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  • Writer's pictureErin

History - Women of St Paul's Cathedral. Mary Jane Brabazon, a forgotten Victorian philanthropist

Updated: Feb 18, 2021

Mary Jane Brabazon (1847 – 1918) a forgotten Victorian philanthropist and campaigner.

St Paul's Cathedral is home to some pretty impressive monuments. From the Duke of Wellington's rather impressive memorial, William Holman Hunt's Light of the World, Sir William Blake Richmond's mosaics decorating the quire, Nelson's dominating tomb the crypt and of course the super masculine Henry Moore's Mother and Child. It's theplace of burial for important people throughout our history, as well as a place to remember and commemorate them.

Woah, hang on, that's an awful lot of testosterone there, and yes history has been male dominated, but surely women get a mention somewhere in St Paul's too? Just scratch a little bit beneath the surface of it's history, and you'll find a whole treasure trove of women's lives, tales and stories to be told, and over the next few blog posts I hope to bring some of them to life.

I'll start with the wonderful Mary Jane Brabazon, Countess of Meath who was an incredible women. But sadly, a monument to her is tucked away almost hidden became William Holman Hunt's piece, and even then it's actually to her husband and she's just mentioned as a side note.

It sadly seems the memory of this awe inspiring woman has been forgotten, pushed to the back of the shelf somewhat. Unfortunately Lady Mary lived during a time when women, especially those who worked to improve social problems, did not receive any recognition for their contribution to the nation. Most appreciation has seemed to gone to her husband, but this in my opinion this seems rather unfair. She can confidently be put on the list of many of the Victorian philanthropists, whose tiresome and revolutionary work, completely changed the generation of which she lived in, and continues to even to this day.

Founder of the Home of Comfort for Epileptic Women and Girls, at Godalming, her work continues to have a very important impact to many, and it's a woman that really should be getting more recognition that she deserves!

The first of many things she did was to set up the Brabazon Employment Society, which helped women in many workhouses to occupy their time. Initiated in 1882, her aim was to prove occupation for the non-able-bodied inmates of workhouses, such as knitting, embroidery and lace making, offering access to training provided by volunteers, and the costs were initially from Mary herself. The scheme took a while to take off, that was until the workhouses realized that they could sell the goods that were being produced, and the project could be self-financing. And it was through this scheme that she met and became interested in people living with epilepsy.In the 19th century, people with epilepsy had limited life chances and many lived in workhouses or asylum. And thus the idea of the Home of Comfort for Epileptic Women and Girls was born. Buying a Westbrook, a country house in Godalming, she together with her husband British politician Reginald Brabazon (who was also a generous philanthropist with a keen interest in social problems), started planning a home for sixty girls and women between the ages of 2 to 35, ready for their ideas to come to light. With work underway, the couple went on a fact mission abroad, and whilst in Germany met Pastor von Bodelschwingh, who had set up a refuge for people with epilepsy, enabling those their to live a sheltered and useful life, and surely gave much inspiration to Mary.

Back home at Westbrook opened it's doors, with Lady Meath pronouncing it “would function on the lines of the home and not a hospital and to her wish that it should be a Home of Comfort, all being made as bright and cheerful as possible”.The first resident was 12 year old Jemina Lemon, and just a few years later, a prospering 87 patients were taking residency here by 1920.

And her legacy lives on at Westbrook, with The Meath Epilepsy Charity, which still helps people with complex epilepsy as well as other related disabilities, giving them tailored care and support, and enabling them to live happy, fulfilled lives and avoiding social exclusion. Today the house has been divided into several self-contained units where residents live in groups and each is supported by its own team of staff.

But incredibly her work didn't stop there. She also founded the Ministering Children’s League, an organisation that developed and established homes across the world to care for destitute children. Her work started in London, but later spread across the British Empire and to the UK. As well as supporting East London churches, slums and workhouses in Dublin.

And of course her husband does deserve a mention. Not only for editing Meath's diaries, which can be seen at Godalming Museum Local Studies Library, as I mentioned previously, he was equally a passionate philanthropist, and made great changes during his lifetime, devoting his energy to improve the living and working conditions for the working class. Back then, the lower class were living in damp, over crowded houses, and working in horrific conditions, and Meath believed in open spaces and clean air. He developed the movement for open spaces, “The London Parks”, and also founded Empire Day (now known as Commonwealth Day, which he cleverly designed to coincide with Queen Victoria's birthday (24thMay).

And on Empire Day in 1932a memorial window was unveiled and dedicated in the NE Transept dedicated to the couple, but this was sadly damaged in World War Two.

In 1953, a stone memorial was unveiled under the site of the window, which is all that we have today. Something so small, and easily missed, to such such a power couple of their day, who definitely shouldn't be forgotten.

Heard in London


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