The education of Mary Paley Marshall

Mary Paley Marshall

The economist Mary Paley Marshall was the great-granddaughter of the eighteenth-century theologian and philosopher William Paley. She was born on 24 October 1850, and grew up in a rose-covered rectory in the village of Ufford in Northamptonshire, about forty miles north of Cambridge. Her father, the Reverend Thomas Paley, was a strict Evangelical clergyman whose powerful sermons shook the little church and baffled the congregation, as Mary wrote in her beautiful memoir What I Remember published posthumously in 1947 (see my recent ‘The marvellous Mrs Marshall’ blogpost here). Mary’s mother Judith was ‘full of initiative and always bright and amusing’, she recalled. Summers at the rectory were idyllic for the three Paley children, and as young children Mary and her brother and sister spent summer days together playing croquet and rounders in the garden and looking after their Shetland pony, rabbits and hens. Visitors came to stay for weeks at a time, and there were family outings to Scarborough and Hunstanton. But after their brother was sent off to boarding school, winters seemed dull and endless for Mary and her sister, as the muddy country roads around the rectory were impassable and there were few interesting people who came to visit. Their much-loved German governess left when Mary was thirteen, and she and her sister were expected to fill their time with Sunday school teaching and keeping their mother company in visiting the sick.

It was fortunate for the Paley sisters that their father had what was an unusual attitude to learning for the time. Reverend Paley did not see why his daughters’ education should stop in early teenagehood, or be limited to certain ‘ladylike’ subjects. ‘We had a father who took part in work and play and who was interested in electricity and photography’, Mary recalled, describing how he entertained the whole village occasionally by putting on scientific demonstrations in the church hall. At home, after supper in the evenings, he read aloud to the family: everything from The Arabian Nights, Gulliver’s Travels and the Iliad to Shakespeare and Walter Scott, ‘those fireside bulwarks of the old-fashioned home evenings’ as F.M. (Flora) Mayor wrote in The Rector’s Daughter, her wonderful evocation of a similar Victorian upbringing published in 1924 (see below). Reverend Paley’s strong religious principles meant that there were limits to his tolerance of worldly things, however. He disapproved of the novels of Charles Dickens and once threw his daughters’ dolls into the fire, because, as Mary wrote, ‘he said we were making them into idols and we never had any more.’

What I Remember

When her sister left home to get married, Mary’s daughterly duties seemed duller than ever. To give her something to do (and perhaps dissuade her from marrying the army officer she was engaged to) Reverend Paley encouraged her to enter for the Cambridge Higher Local Examination, first introduced in 1869 for women over eighteen who wished to become teachers. He set about coaching Mary in divinity and mathematics, and they studied the Cambridge tutor Robert Potts’ Euclid’s Elements of Geometry together. Mary struggled with maths, and she recalled that she wept over the ‘Conic Sections’ paper in the summer of 1871. However she passed the overall examination with distinction, and was awarded a small scholarship to attend the University’s new scheme of Lectures for Women. 

The scholarship came with one condition: that she reside in Cambridge for the duration of one academic year. At the time, the idea that an unmarried woman might live apart from her parents in order to attend lectures was, as Mary said herself, ‘an outrageous proceeding’. Cambridge, like Oxford, was a male university. Fortunately for her, her father knew and liked Anne Jemima Clough, the much respected educator whom Cambridge professor Henry Sidgwick had asked to look after five women students at 74 Regent Street. Reverend Paley’s admiration for Miss Clough’s commitment to women’s higher education and his pride in his daughter’s achievements helped him to overcome his misgivings, so Mary Paley Marshall became one of Newnham’s ‘first five’ students.

In What I Remember Mary describes how she came to Cambridge for ‘general cultivation’ and only expected to stay for three terms. She chose to study Latin, History and Literature along with Logic, which Reverend Paley thought of as ‘such a safe subject’. But if he thought that his daughter would be unchanged by a Cambridge education he was mistaken. In her first term Mary obediently attended evangelical services and taught at St Giles’s Sunday school, as her father wished. But soon, she said, ‘Mill’s Inductive Logic and Ecce Homo and Herbert Spencer and the general tone of thought gradually undermined my old beliefs’, and with the encouragement of her lecturer, the economist Alfred Marshall (whom she would later marry), she changed subjects to study Moral Sciences (Political Economy, Politics and Philosophy). With Marshall’s encouragement, in 1874 Mary Paley became one of the first two women to take Cambridge University’s Moral Sciences Tripos, and  the following year she became Newnham College’s first residential woman lecturer in economics. 

In 1924 Mary Paley Marshall co-founded Cambridge University’s Marshall Library  where she also worked as Honorary Librarian until she was 87. On her death in 1944 she bequeathed £10,000 to the University “for the development and increased usefulness of the Marshall Library”. From the beginning the Marshall Library was equally useful, and accessible, to male and female readers.

I wrote about Paley Marshall’s memoir for ‘Neglected Books’ here. See my previous blogpost  ‘How to use a library’, here.

Ann Kennedy Smith

Rector's Daughter

Sources: Rita McWilliams Tullberg, Women at Cambridge: a men’s university, though of a mixed type (CUP, 1975); Mary Paley Marshall, What I Remember (CUP, 1947).

See also F.M. Mayor, The Rector’s Daughter  (1924, reissued by Virago in 1987), one of the ‘overlooked classics’ recommended by Susan Hill in The Novel Cure (2013). Flora Macdonald Mayor’s character, coincidentally also called Mary, is the unmarried 35-year-old daughter of elderly Canon Jocelyn, a clergyman in a small East Anglian village. “On the whole she was happy. She did not question the destiny life brought her. People spoke pityingly of her, but she did not feel she required pity.” Flora Mayor herself was a student at Newnham College, Cambridge in the 1890s, where she read History, and it is possible that she met Mary Paley Marshall who gave supervisions while she was there. 

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