Mary Howitt (1888-1983): Home and Family

There were ‘no bounds’ to what a ‘mere ordinary’ father might do for the sake of his children’ (Strange, 2015, 1)


The Howitt family was a large and prosperous one but also a complicated one. James and Mary-Ann Howitt both had children from previous marriages. The various siblings she had confused me as I kept getting different numbers.  James had two children to a Jane Swales, Jessie and Emma May. From the dates of their death I have determined that James’s first wife Jane, died in childbirth and Emma May died exactly two months later, on the 8th of July, 1871, and are now buried together in Sunderland Cemetery.

Although it is still unclear how Mary-Ann’s first husband died, she had three children from her first marriage, 2 of which are Robert Sharp and William Sharp Hauxwell. Below is a near-complete family photo dated between 1901-1903, in their Sunday best.

Mary Howitt – Front row, far right.

Looking more closely at her memoir, Mary never went into detail about the emotions that she felt for her father. Instead, she showed that love that she had for him and vice versa from all the things that he did for the family. She showed he was a ‘family man’ through and through, and not the ‘absent father’ stereotype that so many find easier to believe when she says, ‘My father called at the school every afternoon to bring us home and always had one on his shoulder’ (1). When everyone had grown up and left, she said how happy he was when some of his children came back, saying, ‘Father had been worried about them and was happy when his family life began again.’ (2)

Her memoir is a testament to what Julie-Marie Strange wanted to represent in her book, Fatherhood and The British Working Class, 1865-1914, where she quotes Carolyn Steedman saying that, ‘history needed to consider how fathers mattered and to interrogate father-child relationships, ‘not just a longing that they might be different’’ . The relationship that James Howitt had with his children appeared to be iron-clad, and his dedication to giving his children an education and good upbringing shows in Mary’s life and the decisions she made.

Mary in her home, Bowral, Australia.

Although Mary spent the remainder of her life in Australia, emigrating there in 1949,  she was always spoken of highly in the family, being the only one not to marry and instead devoting her life to education and social work (Soroptimist). An inevitable question to ponder, is why did she choose not to marry and start a family of her own? The answer was simple. The majority of women in work, including female teachers like Mary, were immediately dismissed once they were married, as being a wife, and eventual mother, was considered a full-time job.

James Howitt was very fortunate in his work, being in a highly-skilled managerial position allowed him more time with his family and also allowed them to live in comfort, as Mary writes that the house was large and ‘rent free and he also was allowed a ton of coal a fortnight so we always had warm rooms and plenty of hot water’ (1). Unlike most working-class fathers, James had the small benefits that allowed him to have a more solid place within the family, rather than being awkwardly on the threshold due to demanding work hours.

Her mother, Mary-Ann, isn’t talked about as much as her father. Mary mentions how she grew vegetables in the garden and had fifty hens and two pigs. Informed by one of Mary’s descendants, it was mentioned that Mary had a falling out with her sister Ethel and when her mother died, she left the house to Ethel, even though it also belonged to Mary. This piece of information made Mary’s life all the more real to me, no family is completely harmonious, and even though her memoir was written after the estrangement of her sister, Mary did not fail to include her.

Mary – right, with her sisters, Ethel and Harriet, in their V.A.D uniforms. 1915.

Home and family don’t make many other appearances in her memoir, being instead very focused on her work in education, travel and war work. Though she does mention towards the end of her memoir, about the effect of  The World Wars. As we know, it took many sons and husbands and brothers, and the effect it had on Howitt’s family is only shown once when she talks about the loss of her brother in law, Thomas Percy Hammond, who ‘was an officer in the British Army in Italy when a sniper killed him in 1917’ (9). In her last Chapter, ‘Travel Experiences’ which I will mention in a later post, she says how , ‘It was sad seeing the graves, miles of them and we put gladioli on Percy’s and said a prayer.’ (9).

Works Cited:

Strange, J.-M. (2015) ‘Man and home: the inter-personal dynamics of fathers at home’, in Fatherhood and the British Working Class, 1865–1914:. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, .

‘Mary Howitt’ in John Burnett, David Vincent and David Mayall (eds) The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography 1790-1945, 3 vols. (Brighton: Harvester, 1984, 1987, 1989): 1:355

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