Mary Howitt (1888-1983): Researching Writing Lives

As I scrolled through over 200 names on the Brunell Collection of working-class authors, I had an idea of the kind of person I wanted to write about. I wanted someone who had travelled a lot in their life, someone who wasn’t simply ‘part of the grind’ in the working-class. By the time I found Mary Howitt’s biographical entry, I was pretty desperate for anything, as it felt like every author was being snatched up really quickly by everyone else in the class. Luckily, I had hit the jackpot. The main thing that drew me to Mary’s memoir was the fact that there was a lot. It gave a brief rundown of her where she grew up but the rest was taken up by title after title of all the organisations she worked with, her emigration, her work as a teacher and her membership of the Soroptimist Sunderland Club. I was immediately intrigued, as many of these names I had never heard of before.

One of the reasons I decided to take this module is because I wanted to contribute to something real, not simply a critical analysis on a fictional story. By doing this, I contributed to the history of ‘ordinary’ people that much of the public believe are lost to history. When I chose Mary Howitt as my author, I felt like it was going to be near impossible to piece together her life. For one, her memoir did not have a title, nor was it published. I thought her rural, humble beginnings would work against me and that I might fail. Those first two weeks were very nerve wrecking as I started my research. Yet I proved myself wrong, and also dispelled the myth that if you didn’t make your ‘mark’ on history, you would be forgotten.

The first thing I did was take note of every school, organisation and society that Mary was ever part of, which was a lot. The first thing I found was St. Gabriel’s church, which was made into a military hospital during WW1, where Mary worked as  Voluntary Aid nurse. This was the first clue I had of the amazing dedication Mary gave to her work and to people in need.

The first soldier to be treated at St. Gabriels, named ‘Jock’. This was the first picture that I found in my research, before I even knew what Mary looked like. I guessed that one of the nurses in this picture must have been her, though looking at it now, I can’t really tell. Dated 1915.

When it came to her work as a teacher it was harder, as some of the schools had changed names or closed down. More than once I was led on a wild goose chase trying to find just one piece of information that could confirm some of the things in her memoir. The hardest being the elusive ‘Howitt Collection’ which was the title of the 48 maps that Mary published as part of a Regional Survey of County Durham. It mysteriously showed up on google books, only with her name and date, but no mention of where it resided and who the publisher was. To this day, I still cannot figure out where those maps ended up. Even though I’m at the end of my research, I still fill like I missed some parts of Mary’s life, some parts that should be recognised, particularly her work with the Royal Geographical Association, which proved to be the most frustrating part of my research.

Although I had some setbacks, being part of a research project taught me how to connect with people more, how to approach them with my questions. Through this, I have gained valuable acquaintances and connections, particularly with the Soroptimists. I would not have succeeded in researching Mary’s life had it not been fro the help of her relatives and the organisations she was part of.

Kathleen Tuddenham

The person I collaborated with the most was Kathleen Tuddenham, Mary’s great-niece. After sending emails to the various Soroptimist clubs that Mary contributed to, it finally led me to Mary’s family. I have given credit to Kath many times throughout my research as she already had a vast profile on Mary’s life and so it felt like more of an accomplishment every time I managed to discover something new, which I’m proud to say I did. Some of the things I gave was where she went to school as a child, a picture of her grave, a newspaper clipping from the Bowral Press and a transcription of the last letter Mary sent to Kathleen after the passing of her father. Kathleen is in the process of writing her own memoir, no doubt inspired by Great Aunty Mary and I have thoroughly enjoyed my collaboration with her.

I believe my writing has grown more professional during this module and that my attention to detail has become more important. I definitely felt like I had something to prove in taking on this research project. I knew that Mary’s family would be reading it, which made me push myself harder, making sure I did not let them down by producing something that didn’t do Mary’s life justice. The confidence I had in my writing has grown over the project and I am much more comfortable using more social media platforms and collaborating with people.

All in all, coming away from this project I feel like it has added to my passion for writing and for contributing to history, if an opportunity like this comes along again, I will definitely be taking it.


‘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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