitby. From 1928 Horbury nuns also ran a hostel for pilgrims at the Walsingham Shrine and from 1924 three nuns were attached to Wakefield Cathedral.

House of Mercy Embroidery Room

In 1930 the new abbess, Mother Sarah, introduced stricter rules for the convent at Horbury: no-one could eat until after 12 noon and services were to be in Latin. The nuns at the Cathedral complained to the diocesan clergy and a disagreement between Sister Sarah and Bishop over the provision of chaplains sparked Sarah's departure from Horbury with those nuns who supported her. They settled in London and continued to service the Walsingham hostel. The remaining nuns were too few to maintain the House of Mercy which closed and numbers have continued to dwindle so that the sisters now have a 7-bedroom house in Horbury.

Bread making at the Horbury HOuse of Mercy

As the complex was expanded and developed in the 20th Century, it included a convent, a chapel, a hospital and a retreat for the clergy. Subsequently, the House of Mercy was renamed as St. Peter's Convent and a private preparatory school, dedicated to St. Hilda, was opened in 1949. St. Hilda's school still exists today and became part of the Silcoates School Foundation in 1993. St Hilda’s School, is a combined independent nursery and school for boys aged 0 - 7 years and girls aged 0 - 11 years.

Houses of Mercy 1960s

Above: Horbury Houses of Mercy circa 1960s. Thanks to Anne-Marie Fawcett for the picture.

In 2015, the Witherslack Group opened the independent Hall Cliffe School in parts of the old House of Mercy. Hall Cliffe School provides specialist education for young people with complex learning needs between the ages of 8 - 16 years featuring small classes (maximum 8) with a high staff to student ratio.

Houses of Mercy

Above: Iconic view of the Horbury Houses of Mercy with Ossett Holy Trinity Church in the distance.

In 1994, John Kirby, on behalf of the Kirby family purchased the convent from the nuns and agreed, as part of the transaction to renovate a property on land adjoining the convent, that the nuns referred to as the "Retreat". After the renovation was cmpleted, the nuns moved into this property and it became known as the "Convent", not to be confused with the Old Convent, which they vacated and which is a listed building. St. Hilda's school remained in the old building, but was used for wedding receptions and formal dinners at weekends. The Witherslack Group now rent the entire building and the bar area used for catering were removed and unfortunately, the fine old Convent building is no longer available for public functions.

In 2011, plans were submitted to Wakefield Council to demolish the building previously known as the "Retreat", which was now occupied by the nuns, in order to build new houses on the site. Despite objections from local residents and from St. Hilda's school. The Board of Governors of the Silcoates School Foundation, the Dovecote Trust and Dovecote Services Ltd submitted a joint statement to Wakefield Council regarding the plans. It said: “The proposed application is not suitable on the grounds of highways, drainage or siting. The existing property could otherwise be utilised as an aged persons care home generating non-peak small traffic flows.” 3

In the event, the nun's home, the Retreat and the land surrounding the building they occupied were sold off to developers and the after demolition of the Retreat, houses were built on the site. The nuns subsequently moved to live in a detached house on Hall Cliffe, Horbury.4

St. Hilda's School, Horbury

Above: St. Hilda's School, Horbury formerly the House of Mercy. Picture courtesy of Anthony Oldroyd.

St Peters Convent Chapel is a Grade II listed building dating from 1869/71 and was designed by Henry Woodyer. The south chapel is dated a little later at 1898.


1. "The English Church Union Calendar: An Ecclesiastical Almanac for the Year of Grace 1863"
2. "Walks in Yorkshire: Wakefield and its Neighbourhood" by William Stott Banks (of Wakefield) 1871
3. "Wakefield Express", 19th January 2011
4. Private correspondence in November 2017 with Denise Austin, who works for the Kirby family at the Old Convent

Stephen Wilson, November 2017