|Virgo Fidelis School with St Joseph's Roman Catholic Junior and Infant Schools||Croydon|
Virgo Fidelis School is on a sloping site that is part of a historic C18th landscape, which was adapted in the mid C19th when a Roman Catholic boarding school and attached convent were built. There are remains of the original designed landscape, and the C19th landscape, including an orchard, cemetery and walled garden. The site now contains two schools, a family day centre and convent. Attached farmland to the east was built over for housing after WWII. Within the site is mature natural woodland that is a remnant of the old Great North Wood, which retains its boundaries and character as shown on early maps. The bones of the original convent and orphanage landscape can still be seen and apart from the abandoned kitchen garden it has been used for children's recreation for 150 years, overlaying the earlier C18th landscape.
The information shown above was correct at the time of the last update 01/12/2008
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The information below is taken from the relevant Local Authority's planning legislation, which was correct at the time of research but may have been amended in the interim. Please check with the Local Authority for latest planning information.
The 1678 map of Norwood shows a house to the south of Gravelly Hill coppice in the Great North Wood, and this was the forerunner of Park House where Alexander Nesbitt, of an Irish banking family, lived from 1765 onwards. After his death in 1772 the property was settled on Mary Davis, who he had married in 1768. From 1771 she lived with Captain, later Admiral, Hervey, then made third Earl of Bristol, and they divided their time between Park House and St James's Square. It appears they spent money improving the property and grounds in Upper Norwood. Mary Nesbitt inherited the Earl of Bristol's fortune on his death in 1779 and over the years bought parcels of land in Croydon and Lambeth. Building works took place at the house between 1806-1810, and by 1811 Park House was one of the leading establishments in Norwood with a full staff of servants, and among the visitors was George III. In 1814 the house was let again and Mary Nesbitt travelled abroad. She died in 1824. The estate at that time comprised c.21 hectares of copyhold and leasehold land.
For some years after this it was run as a hotel, and it may have ceased to be a private residence long before Richard Wright was managing the hotel in 1832. In 1840 a tontine scheme was proposed to develop a number of detached and semi-detached houses sweeping around in a crescent with the Park Hotel incorporated into it with a central garden scheme, which would have been the flatter part of the park to the north of the site. The success of the development of Beulah Spa to the south might have encouraged developers to plan such a scheme; however this scheme was not realised. In 1848 the property was sold for £5,500 to Dr Nicholas Wiseman, Catholic vicar apostolic of the London district, along with c.5.7 hectares and a further amount of copyhold land. Later more land was leased and a convent and an orphanage for Catholics was established, the first since the time of Henry VIII. A group of nuns from the Convent of the Faithful Virgin at La Delivrande in France, together with Father Saulet and the Mother Superior, came to establish the orphanage. One of the nuns described the grounds: 'just look at those beautiful fields, it is as much as the eye can do to take in all the boundaries of the property. On one side is a wood, beyond are the trees which separate us from the road. There is a pool of water not far from the entrance with willows weeping on its edge . . . it is watered by a brooklet which flows along the foot of the hill.' The first girls to arrive were poor Irish and soon a day school was set up. The chaplain Father Vesque was asked to begin a school for boys and his home on the grounds was turned into St Joseph’s School. A proper school was built in 1872 in the north-west corner next to Central Hill. This has since been rebuilt and expanded but still remains a dedicated Roman Catholic school.
The cemetery was consecrated and the first burial was that of a French-born nun in 1852, followed by an Irish orphan Mary Leary in 1854. Architect Mr WW Wardell drew up plans for a simple gothic style building in 1855 and this was built in stages, the Wardell wing and chapel completed by September 1857 for £12,000. Several hundred shrubs and mature trees were planted around the estate. Bishop Vesque, who had been the community chaplain since 1848, died of yellow fever in the West Indies and was brought back for burial in 1858. In 1859 a field adjoining the convent called Hermitage Field of c.2.85 hectares was purchased from Pembroke College Cambridge for £4000 and Hermitage Road was built through the land for £1,355. This was facilitated by Wilfred Doyle who fundraised for the convent and lived in St Wilfred’s Cottage at the north-west corner of the estate. A second wing, St Joseph’s, was built in 1862 to the designs of architect George Goldie, he and his successors continuing to work for the next 40 years. The laundry was built in 1869, and in that year money from the Langdale Memorial Fund was put towards converting the existing chapel into further accommodation for 100 girls from the workhouse and for building a church, which was consecrated in 1871 and cost £9,617. There were now 324 scholars living in the orphanage and boarding schools. An appeal for building funds in 1877 yielded half of the £7000 needed for cloisters, cells for 50 nuns, and other rooms, which were completed in 1881. An inspection from the Board of Governors in April 1896 revealed that rhubarb pudding was served, probably provided from the kitchen garden. Another wing, the Theodosius, was added in 1904 to house a refectory, infirmary and several other rooms that were needed. There was a netball and tennis court at this time. In 1918 swine fever broke out in the convent farm and 40 pigs died.
