Baldock's French convent conversion into luxury apartments
PUBLISHED: 13:36 15 January 2018 | UPDATED: 13:37 15 January 2018
A grand refuge for French nuns to flee persecution and latterly a school and orphanage too, a former convent in Baldock has many tales to tell. Pat Bramley explores the history of the site, newly-converted into luxury homes
What would the Sisters of Mary and Joseph make of the luxurious new apartments created at their former convent? As Hertfordshire Life went to press there were just four properties left to be sold at the once austere Baldock site – two penthouses, a first floor apartment and a detached coach house.
The appeal of period character (large rooms with high ceilings) quality craftsmanship and contemporary aesthetics (bespoke kitchens, hotel standard bathrooms) resulted in speedy sales when the property market generally wasn’t at its best at the end of 2017. Two coach houses and seven of the 10 apartments were sold to eager buyers in the space of a few weeks.
The former convent of St Joseph’s at the centre of the Kingsfield House development was completed in 1908. The Sisters of Mary and Joseph came to England from Limoges in the early years of the Edwardian era to escape anti-clerical measures and the fear of church property confiscation at the hands of Republicans in their French homeland. In 1907 they purchased a site in open fields on the outskirts of Baldock to build a convent in the style of a French chateau. This was ‘evidently intended to be capable of accommodating a large number of sisters if it became necessary for them to leave France,’ says the chairman of Baldock Museum and Local History Society.
‘How the order was able to fund such a large project is unknown but the sisters had to find their own means of support and accordingly opened a laundry. By the time of the 1911 census the community consisted of 10 French nuns. Four of them, including the superior Sister St Bruno, worked as laundresses, three worked on needlework repairs, one attended to the garden and one to the kitchen.’
‘There were also 10 French women ranging in age from 19 to 38 assisting the nuns, and an English lady boarder described an interpreter for laundry purposes.’
Back in France, the order was known as The Prison Sisters for its work with women prisoners in the area surrounding their main convent and beyond. The unexplained arrival of 10 staff from France at St Joseph’s gave rise to theories. One is that the newcomers may have been former inmates from Limoges or other French prisons. Whatever the reason for their presence, it was generally accepted that the latest arrivals had suffered some misfortune and been given the opportunity by the nuns to start a new life in England.
St Joseph’s was known locally as ‘the French convent’, possibly to differentiate it from a second convent opened by the Sisters of Providence less than a mile away.
As the local history society chairman points out, a certain amount of confusion surrounds the two convents for those who have tried to piece together an accurate account of them. The opportunity for a mix up when stories are passed down generations gets even greater after 1919 when the Sisters of Providence opened a parish school confusingly called St Joseph’s College. Later, St Joseph’s convent became a Sunday school for local children and also, in part, an orphanage.
Like other locals whose families were friendly and helped the nuns in practical ways during their sojourn in Baldock, the chairman of the town museum is happy to talk about what he has learnt through family associations and diligent research.
The general consensus is that the nuns were intensely private. Evidently their reliance on deeds not words still holds true for many who held the order in high esteem.
Once the threat to the religious orders subsided in France in the period after the First World War, the need to maintain a large refuge in England also disappeared, the local historian explains.
‘It may well have been considered that 20 women rattling around in a house of that size was a wasteful use of the building and at some stage it became an orphanage. Later still, elderly ladies stayed as paying guests sharing in the religious life of the convent.’
The Sisters of Mary and Joseph remained in Baldock until the 1990s at which point the convent was let to a Catholic lay society known as the Prince of Peace Community. After they left it was occupied by a Protestant Bible society.
One who remembers playing with the children at St Joseph’s was the youngest of the four children of Oliver and AnnS Lynch, who rented the lodge at the entrance gates to the convent from 1965. Ann only gave up the tenancy a few weeks ago when she moved to a nearby nursing home.
She and Oliver had emigrated to Australia immediately after their marriage but even though they had three children in Oz they remained homesick for England.
‘I enjoyed playing with the children at the convent,’ says their daughter. ‘Some of them were boarders, some stayed only during the day to enable both parents to work.
‘The nunnery where the nuns lived and the refectory where the children had meals were on the ground floor, the chapel was on the first floor, the elderly ladies had rooms on the second floor and the children’s dormitories were on the top floor where some of the nuns also had bedrooms so the children weren’t on their own at night.
‘The nuns were very private but they got a lot of help from outsiders. I remember a man with a three wheeled car used to bring back their shopping from the cash and carry. Sometimes the children pushed it back in pushchairs.’
The museum chairman says his mother and grandmother were both friendly with the nuns. ‘They invited the sisters to pick apples from their trees but they’d only gather up windfalls.’
A former boarder who is pictured in a Corpus Christi procession in 1946 when he was five says he has ‘many happy memories’ of his time at the convent.
‘There were about nine or 10 nuns. They were all extremely hard working. The Reverend Mother at that time was known as Ma Mere. My ‘godmother’ was Emily. Sister Christine was a particular favourite of mine possibly because she was the cook,’ laughs Richard Blake.
So what next for the building where so many young lives were shaped?
It was bought in August 2016 by a developer called Deeside Drylining and their funding partner TJD Trade. It’s the building company’s most ambitious project so far. Previously they have worked mainly as subcontractors for prestige jobs such as first class airport lounges and hotels.
Director Ifan Ratcliffe says the site was purchased with planning permission to convert the 10,780 sq ft existing building into seven three-bedroom and three two-bedroom apartments and replace the former laundry and a group of barns with three chalet bungalows built in the footprint of the previous outbuildings.
‘The main building was stripped back to a bare shell to reconfigure the space into apartments,’ he explains. ‘The main objective was always to retain the feel and aesthetics of living in a period manor house. For instance, we’ve reinstalled the cornices, picture rails and deep skirting boards as well as panelling all the hallways and lobby areas.’
Another objective was to maximise energy efficiency and make the kitchens the focal point of the open-plan design.
‘My surveyor and chief bean counter Laurence Page has been hugely instrumental in the success of the project. We’ve been friends since the 1980s,’ Ifan concludes.
The last four properties at Kingsfield House are for sale at Satchells in Baldock, priced from £450,000 (check Satchells website for up to date information)