Catherine Lisabel Jane Cheeper
|For the fate of the cross, see below|
This directory contains information and documents about the 2nd of 10 children of Catherine Cheeper-Spilsbury (c.1836-1906) and Anthony Jacques Cheeper (1837-1918), and the first to survive childhood. Catherine Lisabel Jane Cheeper became Sister Janet Mary on 13 Nov 1890, aged 30.
Catherine Lisabel Jane Cheeper was born on 21 Jun 1860 and baptised on 19 Jul 1860. Her birth certificate shows her father as Anthony Jacques Cheeper, gentleman, and her mother as Catherine Ann Cheeper formerly Spilsbury. Their address is shown as Clifton Villas, Darnley Road, Gravesend (Kent).
She appears in the 1861 census, at 9 months of age, at 11 Ivy St, Birkenhead (across the Mersey from Liverpool).
Her father came down in the world shortly afterwards, in 1862, when he was declared bankrupt, while living in Cleveland Rd, Kingsland, West Islington (inner north London). By 1871, he'd recovered sufficiently financially to again have a servant in the household. Yet, during the 1860s, the family is known to have been at 8 different addresses, all over England and in Dublin.
In the 1871 census, she was 10, and living with the family at 44 Annaken’s Court, Blake Street, St Wilfred, Bootham in the City, York. (I visited Blake Street in June 2009. It's a pretty street these days, and a tourist trap, 150m from the Minster. But I could find no sign of Annaken's Court). The family was in York in her early teenage years, and in Great Yarmouth in her later teenage years.
In the April 1881 census, Catherine was 20, and living at 56 Darville Rd, Hackney (inner north-east London). She was declared as Governess, and as a cousin of the head of house, Charles Bokenham (b.c. 1850). Bokenham was Catherine's paternal grandmother's name. There is information on this site about the relevant branch of the Bokenhams. Charles was the 11th of the 12 children of her uncle 4.2.2. William M. Bokenham (1803-76) who m. Clarinda (1812->1881).
Anthony and his wife, the elder Catherine
had 10 children, 1859-1877. 7/10 survived early childhood.
But Anthony (the original travelling salesman) set up a household elsewhere, with a young maid, in 1873.
He abandoned his wife Catherine and her children, progressively, c.1873-1877.
None of the children prospered, and his wife Catherine fared particularly badly.
In 1877, wife Catherine had 8 surviving children – daughter Catherine (17), boys of 15 and 14 probably already at sea, a girl of 12, boys of 10 (who ended up on the street and at 16 on an orphan's boat to Montreal) and 8 (who ended up, we think, in the army), and girls of 4 and (briefly) a baby.
Anthony had a further 24 children by 4 women, successive maids, one of whom he was long bigamously married to.
From late 1877, he and his other 4 wives and 24 children were known as Clarke, not Cheeper.
Few of those 28 fared all that well either, but there were exceptions and qualifications.
The records vary on matters of detail, but it appears Catherine became a 'postulant', beginning her path via 'novice' to 'sister'. It appears that her first Order was the Society of St Margaret, which had begun in 1855 in East Grinstead, Sussex (just east of what is now Gatwick airport). It appears that she was professed (i.e. progressed from novice to sister) on 13 Nov 1890, aged 30. (However, the years 1894 and 1896 were also significant, and the stages of progression aren't entirely clear). She remained with that Order until at least 1900, and possibly 1909.
In the April 1891 Census, she appears as Catherine Cheeper, 30, Sister of Mercy, Nun, born Gravesend. She was at St Savior's Priory, Gt. Cambridge St (now Queensbridge Rd), St Leonards, Shoreditch (inner east London, 2km N of the Tower of London). In 2018, Sister Barbara advised us that census ennumerators commonly applied the term 'Sister of Mercy' to religious sisters. Similarly, the description of 'nun' may have been the census collector's choice. A 'nun' prays and contemplates in a convent. Catherine appears to have been a 'sister' throughout, living a life of active service. A local page on the priory suggests that she was still in the Society of St Margaret.
Present with her at Shoreditch was Clarinda Bokenham, 54, Sister of Mercy, Nun, b. London Islington. Clarinda appears to have been a first cousin of Catherine's father Anthony, b. 1837, a daughter of William M. and Clarinda Bokenham. (The elder Clarinda is on the 1881 census, at that stage aged 69). The reasonable inference is that Catherine followed her older cousin Clarinda into the Order. Clarinda appears to have remained at Shoreditch for the rest of her life.
