The former St Margaret’s Convent is a Grade I listed building, placing it in the top 2.5% of all England’s historic structures. It was designed by a nationally important architect for an international order of nuns and has seen remarkably little alteration during its 150 year history.
The Society of St Margaret moved out of the convent in 1978 after selling the property to a residential development company which divided up the complex into 31 houses with extensive communally owned grounds and facilities. The chapel is under a covenant which ensures it can only be used for cultural and educational purposes.
The property is now owned and managed by the residents through their management company, which has commissioned Dr Ferry to research the history of the convent from the beginnings of the Society of St Margaret in 1855 to the present day.
The story begins with the fascinating biography of John Mason Neale, cleric, scholar, poet and Warden of Sackville College in East Grinstead, now perhaps best remembered for writing the Christmas carol Good King Wenceslas. As a student Neale was a founder member of the Cambridge Camden Society through which he shared his belief that ‘the very structure and furnishing of church buildings, together with appropriate ritual within services, could lead a soul to more profound worship.’ He and his friends wished to encourage greater attendance by restoring beauty to the Church of England, a goal which Neale pursued by employing leading avantgarde architects William Butterfield, George Frederick Bodley and George Edmund Street. The Old Convent at East Grinstead represents the apogee of Neale’s architectural vision. It was also a deeply personal project for G E Street who was a very religious man and believed whole-heartedly in the good works done by the Sisters of St Margaret. For their part the Sisters referred to him as ‘our own Mr Street.’
With chapters on the Sisters and their way of life at the convent, the St Margaret’s Orphanage, the schools of St Agnes’ and St Michael, and the world-renowned East Grinstead embroidery school, the book looks at the remarkable impact and legacy of the Society of St Margaret. Drawing on the extensive SSM archives, now held at Pusey House in Oxford, and original architectural drawings in the collection of the RIBA, the book also features specially commissioned photographs to illustrate Dr Ferry’s account of the nuns’ enterprise, dedication, faith and hard work.