13 April 2022

Convent of the Sacred Heart, Hove.

Judy Middleton 2003 (revised 2022)

copyright © J. Middleton


Magdelena Sophia Barat (1779-1865) was the founder of the Society of the Sacred Heart whose efficient schools became well known throughout the Christian world. She was beatified in 1908 and canonised in 1926 – her feast day being the 25 May.

Nuns at Hove

During the 1870s some nuns of the Sacred Heart arrived at Hove, lodging first in a house in Third Avenue, and then at one in Hova Villas.

Meanwhile, a 16-acre site north of Old Shoreham Road, Hove, was purchased on their behalf for the sum of £11,020 from the Stanford Estate. At the time the land was being worked as a market garden by William King who paid a rent of £95 a year. Legend has it that the convent was built on land formerly occupied by a large field of beetroots.

The architect Fred Pownall drew up plans for the convent, taking as his inspiration the convent at Nantes. After the convent was built, the locals coined the name ‘Nunnery Hill’ for the location.

copyright © Historic England
Convent of the Sacred Heart in 1949

Mother Febronie Vercruysse (1832-1895)

In the late 19th century the French Republic Government, brought in crippling taxes on all Orders of Convents and Monasteries, which forced many to close down, any religious institution that refused to pay, had their property and lands confiscated. In this atmosphere of anti-clericalism the Society of the Sacred Heart left France to take their educational establishments World-wide

Text from The Religious Houses of the United Kingdom (1887)

Mother Vercruysse, a Belgian nun, was in Hove by 1877, ready to supervise the building works, and to lay the firm foundations of the running of the new convent, which was opened in 1878. She must have felt that she was saying good-bye to Hove for good when in 1882 she and a party of nuns were sent off to Australia to establish a Sacred Heart School at Rose Bay, Sydney. But she eventually returned to England, and in 1894 came to Brighton. She died on 29 June 1895 at the convent of the Sacred Heart, Hove, and was buried in the nuns’ cemetery.

copyright © J. Middleton

Street Lighting

In November 1884 Miss Ryan, Superior of the Convent, wrote a letter to Brighton Council requesting that lamps should be erected in The Drive (that part became the Upper Drive later on). The letter was duly passed on to the Brighton Lighting Committee who sent a reply stating that the matter was outside their jurisdiction because The Drive was situated in Preston Rural.

Local Government Inquiry

In December 1899 the Brighton Herald reported on a Local Government Inquiry held at Hove Town Hall, to consider the incorporation of Preston Rural into the Borough of Hove. At this time the Upper Drive and the Sacred Heart Convent was within the boundaries of Preston Rural. The Inquiry heard the present population for this area of Preston Rural, ‘ is 217, comprising of inmates of the Convent of the Sacred Heart and Cottesmore School and has a total assessable value of £6,502’.

The Convent Van

This was the name given to an ancient carriage drawn by an old grey mare that used to convey the priest from the Church of the Sacred Heart in Norton Road to the convent in order to say Mass for the nuns at 7.15 a.m.

In those days the convent surroundings were so peaceful that nuns waiting in the chapel could hear the clip-clopping of the old grey mare as she approached.

Roads and Railways

copyright © Royal Pavilion & Museum, Brighton & Hove
1892 map showing the Convent of the Sacred Heart in a semi-rural location, the 'Cliftonville Curve' railway track was opened in 1879 and passed under the land owned by the Convent. West Brighton Station was later renamed Hove Station

In 1879 the 'Cliftonville Curve' was built, enabling trains to travel from Hove Station directly to London and by-passing Brighton. A tunnel was constructed under land owned by the Sacred Heart.

In 1902 the convent was obliged to contribute £963-8-6d to Hove Council as their share of the cost of installing a proper sewerage system, and making up the roadway. 

Polishing with beeswax

copyright © R. Jeeves

A feature of the convent was a long corridor with a floor of polished oak. One part of the floor was laid in regular lines, while another part achieved a cross-hatch effect. The polishing of this floor with beeswax was a labour of love for the lay nuns.

The polish was made on site in the basement where the beeswax was melted down. There is a horrific but true story of the time a nun was engaged in this task when the container she was lifting off the heat, slipped, and the contents poured over her – she went up like a torch. She was buried in the nuns’ cemetery.

