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The angel of Stratford who casts a quiet light in Shakespeare’s church

Explore the life and work of a Victorian nurse who spread her benevolent influence throughout Warwickshire and beyond.

Martin Kenny
A close up of St Elizabeth stained glass window
Caring figure: A close-up of St Elizabeth in the stained glass window at Holy Trinity Church

The Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon is world renowned as the final resting place of William Shakespeare.

However, just a few yards away from his grave, in a working area of the church, there is a stained glass window that is not on public view. It depicts Emily Minet, another former resident of Stratford, who may now be little known but whose influence in protecting the poor and sick stood out in Victorian times. This month marks 125 years since Emily was buried at Evesham Road Cemetery in Stratford following a remarkable life that was cut short by illness at the age of 57.

The story starts in Funchel, Madeira, on July 27, 1835 when Emily was born into a family of wine merchants, the eldest of eight children.

Particularly bright as a child, she learnt the Portuguese alphabet before the age of two and was already reading Dickens novels in her early years. At the age of 18 she became a companion governess – essentially an accomplished home tutor – to the Paulo family at Blundeston village in Suffolk. However her life would change forever after a serious outbreak of malignant diphtheria overwhelmed the village’s medical practitioners.

Responding to the emergency, Emily and the Paulo family twice daily administered to these patients, providing medicine, wine and food.

This work exposed the Paulos and Emily to considerable risk and eventually resulted in the death of five of the family who succumbed to the disease. In his 1894 memoir of Emily Minet, the Reverend C.G. Gepp credits her efforts as leading to three lives being saved.

By 1872 Emily took the assignment of nursing in Stratford and quickly set about establishing the Children’s Hospital in Rother Street with the financial backing of the Marquis of Hertford.

At this venue she set up the College of Nursing to provide properly trained staff. Since arriving in town Emily had witnessed the conditions that many residents experienced and in the first year ensured that 2,727 visits were made to the homes of the sick poor.

When in 1877 there was an epidemic of Scarlet fever, Emily used her knowledge gained in Suffolk and set up an isolation unit at Copham’s Hill Farm on the outskirts of town at Bishopton. This ensured that there were no fatalities in the town. Through her fundraising a soup kitchen was set up at the Town Hall and the poorest residents were given a piece of beef at Christmas, a time when it was difficult for many labourers to provide for their families.

Emily remained modest about her work over 20 years as Superintendent of the Children’s Hospital and Nursing Home; I discovered that she listed herself simply as a trained nurse in the 1881 census.

The Reverend Gepp mentions in his book that the beds at the nursing home were always full and the nurses that she trained were in constant demand across the country and as far away as France. By 1892 the responsibilities of the role, which included night nursing and other work she had undertaken, began to take its toll upon her health, but although she was suffering she continued her work.

Emily’s death in July 1892 shocked many in the town and at her funeral there were huge numbers of mourners on the streets.

It is reported that as the funeral cortege made its way through Stratford on August 11, 1892, there was scarcely a house at which the blinds were not drawn or the shutters closed. Emily’s death had such an effect upon the poor that it was mainly their donations that would fund a stained glass window in her memory at the church where she worshipped. The Children’s Hospital and Nursing Home now hosts the Town Trust offices and the Stratford Arts House which attracts many of the top comedians and has been an entertainment venue for many years.

Visiting Holy Trinity Church it proved a challenge to find the window: it was necessary to consult a folder left out for visitors where I found details which listed the small altar alcove window in the choir vestry. Taking into account Shakespeare’s grave, a busy daily calendar and memorials and plaques to many notable Strafordians, it is not feasible for the church to open every area to the public. With the kind assistance of a volunteer guide, however, it was possible to open the door and take photographs of the memorial.

Reverend Gepp quotes from the Stratford Herald’s glowing account of how Emily, or Miss Minet, was regarded at the time the stained glass window took its place in the medieval church.

The report reads: “The unveiling of a memorial window in the Parish Church on Saturday last to the late Miss Emily Minet supplied further evidence of the great esteem in which that lady was held…No one but those acquainted with her unceasing efforts in relieving distress, wherever it was to be found in the town, can have the faintest conception of how much poverty was relieved through her instrumentality, of how much comfort was brought to many a distressed and famished home.

“She was a lady who never studied herself. The Institution over which she presided and the poor of the town claimed her first attention, and it mattered not how much work these duties exacted, she never flagged in her task of well-doing.”

Like so much history it was hidden away. Stratford is much more than just Shakespeare if you scratch the surface to look into the past.

she never flagged in her task of well-doing

A Biblical scene from the stained glass window at Holy Trinity Church
A Biblical scene from the stained glass window at Holy Trinity Church

Originally published on Much Ado Warwickshire. Republished with kind permission from the author.

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