,In 1925 with a mortgage of £4000, more land was bought surrounding the convent. The farm produced food for sale as well as for the community, and by 1926 there were 15 cows and a bull. Figs from the greenhouse were also sold and in the orchards were peach, plum, greengage, apricot, pear and apple trees. In 1927 £6,120 was spent on a new wing to provide an art room and dining hall. During WWII the school was evacuated to Cuckfield Park in Sussex until 1946 and a Royal Army Medical Corps depot was opened at the convent. A bomb fell in the quadrangle in September 1940 and then 8 more in the grounds in October; further bombs fell in 1942 and 1943 and blew out windows. In July 1944 a bomb exploded between the church and the Chaplain’s house, and although the main structure was undamaged the roof and internal ‘trimmings’ suffered. There was also bad damage to the old house and cottage, and some years later the latter and the stables were demolished.
In 1944 Croydon Council compulsorily purchased c.1.78 hectares of land for temporary housing, and the livestock of 15 cows, 1 bull, 300 hens, 30 pigs, ducks and a horse were sold, bringing the farm to an end. Rubble of buildings destroyed in Norwood during the war was distributed over the fields in which the cows had grazed near the junior school raising the height by 2.4m. In 1949 a prefabricated building was erected to provide classrooms. In 1948 the orphanage had closed and in 1951, with state-aid, Our Lady’s secondary modern school replaced the orphanage school. In 1962 the Old House became St Mary’s Lodge when Virgo Fidelis junior school moved in, and during the 1960s and 1970s more convent land was sold to build the Rockmount and St Joseph's Schools. The old Sulphur House in which the nuns' voluminous woollen habits had been whitened every four months for nearly 120 years was demolished, and a car park replaced the site of the old cottage. A new hall was built in part of the orchard and in 1974 a larger hall was built at the Old House and a large gym at the Virgo Fidelis school. The laundry was bulldozed along with some of the ancient wall dividing the 2 orchards although the part dating to 1558 was conserved. The convent cemetery, which had suffered from theft of lead and flooding, was renovated in 1980. In 1991 a Family Centre was established for families under stress.
Other schools now on the property include St Joseph’s Roman Catholic schools; the junior and infants arose out of the school which Father Vesque had established in his house in the mid C19th, and the school on Central Hill. In 1952 £51,400 was set aside for the year 1954-5 to build a new 2 class entry mixed junior school on the convent site to be opened in 1957-8. Between 1972-74 new schools were built on the site to house the separate junior and infants schools. In 1967 Rockmount Junior School was built on part of the old Convent Wood next to Hermitage Road to the south of the property. The north boundary was levelled to allow for sports, producing a large ditch to the north. The boundary has a mixture of mature horse chestnut, oak and other trees along the north, with remnant woodland in the south. A row of horse chestnuts is south-east of the cemetery and north of the C19th walled garden. On the west lawn is an old oak and ornamental trees including magnolia grandiflora, cherry, holm oak and yew. To the south of the old mansion are remains of the orchard with old fruit trees still fruiting. The hawthorn hedge behind the drying lawn was shown on a painting of some 100 years ago.
Janet Weeks, 'The Convent at Norwood', (Virgo Fidelis Convent, 1990); Alan R Warwick, 'The Phoenix Suburb', (Blue Boar Press, 2nd ed 1982), pp33-44; John Coulter, 'Norwood Past', (Historical Publications, 1996); J B Wilson 'The Story of Norwood', (LB Lambeth, 1973), p12; J A Squire 'Picturesque Norwood' (1907-9); Denise Robins, Autobiography; LB Croydon, 'Local List of Historic Parks & Gardens', December 2008.
LPGT Volunteer Research by Kristina Taylor, 2006