Mary Arnold WARD (1851–1920)
also known as Mrs Humphry WARD
Social reformer, novelist
17 Bradmore Road, Oxford
Mary Augusta Arnold was born in Tasmania where her father Thomas Arnold was Education Secretary and had married Julia Sorrell, a local beauty. Thomas was the son of the great Dr Arnold of Rugby and brother of Matthew Arnold. The family returned to England in 1856 and in 1867 to Oxford and a large house called ‘Laleham’ on the Banbury Road. Mary began to develop her intellect and ideas through the society of such Oxford figures as Mark Pattison, T. H. Green and Benjamin Jowett. In 1872 she married Thomas Humphry Ward, a young Fellow of Brasenose, and they set up home at 5 (now 17) Bradmore Road where their children, Dorothy, Arnold, and Janet were born. Meanwhile she was instrumental, with other dons’ wives such as Louise Creighton and Charlotte Green, in establishing education for women at Oxford, becoming the first Secretary of Somerville in 1879 and suggesting its name.
In 1881 the family moved to London where Humphry had become art critic for The Times. Mary had previously written numerous articles, reviews, translations and some fiction but now embraced the novel as her medium for exploring the serious dilemmas of the age. In 1888 Robert Elsmere, a novel on the theme of religious faith and doubt, made a huge impact with phenomenal sales in Britain and the USA. In 1908 she made a triumphant tour of North America, winning the friendship of President Theodore Roosevelt. Altogether Mrs Humphry Ward, as she chose to call herself, published 26 novels and was the world’s best-selling novelist at the turn of the century, earning royalties unprecedented for the time.
Whilst the novels are now almost forgotten, her imaginative social work lives on, especially through the Mary Ward Centre, originally known as the Passmore Edwards Settlement, founded by her in 1897 near the deprived area of St Pancras to provide public education – concerts, lectures, debates, interest societies – and social service for the community. She initiated the Play Centre movement which provided care and activities for children outside school hours, an idea which she promoted throughout the country. She opened one of the very first schools for physically disabled children. She was a formidable lobbyist for the causes she espoused, although ultimately unsuccessful in her paradoxical anti-suffrage stance. During the Great War in 1916 (and again in 1919), although afflicted by debilitating illness, she went to the Front to report on the conditions and aftermath. At Roosevelt’s suggestion she wrote a propaganda book, England’s Effort (1916), to persuade the USA to commit to the struggle.
She died in 1920 and was buried at Aldbury in Hertfordshire where her beloved country house ‘Stocks’ was situated.
- Sources: Mrs Humphry Ward: Eminent Victorian, Pre-eminent Edwardian by John Sutherland (OUP 1990); Mary Ward Centre website
- Picture: Plaque unveiling ceremony
The plaque was unveiled at 17 Bradmore Road on 28 April 2012 by George Macaulay Trevelyan, great-grandson of Mary Ward, together with Dr Alice Prochaska, Principal of Somerville College and Ceri Williams, Principal of the Mary Ward Centre. The main speech in tribute was given by Professor Elisabeth Jay, of Oxford Brookes University.
Oxfordshire Blue Plaques Board
(MRS HUMPHRY WARD)