Devon House of Mercy

Frances Billinge 2019

The Devon House of Mercy in Bovey Tracey was a sisterhood of Anglicans of the order of the Sisters of Mercy of the Community of St John the Baptist, whose mother house was at Clewer, Windsor. They established a home for abused women, at that time called fallen women, which started at Chapple in Bovey Tracey in 1863 and then moved to prestigious new premises near the parish church in 1868. (Fig.1) The sisterhood came to Bovey Tacey at the invitation of the local vicar, The Hon. Rev. Charles Leslie Courtenay. Courtenay was the brother of the Earl of Devon and was a Canon of Windsor. He supported high church ritual which at the time was called Tractarianism.  This sisterhood continued in Bovey Tracey until the end of 1939. The building has now become flats (Fig.2)

Figure I. Devon House, by kind permission of Bovey Tracey Heritage Trust.

Figure 2. Devon House of Mercy 2018. Frances Billinge

Janice Wallace wrote about the history of this Devon House of Mercy in Bovey Tracey which was published in the Transactions of the Devonshire Association 2001 (Wallace, Janice. The Devon House of Mercy Bovey Tracey in Transactions of the Devon. Assoc. Advmt. Sci., 133,  pp 191-216)  I have recently been contacted by a couple of families whose ancestors had a particular involvement with the establishment. It would be interesting to trace the sisters, the ‘inmates’ and the visitors who lived at Devon House of Mercy, so if you have any information to share with me it would be very helpful.


Emma Frances Hicks was the Sister Superior on the 1911 Census. The previous Sister Superior was Sister Bertha who was well known in the town. Sister Bertha  died in 1907 and her funeral was fully reported in the local press.(The Western Times 19 January 1907, p.9) Sister Bertha’s grave can be seen in Bovey Tracey Cemetery (Fig. 3)

Figure 3. Grave of Sister Bertha, Sister of Mercy of the Community of St John the Baptist, died 1907. Bovey Tracey Cemetery. Frances Billinge 2019.

Emma was born in Piddletrenthide Dorset in 1844 and died at the Devon House of Mercy in 1933 (Death certificate30 January 1933, The National Archives). She too was buried in Bovey Tracey Cemetery but her grave has no record to this effect. It is in the forefront on the left of Figure 4.

Figure 4. Front left hand side grave of Sister Emma, Sister of Mercy of the Community of St John the Baptist, died 1933. Bovey Tracey Cemetery. Frances Billinge 2019.

Frances Henrietta Kilvert was a sister at the Devon House of Mercy whose brother was the famous diarist whose work was later published as ‘Kilvert’s Diary’. Frances was born at Hardenhuish Wiltshire in  1846. By 1901 she was a Sister of Mercy in London and she had moved to the Bovey Tracey house by 1911 where she was described as a teaching sister. This teachinpost was at the Church of England National School.  Frances died at the mother house in Clewer in 1929 when she was aged 83.

Frances Ruth Steward was a sister at the Mission House as listed on both the 1881 and 1891 Census. Through her work in the centre of the community she was well-known. As Sister Frances Ruth she had a memorial in the parish church which was donated by her friends (Fig. 5). Her brothers were in the Madras Army, one as a general and the other as a lieutenant general.

Figure 5. Memorial to Sr Frances Ruth. St Peter, St Paul, and St Thomas Beckett, Parish Church, Bovey Tracey. Frances Billinge 2019, by kind permission of the Vicar and Church Warden.


Isabel Whitley was the daughter of a steam engine mechanic. She was born in Leeds in 1892. She was listed as an inmate in 1911. After leaving the Devon House of Mercy she married an Australian in 1919 who was in England as part of the Navy in WWI. Sadly Isabel died in childbirth and her daughter only lived a few months. Her Australian husband returned home where he re-married and has living relatives. I am grateful to them  for providing me with this information.

Beatrice Tothill was born in Shaldon in 1894 and her father was a farm labourer.  In 1910 she had had an illegitimate son Francis George Tothill. On the 1911 Census Beatrice was a 16 year old inmate and general servant in the laundry at the Devon House of Mercy. Her son Francis ‘George’ Tothill was living with his grandparents Edwin and Emma Tothill at Sandygate, Kingsteignton. By this time Beatrice’s father was a clay miner. We do not know how long she stayed at the Devon House of Mercy but in 1917 Beatrice  married Edward Ellis Bowden and they went on to have four children. Beatrice died in Kingsteignton in 1971. I am grateful to someone with knowledge of this family who kindly sent me these details


What was the status of residential ‘visitors’ to the Devon House of Mercy. They are not listed on the census as inmates so could have been paying guests who needed support. One enquirer wonders if the institution was helping young widowed mothers. Do you have any information on this?


I would like to thank the Town Clerk of Bovey Tracey for his help in checking the Bovey Tracey Cemetery records to find Emma Hick’s grave.