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

Elderly parents

Suddenly needing to look after elderly parents in one way or another is something that comes to many of us.  Mum’s fortnight in hospital, during which we were caring daily for my Dad, got me thinking about how my ancestors cared for elderly relatives.

When you look back through census returns it is fairly common to find a widowed parent now being cared for by a son or daughter and family.

Elizabeth George’s husband David died in 1851, aged 70, but she would outlive him by another fifteen years.  At the time of the 1861 census she is to be found living with her youngest surviving daughter Frances and her family at East Bilney, Norfolk, and the census notes that she is ‘blind’.  Despite her 12 children, she was nearly 85 when she died in 1866.

Of the nine children of Thomas and Caroline Mitchell in Sussex, three died young, three emigrated, and two others left the immediate area.  Only one, my great grandfather, remained in the same village, where his daughters helped to care for them in their old age.

Meanwhile in East Finchley, Jonathan Wakefield, seventh child of William and Susan and born in 1835, was widowed in 1893.  Sometime between then and the 1901 census he went to live with his youngest son Henry until the death of Henry’s wife in 1913.  He then lived out the last few years of his life with his son Jonathan, dying of ‘senile degeneration and exhaustion’ in 1917 aged 82.  His obituary in the ‘Finchley Press, Muswell Hill Mercury and Highgate Post’ says that he had been in declining health for a long time, but that for 30 years he had been caretaker of the Wesleyan Church in King Street “where he discharged his duties with fidelity and in the most cheerful spirit”.

Newspaper reports can be great, can’t they?  But more disturbing was the report in the Oxford Chronicle and Reading Gazette of Saturday 6th February 1847, where twin brothers Richard and Robert Neighbour where being called to account by the Overseers of Lewknor for refusing to support their father Thomas “being an inmate of Thame Union workhouse”.   In the days before any Social Services financial assessment, the overseeers “considered they were in circumstances to maintain their parent, being very industrious men”.  But then, in a twist to the tale, the two brothers basically declared that they thought their 64 year old father should get off his backside and do an honest day’s work and that he had apparently left a good place of employment to go to the workhouse!  There was something odd going on in that family:  Thomas Neighbour’s wife Ann appears in the 1841 census with their daughter Elizabeth in the same village.  Of course, she may just have been there overnight, but I wonder whether there was more to it.  Three years after the workhouse incident Thomas was “found drowned in the mill pond”, according to the burial register.  Did the couple separate?  Did Thomas have a drink problem?  Was he suffering from depression and therefore unable to work?  We shall never know.  Unfortunately I have found no newspaper report to shed light on his death, but the Overseers’ conclusion in 1847 was to conclude that they had “no power to compel children to support their parents when they were able to earn their own living” and Richard and Robert were apparently not minded to support their father.

In our society it’s probably more unusual now for elderly parents to be taken into the homes of their children to be cared for and so the present-day Overseers have to make their financial assessment as to who pays for the care.  There’s rarely an easy solution.

Overseers of Lewknor versus Richard and Robert Neighbour 1847
Overseers of Lewknor versus Richard and Robert Neighbour 1847