Mary Sumner: Founder of Mothers’ Union

In 1876 Mary Sumner, a clergyman’s wife living in nearby Old Alresford, became concerned about how local mothers related their Christian faith to family life. Wanting to encourage them she founded a small group called the Mothers’ Union. She lived to see it become a worldwide organisation, now with millions of members. She is buried outside Winchester Cathedral.

Who was Mary Sumner and what are her Winchester connections?

Born in 1828 near Manchester, Mary Heywood moved to Hertfordshire with her family in 1832. While in Rome concluding her education she met George Sumner, youngest son of the then Bishop of Winchester. They fell in love and were married 1848, 18 months after his ordination.

In 1851, together with their two baby girls, they moved to Old Alresford, which is 9 miles north-east of Winchester. Later the family was added to with the birth of a boy, Heywood, who later became famous in the ‘arts and crafts’ movement. After the formation and early growth of Mothers Union, George was appointed first Archdeacon of Winchester, then Bishop of Guildford, then a suffragan post within the Diocese of Winchester. From 1885 they lived in The Close here at Winchester.

Why did she found the Mothers’ Union?

Witnessing the responsibilities of their eldest daughter’s motherhood spurred Mary Sumner to form a group of mothers drawn from all the social classes of Old Alresford. The group first met at the Rectory (now Old Alresford Place) in the summer of 1876. On that occasion they were addressed by George Sumner on the subject of giving religious teaching and leadership in the home.

How did Mothers’ Union grow in her lifetime?

For the first nine years, the Mothers’ Union remained a parochial organization, a format copied in a few places around the country. However, Mary addressed the women’s meeting of the 1885 national Church Congress and focused on the two ideas central to her Mothers’ Union group: being a good example to children, and keeping prayer central to the life of the family.

That speech led to Mothers’ Union being commended by the Bishop of Winchester, Harold Browne, as a pattern to be developed across the the Diocese. From there it spread rapidly in Britain and across the Commonwealth. Within a year it was operating in four continents and by the turn of the century it had 169,000 members. Mary Sumner was unanimously elected president of this international organisation in 1896 and remained actively involved in the organisation until her death in 1921.

Where are the memorials to Mary Sumner around Winchester Cathedral?

In 1912 Mothers’ Union members from around the British Empire subscribed to pay for two of the supporting buttresses required along the south wall of the Cathedral Nave in recognition of Mary Sumner’s ‘work for the sanctity of home life’ and the support of her husband. The plaques are still visible.

George and Mary Sumner are both buried in the graveyard to the south-east of the Cathedral. Commemorated in the Anglican calendar on 9th August, local members annually place flowers on her grave on that date. The grave can be accessed though a small gate in the fence.

Mothers’ Union remains the greatest memorial to Mary Sumner, with 4 million members in 83 countries continuing to support marriage and family life through diverse community and development projects. There are approximately 1400 members in the Diocese of Winchester. They hold a monthly prayer meeting, often in the Epiphany Chapel, and their banner is kept in the Lady Chapel.