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Updated:  01 October 2011 


Saint Dunstan's Abbey, in North Road, Plymouth, was founded by Miss Priscilla Lydia Sellon with the support of the Bishop of Exeter, Bishop Henry Phillpott.

She had previously used the site for a temporary wooden hospital during the cholera visitation of 1849.  Miss Sellon laid the foundation stone of the Abbey on October 5th 1850.

St Dunstan's Abbey, Plymouth

Dedicated to Saint Dunstan of Glastonbury, the Abbey was administered by her own Society of the Most Holy Trinity.  The buildings were designed by Mr William Butterfield, architect of Keble College, Oxford, and Rugby School.  He waived his fee, which was just as well because lack of funds meant that the design was later "toned down", with the refectory becoming the chapel instead of having the large church he had planned.  Miss Sellon paid for the buildings out of her own funds.

The Sisters dressed very simply in a black woollen dress with long flowing sleeves and a girdle with a small ebony cross.  Over their closely cropped hair they wore a white cap with long black strings.  They spent six hours a day out visiting the poor, tending the sick and teaching in the schools.  When away from the Abbey they wore a cloak, large black bonnet and a black crepe veil.

Shunning publicity, and doing good almost by stealth, the Sisters lived within the precincts of the Abbey and carried out their work in strict seclusion, maintaining only a very restricted contact with the outside world.  They vowed to devote seven hours a day to prayer and meditation amid a life of Spartan simplicity and severity.  For a further six hours a day they visited the poor, tended the sick or taught in the small school.  They also ran a penitentiary in part of the premises.

When in October 1854 Lord Nelson called for nurses to be sent to the Crimean War, the Abbey was large enough to send a number of Sisters to help Florence Nightingale in her task of nursing the wounded.   Two of the Sisters, Elizabeth Wheeler and Sarah Anne Terror, received particular note at the time and the latter was awarded the Royal Red Cross by Her Majesty Queen Victoria in 1897.

Miss Sellon was installed as Abbess in the Oratory of Saint Dunstan's Abbeymere in March 1856, on her 35th birthday.

Support declined over the years, however, and by the time closure was announced on November 9th 1905 there were only two Sisters left.  The aged Mother Superior was at that time lying ill at the associated Priory in Berkshire, to which the remaining Sisters were transferred in 1906.

The sale of the buildings and grounds was placed in the hands of Mr J M Andrew, auctioneer, of Princess Square, Plymouth.  It was hoped in the first instance to find a purchaser who would maintain the buildings, which included a small chapel overlooking Victoria Park, and the three acres of grounds as a religious institution.    Failing that, it would be offered for housing.

In April 1907, thanks to the efforts of the Vicar of Saint Peter's Church, the Reverend Downton, the property was transferred from the Sisters of the Most Holy Trinity to the Community of St Mary the Virgin at Wantage, who continued to use the premises for the Saint Dunstan Abbey School for Girls.



  Brian Moseley, Plymouth, UK

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