Canonesses of the Holy Sepulchre, Fishy Tales: Living Memories of New Hall 1930-2012, Canonesses, Colchester, 2012. £15, ISBN 978 0 957 4063 0 8 (paperback), 376 pages
Reviewed by: Rebecca Volk, Daughters of Wisdom Great Britain and Ireland Provincial Archives, July 2013
This book was produced by the Canonesses of the Holy Sepulchre (hereafter Canonesses) to mark the 370th anniversary of the foundation of the English community of the Canonesses and their school in 1642. The school was initially established in Liege and, following several temporary dwellings in England, came to New Hall in 1799, where it remains to this day. By tradition, pupils in the school are known as ‘Fishes’ and past pupils as ‘Old Fishes’, hence the title Fishy Tales.
Fishy Tales is a collection of memories about the school at New Hall. It was the Canonesses’ intention to not only celebrate 370 years of existence, but to also compile a ‘lasting record of life at the school in the words of those who have lived in it over the last 80 years’ (p. 9). The anecdotes originated from a wide variety of perspectives: from past pupils, former teachers and even a delivery boy’s recollection. There are also of course the memories of some of the nuns, who often were Old Fishes themselves and who worked in the school for many years in various roles.
Following a preface, which outlines the aim of the book, and a prelude, which contains excerpts of various material found in the archives containing memories of the school prior to 1930, the book is divided into several sections. Each section covers a decade from 1930 up to 2000 and begins with a brief consideration of what was happening both in the school and globally during this decade to enable the reader to place the reflections within a wider historical context. The final section provides a selection of memories of the school that were posted on Facebook.
Through the anecdotes the reader learns about the daily routine of the school and the relationships between the Fishes, teachers and community. There are often amusing confessions of mischief and some less pleasant memories, such as fumigation and the death of a fellow pupil, are also recalled. In addition, it provides a new perspective on the Canonesses through personal reminiscences of those that came into contact with them through the school and many of the memories contain admiration and gratitude for all that the nuns did for them. The collection of memories read as a whole also demonstrates the changes within religious life and the role played in the school by the nuns, as is noticed for example with the less frequent mention of the nuns in the last section. The community began withdrawing from New Hall with the last of the community leaving in 2006.
The way contributors are named in full, with maternal surnames and nicknames supplied where applicable, frequently along with a current biography of their life after New Hall, indicates that the target audience for Fishy Tales are those already acquainted with the school. This information would presumably allow those connected with the school to recognise each other. Nonetheless, readers new to New Hall have much to gain from reading these memories as the book provides a vivid picture of the daily life of the school.
The book is a collection of personal recollections, and memories are not necessarily 100% historically accurate, yet Fishy Talesis not intended as an academic book. The editors highlight that there may be inaccuracies at the very start of the book and warn the reader that ‘memories by their nature are subjective’ (p. 7). Even so these anecdotes are fascinating as they provide various perspectives and personal experiences of life at New Hall and relate things that are generally not recorded in official accounts.
The Prelude highlights the wonderful treasures the Canonesses and school contain in their archives by revealing some captivating accounts held. The editors have also included helpful context for some of the extracts provided in this section. Why these excerpts were not entirely in chronological order is slightly puzzling, but it is a very great introduction to this book of ‘living memories’.
The organization of the book into sections by decade can seem awkward as the contributors often cover more than one decade in their reminiscence. On the other hand by splitting the memories into these sections it allows the editors to provide some broader historic context through the inclusion of an interesting collection of events going on in the world during that period as well as highlighting the changes in the school itself. The decision to split the book into decades also makes sense when it is known that the meetings to collect these memories where arranged by decades (http://www.canonesses.co.uk/our-370th-anniversary/fishy-tales-the-book/).
The book has a professional appearance and is enhanced by the inclusion of many black and white images, which not only makes it attractive but can aid the readers’ understanding of certain slang terms, such as ‘bumpers’ (p. 91). The variety of old images demonstrates again the wealth of the archives. That the inside covers of the book contains the religious name of each Canoness as well as her baptismal name and year of profession is a nice touch.
Although, one might argue that a timeline of key dates relating to the development of the school might have been helpful, it was not the aim of the book to set out dry historical facts rather ‘a collection of memories’ (p. 7). No reader could argue that this aim of gathering together a variety of personal reminiscences about the school at New Hall has not been achieved. And what wonderful memories they are! It is a book that can easily be dipped in and out of though the reader would miss out by not reading the entire collection. The Canonesses can be proud of having produced such an attractive book of memories which will serve to complement any historical books about the community and school.