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Magazine of the Chartered Institute of Journalists

How a runaway nun in a sleepy Suffolk village became a national sensation

This was one of the most exciting and talked about stories of 1909.

It began with a brilliantly written report in the Ipswich Evening Star and Daily Herald- the local evening paper for Ipswich and surrounding villages in South Suffolk.

This lively and news-worthy journalism would eventually materialise into a top-selling book.

Image of the St Mary Abbey convent in East Bergholt as it looked in 1909.
The Benedictine St Mary Abbey convent in East Bergholt in 1909 with its high walls. Scanned from public domain book enclosure.

Margaret Mary Moult’s ‘The Escaped Nun: The Story Of Her Life” would become a huge global success for Cassell’s People’s Library series.

Thousands of copies were sold in Britain, USA, Canada and Australia and other English speaking countries.

Inside pages of ‘The Escape Nun, The Story of her Life’ by Margaret Mary Moult, including her photographic portrait in Edwardian dress.
Dame Maurus, or her real name Margaret Mary Moult struggled to live the life of a Benedictine nun. Her ‘escape’ became the talk of the country during 1909. Image: Scanned from public domain book by Tim Crook.

Selling at 1 old British shilling (5 pence in current money) it would be printed in nine different editions before the year was out.

The Evening Star reported the story on 24th February 1909 under the startling headlines: ‘Runaway Nun; Escape from East Bergholt Convent; Struggle with Pursuers.’

The Runaway Nun story in the Ipswich Evening Star and Daily Herald February 1909. Image: Scanned from original. British Library.

How did Sister Madge Moult slip away from the Convent and walk the several miles in darkness to Manningtree Station?

When there, how was she able to obtain a train ticket to Liverpool Street so she could successfully reach London and find sanctuary with her family in Camden?

When she got there it was reported she was ‘utterly broken down’ by the experience.

The village of East Bergholt has been all agog during the past week over the escape of a charming young nun from the Abbey of St Benedict, which is one of the most interesting features of the place. The Lady Abbess Heggen, A Belgian lady, presides over the destinies of about sixty nuns, and during her absence on Monday the 15th inst. one of them, Sister Madge Moult, the daughter of an American lady, took “French leave,” quitting the convent, where she has spent the last seven years of her life, without saying “good-bye.” [From Evening Star]

The architecture of the old convent is still very much the same as it was in 1909 with the so-called high walls, supposedly built to keep the Benedictine nuns on the inside, still intact. Image: Tim Crook.

When it became clear that Sister Madge had fled, a wagonette was ordered out with two sisters on board in the hope of overtaking her on her three mile journey to Manningtree station.

…Sister Madge, in her nun’s dress, was hurrying on foot to the station, which is about three miles distant, and on the way she passed several people, who were struck by her earnest demeanour. One, an East Bergholt tradesman, who was driving home, told his wife in joke that he had passed an escaped nun, and that he had a good mind to turn his horse round and give her a lift, as she looked tired. He found out afterwards how true a guess he had made.’ [From Evening Star]

The convent is now known as ‘Old Hall’ and is home for the Old Hall Community of adults, families and children. It is set in 70 acres of scenic Constable countryside. Image: Tim Crook.

The Scene at Manningtree Station

When within about 60 yards from the Station, on the Great Eastern Railway private road, the two nuns in pursuit jumped from their vehicle and seized the fugitive, who screamed and clung to the railings, declaring, amid heart-broken sobs, that she would not go back to the nunnery. She was dragged to the wagonette, and undoubtedly would have been carried off but for the intervention of a railway porter, who pointed out that the pathway was private property, and that the young lady’s liberty must be respected. The search party of nuns and the escaped girl, with her dripping and mud-bedraggled nun’s habit, presenting a pathetic figure, were conducted to a waiting-room, where a consultation with the stationmaster (Mr Swan) took place. The nuns tried all they knew to persuade her to go back, but failed, the runaway stoutly refusing to return. [From Evening Star]

The station-master lent Margaret 10 shillings, the cost of a single ticket to London.

She was locked into the waiting-room all by herself for her own protection, and station staff stood guard until the 1.20 a.m. up mail train to London arrived to take her to Liverpool Street.

In a later media opportunity to promote Margaret’s autobiography her mother returned to the station and she was photographed paying back Mr Swan for the generous loan to her daughter of the train fare.

The family turned this extraordinary story into an Edwardian scandal and cause célèbre with Margaret becoming an early news event media celebrity.

Her sister Maud Moult was well known on the provincial stage as ‘Vivien Storm.’

All that was missing was a thriving and competitive film and television industry to bid for the rights to her book.

Margaret was known in the convent as ‘Dame Maurus.’

Her first person account was far more dramatic than the earlier third person media reporting.

The striking cover of the autobiographical account by Margaret Mary Moult which became a bestselling publishing sensation in 1909. Image: Scanned from public domain book cover by Tim Crook.

In the chapter titled ‘Pursuit’ she took up the story after the waggonette chasing her caught up with her near the station buildings.

She heard a voice called out “Why, there’s Dame Maurus!”

I looked, and saw Henry driving, and Sisters Philippa and Justina, two of the out sisters, or fortresses of the hospice. These sisters are not bound to enclosure, and can go out on messages when commanded by the Abbess. They are not vowed, but make a simple promise of obedience to the Abbess.

Sister Justina had seen me first, and Henry immediately sprang down. I began to run, but I had no strength. It was all spent.

I dropped my parcels in the road, and tried again to run. I had only taken a few steps when Henry caught me, and held me in his arms.

I entreated him to let me go, which he did. I managed to get to the railings on the opposite side of the road, when Sisters Philippa and Justina came up.

At once they began pulling me, one trying to release my fingers from the fence, and the other bending down, put her arms round my knees, and tried her utmost to get me off my feet. I had the strength of despair. They called to Henry to help them, but he merely looked on.

The forbidding entrance to the convent main building that Sister Madge was trying to escape from in 1909. Image: Tim Crook

I began to cry, but never released my hold on the fence. They pulled desperately, and I began to scream “Help ! Help ! Oh, help me !”

I never thought my cries would be heard, for I had no strength to shout loud.

Sister Philippa told me to stop screaming and making a scandal.

“As long as you pull me,” I answered. “I shall scream. You are making the scandal, not I. If you let me go, no one will notice me, but if you pull me and I scream, they will know I am running away, and that you are trying to take me back against my will.”

She did not answer, but pulled at me with renewed force.

I screamed and cried at the same time.

“Oh, help me ! Help me !” and then some porters, one having a lantern, came from the station toward me.

The London bound platform of Manningtree Station in 2013, which looks very much the same as it did in 1909 where station staff protected Sister Madge and loaned her the rail fare to London so she could find sanctuary with her mother and family. Image: Geof Sheppard. Creative Commons 4.0.

What an amazing story.

The book was, no doubt, ghost-written with Margaret, but we don’t know who helped turn it into such a thrilling narrative.

It is now out of copyright and could be the basis of a truly magnificent film or television drama series.

A screen-writer would have much fun of Sister Philippa and Justina’s entreaties ‘ What will you think of this night’s work when you are on your death-bed? You are damning your soul! What will you do when you stand before the judgment seat of God?’