Edith O’Gorman – The Escaped Nun of West Norwood


An imposing memorial in West Norwood Cemetery to Edith O'Gorman and her husband. copyright Carole Tyrrell
An imposing memorial in West Norwood Cemetery to Edith O’Gorman and her husband.
copyright Carole Tyrrell

I encountered The Escaped Nun on a cold November day as I was wandering in West Norwood Cemetery.  It’s one of London’s Magnificent Seven Victorian cemeteries and there’s always something interesting to be found.  The vegetation had died down and so it was an ideal time to look for forgotten gems.

This is presumably a 3D relief of Edith's husband William Auffray. Quite spooky as his eyes seem to follow you round. copyright Carole Tyrrell
This is presumably a 3D relief of Edith’s husband William Auffray. Quite spooky as his eyes seem to follow you round.
copyright Carole Tyrrell


I was walking through a clearing near the columbarium when I saw a large monument which had a broken column in top of it with an anchor carved on it and, lower down, a 3D bust of a middle-aged Victorian gentleman which faced me.  He stared at me and I stared back. However, I was a little unnerved as his eyes seemed to follow me.  But it was the epitaph below that caught my attention.  It read:


The epitaph that started it all - Edith O'Gorman - The Escaped Nun. Who wouldn't want to know more? copyright Carole Tyrrell
The epitaph that started it all – Edith O’Gorman – The Escaped Nun. Who wouldn’t want to know more?
copyright Carole Tyrrell




DIED 25TH MAY 1929






The Escaped Nun?  I was immediately intrigued and contacted Colin Fenn from the Friends of West Norwood Cemetery who very kindly set me off on my journey to find out more..


It was the story of a remarkable and controversial woman, the religious wars of the 19th century and a life full of drama and scandal on both sides of the Atlantic.


I found this online - what-when-how.com/new-jersey/ocean-county-observer-to-ogorman-edith-new-jersey
I found this online – what-when-how.com/new-jersey/ocean-county-observer-to-ogorman-edith-new-jersey

Edith O’Gorman, or Gorman, as she seems to have adapted her name at some point ,came from an Irish family who emigrated to the US and settled in Rhode Island.  She also may have originally been named Bridget or Biddie and became Edith, her middle name, at her baptism in 1870.  She was born on 20 August 1842 and, after being educated within a Protestant seminary, she received the calling to become a nun in August 1861 when she was 19..


On 1 October 1862 she entered St Elizabeth’s Convent, Madison, New Jersey and describes it as if she had died.  Six years later she ran away from the cloisters with $5, and set off on a new life.


Edith now had a new calling; to expose the truth about convent life and she did this in her best-selling book ‘The Trials and Persecutions of Miss Edith O’Gorman otherwise Sister Teresa de Chantal, of St Joseph’s Convent, Hudson, New Jersey’ which was first published in 1871.


It’s an amazing and often entertaining book to read as the pace and revelations never flag.  It was incredibly popular with many printings in the USA and abroad and was translated into several languages.   In it, Edith describes life behind convent walls which was anything but devotional.  She was bullied by older nuns and witnessed cruelty by them towards the orphans in their care.    However, on 16 July 1864 aged 22, Edith took her vows and was sent with two other sisters, Agnes and Josephine, to establish a new convent in St Joseph’s Parish, Jersey City, New Jersey.  Now Edith’s narrative gets into its stride as she reveals that priests are making money from parishioners paying them to say masses on their behalf and also the fate of many of the nuns.  They either left as Sister Agnes did, ended up in local asylums for the insane died or mysteriously disappeared.


A priest attempts to seduce her and eventually Edith runs away.    After taking refuge in  a  hotel she advertises for work as a governess and finds herself in a bordello.  She escapes again and, after some more adventures, she converts and becomes a Baptist.

After that she devoted the rest of her life to lecturing against Catholicism.  The rest of the book consists of reviews of her lectures.   Some of the book has the ring of truth because of what we now know about institutions such as the Magdalene Laundries for ‘fallen’ women and some orphanages.


Edith’s sensational book, which is still in print and available on amazon, entitled ‘Convent Life Unveiled’ has to be seen against the background of 19th century religious fervour.  Since Henry VIII founded the Church of England, Catholics had been side lined from public life and denied civil rights which included serving in Parliament ,owning all kinds of property and attending major universities such as Oxford and Cambridge. The cry of ‘No Popery’ was common and the same was true in the USA.


