Mary Carpenter was an English educational and social reformer. She brought education to poor children and young offenders in Bristol who had been previously denied it.
Carpenter was born in 1807 in Exeter. In 1817 her family moved to Bristol and her father took charge of the Lewin’s Mead Unitarian meeting house. He also established boarding school at Great George Street, Brandon Hill, which was run by his wife and daughters. Carpenter studied at the school before later teaching there herself. In 1827 she taught as a governess in the Isle of Wight, two years later she returned to Bristol where she opened a small school for girls with her mother and became the head teacher.
In 1833 Carpenter Raja Rammohun Ray, a founder of the Brahmo Samaj movement which reformed social Hinduism who was visiting Bristol. She was influenced by his philosophy and he encouraged her interest in India. That same year Carpenter met Joseph Tuckerman, an American Unitarian who had founded the Ministry-at-Large to the Poor in Boston, Massachusetts. Tuckerman inspired her to take an interest in social reform when the two of them were walking through a slum district of Bristol and a small boy ran across their path dressed in rags. Tuckerman said “That child should be followed to his home and seen after.” and Carpenter set about tackling the problems and experiences of children living in poverty.
In 1835 Carpenter founded a Working and Visiting Society for which she was secretary for 20 years. The society worked in the slums around Lewin’s Mead and would visit the poor and raise funds from the
emerging middle classes to alleviate poverty and improve education. The group was inspired by Tuckerman’s work in Boston.
In 1843 Carpenter began to take an interest in the anti-slavery movement following a visit from Boston philanthropist Samuel May. She assisted in fund-raising for the abolitionist cause and stayed active in the campaign for the next 20 years. After the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 was brought in and a a fugitive slave from Boston was returned to the southern states she was so shocked by the ‘atrocious act the United States had committed against humanity, against itself, against God.“ she turned her whole attention to her work in education.
In 1846 Carpenter started a ragged school (a charitable organisation dedicated to the free education of destitute children in 19th-century Britain) following the failure of bill introduced by Parliament Parliament “to make provision for the better education of children in manufacturing districts”. Ragged schools had been created in many English towns and Carpenter started hers in Lewin’s Mead. Later she opened a night school for adults. Carpenter was faced with the terrible behaviour of poverty-stricken children but succeed by using her ability and enthusiasm to engage them. She focused on the needs of the most difficult of the children, acknowledging the fact that otherwise they would either become, or continue to be criminals. Carpenter also published a memoir of Joseph Tuckerman and a series of articles on ragged schools which were published first in The Inquirer and later as a book.
In 1851, following her studies of the situation in other countries and the methods in which reform programmes had been developed Carpenter published her essay on reform schools: Reformatory Schools for the Children of the Perishing and Dangerous Classes and for Juvenile Offenders. She called a conference in Birmingham to discuss the institutional care of young offenders and followed this by opening her own reformatory for boys and girls at Kingswood to follow through with, and publicise her ideas. The school experienced problems due to the fact that it taught both boys and girls and two years later Carpenter started her pioneering reform school for girls in Red Lodge on Park Row – the building is now the Red Lodge Museum. She felt that the children would succeed if they felt safe, secure and loved and that they should willingly co-operate in their own education. She also believed in the importance of a balance between work and play and only used corporal punishment in the most severe of instances. Her approach to education was based on her religion and she felt that christian and moral teaching was just as important as learning skills to work in a trade.
Carpenter’s work both in creating reform schools and in writing on the subject lead in part to the writing of Youthful Offenders Act 1854. Her lobbying helped to influence the passing of the Industrial Schools Acts 1857, 1861, and 1866. She also published a book on the convict system in 1864. Carpenter was also interested in Indian affairs, she entertained a number of Indian visitors to Britain and visited the country four times. She took an interest in the education of women and penal policy and in 1870 founded the National India Association and pressured British governments for reform. Carpenter was a great supporter of the movement for higher education of women but would not express this support and she felt that the unpopularity of the movement for women’s suffrage would damage her educational and penal reforms. In 1877 she appeared on a public platform in Bristol, supporting the Bristol and West of England Society for Women’s Suffrage. She died that same year.
Carpenters reformatory school in Kingswood remained open until 1984 and the Red Lodge Girls’ Reformatory until 1918. Her campaigns for juvenile penal reform had a major influence on the development on changes for the way in which young offenders were dealt with and her writing brought about major reforms in correctional education in Britain, Europe, India and America. There is a room in the Red Lodge dedicated to her memory.