Sometime between the 1891 and 1901 Censuses, at age 30-40, Catherine adopted the name Sister Janet Mary. A contender date for this is 1894, because her death notice in The Times refers to her having died, in 1938, in the 44th year of her profession.
From 1896 to 1900, she was in charge of the Mission at St Saviour's, Walthamstow, in NE London. Then a new Vicar arrived, and they had to move on.
In the April 1901 census entry,
Catherine is shown as Sister Janet Mary, 40, born Gravesend, Head of St Ann's Mission, Lambeth, at
She worked for most of the decade 1900-1910 in Lambeth, but much of it may be have been unsettled. Janet Mary, together with an assistant called Agnes, appears to have had little or no assets, been dependent on host parishes for premises, and to have been under a 'Rule' (constitution) that was seen as inconvenient. It's also open to speculation that Sister Janet Mary was strong and stubborn. And she may have been responsible for many undesirables occupying church premises. Neither would have sat well with the conservative men who ran parishes.
The tensions were resolved on 15 Dec 1908 by The Bishop of London, Dr Wilmington Ingram. On 27 Nov 1909, she and her colleagues moved back to Walthamstow, to 212 Markhouse Road, with Sr Janet Mary installed as Superior of the Society of the Good Shepherd, newly constituted under its own 'Rule'. As well as an assistant, Agnes, she had several helpers, including one certified Queen's Nurse. Walthamstow is inner north-east London, 10 miles NE of Lambeth/Clapham. The building had 14 rooms. A century later, it appears that the buildings have been replaced, although St Saviour's CofE is still next door.
The only mentions I've found of the Society of the Good Shepherd are a "Home of the Society of the Good Shepherd" at 35 Cedars Road, Clapham, founded 1896, and St. Hugh’s Boys Home at Rectory Grove, Clapham, established c.1903. These are 2-3 miles SW of St Anne's Lambeth. Janet Penn has found evidence that the Society was formed in 1902.
In the April 1911 census entry, she is shown as Catherine Lisabel Jane Cheeper, Mother Superior, age 50. She has with her 1 Sister aged 48, 3 Novices aged 26, 31 and 46, and a (female) worker. The Occupations of the 5 are shown as 'Sister of Charity', Society of the Good Shepherd, Walthamstow, at 212 Markhouse Road.
Throughout the Order's time at Walthamstow, 1909-24, their work appears to have been funded by whatever individual donors they could find, with the Vicar permitting donations in kind to be sold at a single 2-day sale each year.
Despite the challenges, the Order had some friends. In 1910, land had been offered to the Society on Canvey Island, Essex. This is a low-lying island on the northern bank of the Thames Estuary, 10 miles downstream from Catherine's birthplace, Gravesend, but on the opposite side of the river. She wanted a rest home for the Sisters within easy reach of Walthamstow. Canvey Island is 20 miles east, so she gladly accepted the offer.
"A House of Rest" was dedicated on 1 July 1911, and "became a refuge not only for tired sisters who spent every July there but also for the numberless women and girls who appreciated the quiet surroundings of the Convent" (wrote Sister Barbara, of Leeds, who is with the Catholic Order that occupied the Convent 1950-2017). It appears that "young girls" (perhaps rescued from East London streets?) had been supported on Canvey Island, but post-War population-growth and crowds of summer visitors made that progressively too challenging for the now-aging sisters.
With later gifts and purchases, the property grew to 9-10 acres, and improvements included a drainage system, an electrical generator, in 1924 a chapel, and in 1929 a hostel for aged and infirm gentlewomen. The location can be found using "Convent Rd, Canvey Island", or postcode SS8 9DH (but no Streetview is available). These maps of 1923 and 1932 show the convent.
By 1924, with activities in Walthamstow more hectic than they had been pre-War, Sister Janet Mary sought a way to move the Order to Canvey Island. The Sisters of St Elizabeth of Hungary took over the inner-city work (but I couldn't quickly locate any information on such an Order in the UK).
