A chance meeting of two zealous people, committed to education, led to the eventual establishment of St Mary’s Convent in Berwick-upon-Tweed. Mr James Gillis had been sent to France to raise money to repair St Mary’s Chapel. He spent time with Abbe Louis Marie Baudouin who had founded a religious congregation foundation in France known as the Ursulines of Jesus.
It was in November 1888 that St Mary’s Convent was invited to make a foundation in Berwick; Mother Mary Bernard came to Berwick to discuss the matter with Father Smythe. The Sisters decided to buy a villa in Tweed Street, the view from it over the Tweed was beautiful, the house solidly built and with possibilities for extensions. The purchase was completed and on September 5th 1889 the first Sisters arrived. Mother Mary Clare joined them and on the 30th September was appointed Headmistress of the private Convent School. Some months later, Mother Mary Agatha took charge of the Elementary School. The opening ceremony was attended by local dignitaries including Lady Jerningham of Longridge Towers.
Lady and Sir Hubert Jerningham had befriended the school and regularly attended Prize Giving Day. Every year Sisters, Governesses, and Pupils were invited to a garden party at Longridge Towers and horse-drawn brakes were sent to collect them. The lawns were available for races – photographs of that time shows a group on the front law, the Kindergarten and Juniors dressed in attractive sailor suits, the Seniors in white blouses and ankle length skirts. The idea that Longridge Towers would one day harbour both Convent and School never entered anyone’s head. The last of these events was in 1913, a year before Sir Hubert’s death. Lady Jerningham had died in 1902.
HM Inspectors advised that extensions were needed to the Convent and changes would have to be made for boarding. Coincidentally an advertisement appeared for the sale of Longridge Towers, a magnificent building with 150 acres of land, only recently used as a Hotel. The Berwick house was put up for sale and a builder was able to start on the necessary alterations and repairs. Engineers were engaged to reinstall central heating, replacing the old radiators and pipes. In September the community attended their first mass in their new home. Meanwhile engineers continued with their work. A board over the room now called the Tower Parlour held the inscription “Cocktail Bar”. The Reverend Mother asked that the inappropriate sign be removed by the builders but beneath on the wall itself was another inscription, “Gentleman’s Snug”, and this offending phrase had to remain until the painters and decorators started.
The building, which had been the home of Sir Hubert and Lady Jerningham, is unusual; a central block and west wing, two storeys high, contain the largest rooms including the Library, Dining Room, and Drawing Room. Also the room originally intended for the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, who never did actually visit, had a secret safe built into the wall and hidden by a canvas door. The iron safe door was locked, the key lost, and then library shelving blocked it still further. Such a secret was worthy of a mystery story so the boarders invented a ghost, still affectionately known as the Green Lady, who roams around at certain times. The East Wing has four floors containing servant’s quarters, bedrooms, laundry, and a kitchen.
May 21st 1951 was the official opening of St Mary’s Convent Longridge Towers. All the important people of the area were invited. A former servant was present, very eager to tell a story – one day Lady Jerningham had just alighted from her carriage in front of the house happening to look up, she saw a little fair haired girl dressed in blue looking out of one of the windows. She asked for the child to be brought down, but although the place was searched, no child was to be found. Perhaps Lady Jerningham had the gift of foresight!
June 12th 1952, and the Feast of Corpus Christi, was celebrated with an outdoor prossession which became an annual event until 1970. It was a moving and colourful sight to watch the long lines of girls in their blues dresses and white veils move slowly around making the surrounding fields resound with their singing.
In 1963, a fourteen year old boarder was drowned at Spittal. After this tragic accident the girls were no longer taken to bathe there. The Convent’s dream was to provide a covered, heated swimming pool in the school’s grounds. The dream was realised in October 1966 when the building was completed.
The future seemed secure but because of dwindling numbers and fewer aspirants to the religious life, the higher authorities of the Order decided that one large Convent must close. St Mary’s Convent, Longridge Towers was chosen, put up for sale, and sold in 1983 to a Charitable Trust formed mainly by parents of the pupils of the school. When the Convent closed, the Sisters numbered twenty three. The teachers numbered eleven with just one man, Mr S Hall who taught mathematics. Some of the teachers stayed on to help with the formation of the new Longridge Towers School.
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