The Convent of Our Lady of Compassion, Acocks Green
Catholic life in Acocks Green can be traced back to the early 1820s, when Acocks Green House was a Catholic school for boys. It was called Acocks Green House Academy in a newspaper article in the Morning Post on 12 November 1822. The convent school in Acocks Green is one of the more interesting and unusual aspects of the history of the area. It played a part in Catholic education, but not only education of Catholics, for over forty years. It operated alongside a school, Holy Souls school, built in 1907, which has until now functioned as an annexe to Archbishop Ilsley R.C. Secondary school. Holy Souls school was free to pupils and was paid for by the church. Church schools like this aimed to educate the poor. Fee-paying schools like the convent school were for a different class of pupils. Mrs Berti, Headteacher at Holy Souls told us that the class divide between the schools was strict, and the pupils were not supposed to mix. It is easy to forget now how potent class differences were, even within a religious minority for whom emancipation was a relatively recent phenomenon. According to Sister Agnes at Olton Convent, the church originally intended the school at Olton (opened in 1903) to be for the children of gentlemen, and that at Acocks Green for the children of tradesmen! Over time, however, that distinction disappeared. Furthermore, although religious differences played a much greater role in people's minds then, the class issue appeared to be more important, for many Protestant children were sent to the convent school by their parents. In September 1939 the school was evacuated to Strensham Court near Tewkesbury, which had been empty for some years: the nuns had to take their furniture there! Six months later everyone returned, shortly before bombing began, ironically. One bomb landed behind the Red Lion and blew out all the school's windows, which were subsequently boarded up, providing blackout at all hours. The convent school was replaced by a boys' private preparatory school named Crosby Hall from 1948 until 1966, using the same buildings. For a while, as the new Holy Souls school was being built, the ground floor of the former convent school buildings were used, but the upper floors were by then in too poor a condition to be safe for classrooms (thanks to Josephina Zacaroli for this information). Since the Second World War, religious education has been substantially supported by the state, and from the late 1960s a new primary school has stood on the other side of the Warwick Road, and Archbishop Ilsley school has grown in several phases since the mid-1950s. The convent school buildings were demolished in the early 1970s.
The convent was created in Acocks Green by the Order of Our Lady of Compassion. These were French nuns, who had fled religious intolerance, and who had a base in Olton. We are very grateful to the Servite Sisters there, and in particular to their archivist, Sister Agnes, for allowing us to copy and make available so much information about the school. Much of the detail below comes from a charming story called 'The last sighs of the larch', by Mere Ste Therese, which is reproduced here. In 1905 the nuns came to look at Wilton House, one of three adjacent large houses built in the mid-nineteenth century on the Warwick Road, and which had housed a succession of wealthy families. Wilton House had been empty for two years, and it was bought for use as a convent, with the intention of creating a school too. It was necessary to have a priest available, and Father John Gibbons came from St Chad's. The convent was founded in August 1905, to the disapproval of the next-door neighbour, who later moved away. A month later, the arrival of seven children, six girls and one boy, marked the opening of the school.
The room to be used for the school had briefly been used as a chapel, so that moved to a wooden extension to the greenhouse! This was in use for two years until Holy Souls school was built just south of the house. The ground floor of the new building was the schoolroom, and the first floor was the chapel. So there were now two schools, with the convent school taking girls and a few younger boys. By the end of 1906 it had 60 pupils. As it became more successful, the opportunity arose to purchase the Hollies, the house just to the north. This was bought in 1913, and was intended to be the site for a permanent church, but in the end it was Wilton House that was built over in the 1920s, and the Hollies which housed the convent. In April 1919 the nuns moved into the Hollies, which had been an annexe, and in the autumn of that year it became possible to buy the third house in the row, Malvern House, which was next to the Red Lion pub. This became the school, and the Hollies was the convent, but extensions, enlargements and alterations made that distinction less clear over time. In the mid-1930s new classrooms and a hall were built, the hall standing behind Malvern House on a former playground. Beyond there, fruit bushes were replaced by a new playground and a hard court for tennis and netball.
Acocks Green convent school was in business until July 1948, when the nuns returned to Olton, and the diocese opened Crosby Hall, a private preparatory school for boys, on the site. This closed in 1966, as numbers attending were in decline. In the same year another private school, just south of Holy Souls church, namely Wellesbourne school, also closed. This was not a Catholic school, but these closures marked the end of an era during which a great variety of private education had flourished in the area. The church bought the Wellesbourne school grounds.
The next four images are sketches of the buildings by Margaret Inglis, who was at the school from 1932-1940.
We have been able to read some memories of the convent school, and interview some of the former pupils. We have reproduced a few items which give a flavour of life there on the images page. We have a copy of the school photographs from 1928 and 1932 (thank you to Eileen Staley). In addition, we have reproduced two sets of advertising postcards, the set from around 1920, and one from the 1930s. Life there seems to have been happy, and the teaching good. The school took boarders and day pupils. It did not seem to cause a problem if you were not Catholic, according to the accounts we have seen. Lessons were held in the usual subjects, but also in 'politeness', according to Mary Bullock (known as Molly), who attended from 1910-1923. The nuns were of course concerned that the children behaved well, and Molly has told us a story of one misdemeanour she was involved in!
"The cellars were 'out of bounds'. When the school expanded into a second house, our 'set' decided to risk exploring 'down under': so in 'Recreation' (i.e. the Convent's interpretation of 'Break') we crept into the forbidden regions. Suddenly a voice from above called us peremptorily: "Montez". We crept up full of apprehension, coldly eyed by Mother St. Paul's terrifying spectacles. She had her hands crossed and hidden in the voluminous sleeves of her habit, and she looked daggers but said absolutely nothing. We spent the rest of the week in salutary dread of the awful fate awaiting us. But - that was it! We heard nothing further and we never went exploring there again."
Molly has also given us a flavour of life in Acocks Green around 1920. "Acocks Green was a quiet little village. Little girls could walk unattended to school and could play in the fields unsupervised. The shopkeepers seemed to know our names and our addresses. Bread, meat, poultry, fish and small haberdashery items were brought to the door, as, of course, was milk, served straight from the metal bucket, ladled with a little wire-handled can into a suitably sized china jug."
Irene Cooke was a pupil from 1934-37. "Acocks Green was still known as a village in the 1930s. As my father had a newsagent's shop it meant we knew quite a number of people. Shopkeepers were loyal to one another. Life was quite leisurely before the war and in the advent of war we helped one another. Acocks Green was on the edge of Birmingham then, and at Olton Hollow there were no street lights until you neared Solihull, and it remained like this until after the war. Milk was delivered by a milk float and parcels were often delivered by rail, particularly to Owens the ironmongers, opposite my father's shop. If Sunday papers had not been sold by 1 p.m. when the shop closed, these were put in a rack outside and customers took a paper and put the money through the letterbox. When the shop windows were blown out during the war, which happened twice, not a thing was stolen from the shop."