Catherine McAuley Founded of the Congregation of the Sisters of Mercy in Dublin, Ireland in 1831
She was requested to set up a convent here in Bermondsey by Bishop Griffiths at the request of Reverend Peter Butler in 1838 to help the sick poor and to undertake the education of the children of the area.
The area was settled by many Irish people fleeing the Potato Famines in Ireland prior to the Great Potato Famine of 1845. Those families with some money managed to start a new life in America or came to England via St Saviour’s Dock. Those who were destitute had no choice when they left the ship at St Saviour’s Dock but to settle in this area and so the community grew at an astonishing rate.
Most men worked on the docks, which casual and irregular labour and others were attracted to work on building the new railway from London Bridge to Greenwich. Houses were overcrowded and the area was extremely poor. A group of wealthy volunteers were already helping Father Peter Butler to educate the children of the area but he realised that a more permanent community was needed to give security and continuity to the project.
Mother Clare Moore was chosen by Catherine McAuley to be the first Mother Superior of the Convent of the Sisters of Mercy in Bermondsey. She was born into a Protestant family but several years after her father died the family converted. It was felt that this background made her particularly sensitive and able to deal with non-Catholics. After working as a tutor for Catherine’s nieces and cousins Clare attended a finishing school for a year before she entered Catherine McAuley’s congregation.
Mother Clare and the first sisters worked with the volunteers in the school in East Lane until a new school in the Convent grounds was ready in 1840. The demand for places grew over the years until on the convent grounds infant girls and boys and separate junior boys and girls were educated. (The sisters did not teach boys over the age of 7 at this time so this was undertaken by lay teachers). In September 1859 a private school was also opened on convent grounds which continued into the 1900’s.
By 1912 the number of pupils was double the standard accepted by the London County Council for the size of the premises and a new site had to be found immediately if the school was to keep going.
A site was found behind some cottages in George Row and Hickman’s Folly. It was a derelict piece of ground containing some broken down houses and disused tan pits. A tannery previously occupied this site and now it was a quagmire and a rubbish heap. The Sisters of Mercy struggled to find the money to buy the land.
Mother Camillus Dempsey drew up a plan and showed it to her brother, Charles Dempsey, who was an architect. Charles Dempsey approved and then built the school at cost price.
This was no easy task. The area was marsh land with underground streams and frequently flooded. The pits for the tannery required this to aid the tanning process. This meant the foundations needed to be secured by piling and filling in with concrete 20 feet down. The old pipe work needed to be cut off to ensure the basement did not flood each time the river was high!
The school was eventually completed in spring 1913 at the entire expense of the Sisters of Mercy, Bermondsey. Bishop Amigo blessed the new building and the Mixed Infants and Junior Boys took possession on 14th April 1913. The school was named St Joseph’s because the sisters had prayed to St. Joseph for the wherewith to provide the school. Itwas considered a ‘show school’ at the time and people travelled from around the country and even overseas to see it.
Mother Camillus Dempsey undertook this difficult task at the age of 81 and was able to enjoy the first three years of its life until she died in 1916.
In 1939 the school was evacuated to Lewes with senior boys from St Michael’s and Senior girls from St Mary’s. These two schools were destroyed by enemy action and in 1942 St Joseph’s RC Primary School was opened as an Emergency School.
After the war it was left to accommodate all Catholic children and was known as an All Age Mixed RC School.
However, on 8th June 1949, re-organisation took place. The senior boys went to St Michael’s and the senior girls to All Saints. The Primary children from All Saints joined what has since been called St Joseph’s RC Primary School.
To bring the history of the school up to date, St Joseph’s has continued to be a successful Catholic primary school for generations of Bermondsey children. Many of our parents are past pupils.
The continuing success of the school has led to many achievements; St Joseph’s has obtained Beacon status and currently highlighted on the Ofsted web site as a ‘particularly successful school.’ In addition, the school has achieved ‘Healthy Eating Status’.
Finally, to bring this early 20th century building into the 21st century extensive building work is taking place. This will ensure we can not only comfortably accommodate our pupils but allows us to provide resources and space for the broad, balanced, exciting, technologically based Curriculum .