Founding mothers: Mary Carpenter (1807-1877)

In the second of their series on founding mothers of the voluntary sector, Third Sector columnist Gill Taylor and her daughter Bridget assess the reforming work of Mary Carpenter

Mary Carpenter
Mary Carpenter

Mary Carpenter was the earliest and perhaps one of the most radical of the 19th century female reformers and activists who helped to lay the foundations of the modern voluntary sector.

She was a passionate advocate for deprived children, challenged government policy, played a strong part in education reform – particularly for women – and helped to change punitive attitudes towards young offenders.

Carpenter was born in Bristol to a family of Unitarians – a branch of Christianity that focuses on the Enlightenment emphasis on human perfectibility and which played a prominent role in the anti-slavery and women's rights movements.

Her father was part of an international Unitarian network, and her reforming spirit was inspired by visitors including the American Unitarian minister Joseph Tuckerman, who ministered to the poor, and the Bengali activist Ram Mohan Roy, founder of a Hindu social reform movement called the Brahmo Samaj.

In 1835 Carpenter founded a "working and visiting society" to alleviate poverty and improve education among the poor. This brought her into contact with children likely to become young offenders – at the time, children as young as seven could be prosecuted for minor acts such as theft of food.

She became increasingly concerned by the treatment of such children and published an influential book on the subject, which recommended the establishment of residential institutions committed to the rehabilitation of young offenders rather than their punishment.

She gave evidence in support of her ideas for reform to a parliamentary inquiry on juvenile delinquency and founded her own reformatory school for girls in 1854. This contributed towards the passing of the Youthful Offenders Act of 1854, which authorised the establishment of reformatory schools by voluntary agencies.

These schools were partly funded by the government, an arrangement that Carpenter considered ideal because she was wary of state intervention in the running of schools, but understood that they needed state funding to ensure they remained open to all.

Carpenter’s Unitarianism meant she took a more liberal view of juvenile delinquency than evangelical reformers of the time. She emphasised the importance of recreating a family environment in reformatories and argued that love should be a guiding principle.

Love was the vital component in childhood, she argued, and its absence turned children into something "other" than children. Her ideas did contribute to real improvements, but were still informed by a narrow definition of childhood.

In later years she became a much more active campaigner for education reform and founded a "ragged school" in a deprived area of Bristol. This was the name given to schools set up in response to the government’s unwillingness to provide free education where it was desperately needed in the growing industrial towns and cities.

In 1866 she visited India, facilitated by her connections with the Brahmo Samaj and the American Unitarian Mission in Calcutta. Her aim was to set up secular schools for girls, starting by establishing teacher-training schools for local women.

She was given an official mandate by the governor of Bombay to inspect schools, prisons and hospitals. But she didn’t want to be trapped by funding from a British administration with a different agenda from her own, so she decided to focus on supporting Indian reformers’ own initiatives, providing female teachers from Britain.

The first schools she founded struggled to attract pupils, but they did pioneer opportunities for single Indian women to gain financial independence and influenced the opening up of university education to women in India soon afterwards.

Carpenter was not directly involved in the feminist movement in Britain, but her frequent public speaking and outspoken critiques of government policy, at a time when women in public life were mocked and censured, turned her into a feminist role model.

At the same time, her rhetoric about education reform in England depicted children living in dire poverty as cultural "others" and "heathens" in need of "civilisation", reinforcing damaging stereotypes about working-class children and their families.

But her work and ideas were a significant step forward at the time and helped to bring in new, more caring attitudes towards children and the way they were treated.

Even today there are many people who would take issue with her liberal view of how to work with young offenders, who are still sometimes referred to as "juvenile delinquents".

Next week: Catherine Booth, co-founder of the Salvation Army

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