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A Monastic History in Pictures

A Monastic History in Pictures
15 August 2019

Bob Piper, Norton Radstock U3A describes a shared learning project he led on Downside Abbey in Somerset

After the completion of the previous Beau Street Hoard SLP in 2015, which was concerned with the photographing and recording of 17,577 Roman Coins found in Bath in 2007, an opportunity arose to become involved with another SLP at Downside Abbey, Monastery and Catholic School, in Stratton on the Fosse close to our U3A in Midsomer Norton.

Downside Abbey is the senior Benedictine monastery of the English Benedictine Congregation. Originally founded in Douai, in 1606, the community of St Gregory the Great settled at Downside in 1814.

Downside Abbey Church, one of only three Minor Basilicas in England, has been designated by English Heritage as a grade I listed building. Sir Nikolaus Pevsner described the Abbey as “the most splendid demonstration of the renaissance of Roman Catholicism in England”.

The project which involved around 10 U3A members is concerned with the cataloguing and scanning of archived photographs of the growth of Downside Abbey throughout its history, and the activities of its community of monks, pupils and others from about the mid-1800s onwards.

The intention is to research and produce up to date photographs of the interesting and photogenic buildings of the Abbey, Monastery and School and to produce a “Then and Now” series of pictures comparing the original buildings with those of the present day.

There are estimated to be close to 300 Photo Albums each containing up to 150 pictures, and tens of thousands of other photos to be researched. We are digitally scanning each photograph and describing the content in a searchable database by use of Key Words and Tags.

The earliest photo we have discovered is dated 1857, and is of the Community of Monks at that time. Historically, this is an important photo in that photography had only been invented some 20 years previously. It is notable that the earliest photo in the Royal Collection is dated 1856.

We have recently discovered a great friendship between two boys from the school who were killed in WWI. Thanks to the SLP and working with the Downside team, scanning of the photos has improved the quality of the images and has enabled details to be examined that have previously not been visible.

Cary-Elwes entered Downside School in 1908 and John Dame in 1909. Throughout their time at Downside, they were in the OTC (Officer Training Corps) together, joined the same sports teams and studied together. Upon leaving the school in 1916 they both went to Sandhurst, and in October 1917, they were given their marching orders. On 27th Nov 1917 they found themselves together again at the Battle of Bourlon Wood in France and they were both killed on the same day. We have found a great number of photographs of the two boys and many others enjoying every day life at Downside leading up to their leaving that make a very poignant memorial to their friendship.

We have been working with the Abbey Team towards the preparation of a talk and presentation about the project as a Key Output from our involvement, and this was presented to the North Somerset Association of U3As at their conference last year.

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