Carpenter, Mary (1807–1877)

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Carpenter, Mary (1807–1877)

English philanthropist and social reformer who was especially influential in juvenile delinquency and prison reform. Born on April 3, 1807, in Exeter, England; died on June 14, 1877, in Bristol, England; daughter of Lant Carpenter (1780–1840; a Unitarian minister and master of a boarding school in Exeter and Bristol, who had Harriet Martineau as a pupil) and Anna Penn; sister of William Benjamin (1813–1885, a physiologist).

Selected publications:

Ragged Schools: Their Principles and Modes of Operation (1850); Reformatory Schools for the Children of the Perishing and Dangerous Classes and for Juvenile Offenders (1851); Juvenile Delinquents: Conditions and Treatment (1853); On Reformatory Schools (1855); Our Convicts: How They are Made and Should Be Treated (1864); Six Months in India (1868).

Born on April 3, 1807, in Exeter, Mary Carpenter was the eldest of six children of Dr. Lant Carpenter, a Unitarian minister, and Anna Penn . In 1817, the family moved to Bristol, where Dr. Carpenter was called to the ministry of Lewin's Mead Meeting. Mary's early childhood years were happy. She was educated in her father's school for boys, learning Latin, Greek and mathematics, and other subjects not generally taught to girls of her day. She early showed an aptitude for teaching, taking a class in the Sunday school, and afterwards helping her father with his pupils. She developed a strong character as well as a distinct sense of duty and desire to reform. Her father's strict religious and moral education affected her greatly.

At age 20, Carpenter left home to work as a governess on the Isle of Wight and then at Odsey. By 1829, however, she returned home to assist her mother in opening a school for girls after her father's ill health necessitated the closure of his school for boys. She worked at this school with her mother and sister until 1848, though these were not particularly happy years. Carpenter did not enjoy teaching young girls, and she yearned to become a wife and mother. Her harsh self-criticism manifested itself in depression and physical illness. Nonetheless, she maintained her interest in reform issues throughout this difficult time, and her focus turned increasingly towards juvenile delinquents. Her father's death in 1840 pained Carpenter deeply but also spurred her on to greater philanthropic works. In 1846, she opened her first Ragged School in Bristol, and in 1850 she published the first of many works on the subject of delinquent children.

In December 1851, she organized a conference for reformatory school workers. Though she disliked the public spotlight and did not speak at this meeting, her influence was felt; a parliamentary committee of inquiry was formed (at which she gave evidence), and in 1854 Parliament passed the Reformatory Schools Act. During these years, Carpenter opened a reformatory school for boys in 1852 and one for girls, Red Lodge, in 1854. She also published two books on school reform, Reformatory Schools for the Children of the Perishing and Dangerous Classes, and for Juvenile Offenders, and Juvenile Delinquents, their Condition and Treatment. Once the principle of reformatory schools was established, Carpenter returned to her plea for free dayschools, contending that the ragged schools were entitled to financial aid from the annual parliamentary grant. From that time on, she was drawn into dialogues on the subject with leading thinkers and workers.

After the death of her mother in 1856, Carpenter bought a house near Red Lodge. Two years later, she adopted a five-year-old, but the girl did not remain with her for long, mostly because Carpenter, at age 51, found herself incapable of caring for a small child. An attempt at living with a female companion also failed when, from 1858 until 1859, Carpenter lived with the Irish feminist Frances Power Cobbe . The two women proved incompatible, and after Cobbe's departure Carpenter never again lived with anyone.

By 1864, her interests turned to the problems facing women in India; she left England for India in 1866, the first of many trips she would undertake over the next ten years. She visited Calcutta, Madras and Bombay, and inaugurated the Bengal Social Science Association. While there, she spoke to governmental officials about educational and prison reform. Her attempt to found a female normal school was unsuccessful at the time, owing to the inadequate previous education of the women, but afterwards such colleges were founded by the government. A start, however, was made with a model Hindu girls' school, and here she had the co-operation of local leaders. As she was highly respected for her expertise in these areas, Carpenter also traveled to North America in 1873 where she spoke on prison reform in the United States and Canada.

By the end of her life, Mary Carpenter began to work for women's rights. She became a member of the Bristol Committee for the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts and, just before her death, signed a petition advocating the admission of women to medical schools. She also spoke on behalf of the Bristol and West of England Society for Women's Suffrage. She died on June 14, 1877, in Bristol. Her interest was in the "children themselves, in their souls," Cobbe once said, "and not, as philanthropy too often becomes, an interest in her own institution."


Banks, Olive. "Mary Carpenter," in Biographical Dictionary of British Feminists, Volume I 1800–1930. NY: New York University Press, 1985, pp. 46–48.

Manton, Jo. Mary Carpenter and the Children of the Streets. London: Heinemann, 1976.

Margaret McIntyre , University of Guelph, Guelph, Ontario, Canada

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Carpenter, Mary (1807–1877)

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