Harriet Monsell

8th January 2021 | Women in the Shadows

The first Clewer sister

The Clewer Initiative

Have you ever wondered where the Clewer Initiative got its name from? Or who the first Clewer sister was?

Mother Harriet Monsell, along with The Rev. Thomas Thelluson Carter, co-founded the Community of St. John Baptist in 1852 to rescue prostitutes from the streets of Clewer Fields at Windsor.

Born into one of the oldest families in Ireland, she was the daughter of Sir Edward O’Brien, 4th Baronet of Dromoland, and Charlotte Smith, a founding member of the Woman’s Branch of the Church Missionary Society. Harriet’s parents instilled a deep sense of charity in all nine of their children, who from an early age worked alongside them in their numerous charitable missions, and they all gained an indelible awareness of their responsibility to live out the Gospel through helping the poor.

In 1839, Harriet met and married Rev. Charles Monsell, but unfortunately, he died in 1851 at the age of 36. The death of her beloved husband, in T.T. Carter’s memoir, “was indeed the crisis of her history, so much so that her after-course cannot be understood without this being clearly apprehended. For it was at this time that her consecration of herself to the service of God took place.”

It was in that moment, kneeling at the coffin of her husband and promising to carry out their dreams in honour of him, that Harriet left the safety and familiarity of her life as a Victorian lady and chose instead to follow an uncharted, radical, and sometimes dangerous life in God’s service.

After Charles was buried, Harriet went to England to stay with her sister Katherine, and Katharine's husband, the hon. Rev. Charles Harris. At the time, Charles was working as a chaplain to a large and unusual household full of women at Windsor. The house had begun as a small mission to rescue “fallen women” when Mariquita Tennant, the stalwart Spanish widow of an Anglican clergyman, had agreed to take in one pregnant and abused woman at the request of the Rev. Thomas Thelluson Carter, the Rector of Clewer.

Between 1848 and 1851, Mariquita and Canon Carter’s small mission had - with the encouragement of William Gladstone and many other supporters - grown to include over twenty women, but the crushing responsibilities had caused Mariquita’s health to suffer. By the time Harriet moved in with her sister Katharine and the Rev. Harris, the Clewer House of Mercy, as it had been named, was looking for ladies to help. Harriet immediately offered to work at the House despite having no experience in helping “fallen women” and no idea what the work might involve.

To find out more about the life of Harriet Monsell and how this small mission grew to have global significance, why not sign up to the Clewer Initiative’s Women in the Shadows Lent Course where her incredible story is woven throughout the sessions?

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