Anti-Catholic feelings of the time were spurred on by the popular press, novels and lurid exposes of life inside convents and monasteries.  They all shared common themes: secret tunnels connecting monasteries and convents, illicit affairs between nuns and monks and secret burial places for babies born to nuns.  There were other popular books on convent secrets which included Rebecca Reed’s ‘Six Months in a Convent.’ published in 1835 and Maria Monk;s ‘Awful Disclosures of the Hotel Dieu Nunnery of Montreal.’ which was also known as  ‘The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk.’  The latter has never been out of print.  However, there was one drawback; neither Rebecca or Maria had ever actually been nuns.


But Edith was the real deal.  She travelled the world delivering her lectures.  But it was a dangerous business.  Edith’s lectures were often attended by devout, protesting Catholics and would often end up in a riot or a serious brawl. She was also the victim of several assassination attempts as she was seen as someone who should be ‘done for.’  One bullet just missed as it passed through her hat.  In fact Edith claimed that there had been over 70 attempts made on her and her husband’s lives.  This may just mean that the opposition kept hiring assassins with bad eyesight.

I also found this online -www.courier.co.uk/nun-s-speech-sparked-riot/story-15120498-detail/story.html. This was story about Edith’s lecture in Kent causing a riot.

She married William Auffray on 17 June 1869 and they settled in England.  He was a Frenchman and rumoured to be a former priest who had resigned from the faith.


However, by 1915 she was penniless despite having sold 300, 000 copies of her book and undertaking a 15 year lecture tour with William.  After that, nothing more is heard.


But Edith could actually write and write well but she doesn’t seem to have written anything else.  If her book had been fiction I’m sure it would have sold even more copies.  The pace never slackens and I found myself turning pages faster and faster as each new peril or revelation leapt off the page.

Edith was a remarkable and resourceful woman who clearly believed in what she was doing and was not deterred by violence and threats.  She earned her own money and had the stamina to travel the world and spread the word.


Another view of the memorial - note the broken column and the anchor. copyright Carole Tyrrell
Another view of the memorial – note the broken column and the anchor.
copyright Carole Tyrrell

So now Edith rests in a corner of a Victorian cemetery with her husband’s bust keeping watch over her. Gone but not forgotten as long as there’s a passing visitor who reads her epitaph and thinks ‘

‘Why is she the Escaped Nun?’

With thanks to Colin Fenn, Friends of West Norwood Cemetery

Text and photos copyright Carole Tyrrell except for the 2 photos of Edith O’Gorman.



https://archive.org/details/conventlifeunvei00ogor   (this is the online copy of her book)


http://diaryofamadgardener.blogspot.co.uk/2010/03/escaped-nun.html  (this is a blog by someone who was inspired to write a book about her.


An afternoon with the dead and famous – Part 2 of a visit to Golders Green – the crematorium


The front entrance to the crematorium. Built in the style of a Northern Italian monastery. copyright Carole Tyrrell
The front entrance to the crematorium. Built in the style of a Northern Italian monastery.
copyright Carole Tyrrell

Spring was in the air at last as we gathered in the West Memorial Court to await our guide, Eric Willis. We were in extremely good company as we were surrounded by  Marc Bolan, Bernie Winters, Hughie Green, Norman Vaughan, Ronnie Scott and Keith Moon amongst others.   Sadly it was only their memorial plaques that were there. But it was like a trip down memory lane as you had to be of a certain vintage to remember some of them.

I had been expecting a drab, municipal building but the Crematorium is built in the style of a Northern Italian Lombardic monastery in warm red brick.  It looks out onto Hoop Lane and its semi detached houses and if you didn’t know what it was you could be forgiven for thinking that it was a large church.  Its tall campanile tower actually houses the crematorium  chimney.  The impressive cloisters, 240 feet in length,  are also filled with the memorials of the great and good.

The Crematorium is the oldest in London opened in 1902, 17 years after cremation was legalised and in response to a growing demand for cremations. Although the crematorium was completed in 1939, buildings were added whenever money became available. The land had been purchased for £6000 and the architect, Sir Ernest George, also designed Claridges Hotel in Mayfair.  It’s still privately run and, to date, has conducted over 328,052 cremations  with the ashes of 100,000 people scattered over the dispersal lawn in the grounds. It’s estimated that 2000+ creations take place there every year. The Crematorium  is Grade II listed with 3 columbariums, 3 chapels and a and Hall of Memory. All religions are welcome and as we were shown the Jewish shrine I spotted a small altar to an Indian deity.

