A 'blessed asylum' or a utopian vision : the viability of a Protestant nunnery in early nineteenth-century England

Collier, J (2014) A 'blessed asylum' or a utopian vision : the viability of a Protestant nunnery in early nineteenth-century England. PhD thesis, Bath Spa University.

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In 1694, Mary Astell proposed the establishment of Protestant nunneries in England; in 1809, Helena Whitford reiterated the theme; yet, it was Lady Isabella King in 1816 who sought to put this radical idea into effect. A single, Irish, evangelically influenced gentlewoman, a younger daughter of the Earl of Kingston, she established the Ladies’ Association, a ‘conventual’ home for eighteen distressed gentlewomen at Bailbrook House in Bath in 1816, securing support for it from such influential figures as Queen Charlotte, William Wilberforce and Robert Southey. When Bailbrook House was sold in 1821, she relocated the Ladies’ Association to Clifton in Bristol, where its eventual failure in 1835 shattered her vision of establishing a national scheme of conventual homes that would benefit future generations of women. Limited attention has yet been paid by historians to the role elite women played in creating and managing philanthropic institutions in the early nineteenth century, particularly those aimed at assisting other women in an urban setting. Some historians of philanthropy, such as Frank Prochaska, have identified an ‘explosion’ of early nineteenth-century female activity; however, elite women’s charitable contributions have tended to be understood as rural, concentrating on family estates. Kim Reynolds, who has addressed Victorian elite women’s philanthropy in an urban setting, maintains it functioned simply as a strand of elite women’s work. This dissertation draws upon a previously unstudied collection of papers compiled and annotated by Lady Isabella King, which span the existence of the Ladies’ Association, in order to explore the nature of Lady Isabella’s involvement in this philanthropic venture and her understanding of her role. Thus it not only seeks to recover Lady Isabella as an important historical figure in the development of early nineteenth-century philanthropic ventures, something for which she was recognised by her contemporaries, but also to examine the structure of her unique experimental institution and cast some light on the sorts of women who became its residents. By doing so, it provides a case study in the development and practical application of a philanthropic ideal. It examines the ways that Lady Isabella, quite a conventional elite single woman, used her status, her location and her networks to create and maintain the institution for nearly twenty years. It provides a valuable opportunity to examine a number of the problems she faced in establishing and running the institution, given the social and gendered milieu in which she was operating, and the strategies she employed to achieve her ends. I argue that Lady Isabella’s elite status provided her with the wealth and access to influential social circles to make a difference, that her single status added independence to devote time to her cause and while she was initially beset with self-doubts about her competence to author and manage the project, she gradually gained confidence as she developed ways to implement and manage the institution. At the same time the groundbreaking nature of the Ladies’ Association, the consequent public criticism and a growing discordant atmosphere among the residents of the institution lead to its closure in 1835.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Divisions: School of Writing, Publishing and the Humanities
Identification Number: https://doi.org/10.17870/bathspa.00005158
Date Deposited: 14 Jan 2015 17:49
Last Modified: 21 Apr 2023 13:30
URI / Page ID: https://researchspace.bathspa.ac.uk/id/eprint/5158
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