140 Years of the Mothers’ Union

A steady stream of (mostly)women made pilgrimage today to a grave at Winchester Cathedral.  Jane Austen’s grave?  No, although plenty of photos were being taken of that grave, too, as our well-beloved author lies buried beneath a slab in the North Aisle.

No – I’m talking of the grave of Mary Sumner, who died aged 92 in 1921.  Her grave, shared with her husband who predeceased her, lies outside the the Cathedral at the east end.  Why should so many people be paying their respects to her today?  Well today hundreds of Mothers’ Union members gathered in Winchester to celebrate 140 years of the movement – the largest worldwide women’s organisation in the Anglican Communion – which Mary Sumner started back in 1876.

Mary Elizabeth Heywood was born near Salford, Lancashire, in 1828, and met her future husband George Sumner while visiting Rome.  He was the son of Charles Sumner, the Bishop of Winchester, and the couple married about 18 months after George’s own ordination.  It was whilst they were living in Old Alresford, Hampshire, that Mary started gathering together mothers of all social groups to talk about the spiritual dimensions of family life and setting a good example for children.  Her passion for giving children a good start in life and for the moral wellbeing of the family soon led to similar groups being set up across the country.  Today’s 4 million members live in over 83 countries throughout the world, some of whom were represented at the services held in the Cathedral today.  The singing of the ladies of the Zambian Mary Sumner Choir was particularly joyful and uplifting.

I am proud to have been a Mothers’ Union member for over 20 years and to have my grandmother’s MU badge.  Emily George née Mitchell became a member in Croydon, I believe in the early thirties, and was a keen member all of her long life.  Strangely, I have a Sumner on my Wakefield family tree:  Susan Sumner married William Wakefield in Finchley in 1823.  Since she came from Hertfordshire I am sure there is no connection, but it’s nice to see the name there all the same.  Happy Birthday Mothers’ Union!

Mary Sumner Choir
Mary Sumner Choir from Zambia
Mary Sumner
Mary Sumner’s grave at Winchester Cathedral
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The Chestnut Tree

Driving to my parent’s house the other day I suddenly noticed that the big chestnut tree down the road had been cut down!  It was quite a shock to see the space where it used to be and it almost felt like a sudden bereavement.  As children we often used to play round the tree and of course collect conkers in the autumn.  Apparently the poor tree had been dead for a while and so had to come down.

It led me to think about how trees can be so important in our lives.  In many cases they can outlive us significantly.  On bank holiday Monday, for example, we visited Leith Hill Place, and I was absolutely blown away by the shere magnificence of a tulip tree on the path from the house to the car park.  It is thought to have been planted around 250 years ago, about the time that Leith Hill Tower was built.  There are many other specimen trees, plus the rhododendrons planted by Caroline Wedgwood in the mid nineteenth century.  I had not previously appreciated the family connections between the Darwin, Wedgwood and Vaughan Williams families:  Josiah Wedgwood III married Caroline Darwin, the sister of Charles Darwin.  Their daughter Margaret married Revd Arthur Vaughan Williams, whose family lived locally, and hence in due course Leith Hill Place became the home of the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams.  What a stunning location in which to spend your childhood, and he too would have been familiar with the specimen trees that we can admire now.

On a slightly less grand scale, the apple trees which were once in the garden of my granny’s childhood home, can still be seen by the side of the road at the Buck Barn crossroads on the A24 near Shipley, though the house has long since gone.  I remember my Granny once telling me that she and her brother made up stories about imaginary little people living in those trees.

I’ve always enjoyed growing plants.  At primary school we were once given conkers to take home and plant, and I won a pencil because mine grew the tallest.  It must have been around that time that I planted some apple pips.  One of those seedlings went on to grow into a fine specimen and now, well over forty years later, it still produces an abundance of apples.  It turned out to be a James Grieve. Whether or not that tree outlives me will depend very much on the future occupants of that house, but I hope both it and I will thrive for a few years yet!

The remains of the chestnut tree
The remains of the chestnut tree