Mary Carpenter

by Carla Contractor

Mary was the eldest of 6 children of Lant Carpenter, Unitarian minister of Lewinʼs Mead Meeting in Bristol. Exceptionally well educated at her fatherʼs Academy at 2 Great George Street, Clifton, she studied subjects such as Physics, Botany, Zoology, Maths, Greek and Latin. She and her family lived in the house and were a devoted family, especially Mary who adored her father.

She became a teacher in her Fatherʼs boys school and then, with her two sisters after Lantʼs death, in her Motherʼs boarding school in Whiteladies Road. Her sister Susan married Robert Gaskell, brother of the novelist Elizabeth Gaskell. The school closed in 1848, freeing Mary to devote herself to reforming the child penal system and establishing reformatories, inspired by the work of Joseph McKerman of Boston.

She first brought the concept of 'Ragged Schools' to Bristol and set up her school in the worst slums in the city along the dockside, for the very poorest and wild children there. Next she established a Day Industrial School for boys at Kingswood in John Wesley's old school buildings and would walk there and back daily to teach and supervise. Finally she bought the Red Lodge in Park Row, Clifton for the first girl's reformatory in the country. She educated the girls, all of whom had convictions, for a better life and work.

She then determined to reform the penal system which punished vagrants and young thieves and put children as young as seven into adult prisons and wrote several analyses of the educational and penal abuses of the day affecting “The children of the perishing and dangerous classes”. Slowly she succeeded in raising the age of child criminals and established a climate of change which brought in many later reforms. Free day schools were state-aided by 1861 and Day Industrial Schools by 1876. In her work she was supported by the Unitarian Matthew Davenport Hill and financially by Lady Byron who gave generously to Kingswood and helped purchase the Red Lodge and its house where Mary lived. Frances Power Cobbe, another prominent Victorian feminist and reformer, worked for a time at the Red Lodge.

In 1866 she wrote "The last days on England of Rajah Rammohun Roy". She had been greatly impressed by him in 1833 when he visited Bristol, but he alas died in a friend's house in Stapleton. He called himself a Hindu Unitarian and had been a remarkable reformer in India. Mary went to India four times between 1866 and 1876 - an elderly but determined woman alone. She went to press the Raj government to set up girls school and reform the prison system. She established the National Indian Association, acting as its journal's editor for ten years.

In 1845 she compiled an ecumenical collection of Morning and Evening Meditations which sold very well in America and Britain. Just before she died she collected nearly one hundred of her poems plus fifteen Reflections and Memorials as Voices of the Spirit. Both gave insights into the mind and religious beliefs of a very private and busy woman. Mary did not marry; surely her life was too occupied, but adopted a young girl, Rosanne, in 1858.

Mary died in her sleep at the Red Lodge on 14/15th June 1877 and is buried at Arnos Vale Cemetery, where her grave has recently been cleaned and restored. Her funeral showed Bristol's appreciation of her selfless life and dedication to "Poor and perishing children". It was attended by enormous numbers from all denominations and classes (the cortège was a half mile long) plus many of those children whose lives she so helped. Her bust and epitaph are in the North Transept of the cathedral on College Green.