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Mary, quite contrary

Despite being a fierce opponent of the Suffragette movement, Mary Ward made remarkable breakthroughs in education for women and children in the early 20th century. Fran Abrams reports on her legacy

One warm day at the height of the Suffragettes' struggle for the vote, HG Wells was reading the Times in the woods with his lover, Elizabeth Von Arnim. Spying a letter from the well-known anti-suffrage campaigner Mrs Humphry Ward, they spread the paper on the ground with her contribution uppermost, made love on it and then burned it.

Wells later recorded the incident with great glee in his diary. For Mary Ward, as she was known to friends and family, had become a figure ridiculed by England's left-wing literati as a symbol of all that was backward-looking and conservative. Virginia Woolf complained that reading her novels - once so popular their publication caused queues to form outside London bookshops - was like catching the flu. Arnold Bennett imagined her literary heroines being gang-raped by battalions of soldiers.

The cause of this loathing was simple. In 1908, Mary Ward became the most high-profile female backer of the Women's National Anti-Suffrage League, set up to oppose the notion of votes for women. It was not a good move. The Suffragettes paid tribute by drawing her image on a coconut and encouraging visitors to shy at it at their annual fair. Posterity, for its part, chose largely to forget her.

But Mary Ward was much more than just a Victorian novelist with outdated views on women's rights. She was also one of the foremost educational pioneers of her generation. She founded England's first local authority-funded special school and went on to ensure children with disabilities across London were offered an education. She launched the first after-school play scheme for the children of the East End slums.

Perhaps even more surprisingly, the woman whose name became synonymous with the backlash against the women's movement was also a leading campaigner for women's education. She helped to found and name Somerville Hall, one of Oxford's first women's colleges, and celebrated the fact that young women were now seeking an education rather than just the accomplishments of the drawing room.

"The young lady who knew a little music, could paint a snowdrop and play Les Deux Anges has found, to her astonishment, that these things are not enough to endure success in a captious world," she noted approvingly in one of her speeches.

Without Mary Ward, the educational map of Britain might have looked quite different in the middle years of the 20th century. Indeed, with her background, she could hardly have failed to make her mark on the education system.

Her grandfather, the Rugby headmaster Thomas Arnold, had revolutionised the curriculum in England's public schools with the introduction of mathematics, modern history and modern languages. Her father had been inspector of schools in Van Diemen's Land, later Tasmania. Her uncle, William Forster, introduced the 1870 Education Act, which led to mass education on a scale not seen before.

Although Mary's own schooling was lacklustre - her illustrious name counted for little at the Rock Terrace school for young ladies in Shifnall, Shropshire - she was precocious. In Oxford, where her father founded a school, she read up on medieval Spanish history in the Bodleian Library, even though women could not graduate from the university at the time. In 1873, after marrying a young don named Humphry Ward, she became secretary of Oxford's new Lectures for Ladies Committee.

"My friends and I were all on fire for women's education, including women's medical education, and very emulous of Cambridge, where the movement was already far advanced," she wrote later in her memoirs.

From these small beginnings, much greater things grew. In 1879, Mary became the first secretary of Somerville Hall, Oxford's second women's college after Lady Margaret Hall, which was founded the previous year for Anglican students only. She named the college after Mary Somerville, a brilliant mathematician who had recently died.

The Wards moved to London when Humphry got a job on the Times, and there Mary founded a "settlement", providing accommodation for students. In return, the young men gave up part of their spare time to give open lectures for ordinary people living or working nearby, and to do social work. Mary Ward believed in the value of knowledge for its own sake and encouraged "the hundred pleasures and opportunities that fall mainly to the rich". There were concerts and a musical director named Gustav von Holst.

George Bernard Shaw, Sidney Webb and Keir Hardie also gave lectures.

Then the building in Tavistock Place, paid for by a philanthropist named John Passmore Edwards, became the base for her most remarkable educational achievements. From 1899, it housed the first fully equipped day school for children with disabilities, offering coursework, physical therapy and meals. The recognition that these children's disabilities were merely physical, and not mental, was a major breakthrough. Such children were "physically weak but often intelligent and artistic", she wrote in one of her many appeals in the Times for support. Mary's vigorous efforts on behalf of her "physically defective school" soon won financial backing from the London School Board.

By 1906, there were more than 20 such schools in London and Mary was leading a campaign for further education for their alumni. Soon afterwards, her After-Care Committee for Blind, Deaf and Cripple Children opened a centre in south London to provide vocational training for older children with disabilities.

By now, Mary had also turned her attention to helping the children of London's poor, many of whom were forced to spend their evenings on the streets while their parents worked. Tavistock Place became the home of England's first after-school play scheme, and again Mary wrote to the Times with a plea for funds.

"We are still leaving hundreds and thousands of our town children exposed day after day to evil and demoralising influence from which a small effort and a small expenditure on our part would save them," she wrote.

Many of these children had never really learned to play, she said, and some would emulate their parents with games in which a drunken father threw a distraught mother on to the street. Others spent their time flinging handfuls of cherry pips at passers-by. A headteacher from Hoxton, in the East End, had told her: "We teach these boys the 3Rs during the school day and then by sending them out to spend idle evenings in the streets we turn them into packs of pariahs."

At the settlement, children were invited to take part in cookery, crafts, painting and dancing. Attendance rose so rapidly that within a decade 1,700 children were visiting each week. A further appeal led to the opening of 11 more centres, attended by a quarter of a million children in the last quarter of 1908.

With so much to occupy her, it is perhaps surprising that Mary Ward became actively involved in politics at all. More than once she wrote to friends that she was being distracted from her paid work as a novelist by the "horrid" suffrage. Yet between 1908 and the granting of votes for women in 1918, she continued to speak and write to the press on the subject.

But Mary Ward was not against women's involvement in the political world.

Along with other female anti-suffragists, she believed in "separate spheres", in which women could operate at a local level to push for improvements in health care and education, while men busied themselves with the affairs of empire.

She even gave her support to a campaign for women to become more involved in local government, but this simply led to her vilification by both sides in an increasingly fraught debate.

Perhaps Mary Ward's biggest mistake was her choice of political friends.

Lord Curzon, one of her chief anti-suffrage allies, betrayed his true feelings about her in a letter to a fellow campaigner. "I have not the health, strength, youth, or I may add the temper to go on dealing with these infernal women," he wrote.

Freedom's Cause: lives of the Suffragettes, by Fran Abrams, is published today by Profile Books, pound;17.99


Mary Ward's name lives on over the doors of several London institutions.

After her death in 1920, the Passmore Edwards Settlement she founded was renamed the Mary Ward Settlement.

Its work continues at the Mary Ward Centre (right) at 42 Queen Square, Bloomsbury, London, an adult education centre with community services.

Courses, taken by around 7,000 people a year, include a wide ranging programme for the over-60s, English for speakers of other languages, computing, music, dance and drama.

Principal Patrick Freestone says a government inspection this year validated the centre's claim to be a friendly and effective place to learn.

The Mary Ward Centre is also linked to other projects in central London. It supports Coram's Fields, a children's park, nursery and playground. The Mary Ward Legal Centre, in north London, continues the work of a "poor man's legal centre" which also started at the Passmore Edwards Settlement.

On its website (www.mary, the centre says it remains, in Mary's words, "a place for ideals, a place for enthusiasm".

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