It is interesting to note that the nuns’ cemetery exists to this day – unlike the nuns buried at St Joseph’s, Old Shoreham Road, Hove, who were re-buried elsewhere before development of the site took place. At the Sacred Heart there are in the region of 80 burials flanked on the south side by a flint wall separating the cemetery from Old Shoreham Road. The result is a ‘pinch’ in the width of the road at this point, and although planners might gnash their teeth at the inconvenience, there is nothing to be done. This is because it has proved impossible to trace who exactly is responsible for the graves, and without the requisite permission, the nuns’ resting place remains undisturbed.

copyright © Royal Pavilion & Museum, Brighton & Hove
Brighton Herald 6 October 1906
St Marye's Convent at Portslade Manor was the second largest
convent in the District

The First World War

copyright © Royal Pavilion & Museum, Brighton & Hove 
Nurses of the 2nd Eastern Military Hospital outside the Sacred Heart's Chapel.

copyright ©
Royal Pavilion & Museum

In 1914 the Mother Superior placed the convent at the disposal of the Red Cross and around 100 military nurses lodged there. 

These nurses were employed at the 2nd Eastern Military Hospital, which had been set up in the Brighton, Hove and Sussex Grammar School (now Bhasvic), and on another site at the Portland Road Schools – there were further branches in Brighton. The nurses were ferried back and forth to the convent every day.

The convent garden proved to be extremely useful in a time of food shortages, and the orchard produced heavy crops.

copyright © Royal Pavilion & Museum, Brighton & Hove 
copyright © Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove
Baroness de Vom├ęcourt organised this event at the Convent of the Sacred Heart and ran the 'souvenirs of the trenches & Parisian jewellery stall' (Brighton Herald 15 July 1916)

Mr Edwards, the gardener

Mr Edwards worked as a gardener at the convent. Once a month, by the invitation of the Mother Superior, he brought along his four youngest children, and a lovely tea was laid on for them. Several nuns would also join the tea party – one of them was reputed to be from the Duke of Marlborough’s family.

copyright © J. Middleton

After tea, the children roamed the grounds collecting eggs and picking up fallen fruit. Mr Edwards was also allowed to take home any dessert left over from school meals. These are the memories of Frank Edwards when he was aged eight – he thought the convent was heaven and the nuns were angels. (
Argus 8 March 2002).

copyright © Royal Pavilion & Museum.
1917 advert from the Brighton Herald

Convent Schools

copyright © J. Middleton

The nuns ran a fee-paying school for girls from wealthy families. The school had an excellent reputation, and one of the pupils was the French Princess Marie Louise, niece of the King of the Belgians.

copyright © Royal Pavilion & Museum, Brighton & Hove
Brighton Herald 27 April 1912
The Duke & Duchess stayed in the Princes Hotel on Hove's seafront

During the 1920s there were around 70 pupils, and the girls wore a peculiar three-cornered serge hat. The first 45 minutes of every school day was devoted to learning the catechism and studying the Bible. But parents could request that their child might be excused, and there was in fact a Jewish girl there at one time.

Drill was undertaken in the school playground, and was frequently accompanied by a pungent odour from the piggeries situated right next door.

copyright © J. Middleton

Some girls lived at a considerable distance from the school and thought nothing of having to walk two miles there and two miles home again.

By 1950 there were 250 girls at the school. Their uniform of green coats and gold berets was a familiar sight in Hove, and the blazer carried a colourful badge depicting the Sacred Heart.

The convent also provided an education for poor children. This school opened its doors in 1879 in a building that became known as the Bishop’s House with 28 children.

copyright © J. Middleton

In 1924 Arthur Cooper was one of the few Church of England children admitted to the school. He did not join in the first 45 minutes of religious instruction. Instead he was given extra tuition in arithmetic. Later on, he commented wryly that this one-to-one teaching enabled him to have a good career in engineering.

According to the Argus (25 August 1988) a well known former pupil was Herbert Wilcox who started at the school at the age of eight. He went on to become a famous film director and married the actress Anna Neagle. He died in 1977.

In 1950 the establishment, by then known as the Sacred Heart Elementary School, had 200 pupils on its books.

The two separate schools did not mix except for the annual Procession of the Blessed Sacrament that took place in the grounds on the Feast of the Sacred Heart and was always a special occasion.

In 1962 a new building was completed to house science laboratories, and facilities for 6th form students.

Pontifical High Mass

The Catholic Truth Society held its conference at Brighton in September 1938. On 11 September 1938 a Pontifical High Mass took place in the convent grounds. Fortunately, the weather was fine. Cardinal Hinsley, and no less than seventeen bishops and archbishops, were in attendance together with around 10,000 people.

copyright © Royal Pavilion & Museum, Brighton & Hove 
Rt. Revd P. Amigo (Bishop of Southwark) Revd Canon J. Newton and the Catholic Women's League at the Convent of the Sacred Heart. 29 January, 1938.

