Successful Woman: Mary Carpenter

This is the second post in our Successful Women series. For the introduction, click here.

The style and some of the sentiments in this sketch, which was written in the late 1800s, may seem a little quaint in the twenty-first century, but the story should still be able to inspire us, despite the difference in literary style and social conditions.

On the other hand, many of the problems that Mary Carpenter dealt with in 19th century England still exist in America today, and her example will hopefully serve to inspire similar selfless work on the part of Americans, both men and women, in the 21st century.

(She looks kind of scary, but by all accounts she was very nice in person)

“That it may please Thee… to show Thy pity upon all prisoners and captives.”

Mary Carpenter was thirty-eight years old when Mrs. Fry died in 1845. We do not hear, in reading the lives of either, that the two women ever met, or that the elder directly stimulated the activity of the younger. Yet the one most surely prepared the way for the other; their work was upon the same lines, and Miss Carpenter, the Unitarian, of Bristol, was the spiritual heir and successor of Mrs. Fry, the Quaker, of Norwich.

There is, it is true, a contrast in the manner in which the two women approached their work in life. The aim of both was the rescue of what Mary Carpenter called ” the perishing and dangerous classes.” But while Mrs. Fry was led, through her efforts on behalf of convicts, to establish schools for them and their children, Mary Carpenter’s first object was the school for neglected children, and through the knowledge gained there she was led to form schemes for the reformation of criminals and for a new system of prison discipline. Mrs. Fry worked through convicts to schools ; Mary Carpenter through schools to convicts.

It will not therefore be imagined that there is any want of appreciation of Mrs. Fry when it is said that Mary Carpenter’s labours were more effective, inasmuch as they were directed to the cause of the evil, rather than to its results. By establishing reformatory and industrial schools, and by obtaining, after long years of patient effort, the sanction and support of Parliament for them, she virtually did more than had up to that time ever been done in England to stop the supply of criminals. Children who were on the brink of crime, and those who had actually fallen into criminal courses, were, through her efforts, snatched away from their evil surroundings, and helped to become respectable and industrious men and women.

Before her time, magistrates and judges had no choice, when a child criminal stood convicted before them, but to sentence him to prison, whence he would probably come out hopelessly corrupted and condemned for life to the existence of a beast of prey. She says, in one of her letters, dated 1850: “A Bristol magistrate told me that for twenty years he had felt quite unhappy at going on committing these young culprits. And yet he had done nothing!” The worse than uselessness of prisons for juvenile offenders was a fact that was burnt into Mary Carpenter’s mind and heart by the experience of her life. She was absolutely incapable of recognising the evil and at the same time calmly acquiescing in it. Her magisterial friend is the type of the common run of humanity, who satisfy their consciences by saying, “Very grievous! very wrong! ” and who do nothing to remove the grievance and the wrong; she is the type of the knights-errant of humanity, who never see a wrong without assailing it, and endeavouring to remove the causes which produce it.

Mary Carpenter was born at Exeter in 1807, the eldest of five children, several of whom have left their mark on the intellectual and moral history of this century. There was all through her life a great deal of the elder sister one may almost say, of the mother in Mary Carpenter. She never shrank from responsibility, and she had a special capacity for protecting love, a capacity that stood her in good stead in reclaiming the little waifs and strays to whom she afterwards devoted herself. Her motherliness comes out in a hundred ways in the story of her life.

Her endless patience with the truant and naughty children was such as many a real mother might envy. She was especially proud of the title of “the old mother” which the Indian women, whom she visited towards the close of her life, gave her. In writing to a friend, she once said: “There is a verse in the prophecies, ‘I have given thee children whom thou hast not borne,’ and the motherly love of my heart has been given to many who have never known before a mother’s love.” She adopted a child in 1858 to be a daughter to her, and writes gleefully : ” Just think of me with a little girl of my own I about five years old, readymade to my hand, without the trouble of marrying. A darling little thing, an orphan..” Her friends spoke of her eager delight in buying the baby’s outfit.

It was her motherliness that made her so successful with the children in the reformatories and industrial schools; moreover, the children believed in her love for them. One little ragged urchin told a clergyman that Miss Carpenter was a lady who gave away all her money for naughty boys, and only kept enough to make herself clean and decent On one occasion she heard that two of her ex-pupils had “got into trouble,” and were in prison at Winchester. She quickly found an opportunity of visiting them, and one of them exclaimed, directly he saw her, ” Oh! Miss Carpenter, I knew you would not desert us!”

Another secret of her power, and also of her elasticity of spirit, was her sense of humour. It was like a silver thread running through her laborious life, saving her from dullness and despondency. In one of her reports, which has to record the return of a runaway, she said: “He came back resembling the prodigal in everything except his repentance! ”

The motto which she especially made her own was Dum doceo disco: While I teach, I learn. She was indeed very proficient in many branches of knowledge. Her education, which took place at her father’s school for boys, included Latin, Greek, mathematics, and natural history; and the exactness which her father and the nature of her studies demanded of her formed a most invaluable training for her after career.

