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Mary Anne Hearn

Mary Anne Hearn was a teacher, lecturer and writer, producing comment, poetry and biography for the popular Christian press. She used the name of her birthplace as her pen-name – Marianne Farningham.

When Mary Anne Hearn died in 1909, her funeral at College Street Baptist Church and her burial in the Billing Road cemetery were attended by large crowds of admirers. There were long obituaries in the local papers, plus a shorter one in The Times, and portraits of her were sold in all ‘booksellers and stationers’ in Northampton. Before long she merited an entry in the Dictionary of National Biography.

Mary Anne Hearn’s life should be remembered for two reasons. Firstly, there is the work that brought her national recognition. Secondly, there is all the much less well-known work that she did for the people of Northampton.

Mary Anne was born in 1834 in Farningham in Kent (from which she later assumed her pen-name, Marianne Farningham) and in the 1841 census she was living with her family and two shoemaker apprentices who presumably worked for her shoemaker father. By 1851, her mother had died and Mary Anne, aged sixteen, was the housekeeper. Her father, Joseph, was a “Boot Maker. Master employing 4 men and one Apprentice.” A most important influence on the family’s life was the local Particular Baptist chapel. It was here that the minister invited her to submit one of her verses to the periodical The Christian World which he had recently established. She became a regular contributor and also published a collection of her poems in 1860.

In 1857, she had become a teacher, and two years later, at the invitation of her friend, Sarah Gordge, she came to Northampton to be head of the Infant Department at the British School in Campbell Square. In 1861, she was a lodger, along with Sarah, at 35 Newland. In 1867, she gave up teaching in the day school and started teaching a Sunday School class of young women at College Street. She had ceased full-time teaching in order to devote herself to her writing. She published a number of volumes of poetry and biographies – including those of Grace Darling and General Gordon. She also took up lecturing. Additionally, in 1885, she became the editor of the Sunday School Times. It was for these activities, plus support for organisations such as the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, that she gained national recognition.

In Northampton, however, she was known and loved for her work for youngsters. As already stated, she taught at the British School. Unfortunately there are no log books for the relevant period in the Northamptonshire Record Office, but a little book for children was published in 1964 which describes life in the school and which mentions Miss Hearn. The children came from very modest backgrounds and were taught by a teacher assisted by monitors. Mary Anne remembered the school fondly, shown by the fact that, in 1886, she “gave a prize consisting of two books to the girl in the first class who was considered by her school-fellows/classmates to be most worthy.”

As well as for teaching, Mary Anne was known for her work on Northampton’s School Board and later as a member of the Borough Education Committee. It was in 1886 that she offered herself as an Independent candidate in the School Board election. Although she generally supported the policies of the Liberal Party she declined their offer to be one of their official candidates. She did not canvass support but she did beg to feature in an advertisement in the local newspaper.  She said that her “only recommendation is that I know something of the system of National Education.” She said she was on the side of financial economy in education and she advocated the establishment of evening schools and a Higher Grade School where children “whose parents can afford to do without their services, may continue their education for a year or two longer.”

Mary Anne received 6,667 votes and topped the poll ahead of the seventeen male candidates. She was only the second female School Board member. At the time she was described as a journalist and spinster living at 12 Watkin Terrace, which she had purchased with the proceeds of her writing and lecturing. She was re-elected in 1889. During her time of service she is occasionally recorded for particular reasons. For example, she proposed that cookery be taught to the older girls, she seconded a motion that older children be given weekly lessons on the dangers of strong drink, and she concerned herself with the progress of candidates for pupil teacherships. Maybe it is not wrong to portray her as being in some sense a feminist. She certainly worked very hard as a single woman and she entitled her autobiography A Working Woman’s Life. However, as the census details showed, she did not come from the poorest of working-class backgrounds.

In 1903, she was co-opted onto the Northampton Borough Education Committee. She was appointed to a number of standing committees including that of the Northampton Pupil Teachers’ Centre on Victoria Road. She was also appointed to be a manager of five sets of schools. She did her best for all these establishments, although she wrote, “But I was able to do so little in comparison with what I felt a woman member ought to do that I only kept the position for two years.”

As well as all this, Mary Anne was especially fondly remembered for her Sunday School work with the young women of College Street Church. From 1867 to 1901, she taught, helped, and befriended them, and their numbers frequently reached 200 at any one time. She took the young women on holidays, visits to the countryside, and into her own large house. After Mary Anne’s death, a room at the church was dedicated to her memory. Two years earlier, she had been presented with a public testimonial and £412 by the Mayor of Northampton “upon the completion of half-a-century of noble work in the cause of religion and education.”

Mary Anne died in 1909 in Barmouth, north-west Wales, where she had been renting a holiday cottage since the 1890s. The crowds at her funeral in Northampton primarily remembered her for her work in the town but the wider world remembered her for her work as a poet, biographer, journalist and hymn-writer. She deserves to be better remembered now.

Image acknowledgements:
Text © Walter Stageman
A Helga von Cramm chromolithograph Christmas card of PULCHELLUM Odontoglossum cirrhosum with prayer by Marianne Farningham © Public domain
Marianne Farningham (Mary Anne Hearn) by Thomas Williams Hunt ​© National Portrait Gallery, licenced under a Creative Commons licence