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Isabella Gilmore


Isabella Gilmore (nee Morris) was born on 17th July 1842, the eighth of ten children, at Woodford Hall, Essex and was a younger sister to William Morris, famed for his poetry and design and art work. She described her childhood as happy, healthy and simple and it was certainly free enough for her to be described as ‘a bit of a tomboy’ by another brother, Edgar. After having a governess in her early years, Isabella attended a private school in Brighton and then a finishing school in Clifton. She ‘came out’ into society at a debutante ball soon after her education was complete and here she met her future husband, Lieutenant Arthur Hamilton Gilmore, known affectionately as ‘Archy’ and they married on 18th September 1860. Sadly, just two years later, Archy died from Meningitis. They had no children.

Isabella decided to train as a nurse going on to work at Guy’s Hospital in London despite opposition from most of her family. She did well and became a ward sister working very happily for many years when in 1884 another of Isabella’s brothers,


Randall, died leaving eight children from aged 2, orphaned. Isabella took them in and became their mother, continuing to work but making sure that she spent holidays with them.


It is not clear why, but in1886, Isabella was recommended to Bishop Thorald of Rochester as possibly being suitable to found a deaconess order for his large diocese, though initially she was not at all keen! She had no theological training and did not know anything about being a deaconess but despite her reluctance this seemed to be God’s plan for her. Whilst on holiday and attending a morning service in October 1886 she had her calling confirmed. ‘It was just as if God’s voice had called me, and the intense rest and joy were beyond words’ (1) And so she began, initially along similar lines to the male order of deacons but she soon began to shape this female growth in ministry.


She wanted her deaconesses to be well educated and single (though widows were accepted) and recognisable through their blue dress. Isabella placed great importance on these women carrying out their work in a ‘spirit’ of friendship and wanted them to be able to give practical help in the homes of the poor they visited. They took basic nursing courses to add to domestic skills and they also established Sunday ragged schools and mother’s meetings. Her first new evening baptism service drew in 94 children and she focused very much on poor areas organising ‘cottage meetings’ which all her deaconesses had to speak at as well as being able to work with local charities, doctors and schools She was also a member of the National Union of Women Workers and tried to address particularly the needs of the poor through girls and women, her brother William Morris was very encouraging and observed admiringly that whilst he preached socialism, she practised it.


Isabella grew very fond of the people she worked amongst and their awful conditions troubled her greatly. Though all the women she trained were paid, she was not, but gave her services for free and also subsidised much of the aid herself making sure that this help was given unconditionally. No pressure was put on anyone to attend church but, rather, in a way that really lived out her faith; every opportunity was taken to talk about God in all the situations that these early deaconesses came across. By the time of her retirement in 1906, deaconesses had become proficient and professional and were working throughout Britain and also overseas, licensed by the bishop, working alongside parish priests and, politically and socially, influencing the professionalization of women’s work generally. Isabella Gilmore died at her home in Dorset on 15th March 1923, aged 81.

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Although she was not the first deaconess in the Church of England – this was Elizabeth Catherine Ferard, licensed by Bishop Tait of London on 18th July 1862 – at her memorial service the then Archbishop of Canterbury and former Bishop of Rochester, Randall Davidson, said of her ‘some day those who know best will be able to trace much of the origins and roots of revival (of the deaconess order) to the life, work, example and word of Isabella Gilmore.’ (2) Her work most certainly made a valuable contribution to the policy and practice of deaconesses within the Church of England and their order was enshrined in the statutes of the conferences at Lambeth Palace in 1920 – which Isabella would have known – and after her death in 1930 and going forward in time the path that she laid can be seen to lead to the shift in agreement to include women in ordination to the priesthood within the Anglican Church in November 1992 too.

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Sources. (1) and (2) Isabella Gilmore; Sister to William Morris. Janet GRIERSON, SPCK 1962. Mary Clare Martin in Oxford Dictionary of Biography. 2004. Wikipedia. 2010.
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