THEY LIVED IN LEEDS
Agnes Logan Stewart (1820-1886)
Sister of Mercy
If you go to Knostrop now, following the curves of the ancient Knostrop Lane, you end up at the steel gates of the huge sewage works which dominates the landscape, the view blocked by the high railway embankment. It’s hard to imagine that this same lane once led to a small village, set among rhubarb fields near the river, with scattered stone cottages, flower-filled gardens, and some grand houses, notably the picturesque, Jacobean Knostrop Hall, occupied from 1870 by the artist Atkinson Grimshaw. Nearby stood another old house, falling into disrepair, with a coach house, stables and gardens. In 1871 this property was bought, restored and adapted as an orphanage and school for destitute and abandoned children from the slums of Leeds. The woman behind this project was Agnes Logan Stewart.
Agnes Stewart came from a secure and privileged background, poles apart from the children who were to become her concern and care. She was born in London in 1820, the eldest daughter of Alexander Stewart, a prosperous merchant, part owner of a slave plantation in Jamaica. Family life was padded and comfortable, with a house in London and one in the country, and a retinue of servants. But from an early age Agnes felt drawn to try to help people less fortunate than herself. She began to teach in the local parish school, and spent much of her time visiting families and trying to alleviate distress – there were areas of great poverty close to her London home. Meanwhile she studied hard, attended church regularly, and still found time for a social life – she loved dancing! But in her early twenties she felt she had to give up such pleasures and devote herself to her work with the poor, particularly children.
She and her sisters were increasingly drawn to the rituals of the high Anglo-Catholic church near their home, where they worshipped regularly, and thoughts of joining a religious order, a sisterhood, perhaps entered her head. Her life was to change completely when her father died, and, at 37, she suddenly had enough money to leave her family home and pursue her ideals. The priest from her church had moved to Frome in Somerset, and she followed, after a few years taking over an orphanage and school there, run by a community of ‘Sisters of Mercy’. She might well have stayed on, but in 1871 she learnt of a call for ‘ladies of private means’ to help in the deprived parish of St Saviour’s in Leeds – practical support, and money, were desperately needed. She gave up her life in Frome for the darker challenge of Leeds.
St Saviour’s Church had opened on Richmond Hill in 1845, towering over the area known as the Bank – a place of smoke-blackened mills and huddled back-to-backs, with a frightening reputation. The Church was founded with money from Dr Pusey, leader of the Anglo-Catholic Oxford Movement, its aim to reach out to the mass of the workers, seen as sunk in ‘gross profligacy’ and open to the dangerous influence of atheists and socialists. Dedicated religious communities of men and women were envisaged for this work.
As soon as Agnes arrived in Leeds in 1871 she set about purchasing a suitable property. Within a year her orphanage and school at Knostrop was up and running, with twenty girls aged five to eighteen, cared for by a group of Sisters under her leadership. As her work extended, Mother Agnes, as she was known, gained a widespread reputation for kindness, generosity and enterprise. She built a gymnasium for the local boys, set up a brass band, started a night school and an Institute for the men. She helped to support the school for girls and infants at Cross Green, and put up the money herself for the building of a boys’ school (St Hilda’s). She paid for books, subsidised the poorer children, arranged for delicate children to have a month at the seaside. Meanwhile she managed her orphanage and undertook all kinds of good works around Cross Green, taking a great interest in the building of the new St Hilda’s Church there. She was much loved, and when she died in 1886, weakened by work and responsibilities, she was deeply mourned by the whole community.
She left a considerable trust fund for the support of her orphanage (St Saviour’s Home) and the Sisters there, for the boys’ school, and for the sick, poor and destitute of the parish. The orphanage closed in 1939, the buildings demolished in 1994. A new Church of England secondary school was named after her in 1965, but it closed in 2006. Apart from a short book about her and a memorial in St Hilda’s, her name and work is almost forgotten now.