A little shrine to an India deity in the cloisters.  copyright Carole Tyrrell
A little shrine to an India deity in the cloisters.
copyright Carole Tyrrell

However, the crematorium is also secular which means that the service and music are the decision of the friends and family of the deceased.  It also caters for atheists with a ‘communists corner’ where the ashes of numerous ex-communists are held.

The word columbarium comes from the Latin for dovecot or niche for sepulchural urn. The West and East Columbariums are built in the form of towers and had the appearance inside of a reading room with urns deposited on the shelves instead of books. They stretched up to the ceiling. But each one told their own story.  Bram Stoker, of Dracula fame, had a plain and simple urn. But the ornate urns to two victims from the Titanic disaster were especially poignant as their grandchildren had recently visited due to the recent centenary.  In the East Columbarium, Eric revealed that he places every moth or butterfly that was trapped and died inside the columbarium very neatly under Captain Thomas B Hanham RN’s  impressive bust.

In the Ernest George Columbarium Eric showed us the ballerina Anna Pavlova’s urn in a small alcove.  It was flanked by a ceramic swan and a a ballet dancer.  Sadly her ballet shoes had also been on display but had recently been stolen and so, as a result, security had had to be tightened. And then we moved onto Sigmund Freud’s magnificent and large Grecian urn on top of a matching column surrounded by flowers. Please note that since my visit  Freud’s beautiful urn has been smashed.  I don’t think that it was a Freudian slip.

Afterwards we visited the West chapel which can seat 200 people and had a beautiful marble plaque to the Maharajah of Cooch Bahar and his family.  Eric then led us into the crematorium itself to see the business of reducing the dead to ashes with the staff patiently answering our questions and dispelling various myths about the process.

The 12 acres of grounds are beautifully kept and the crocus lawn in Spring is renowned. Sadly, we had just missed this splendid sight and, despite an exhaustive and informative tour, we ran out of time to explore them. Instead we admired the ornamental lily pond by the Victoria Cross memorial on which 2 mallard ducks paddled near the tea rooms. There are 14 holders of the Victoria Cross who are commemorated on the memorial who have been cremated at Golders Green.  We didn’t see the Marc Bolan Society’s gift of a bench with white swans as armrests.  They gather on 16 September every year to remember the singer and cosmic elf’s death in 1977. We also missed seeing the bronze statue, called ‘Into the Silent Land’ of a young girl being lifted heavenwards by a mysterious draped figure.  Apparently, at its previous site within the grounds, it had scared a staff member so much as it loomed out of the morning mists, it had had to be moved elsewhere in the grounds.  Eric showed us photos of the statue from his own collection together with some of his own paintings and his affection for the Crematorium was obvious.

Golders Green is well worth a visit or two  as there is so much to see and appreciate. My thanks to the very knowledgeable  and entertaining Eric Willis, and Golders Green Crematorium for their hospitality.  Even if we were, at times, reduced to celebrity spotting  as famous names leapt out at us at every turn.

I visited the Crematorium in 2013 and although I’ve always intended to return as there was still much to see such as the mausolea including the Philipson Family mausoleum designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens and the second pond but haven’t managed it yet.  Well worth a trip if you’re in London.

Copyright text and photos Carole Tyrrell





Silently slumbering in suburbia with a pebble for remembrance – Part 1 of a visit to Golders Green, London

Golders Green Jewish cemetery

I was in Hoop Lane, Golders Green for an organised visit to Golders Green Crematorium which had been organised by the Friends of Nunhead Cemetery.  But I had arrived early and so decided to explore the Jewish cemetery that was opposite its gates. Golders Green has a large Jewish community and so I wasn’t surprised to find such a large cemetery.  I’ve never visited one before and thought that it would be an interesting contrast to the Crematorium.

The Jewish Cemetery is an imposing, large space, bordered on three sides by suburbia and on the fourth the Lane.    It’s owned jointly by the West Synagogue of British Jews  and the Spanish & Portuguese Jews Congregation and managed on their behalf.  The first burial was in 1897 and it’s still in use today.

When I visited I noticed that in one large section, the East side,  that all the tombstones were horizontal and on the West side that they were all upright.   It wasn’t until doing the research for this piece that I discovered that the East Side belongs to the Spanish and Portuguese Jews and the West Side uprights are the province of the West London Synagogue.