The Second World War

The convent were well prepared for war, having already had trenches dug. In November 1939 Mr Gadsby, chairman of the education committee, came to inspect them. In November 1940 the air-raid warden arrived to ensure that all the gas-masks already issued were up to scratch.

In 1939 the girls of the convent school were evacuated to Lutwyche Hall, Shropshire. This was in advance of the general evacuation of schoolchildren from Hove and Portslade that took place in 1940 after Dunkirk when the south coast was feared to be in imminent danger from a German invasion.

The elementary school remained in place, and indeed were obliged to share premises with the children of an evacuated school – the Waller Road Junior School. Unfortunately, the education authorities would not allow Avondale Hall to be used to relieve pressure because there were no air-raid shelters nearby.

As part of the war effort the school ‘adopted’ the destroyer HMS Afridi. Unhappily the association did not last long because on 3 May 1940 the vessel was sunk by German bombs off Norway. In November 1940 a Mr Cooper, a survivor from HMS Afridi, visited the school to talk to the children.

The convent orchard continued to be fruitful during the war years. In August 1944 two wartime reserve policemen caught four Brighton boys who were busily collecting over 3lbs of apples between them. (Sussex Daily News 26 August 1944).

The Church
copyright © J. Middleton

copyright © J. Middleton
This old postcard view gives us some idea about the decorative richness 
of the church in the days when the nuns were still in residence.
The foundation stone of the church was laid on 19 March 1879, the Feast Day of St Joseph.

The chapel is light and airy, and there is a high vaulted ceiling. The floor is of oak, and there is oak panelling too.

The Stations of the Cross are rather fine, and were carved by a pupil of Eric Gill. They were donated in memory of Cristina Buoncore, a boarder at the convent, who died aged 10 on 25 July 1958.

There are three stained-glass windows – the Virgin and Child on the left of the chancel, and St Mary Magdalena Sophia Barat on the right, while in the nave there is a depiction of the Good Shepherd clad in ruby-red clothes.

The altar is the centre-piece of the chapel – it is massive and marble. The front of the altar is recessed, and there are eight pillars of different-coloured marbles, ranging from green and deep red to purple and mottled colours. Behind these, there is a carving of a vine with leaves, tendrils, and bunches of grapes. There are six large brass candlesticks on the altar, embellished at the base with an image of the Sacred Heart.

There is a carved reredos containing eleven saintly figures. Since the school authorities, and even a former nun at the convent, did not know their identities, the following is a tentative list based on symbols and mode of dress. But alas, the fifth figure remains a mystery. 

1. St Margaret Mary
copyright © Cardinal Newman Catholic School
Now used as a school chapel, with none of the wall
paintings shown in the above convent church
2. St Agnes
3. St Mary Magdalene
4. St Francis Xavier
5. ???
6. Archangel Michael
7. St Ignatius Loyola
8. St Paul
9. St Peter
10. St Cecilia
11. St Mary Magdalena Sophia Barat

To the right of the chapel’s entrance there is a plaque to the effect that 1981 was the 10th anniversary of the founding of Cardinal Newman School. The chapel was extensively altered and re-decorated with the cost being met by parents, staff and pupils in tribute to the achievements of the first headmaster Anthony Smith.

Nuns and Girls

Historically, the nuns of the Sacre Coeur de Jesu consisted of Choir Nuns and Lay Sisters. The Choir Nuns were well-educated, coming from good families, and bringing a dowry with them when they entered the convent; they combined their vocation with teaching. The Lay Sisters performed domestic duties. During the 1930s and 1940s at Hove, these sisters were often of Irish or Maltese nationality, and were very diligent in their tasks – one charming memory of the way the light-oak staircase was cleaned, was to sprinkle damp tea-leaves on the surface to lay the dust, before a thorough cleaning took place. The nuns had quite a responsibility, looking after and educating some 80 girls, and the girls found them all wonderfully kind.

There were two Choir Nuns of special interest at Hove. One was Margaret Clutton who was an accomplished artist, and she was asked to decorate the small chapel, which was situated near the garden exit, and at the end of the long corridor with the larger chapel at the other end. First of all she set to work and copied an artwork known as the Mater Admirabilis, a painting dear to all Sacred Heart nuns because the original had been painted by Mother Perdrix, one of the first to join the order. Today, this painting remains at the convent in Rome, at the top of the Spanish steps. The Hove copy was hung above the altar in the chapel, and the chapel was named after the painting. The Mother Superior must have been pleased with the painting and asked Margaret Clutton to paint the bare surfaces of the wall with two helpers to assist in the project. The subjects chosen were female saints such as St Cecilia, and St Agnes, together with other early Christian saints. The paintings were somewhat reminiscent of the Pre-Raphaelite style. It is interesting to note that Margaret Clutton’s two sisters were also nuns at the convent at the same time. This was by no means unique because there were other sets of sisters at the Sacred Heart too.

