Mary Bateson (1865-1906): an invigorating life

‘We think back through our mothers if we are women,’ Virginia Woolf wrote in A Room of One’s Own (1929). Thirty years before Woolf gave her 1928 lecture to students at Newnham and Girton – published the following year as A Room of One’s Own – a young Cambridge historian called Mary Bateson became convinced that women researchers would never be able to pursue serious scholarship without the professional and financial support of an academic institution, and so she decided to do something about it.

Mary Bateson was born in Yorkshire in 1865 and grew up with her brothers and sisters in the Master’s Lodge at St John’s College, Cambridge, where her father William Henry Bateson was Master from 1857 until his death in 1881. Mary’s mother Anna (née Aikin, 1829-1918) was a lifelong suffragist, and her parents were among the group who founded the residence for women that became Newnham College in 1871. They probably always assumed that their daughters would study there, and the oldest, Anna, began her studies in natural sciences at Newnham in 1882. Two years later Mary followed her there, taking the new subject of history as her subject. She achieved the equivalent of a distinguished First in 1887 (placed second in the whole University), and her dissertation ‘Monastic Civilisation in the Fens’ impressed Mandell Creighton, the Dixie Professor of Ecclesiastical History, so much that he advised her not to expend her energies on women’s suffrage, but to become a scholar and ‘write true history’. Bateson took his advice, but only up to a point: while she went on to research and publish many scholarly books and papers, she never gave up her suffrage campaigning or her lifelong fight for greater rights for women at Cambridge.

While a student at Newnham, Bateson had discovered her skills in debating, so it was not surprising that in 1895, now a college lecturer, she became one of the leaders of the campaign to give women the title of degrees at Cambridge. When in 1897 the Senate House vote was heavily defeated, after thousands of men crowded into King’s Parade to protest against it (see ‘No Women at Cambridge: the 1897 protests’) Bateson’s energies turned instead towards a less visible change, but just as significant for the status of women at Cambridge in the twentieth century: raising funds for the first research fellowship at Newnham.

She wanted to establish postgraduate funding for the women who didn’t have her own advantages of an academic background and private means. As a child of St John’s, Bateson knew that a college wasn’t just about bricks and mortar but about a fellowship of proven academic distinction. One of the criticisms made in 1897, and well into the twentieth century, was that women students only got their good exam results by hard work with no original talent, and could be dismissed as ‘hard swotters’. This view conveniently did not take into account the fact that women were routinely excluded from scientific societies, scholarships and prizes, and as non-members of the University, could only work in the U.L. in restricted ways (see ‘Locked Out of the Library, 1891‘).

Newnham College, Cambridge

Mary Bateson knew that although she was able to pursue her own research and writing thanks to her family connections (her older brother was the famous biologist William Bateson), other women required the financial and professional support of an academic institution. Even though Newnham was run on a shoestring, there was no time to waste. The historian Alice Gardner wrote that Mary Bateson never allowed Newnham students or staff to ‘rest on [their] oars, to be satisfied if [they] produced good tripos results or merely came up to an ordinary college standard.’ Bateson insisted on academic excellence in her own work, and she wanted the same for her college. Under her influence (and active fundraising) the first research fellowship for former students was established at Newnham in 1898: Jane Ellen Harrison was appointed, and the formal recognition of her college gave her the confidence to produce her groundbreaking Prolegomena to the Study of Greek religion (1903). Harrison’s books on the origins of Greek myths and rites wrote women back into history, and influenced Woolf and others. ‘Few books are more fascinating,’ wrote T.S. Eliot in a graduate paper at Harvard University, ‘than those of Miss Harrison’.

By 1903 Bateson’s research interests had turned from ecclesiastical history to municipal customs and laws, and she worked closely with F.W. Maitland, who had been appointed Downing Professor of the Laws of England in 1888. Her most important work was the huge two-volume Borough Customs (1904 and 1906) which brought together texts from the tenth to the seventeenth centuries, and from 1890 she also published an article or edited text almost every year in the English Historical Review, including her 1899 essay ‘Origin and History of Double Monastries’, rewriting gendered assumptions by establishing that many houses for monks and nuns were ruled by an abbess. From 1885 to 1900 she also contributed 108 articles to the original edition of the Dictionary of National Biography, founded by Woolf’s father Leslie Stephen (see my post ‘An invasion of croquet’). None of Bateson’s entries in the DNB were on women: her subjects are all men, including saints, monks and noblemen.

