Life story retold by Yota Dimitriadi
Mary Gordon Burnett was born on 21st January 1859, the daughter of Henry Burnett and his second wife Sarah. Their home was in Ardwick, Manchester. She was baptised on the 17th September 1859 at Manchester Cathedral, formally the Cathedral and Collegiate Church of St Mary, St Denys and St George.
Mary was referred to as Charles Dickens’s niece and this was partly true. Her father, Henry, a professor of music, married Dickens’s eldest and favourite sister, the talented and well-known pianist Elizabeth Frances (Fanny) Dickens in September 1837. Henry Burnett was a non-conformist and Dickens did not like his religious views. The couple settled in Manchester and had two sons; one of them was Henry Augustus Junior (pictured below) in 1839. He was disabled and died at the age of 9, a year after his mother. He inspired Dickens’s characters little Paul Dombey and Tiny Tim.
The second son, Charles Dickens Kneller Burnett was born in 1841 and is buried in Reading Old with Mary. Fanny was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1846. Charles Dickens persuaded Henry to bring the family to London for Fanny to have more support from her family and the best doctors. Unfortunately Fanny died at the age of 38 in September 1848. Mary’s father remained friends with Dickens, moved to Lancaster, remarried and had 2 more children: Mary Gordon and Reginald Hargreaves.
By 1871 the Burnett family had moved to Titchfield, Hampshire where Henry came from. Henry was recorded in the census of that year as “landowner”. Mary Gordon 12 and Reginald 9 lived there with their cousins: Helena 19, Lucy 17, Louisa, 14 all scholars and Fanny 16 “scholar when well’’.
The 1881 census shows that the family moved to Sonning, Earley in Wokingham. They lived at “Gothic Cottage” in Crescent Road. Reginald was now 19 and still a scholar. Mary Gordon, 22 and her cousin Helena, 38, were still there. Charles Dickens Burnett was also 38, unmarried and a clerk.
In 1901 Mary Gordon went back to Titchfield and was living at High Street as a boarder. The Head of the household was Mrs. S. Peace, a 78 year old widow.
Mary helped set up and was the president of the Passive Resistance League in Colne. The League was a response to the passing of the Balfour Education Act of 1902 that handed over school duties to local councils and gave church schools public funding. Non conformists like Mary opposed to taxes being paid to fund the teaching of religious views that some rate payers were opposed.
Mary’s mother Sarah came from the well-known and wealthy family of Hargreaves from Colne, Lancaster. They were landowners and among other property they owned Colne Waterworks and a manor in the Forest of Pendle and the Honor of Clitheroe, which Sarah inherited. There is a surviving diary from 1784 of one of her ancestrors, the landowner Abraham Hargreaves.
We know that Mary was the last member of her immediate family and inherited a lot of estate from her mother’s side. Property included Heirs House in Colne part of the Standroyd Estate (see photos below), cotton mills in Habergham Eaves and Albion Mills in Burnley. On 25 May 1909 Mary was the lessor for Heirs House earning a rent of £16 11s 6d pa.
In Lancaster Mary set up the Colne Blind Aid, which gave her skills and experience used for the running of Reading Blind Aid Society later on. Mary moved back to Reading in 1910. She already knew Mr Hugh Edward Walford from previous charity work on supporting the blind. Mary joined the Reading Blind Aid Society in 1912 and co-ran it with Mr Walford (also buried in Reading Old) as honorary secretary and lady superintendent of the home workers’ scheme until her death in 1925. Both Mr Walford and Miss Burnett volunteered their time and resources for the Society; actually there were no paid employees in the Society. Mary supervised and contributed financially to the work of the society. We are discovering more about her activism in that field. She represented the society at the Metropolitan Union and the international conference for the Blind in London. The good reputation of the Society and their achievements were recognised past their death in international publications like ‘The New Beacon’ which in 1932 stated ‘…Mr Walford and his devoted helper, the late Miss Mary Gordon Burnett, did pioneer work for the blind of Reading.’
According to the press of the time, the Reading Blind Aid Society funding and pension scheme was so successful that there were no blind beggars in Reading during its time: ‘No destitute poor blind people all being assured a sufficient income to provide food and clothing’. It was actually so successful that blind people from other boroughs were keen to move to Reading to be supported.
Like Mr Walford, who was very active in local politics, Mary was vocal about her beliefs and values and the need to support the blind community in Reading, views which she shared in letters to the local press. We have found no letters from her to the press before she moved to Reading. Her obituary describes her as ‘possessed with a fine power in organising and inspiring and eloquent speaker’. She was a supporter of the temperance movement, was a life governor of the Royal Berkshire Hospital and a member of the Conservative party. For the last 10 years of her life Mary was the President of Young Helpers’ League, Dr Barnardo’s Homes.
Mary devoted all her life to charitable work and the welfare of others. For instance, she had taken into her home Armenian refugees (the Armenian genocide occurred in 1896 and 1916).
Mary bequeathed the legacy of £1,000 for the purpose of endowing a bed in perpetuity at the name of Reginald Hargreaves at the Burnley Victoria Hospital. The average cost of each bed was £126 19s. 1d in 1926 (Burnley Express, 13 March 1926).
Mary lived at the house of Hugh E. Walford at ‘Pattingham’, 92 London Road for 15 years. She contracted an illness, which within a week worsened and she died two weeks later on the evening of Sunday 4 October 1925. Her funeral took place on Thursday 8 October. It was well attended by friends and a lot of the blind people she supported. Reading Standard reported ‘The floral tributes…were particularly beautiful’ (Saturday 10 October 1925). The service both at the house and at the cemetery was conducted by the Reverend R.G. Fairbairn while the funeral arrangements were overseen by Messrs Heelas, Sons & Co, Ltd.
Mary Gordon had no executors. Her probate was read in London on 19 November 1925 and a public Trustee was appointed for her effects of £23,111 9s. 6d.
Buried in Section 12, Row C, Plot 2