Mary Carpenter

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Mary Carpenter (1807–1877) was a Christian philanthropist and social reformer active in England, the United States, and India in the 19th century.

The eldest of six children of a Unitarian minister, Dr. Lant Carpenter, Mary was born in Exeter, Devon, England, where her father ran a school. Soon the family moved to Bristol where her mother ran a school for boys and her father founded a philosophical society. Her father strongly supported education for girls as well as boys, and Mary studied Latin, Greek, science, natural history, and mathematics.

Founder of the "Ragged Schools"

Having started as a Sunday school teacher, then as a teacher in her parents' schools, Carpenter set up her first school for poor children in Bristol in 1846. She was horrified at the plight of poor orphans who lived on the streets, and the brutal way they were treated if they resorted to crime and were placed in prison. With charitable donations, she set up schools for abandoned children where they could be taught to read the Bible and acquire enough skills to earn their own living. These became known as "ragged schools", a term she disliked, but the schools proliferated rapidly as her ideas spread. She had a long struggle with lack of money, personal illness and other setbacks, yet persevered in her work. She was treated with suspicion by the authorities but gained influential admirers, including Frances Cobbe, Lady Byron and Matthew Davenport Hill.

Carpenter also set up schools for older children, and reformatory schools for those who already had a criminal record. She believed that children could be saved or reclaimed from a life of crime with kindness and humanity, and that schools should provide both moral training and recreation. Her Red Lodge school for Girls opened in 1854. She wrote books about her enterprise, Ragged Schools (1850), Reformatory Schools (1851) and Juvenile Delinquents (1853), as a result of which she was invited to testify before a parliamentary committee. Her ideas had a considerable impact on the Youthful Offenders Act of 1854, and the Industrial Schools Act of 1857. She must be considered one of the driving forces behind the eventual introduction of universal education.

Fame and international Career

Carpenter became celebrated in her own time for her philanthropic work and advanced ideas. She traveled and lectured in support of women's education and prison reform, visiting the USA, Canada, Germany and France.

In 1866–70 she made three working visits India where she visited girls' schools, prisons and mental asylums to see the conditions there, and campaigned there for reform of child marriage, meeting and working with Florence Nightingale. She inspected the condition of women working in cotton mills, and her reports were influential in the later passing of the Indian Factory Act. She tried to set up a teacher training college for women, without success.

Carpenter published an account of her work in Six Months in India (1868) and her lectures in Addresses to the Hindoos. In 1870 she set up the National Indian Association in Britain.

Views on Religion and the Family

Carpenter remained devout and inclined to be conservative in her views on marriage and the family. Although she never married, she was attached to the Victorian view that the domestic sphere was women's natural one, and she only reluctantly and gradually started to support the movement for widening this to include careers and public life. Towards the end of her career, she participated in the campaign for Woman's Suffrage.


  • J. Estlin Carpenter. the Life and Work of Mary Carpenter, 1879.
  • Jo Manton, Mary Carpenter and the Children of the Streets. Heinemann, London, 1976.
  • Encyclopedia of Women Social Reformers, Volume 1

By Helen Rappaport. ABC-CLIO, 2001.

  • Victorian Britain (Routledge Revivals): An Encyclopedia

By Sally Mitchell Routledge, 1988, new edition 2012.