Happy Birthday Mary Carpenter, amazing social reformer

Charcoal burning in fire bowl
Our own charcoal for sale!
March 31, 2021

Happy Birthday Mary Carpenter, amazing social reformer

A sketch of Mary Carpenter

An ‘oosful’ girl

Todays blog says Happy Birthday to Mary Carpenter; amazing social reformer, abolitionist, educator, suffragist (and secret feminist). Mary was born in Exeter 3rd April 1807 and she grew into a fascinating person. She was the eldest child of a famous Bristol Unitarian Minister, Lant Carpenter and his wife Anna. Mary was a slightly unusual child and was very earnest and thoughtful.  When Mary was just a little girl she insisted everyone should call her ‘Miss Carpenter’.  Amazingly this rule even applied to her own parents.  In addition she liked to be useful, or ‘oosful’ as she would say in her childish way.  Despite being less than 10 she took the role of eldest of six very seriously.  Above all she liked everything to be very correct and proper, and this attitude carried on throughout her life.

Miss Carpenter, An educated child

Old picture of a slum building

Slum area of Georgian Bristol

Luckily Mary was well educated, which was a result of being born into a privileged position into a family who really valued knowledge. Unusually for a 19th century born girl she learned both Latin and Greek.  In addition she also studied geology, natural history, sciences and art.  Thankfully Mary’s mother Anna, who was a school teacher, encouraged her daughter to be an excellent student.  Throughout her life she loved to write letters and poetry. In addition to this her father Lant was part of a circle of important intellectuals.  Therefore he also encouraged his young daughter to enjoy literature and philosophy.  As well as her formal educational skills, Mary became a talented painter and she kept this hobby up all her life. Sadly as a child she suffered a number of bouts of sickness and her love of writing, painting and collecting all helped her recovery.

Teacher and thinker

At only 22 Mary helped her mother set up a school for girls and her marvellous education and skills made her a popular teacher.  In addition she went on to also supervise an inner city Sunday school in Lewins Mead.  This was when she began to really understand the inner city poverty.  At this point she begins to understand that she should be fighting for social reform and starts to formulate her plans.

Around 1823 Mary meets a number of people who influenced her life including Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Arnos Vale’s most famous resident. Plus American Dr Joseph Tuckerman a family friend stayed with them and he spoke regularly on moral improvement of the working classes.   Due to these influences. Mary begins to really think about campaigning to improve the lives of the poor children of Bristol.

Mary the Social reformer

The Red Lodge a Large Georgian building in the centre of Bristol with red door

The Red Lodge Museum, Park Row, Bristol. Former home and school of Mary Carpenter

From this point on Mary began to work on a range of issues. She campaigned for the abolition of slavery, universal suffrage, improving the lives of street children, educational reform.  Her work in schools meant Mary became involved in penal reform in both the UK and the world.  She was shocked by the negative effect prison had on young people she met in Bristol.   Unsurprisingly Mary worked tirelessly and during her life.  If fact she not only campaigned but actually also got involved in a number of projects including:

  • 1830’s -created a series of paintings which were sold to support the abolitionists in America,
  • 1844 – published a book of prayers and meditations
  • 1846 – setting up a Ragged or Free School
  • 1849 -writing a book on free schools
  • 1851- set up a conference on improving the lives of deprived children in 1851.  Unsurprisingly she also wrote to parliament about reforming prison for young offenders
  • 1854 -Set up a firls reform school at the Red Lodge
  • 1858 – due to the popularity of the first school then opens another
  • 1866 – inspired by the work of the Raja , she travels to India to help improve the lives of Indian women.  She begins to campaign on their behalf and sets up free schools for girls in India
  • 1868 subsequently publishes a book on her trip to India.  Queen Victoria invites her to the palace after reading the book.

    Mary Carpenter as an older white Victorian lady with bonnet and ringlets

    Mary Carpenter portrait photograph by C. Vass Bark, in the possession of Professor J. E. Carpenter

Secret feminist

In spite of all her various campaigns,  why do we call her secret feminist?  After all Mary did believe women’s right to vote. Probably correctly, Mary felt that if people knew of her desire for universal suffrage then it might negatively impact her other work.  Unfortunately Mary was worried might be considered too radical. Unsurprisingly she realised without funding and support she could not improve the lives of destitute children.  Consequently if her support were well known she believed she could lose support for these causes.

Amazingly these are just a few of Mary’s varied and impressive achievements. Unusually the work she did particularly on the lives of India women and the improvements to children’s education and penal reform still make an impact today.

Sadly Mary died in her 70th year and is buried in a Unitarian section of Arnos Vale Cemetery with her sister Anna and her servant Roseanna.

A simple burial

Mary Carpenters grave at Arnos Vale, grey stone cross on a plinth

The grave marker of Mary Carpenter in Coombe Bottom

Unsurprisingly Mary is one of our most well-known burials in Arnos Vale Cemetery after Raja Ram Mohan Roy.  Even today many people still visit this famous Bristolians grave.  Therefore in April we say Happy Birthday Mary Carpenter, our all round indomitable Victorian lady. Interestingly despite her local and national  importance she is buried under a very simple stone cross.

Say Happy Birthday Mary Carpenter

Luckily you can visit her graves in the woods of Coombe Bottom, which is on an accessible path.  If you would like to visit her, then download a map and take a wander for free in our beautiful landscape and say Happy Birthday Mary Carpenter!

Open to all

Arnos Vale Cemetery is a charity and is run by a charitable Trust called Arnos Vale Cemetery Trust (AVCT). We do not receive local or central authority funding. Day to day, we rely on a small team and dedicated volunteers to maintain the space. So every donation you make counts toward to keeping Arnos Vale open to all.

Comments are closed.