Historical Notes: Lewes riots for a stolen daughter

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The Independent Culture
IT MUST have been obvious that trouble was brewing as the Rev John Scobell read the burial service over the body of his daughter Amy in the autumn of 1857. But the unrest apparent in All Saints' Church, Lewes, gave only the faintest of clues to the violence that would erupt minutes later in the churchyard. The "Lewes Riot" sparked by the burial continued sporadically for several days, and so excited the local media that the Sussex Advertiser published an "Extraordinary Edition" to chronicle the disturbances.

The dead woman, Amy Scobell, had grown up in an ordinary early Victorian family. A stern, authoritarian father, a loving but shadowy mother, and a handful of siblings. But something set Amy apart in her mid-twenties. Disastrously, by the standards of the time, she failed to marry. Perhaps she chose not to - we don't know. Instead, shockingly, she became a nun. In 1856 Amy joined the Society of St Margaret, an Anglican sisterhood based in Sussex. The community was a nursing order, and Amy enjoyed the life. She worked as a nurse until she caught scarlet fever from one of her patients and died, less than two years after entering.

A sad little story of an ordinary life cut short, or so it seems. But the extreme nature of the family and public reaction to Amy's life and death needs explaining. It can only be understood if we put it into the context of the times. Women who failed to marry were expected to devote themselves to their parents until their deaths, and then to transfer their unpaid domestic services to the household of a sibling. The omnivorous Victorian family was capable of consuming all.

Scobell, like many another Victorian paterfamilias, believed that single women must not rebel against parental authority, whatever their own ambitions. He claimed that the sisterhood lured away his daughter, whom he described as "a mere child". This "child" was in her late twenties or early thirties when she left the paternal roof - unmarried women, in a very real sense, never came of age.

These early Anglican sisters were called "stolen daughters", and this phrase encapsulated the attitude of the general public toward the communities. "Stolen" summarised the belief that community life for women was so unnatural that well-brought up women would not enter willingly. "Daughter", too, is significant. An unmarried woman in middle life was still seen first and foremost as a daughter, with a daughter's duties and a daughter's powerlessness. Scobell, like many others, demonstrated a profound incomprehension of his daughter's desire to live in a community of women. The fact that Amy Scobell felt a sense of vocation which did not include father or husband as its central focus was incomprehensible to him.

We have established why Amy's decision to join a sisterhood destroyed her relationship with her family. In order to understand the riot in the churchyard, we must examine the series of symbolic affronts to the family that took place during the funeral itself. The sisters, not her relatives, accompanied her body to the grave. There was a dispute in the street over who should take the place of chief mourner, the sisters or Mr Scobell. At the church the nuns grouped themselves around the coffin in the place usually taken by family members. The riot broke out in the churchyard after the interment, where the sisters were attacked by the mob and had to scramble over a wall in order to save themselves. Farcically, they took refuge in a pub where they were hidden until nightfall, when they left town in disguise.

Susan Mumm is author of `Stolen Daughters, Virgin Mothers: Anglican sisterhoods in Victorian Britain' (Leicester University Press, pounds 42.50)