Do you ever wonder what life was like in days past and what the people were like who may have walked where you stand?
With this in mind, it’s with great delight that we welcome stories about Ashdown Park during various chapters of its history, and learn about people and moments which we would otherwise never know. One such person is a Sister of Notre Dame, who lived at Ashdown Park from 1939 to 1942.
This story was shared with us by her niece, who fondly described her Aunt as inspirational and dedicated with a real zest for life, Sister Gabriel Mary Standen, also know as ‘Margie’ to her family. “She was small in stature, warm and with a big heart”.
The Order of Notre Dame has had the greatest impact on Ashdown Park, transforming the property into what we recognise today - almost 100 years since Sister Marie des Saints Anges originally sourced and arranged the purchase of the property in 1919, for use as a special Novitiate (1919 – 1971) due to the growing difficulty to provide all Novices with their initial training at Namur, France.
The first Sisters and Novices from the Order arrived at Ashdown Park from their temporary abode in Mount Pleasant, Liverpool, 1920, when just the mansion house (built in 1867) stood at the centre of the estate, with neighbouring buildings for previous staff and a small church, which had been built in 1886.
In order to house more Novices, extensions were planned for accommodation, schooling rooms and a Chapel. Using stone quarried from the estate (which created our lake on the back lawns) and money bequeathed to Sister Marie who was from the wealthy Towneley family, the Order added the West Wing (1922), East Wing (1938) and magnificent ‘Church of Our Lady and St Richard’ (1927), today our Richard Towneley Suite.
While living at Ashdown Park, Sisters and Novices were responsible for the upkeep of the house and garden. Without their time and care, Ashdown Park would not be as spectacular as it is today.
Sister Gabriel Mary Standen began her journey with the Order at Ashdown Park, as a Novice on 11.10.1939 at the age of 27, until she took her vows on 16.04.1942. Although not too many intricate details of Sister Gabriel’s life while at Ashdown Park are known, here are a couple of anecdotes we do know:
Sister Gabriel was a Novice during WWII, and in the summers all meals were eaten on large refectory tables which were kept outside on the lawns. This was apparently due to the risk of German warplanes passing overhead and bombing the house.
Her brother, James (Jim), was in the army during WWII and when on leave and on his way back home, he would stay at a local inn and visit her during the Convent’s very strict visiting hours, in turn she would discretely smuggle out any culinary delights and sweet treats she could. Real treasures during wartime Britain, living on rations!
After she took her vows in 1942, Sister Gabriel was able to follow her religious beliefs while making a difference and being able to fulfil her ambitions. As a woman ahead of her time, she was said to instinctively know what ‘inclusion’ and ‘equal’ opportunity was about. Before entering the Order, Sister Gabriel had worked as a Governess and re-joined the education system as an assistant in schools nearer to her home and her beloved hometown football team, Liverpool.
In 1945 she was appointed Head Mistress, which was regarded as a great honour and later became the first headmistress of a new school built by the Notre Dame order ‘Blessed Margaret Clitherow Secondary School’, which she “started from scratch and loved with every fibre of her being”, according to one of her ex-pupils. Many wonderful anecdotes have been shared by those who knew her, here are just a few:
In her office, which had an open door policy, she had photographs - each beautifully framed, with every member of staff and she knew who everybody was.
Continuing on with her joy of gifting sweet delights, as she did to her brother while at Ashdown Park, she would hide surprise Anniversary and Birthday cakes in old biscuit tins for colleagues to take home.
A former pupil told of how Sister Gabriel arrived at a family’s home on Christmas Eve with a Christmas Tree and a beautiful hamper – it had come to her attention that this family, with six children, were struggling as their Father had been made redundant.
For many children from less well-off families, Sister Gabriel had a wardrobe of uniform items in her office and would gift them when needed to those who could not afford these items.
“…we will never forget seeing her with the sleeves of her habit rolled up cleaning the bay windows of our living room so we could ‘see the sun’.”
Sister Gabriel continued as Head Mistress until retiring in 1977 when she then went on to work in adult education until her passing at the age of 93.
Thank you to the family of Sister Gabriel, for sharing her wonderful story and allowing us to hear about the life of a wonderful person who is part of Ashdown Park’s history. It’s an honour to be able to pass her story on.
Read More of Ashdown Park’s History here.
If you have any stories or insights into the historical background of Ashdown Park or any of the Elite Hotel properties, we would love to hear from you.
The people, unique history and stunning architecture of each property are what makes each of them such treasures.
Photographs: 1st & 2nd - Sister Gabriel with her Father and Mother.