Introducing our Authors: Mary Howitt (b.1888)
Mary Howitt was born on the 5th of December, 1888, to James Howitt and Mary Ann (previously Hauxwell nee Sharp), in Sunderland, Country Durham. She was the 11th of 14 children, and shows her love for all of them in her memoir. Her nine-page memoir, though untitled, I have come to find out she had written it for a talk on Woman’s Hour, the BBC radio programme that first aired in 1946 and still exists now on Radio 2. From her memoir, I was introduced to an intelligent and very driven woman, who had a keen passion for education and social work. Although there is no title, she outlines each part of her life with a sub-heading. When I finished reading through her memoir I couldn’t believe that was it. In nine pages she outlines an interesting, inspirational and highly accomplished life. I thought, surely there is more! Here we have an independent and intelligent woman, who despite the era in which she lived and worked, went on to be a well-travelled geographer, teacher and Soroptimist.
First founded in California, 1926, the word ‘Soroptimist’ was coined from the Latin word, soror meaning sister, and optima meaning best. And so Soroptimist is perhaps best interpreted as ‘the best for women’. Soroptimist International primarily seeks to transform lives ‘through education, empowerment and by enabling opportunities.’ (N.pag) Mary joined the Soroptimist Sunderland club in 1938 and later became president in 1944. Her legacy with the international Women’s organization that supports women in education, has lasted through the century with her great niece, Kathleen Tuddenham, being president of the same club from 2014-2015.
When we look back at the early 20th century, particularly between 1920 and 1950, we see the amount of limitations that were put on women in the workplace. She lived during a time when the majority of women were not allowed to vote and when her educational expectations were limited to primary education. It was the World Wars that gave Howitt more opportunities and Howitt achieved much in her life, and didn’t let these original limitations stop her. Like all our authors however, she did come from humble beginnings.
The beginning of her memoir is titled ‘The Howitt Family In England And Australia’. She grew up in the village of New Herrington, County Durham and she first described her home as ‘the pit village of New Herrington’ (1). This is a term used for a mining village, her father was a foreman carpenter in the mines and their income came from the mining industry. During the early 20th century mining was much more prominent than it was today. Although it only made 10% of the workforce at its peak in the United Kingdom, it produced nearly 50% of all jobs the time Mary was growing up.
Mary had six sisters and five brothers, and spoke of her childhood home with much love and affection, gathering snippets of memory here and there of the farm that her mother tended to, the two pigs and the fifty hens, how ‘the girls had their hair attended to and kept pretty by Tommy the Barber’ (1). She then went briefly through her family growing up and saying how her family became partially spread between England and Australia, two of her brothers emigrating there and starting families. Mary herself emigrated when she retired from being a geographer/headmistress in 1949.
Her father, James Howitt, seemed to be the biggest influence on her while growing up as she said, ‘My father was very particular about two things for all of us – cleanliness and education’ (1). Her father provided for all 14 of his children and made sure every single one of them had an education, including Mary. Her beginnings seem extremely happy and the family very close knit, a quote that I found very telling about the closeness of her family was illustrated when she said, ‘When a new baby could sit on father’s knee, the other one was promoted to a seat on the form and the oldest of the formers moved to a chair.’ (2)
Back then, boys still had more opportunities in work and education than girls, so it does not surprise me when, introducing her family, Mary mainly focuses on the achievements of her brothers, those who went on to be carpenters like their father, and one in particular, Adam, whose craftsmanship can be seen at St. Judes Church in Bowral, Australia. She said, ‘this exquisite piece of sacred work is a fitting memorial to their dedication’. (2) The success that her older brothers, instead of dampening Mary’s spirits about her own prospects, gave her the drive to pursue the career that she wanted. Thus ending her first chapter about her family beginnings.
‘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
Howitt, Mary. ‘Untitled’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, 1.355, TS, PP.9 (c. 3,500 words). Brunel University Library.