It is one of the themes of Marga’s family life that she was surrounded by extraordinary women, not just women in the milieu of Shrewsbury but among her immediate relatives too. Some of them were artists, some academics, some important religious figures, but each seems to have defied the convention of the time, which would have had it that women must not strike out on their own. All these women did though make it on their own – a fact which must have had an influence on the young Margaret.
One of the most extraordinary of Marga’s female relatives is Constance Burd, a maternal aunt, whose energy appears to have been limitless! She worked both among Glasgow’s poor and on the battlefields on WW1 as a nurse; founded an order of nuns; and built a hospital!
Constance’s achievements are commemorated in a stained-glass window created by Marga, apparently one of the loveliest she made (see the bottom of this page for more on that).
As so often happens, especially with women’s lives of this time, the facts of Constance’s personal life are thin on the ground; we haven’t even found a photograph of her.
But we do know that she was born in 1858 in Shrewsbury, a year & some older than Margaret’s mother Agnes Burd (see pic right).
She was baptised in St Chad’s, one of Shrewsbury’s great churches.
Then, there is nothing recorded for forty years – though we are told that she entered nursing and worked as a District Nurse in Glasgow.
The big turning-point for her seems to have been in the 1890s when she converted to Catholicism (Marga’s mother and Marga herself converted a few years later, in 1901).
The Burd family women, it seems, were not to be ruled by their paterfamilias Edward Burd, a staunch and influential Anglican – in all, five of his daughters converted to Catholicism, and three of those became nuns!
Constance then really does strike out on her own – becoming the Superintendent of Catholic District Nursing in South London.
Order of nuns
Like many of the women among Marga’s Burd-Rope relatives, Constance did not marry; and biographers in future may want to dig further into this issue. What was it that made so many of the Burd-Rope women prefer a single life?
Constance may however have known all along that she wanted to be a nun, because at this point, that is exactly what she sought.
But, she did not choose to retreat from the world: with amazing confidence, in 1901, Constance insisted on founding her own order of nursing nuns, which would serve those ‘of limited means’. The order was named The Sisters of Our Lady of Consolation (sometimes called The Consolation Sisters).
Endorsed by Archbishop Amigo, they were based at the Catholic Nursing Institute in Lambeth in London, which was opened in 1907.
The order, including Constance, also served as nurses in France in the First World War.
It seems however, despite her advancing age, all this was not quite enough for Constance (now, as a nun, called ‘Mother Burd’)…
In 1907, the institute had sixteen beds; Mother Burd drew up plans for an overhaul and expansion – to a 100-bed hospital!
For her, the 1920s and 1930s were therefore a period of massive work, acquiring new surrounding land and gaining funding (this was before the NHS of course, at a time when public subscription funded many new hospitals). Constance herself was on an endless round of fund-raising, eventually garnering a staggering £50,000 (the equivalent of £3million in today’s money)…
In a sense, we now have a happy ending to Constance’s life.
In the first weeks of 1939, she signed a contract for the building of the new hospital. Her dream almost achieved, she died four weeks later, aged 80, after a few days’ illness, on 20th February 1939.
Her funeral service was at Southwark Catholic Cathedral. Whether her family – her sister Agnes, perhaps? – attended, it would be lovely to know. During the rest of 1939 and into 1940, the now-named Catholic Hospital of Our Lady of Consolation took shape.
Constance’s life is said to have had a happy ending because she did not live to see the disaster of September 1940 – when at least half the new building was destroyed by German bombing even before it full opened.
It was only finally rebuilt in 1952 – and was then maintained for another thirty-five years by the Sisters Of Consolation until they finally left in 1987 and its function was altered.
The building still stands though. If you ever visit the Imperial War Museum, you’ll see it opposite the museum.
Stained glass window
But… what happened to the stained-glass window that Margaret had created to go into the new hospital’s chapel? The new building incorporated a small chapel and the nuns of the order decided that a window to remember their founding figure should be the focal point of the chapel space.
It was, we are told, a wonderful piece.
Aptly, it was of Our Lady of Consolation with the Christ-child with Saints Joseph and Raphael. It came in three lancets with the Madonna & Child figures in the middle piece.
The inscription dedicates the window to ‘Foundress Constance Burd / A Valiant Woman’.
Marga must have received the commission in 1939 itself – which makes it one of the last windows she ever created, and represents a late burst of creativity by her.
However…. the only knowledge we have of the window now is the preparatory ‘cartoons’, which can be found in the Margaret Rope Archive in Suffolk. The window itself is not to be found these days.
A lot of stained-glass was removed from buildings in London when the war started (in September 1939), for fear it would be destroyed in air-raids. And this piece appears similarly to have been put into storage before the raids started… but, unfortunately, since then, has disappeared.
The great hope is that this glass still sits, uncatalogued, in a repository somewhere, and one day will be recognised.
If you have clues where it might be, would you let us know?
Many thanks to researchers Bill Pearson, Jane Morgan and Roger Hall for information provided for this article.
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