Catherine is on the Electoral Roll in Walthamstow from 1918 to 1922, but on Canvey Island already from 1923, although apparently only until 1928. (In 1918, the UK had finally granted the vote to women - although, until 1928, only to those over the age of 30 and whose accommodation or husband was suitably respectable). Presumably the Census records of 19 Jun 1921 will in due course provide confirmation of her residential location at Walthamstow. (The 1931 Census was lost in a fire in 1942).
Catherine died on Canvey Island, 7 April 1938, aged 77, and was buried there, in the company of 14 of her colleagues. Her death notice was published in The London Times of 12 April 1938, and shows her as Cheeper, Janet Mary, "Mother Foundress of the Society of the Good Shepherd, in the 44th year of her profession".
Here's the Canvey Community Archive's dedication to her, of 2018, which provided the photo of her grave-'stone' above.
Janet Penn, Editor of the Canvey Community Archive, has established that the Order's presence on Canvey ceased by April 1939. This is reflected in the small graveyard of 16 monuments, which contains 11 members of the community who predeceased Catherine 1933-38, and a further 4 who died in the 9 months after Catherine.
The assets that the Order had accumulated were sufficient to purchase a building at Yeldall Manor, Berks (south of Henley), and the remaining sisters moved there Feb-Jun 1939. In 2018, the manor is still in the hands of the Anglican Church, and contains a rehab centre. Catherine's will left her £25 of "Effects" to Agnes Gilbertson, spinster. Agnes d. 1949 at the Convent of the Good Shepherd, Yeldale, Twyford, Berks. In 2018, Janet located the records for the Society at an Abbey in Berkshire.
A couple of (presumably long-retired) sisters from the Order were still resident in one of the bungalows at Canvey until at least 1950. A Catholic Order occupied the site 1950-2017.
In early 2018, Sister Barbara Jeffery, of the Institute of Our Lady of Mercy, in Leeds, sought to pay due tribute to the sisters of both the Anglican and Catholic Orders who had served there, and worked with Janet Penn to document:
Finally, in 2021, Sister Barbara's efforts saw the remains of the members of the community transferred to the local cemetery, with one headstone dedicated to Catherine Cheeper / Sister Janet Mary and the members of the Order she established, and a second to some of those they tended.
On 28 July 2021, Barbara Jeffery wrote that "a small group of us gathered on Canvey Island for a Blessing of the graves for Mother Janet Cheeper and her companions and those they had cared for in their hostel. It was a lovely service and felt like a completion of work that has taken us around four and a half years to complete!". "The funeral directors erected a tent for us to be under while the service was on and we certainly needed it as the wind and then the rain came down!". ('That year, summer fell on a Friday').
The first photo shows the headstones for the nuns, and for the people they cared for; and the second is a close-up of that for the nuns, with Catherine / Sister Janet Mary in the Superior position.
Barbara captioned the thirdphoto as follows: "Graham Harris (from T Cribb & Sons, funeral directors), Ray Howard (one of the stalwarts of the Canvey Island local history group), Rev Marion Walford ([Anglican] Parish Priest on Canvey Island), Janet Penn (my fellow researcher in all this), Janet Walden (another member of the Canvey Island history group), Myself [from a Roman Catholic Order, and based in Leeds] my own niece Jane Simpson (I combined a visit to her while I was down south!) and Robert Lane (from Gravetrust - who was instrumental in getting the headstones made and has done a great deal of work for us over the years when we have needed cemeteries tidying up etc)".
Graham Harris [on the left in the photo] asked Barbara about the previous crosses that were removed from the back of our property at the convent. Rather than let them go as scrap cast iron, he suggested they be installed in a local history museum on the island. Barbara suggested that to Anne, who gave her immediate and full support to the idea.
It's been a remarkable effort by Barbara, with support from local historian Janet, spanning orders and denominations, and a century. I'm not sentimental, but I found this all more than touching.
This a page within Roger Clarke's Family Web-Site
Contact: Roger Clarke and/or Anne Kratzmann
Created: 14 October 2005; Last Amended: 1 September 2006, 6 April 2010, 10 Mar 2018, 21 Jan 2019, 10 May 2021, 1 Aug 2021
This revised version reflects a great deal of valuable information provided by Sr Barbara Jeffery in Leeds, whose Catholic Order occupied the Canvey Island premises 1950-2017, and Janet Penn, Editor of the Canvey Community Archive.