Although close to her family, Bateson did not want to live the typical life of a Victorian spinster and set up home with her widowed mother. Instead, Mary bought her own little house at 74 Huntingdon Road and was very happy there. Her individuality was reflected in her approach to her work, too: as well as scholarly tomes and research articles, she wrote history for the general reader. Her book Mediæval England 1066-1350 (1905) originally appeared in the popular Unwin history series The Story of the Nations in 1903, and was  ‘an original and brightly written survey of mediaeval social life’, according to historian Thomas A. Tout. Unusually for a history book of the time, it had more than 90 illustrations, some clearly chosen for their humour (such as the giant chicken from the Luttrell Psalter, below).

In her introduction, Bateson writes that ‘there is not one way, but rather there are many ways of telling a nation’s story’, and regrets that so little is known about lives of ordinary people: ‘of the lives of women, outside nunneries and outside courts, there is little recorded.’ By writing this book, Bateson was implicitly pioneering a new approach to historical research and writing: away from a largely political, narrative-driven style, and towards a granular investigation of social and economic history that would become the twentieth-century model.

She never stopped fighting for equal rights for women. ‘Mary Bateson did not spend her life in a library’, as Dockray-Miller puts it, but ‘lived in a world that was overtly political, activist and liberal as well as traditionally academic.’ Her mother and sister Anna were founding members of the Cambridge Women’s Suffrage Association, and another sister, Margaret Bateson Heitland, was a campaigning journalist and political writer. On 19 May 1906, Mary Bateson gave a speech in support of suffrage to the Prime Minister, Henry Campbell-Bannerman, and presented a petition signed by 1,530 university women graduates, among them professors and lecturers, teachers, civil servants and doctors. It was absurd that these women could not vote, she told Campbell-Bannerman. Less than six months later, at the age of just forty-one, Mary Bateson died of a brain haemorrhage following a nine-day illness. Her death deeply shocked her friends, fellow scholars and students. She left her house, library and financial resources to Newnham, and obituaries appeared in the Times, the Manchester Guardian and the English Historical Review.

It’s bittersweet that, following her untimely death, Mary Bateson was among the first women who was not a royal or noblewoman to have an entry in the Dictionary of National Biography. Her entry in the Supplement of 1912 was written by her good friend at Manchester University, Thomas Tout, who also wrote her obituary in the Manchester Guardian. Throughout his article he lists evidence of her dedicated scholarship and extraordinary output, and his concluding lines pay warm tribute to her personal qualities too. ‘High-spirited, good-humoured, and frank,’ he writes,

she was innocent of academic stiffness, provincialism, or pedantry. She delighted in society, in exercise, in travel, in the theatre, in music, and in making friends with men and women of very different types. Outside her work, what interested her most was the emancipation of women and the abolition of imposed restrictions which cripple the development of their powers.

A ‘Mary Bateson Fellowship Fund’ was set up at Newnham College in 1909 and still supports a Research Fellow in History today. Her teaching, scholarship and the influence of her life rippled outwards to inspire generations of women who followed her, both in and outside academia.  ‘When I ask you to earn money and have a room of your own,’ Woolf writes in A Room of One’s Own, ‘I am asking you to live in the presence of reality, an invigorating life.’ It was exactly how Mary Bateson lived her life.

© Ann Kennedy Smith, March 2022, all rights reserved

With thanks to the staff of Newnham College Library and its archives.

Bateson, Edith; Mary Bateson (1865-1906); Newnham College, University of Cambridge;

Sources: Mary Bateson, Mediæval England 1066-1350 (1905); William Bateson digital archive, Cambridge University Library; Mary Dockray-Miller, ‘Mary Bateson (1865-1906), Scholar and Suffragist’ in Jane Chance, Women in the Medieval Academy (Wisconsin 2005); Alice Gardner, ‘In memoriam Mary Bateson’, Newnham College Letter 1906; Ann Hamlin, Pioneers of the Past (Newnham College, 2001); Ellen A. McArthur, ‘In Memoriam: Mary Bateson’ in The Queen 8 Dec 1906; Reginald L. Poole, ‘Mary Bateson’ The English Historical Review, Volume XXII, Issue LXXXV, January 1907, Pages 64–68; E. Sidgwick, ‘Report of Principal’, Records of Newnham College 1907; T.F. Tout, ‘Mary Bateson’ in Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 Supplement; ; A Room Of One’s Own (1929) Virginia Woolf

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