Mary Howitt (1888-1983): Life and Labour

‘Mary has had a very full life, and her happiest times were spent when amongst young people’ (Bowral Newspaper, 1978)

Mary’s life and work played out very differently than that of her brothers and sisters. As she came from a mining family, many of her brothers went into a trade, specifically carpentry. Mary however, stuck to education, and commenced teaching in the slums of Sunderland. This would go on to define Mary’s life and her position as a woman in the early 20th century. David Vincent found that the less literate an autobiographer was, ‘the greater his preoccupation with the details of his life as a worker’. In Mary’s case, this really can’t apply. Her work involved self-improvement and the improvement of others.

Sunderland Slums

Many of the children and adults Mary taught were receiving parish relief. In a Survey done on the ‘Paupers of Sunderland’ in 1918, right around the time Mary started teaching, 272 people were in the workhouse, 139 of these names were children. The inmates were provided with work in spinning and weaving, the pauper children were also employed in the manufacturing of pins. Many people who end up in the workhouse have very little education or other support. In consequence, their life becomes the workhouse. By teaching in the slums, Mary gave many an opportunity to self-improve and therefore not end up in the workhouse.

Here is a newspaper clipping announcing Mary’s retirement from Grange Park High School, which also tells us that she worked in 7 of the local schools – evidence of her sheer dedication.

By becoming a teacher, Mary entered an important space that allowed women to bridge the divide between the male and female spheres. Mary had opportunities to then travel and work alongside professors and academics alike.  We can see this from her various anecdotes about her experiences in places like Denmark and Switzerland. Her specific work in geography led to long lasting memories such as her time spent studying glaciers in the High Alps of the Bernese Oberland. She mentions a funny memory with the German professor and their guide who only spoke adequate English. Halfway up a glacier their guide told them to sit down, which confused them all, including their guide. It was only until, ‘Dr. Negli saw and came over the glacier like a chamois and spoke to the guide in German. He laughed and said “He used the wrong English word’! He meant “See down” at the deep crevasse’ (7-8).

Mount Eiger, in the High Alps of the Bernese Oberland.

She was always welcomed at international schools and even though being a woman in a time when the ‘domestic goddess’ rhetoric was very strong, she was given plenty of work to do, such as Regional surveys and contributing to the publication of books. In my research I found out that she had done a Regional Survey of Durham which took 3 years to complete, finishing it in 1935. It came to be known as the ‘Howitt Collection’ consisting of 48 maps in total. Despite this major achievement, my search for this elusive collection has been in vain (though it still mysteriously shows up on Google books).

At this time of the century, specifically between 1900-1940, women were rarely ever given promotions. It was unusual to see a headmistress and female professors were even rarer. But, from the newspaper clipping above, Mary was actually head of more than just one school. Saying she began her first Headship at James Williams Street in 1936 and then being appointed Headmistress of Grange Park High School in 1940. Mary taught at 7 of the local schools and did not stop when she got to Australia. She shows her love for teaching when she says, ‘I thoroughly enjoyed this work and being a world traveller and knowing Europe intimately, the girls found my lessons interesting and I made lots of good friends among the parents’ (3). This is in relation to a school in Annesley, Australia, where she taught Geography part-time.


Mary Howitt after she was appointed headmistress.

In Dina Copelmen’s book, London’s Women Teachers, she stated that they were ‘crucial participants in early twentieth-century feminism, fighting on numerous fronts: within the teaching profession they sought equal pay and support for women’s right to vote, while as individuals and in separate women teachers’ organizations they were active in the suffrage movement’ (xvii, 1996) Mary does not talk explicitly about her activity in women’s rights, but her occupation speaks for itself. There was no exact year as to when Mary started teaching, but from deducing what age she might have started, I guess it was between 1908 and 1914, as she would have been in her late teens/early twenties at this time.

Mary was greatly rewarded through her work, as both Sunderland and Bowral did tributes to her life as she reached her 90th birthday, Bowral calling her one of it ‘Grand Old Ladies’. Not only was Mary known for her work, but was loved by the community for it.


Works cited:

Copelman, Dina. London’s Women Teachers: Gender, Class and Feminism, 1870-1930. Routledge, London. 1996.

‘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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