The cemetery is one of the few London Sephardic Jewish cemeteries and this is a form of Judaism particular to Spanish and Portuguese Jews.  There are some very well know names buried here which include Jacqueline du Pre the cellist, Jack Rosenthal the playwright, Marjorie Proops the doyenne of agony aunts and Erich Segal author of the tear-jerking 1970’s best seller, ‘Love Story’.    Although I didn’t have much time to explore it fully I did find two famous names inscribed on a horizontal tombstone – Saatchi and Saatchi.

Two familiar names from the world of advertising and art. copyright Carole Tyrrell
Two familiar names from the world of advertising and art.
copyright Carole Tyrrell

The cemetery also contains 24 Commonwealth Service Personnel  graves here which are maintained by the  Commonwealth War Graves Commission.   There’s 10 from the First World War and 14 from the Second World War.  I didn’t see them on this visit but next time I will make sure that I have more time to look round.

Near the entrance I noticed a bowl on a stand which contained small stones and pebbles. These are for visitors to place on their loved one’s grave.   It’s part of the Jewish faith and it’s customary for  people to leave  small stone on a grave.  I had already noticed several placed on various graves as I’d walked around the cemetery.     The protocol is for the visitor to position the stone on the grave using his or her left hand.  This demonstrates to other visitors of family members  that a grave has been recently visited and that the deceased hasn’t been forgotten.

There is a small building just inside the cemetery, near the entrance, which contains two halls for burial services but it wasn’t open when I visited.    It seemed a very plain cemetery without many floral tributes in evidence but I always find it fascinating how other cultures  and faiths bury and remember their dead.

I visited here in 2013 and despite my intentions to return I haven’t done so – yet.

©text and photographs Carole Tyrrell


Symbol of the Month – The Spring of Life is Broken

A unique symbol in Nunhead Cemetery - a carriage spring. copyright Carole Tyrrell
A unique symbol in Nunhead Cemetery – a carriage spring.
copyright Carole Tyrrell

This is one of the most intriguing and baffling symbols to be found in any cemetery.  Visitors are mystified as to its meaning and inspiration and there has been a lengthy discussion about it recently on a cemetery related Facebook page.

It’s tucked away in Nunhead Cemetery and, despite being given directions by Robert Reinhardt, a Facebook friend, I couldn’t find it.  He had posted images of it online and I was immediately intrigued.  But I couldn’t locate it despite making several visits.

But, as luck would have it, I was in Nunhead Cemetery again, looking for another memorial altogether when there it was, hiding in plain sight.

Epitaph on Catherine Cook's tombstone - beloved wife of James Cook. copyright Carole Tyrrell
Epitaph on Catherine Cook’s tombstone – beloved wife of James Cook.
copyright Carole Tyrrell

It’s a memorial to Catherine Cook, beloved wife of James Cook as it says on the epitaph, with the motto ‘The Spring of Life is broken’ and   the carving above it with a lovely border of carved ivy leaves  representing ‘evergreen’ or ‘eternal.’

But let’s digress for a moment.  This is a well carved leaf spring which is one of the earliest forms of suspension in a wheeled vehicle. Leonardo da Vinci used them in his own design for a self-propelled car.   The one of Mrs Cook’s tombstone is an example of a multi-leaf spring in which leaf springs of varying lengths have been stacked on top of each other, sometimes up to 20 at a time, to enable the vehicle’s load to spread more widely.


I found the above diagram of a leaf spring online on various sites and it explains how it works.

But why is it depicted on an obviously much missed wife’s tombstone?

My own theory, and it is only my theory  is that it’s a variant on the  broken column.

This is an example of a broken column from Nunhead Cemetery.

copyright Carole Tyrrell
copyright Carole Tyrrell


The column isn’t the result of vandalism but has been deliberately created like this.  It indicates that the departed, often a male, was the head of the house and now the support of the family, or its backbone, had gone.

So I feel that this could be a female version.  Mrs Cook was obviously the support to her husband and family in that the suspension, the object that made the family load easier to manage, has gone.

Since finally discovering it, I’ve come to admire it as a unique and affectionate tribute to a much loved woman.

You are completely free to disagree and to offer your own interpretation and I’d be very interested to receive them.

Text and photos copyright Carole Tyrrell