For many years the acquisition of knowledge, for its own sake, was the chief joy of her life; but a time came when it ceased to satisfy her. She was rudely awakened from the delightful dreams of a student’s life by a severe visitation of cholera at Bristol in 1832. From this period, and indeed from a special day that set apart as a fastday in consequence of the cholera dates a solemn dedication of herself to the service of her fellow-creatures. She wrote in her journal 31st March 1832, what her resolution was, and concluded: “These things I have written to be a witness against me, if ever I should forget what ought to be the object of all my active exertions in life.” These solemn self-dedications are seldom or never spoken of by those who make them. Records of them are found sometimes in journals long after the hand that has written them is cold. But, either written or unwritten, they are probably the rule rather than the exception on the part of those who devote themselves to the good of others. There is a time when the knight-errant consciously enrolls himself a member of the noble band of warriors against wrong and oppression, and takes upon himself his baptismal vow manfully to fight against sin, the world, and the devil, and to continue Christ’s faithful soldier and servant to his life’s end.

When Mary Carpenter first began to exert herself for the benefit of neglected children, there were no reformatory or industrial schools, except those which had been established by the voluntary efforts of philanthropists like herself. Aided by a band of fellow-workers and wise advisers, Mary Carpenter set to work to establish a voluntary reformatory school at Kingswood, near Bristol. Her principle was that by surrounding children, who would otherwise be criminals, with all the influences of a wholesome home life, there was a better chance than by any other course, of reclaiming these children, and making them useful members of society.

To herd children together in large, unhomelike institutions, was always, in Mary Carpenter’s view, undesirable; the effect on character is bad; the more perfectly such places are managed, the more nearly do the children in them become part of a huge machine, and the less are their faculties, as responsible human beings, developed. Over and over again, in books, in addresses, and by the example of the institutions which she managed herself, Mary Carpenter reiterated the lesson that if a child is to be rescued and reformed, he must be placed in a family; and that where it is necessary, for the good of society, to separate children on account of their own viciousness, or that of their parents, from their own homes, the institutions receiving them should be based on the family ideal so far as possible.

With this end in view, the children at Kingswood were surrounded by as many home influences as possible. Miss Carpenter at one time thought of living there herself, but this scheme was given up in deference to her mother’s wishes. She was, however, a constant visitor. She taught the children herself, and provided them with rabbits, fowls, and pigs, the care of which she felt would exercise a humanising influence upon them.

The whole discipline of the place was directed by her; one of her chief difficulties was to get a staff of assistants with sufficient faith in her methods to give them an honest trial. She did not believe in a physical force morality. ” We must not attempt,” she wrote, “to break the will, but to train it to govern itself wisely; and it must be our great aim to call out the good, which exists even in the most degraded, and make it conquer the bad.” After a year’s work at Kingswood in this spirit, she writes very hopefully of the improvement already visible in the sixteen boys and thirteen girls in her charge. The boys could be trusted to go into Bristol on messages, and even ” thievish girls ” could be sent out to shops with money, which they never thought of appropriating.

But although the success of the institution was so gratifying, it had no legal sanction; it had consequently no power to deal with runaways, and the great mass of juvenile delinquents were still sentenced to prisons, from which they emerged, like the man into whom seven devils entered, in a state far worse than their first. Mary Carpenter’s work was not only to prove the success of her methods of dealing with young criminals, but, secondly, to convince the Government that the established system was a bad one, and thirdly, and most difficult of all, to get them to legislate on the subject. At last, in 1854, her efforts were crowned with success, and the Royal Assent was given to the Youthful Offenders Bill, which authorised the establishment of reformatory schools, under the sanction of the Home Secretary.

It is a striking proof of the change that has taken place in the sphere and social status of women, that Mary Carpenter, in the first half of her active life, suffered what can be called nothing less than anguish from any effort which demanded from herself the least departure from absolute privacy. When she was called upon to give evidence before a Select Committee of the House of Commons in 1852, her profound personal timidity made the occasion a painful ordeal to her, which she was only enabled to support by the consciousness of the needs of the children. Surely this excessive timidity arises from morbid self-consciousness, rather than from true womanly modesty. Mary Carpenter was enabled, by increasing absorption in her work, to throw it off, and for her work’s sake she became able to speak in public with ease and self-possession.

As years passed by, her work and responsibilities rapidly increased. It is astonishing to read of the number of institutions, from ragged schools upwards, of which she was practically the head and chief. Her thoroughly practical and business-like methods of work, as well as her obvious self-devotion and earnestness, ensured to her a large share of public confidence and esteem. The extraordinary energy and vitality of Mary Carpenter never declined.

When she was over sixty years of age she made four successive visits to India, with the double object of arousing public opinion there about the education of women, and the condition of convicts, especially of female convicts. At the ago of sixty-six she visited America. She had long been deeply interested in the social and juridical condition of the United States, and had many warm personal friends there. Her first impulse to reformatory work had come from an American citizen, Dr. Tuckerman; her sympathy and help had been abundantly bestowed upon the Abolitionist party, and she was of course deeply thankful when the Civil War in America ended as it did in the victory of the North, and in the complete abolition of slavery in the United States.

Her mind remained vigorous and susceptible to new impressions and new enthusiasms to the last. In 1877, within a month of her death, she signed the memorial to the Senate of the London University in favour of the admission of women to medical degrees. She passed away peacefully in her sleep, without previous illness or decline of mental powers, in June 1877, leaving an honoured name and a network of institutions for the reform of young criminals and the prevention of crime, of which our country will for many years to come reap the benefit.

Adapted from Some Eminent Women of Our Time by Elizabeth Garret Fawcett

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