The other nun was described as charming, and she was Mother Archer-Shee. If this name sounds familiar, it was because it was made famous in a play written in 1946 called The Winslow Boy by Sir Terence Rattigan (1911-1977); it enjoyed a great success, both as a play and a film. Rattigan was born in South Kensington, which was also where the Archer-Shee family was based. He used a story he heard that occurred in Edwardian times, and apparently took many liberties with the actual truth. It was rumoured that Mother Archer-Shee was the sister of the real ‘Winslow Boy’.

N.B. Sister Margaret Clutton was the great granddaughter of the Revd Ralph Clutton, the Anglican Vicar of Portslade. Her father was Henry Clutton (a Roman Catholic convert) and was the brother-in-law of the Archbishop of Westminster, Henry Manning.

Henry Clutton, an architect of note, submitted the first designs for a Westminster Cathedral in 1867 but due to lack of building funds and support from his brother-in-law Archbishop Manning for a French-Gothic style Cathedral, his designs were abandoned. J.F. Bentley rejected an opportunity to go into partnership with Henry Clutton and submitted his own designs for the Cathedral in the Neo-Byzantine style, which were duly accepted by the later Archbishop of Westminster, Herbert Vaughan.
(Research on the Cluttons kindly supplied by D. Sharp)

copyright © J. Middleton

There was a chapel as well as a church in the Sacred Heart, Hove. It may have had something to do with the construction of a new wing in 1901, which was built for the benefit of another convent that came from Beauvais in the north of France. The larger chapel was the main one, where Mass was celebrated, and the Host was housed in a gold tabernacle with a design in diamonds on the door. The Mater Admirabilis Chapel was used for prayer, and the girls could go there for private devotions).

The convent girls wore a green and gold uniform. Daily wear consisted of a box-pleated and belted gym slip, worn with a gold shirt and a tie of green and gold. For Sundays and high days the girls wore a rather plain green dress. The convent girls left Hove in 1939 before the general exodus of local schools. At first they were housed at Albrighton Hall, Shropshire, but by the autumn of 1940 they were to be found at Lutwyche Hall, Much Wenlock.

Unfortunately, there are no photographs of the nuns because such a thing was forbidden.

(Information kindly supplied by J. Duncan who was a boarder at the convent 1939-40)

The New Building

copyright © J. Middleton
The new east wing

In around 1902 the school was housed in a new wing built to match the existing wing containing the chapel. The bricks were carefully chosen so that at a quick glance the two wings seem identical. The bricks were laid in English bond with Caen stone mouldings around the windows. But the new wing has a course of black bricks at the base – the result of the latest technology – in fact an early version of a damp course. A dry moat was also excavated in front of the building to further reduce the possibility of damp penetration.

It is amusing to note that on the other side of the new wing, which was out of sight from the main entrance, some economies were made. Caen stone dressings were dispensed with, and some of the windows were asymmetrical. There was a second chapel in the new wing, and the ecclesiastical-style window that belonged to it can still be seen.

Good-bye to the Convent

Why did the convent close in 1966? One bizarre theory going the rounds was that the nuns were horrified at the disturbances at Brighton caused by clashes between the Mods and Rockers. There were no riots at Hove, but then the tranquil rural surroundings dating back to when the convent was founded, had long since vanished under a tide of bricks and mortar.

The girls who boarded at the convent school went to Tunbridge Wells, or Woldingham. The nuns returned to the Mother House at Roehampton.

In the same year the convent became a Xaverian college for 420 boys known as the De La Salle School. But this was of short duration, and soon the brothers left Hove too.

Then the Diocese of Arundel and Brighton purchased the convent and its grounds for £225,000. In September 1971 Cardinal Newman School opened. All the Catholic secondary schools in the area were amalgamated to become Cardinal Newman Catholic School, and it was the first school in Brighton and Hove to become a comprehensive school. 

copyright © D. Sharp
Cardinal Newman Catholic School in 2019

Argus (25 August 1988 – 8 March 2002)
Brighton Herald
Cox, T. Hove, the Postcard Collection (2019)
Duncan, J.
Middleton J, Encyclopaedia of Hove and Portslade
Royal Pavilion & Museum, Brighton & Hove  
Sussex Daily News (26 August 1944)

Copyright © J.Middleton 2019
page layout by D. Sharp