Born Mary Wright, at Sutton in Suffolk, the third of seven children of a Quaker farmer and his wife, Mary Sewell spent her early years at Felthorpe, revelling in country life, the changing seasons and nature. She was educated first in a dame school, then by a governess and finally at a Quaker boarding school in Tottenham. During her childhood, her father sold his farm and moved his family to Southtown Road in Great Yarmouth and worked at shipbuilding. Mary worked as a governess in Essex after leaving school and married Isaac in 1819 at Lammas Quaker Meeting House, as her father had returned to farming in Buxton, near Aylsham in Norfolk, after losing his money in a packet-steamship project, which had failed. The family was active in the Great Yarmouth Quaker community, which included the parents of Isaac Sewell as Elders.
Mary and Isaac Sewell set up home in Church Plain in Great Yarmouth, where Anna was born in 1820, but they left the town for London soon after her birth, as Isaac was in financial difficulties; there the shop he set up was also unsuccessful and Mary hated living in the city. After the birth of their son, Philip in 1822, her health was such that she was advised to move out of the city, into the country. They went first to Hackney, then to Dalston, where they remained for ten years, with Isaac earning a modest living as a commercial traveller for a lace company. Mary educated her children at home and wrote her first book in order to buy educational works to help her in this task; she received £3 for it. The family had moved to Stoke Newington when the children started school. This gave Mary time to be involved in anti-slavery campaigns and visiting the poor. However, Anna’s fall on a wet pavement, which damaged both her ankles and led to permanent lameness and pain, meant that Mary became Anna’s nurse. She sought possible cures for her daughter, both at home and abroad, but to no avail.
In 1836, Isaac became a bank manager and they moved to Brighton. Over the next 20 years, they moved around Sussex and then to Gloucester, where Mary was baptised into the Church of England, but wherever they lived, she was always involved in helping the poor (although they were not a wealthy family), in mothers’ meetings, working men’s institutes, prison visiting and the temperance movement. Mary’s strong belief in moral education for children led to her career as an author. She admired the great poets, but made no such claim for herself, although her works were mainly written in verse. In 1858, the publishers of Jane Eyre issued her first major book, Homely Ballads for the Working Man’s Fireside, which was very popular. So, she followed it with The Children of Summerbrook, which Jarrold published in 1859. Jarrold published all her subsequent books, written in verse or as ballads, but her prose work, Patience Hart’s First Experience in Service, was the greatest success. This book was about a country-bred girl going to London, which reflected the situation of many young girls at the time.
Her son, Philip, had worked as an engineer in Spain for a number of years, but returned to England to live in Norwich with his wife and family. In 1866, his wife died, leaving him to care for his seven children, so Mary decided she, Isaac and Anna should move back to Norfolk, so she could help him. In 1867, they moved to the White House in Catton. Mary wrote no further books, but cared for her immediate family, visited her siblings at Buxton and continued her charitable interests. By now, Anna was confined to bed or a sofa, but had started to write Black Beauty, either dictating to her mother or writing outline notes, which Mary transcribed. The novel was published by Jarrold, who paid £40 for it, in 1877, only four months before Anna’s death. After suffering with dementia, Isaac died 18 months later, but Mary survived a further six years, active and alert to the end. She was buried in the Quaker burial ground at Lammas, alongside her daughter and husband.
Although Mary’s own major writing career lasted only nine years, it produced works highly thought of at the time; her care of her daughter, Anna, and the assistance she gave her in writing Black Beauty led to the production of a long-lasting classic work. Her own connection with the property at 56, Southtown Road was brief, due largely to family financial circumstances, but she is worthy of our cognition.
Mary Sewell's most popular book, Mother's Last Words.