Mary Showell Rogers

When Mary Showell Rogers died in 1884, she was well known in Birmingham for the many reforms that she had helped to put in place to help the poor less fortunate members of the public. She came from an educated middle-class background and married an architect William Rogers eight years her senior. The early part of her life was probably devoted to bringing up her four children.

The Rogers were members of the Baptist church on Hagley Rd (where Mary was a Sunday school teacher) and were sympathetic to the plight of the poorer classes, in particular the growing problem of young girls caught up in the growth of prostitution in the city. In 1878, a magistrate friend suggested that Mary might help in establishing a Reform home for ‘wayward’ girls similar to others which had established in other major cities.

Mary had a circle of friends from the Baptist church and from William’s Liberal party, all sympathetic to the problems that poverty, lack of education and an absence of opportunity meant for these young women. Mary and William were members of the Birmingham Liberal elite, a close knit group which included the Chamberlain, Kenrick, Osler, Martineau, Cadbury, Nettlefold and other prominent families, connected socially, politically, religiously and by inter-marriage. They were advocates of the Civic Gospel (also known as Municipal Socialism) a philosophy that saw social reform as a practical expression of Christianity. It had its origins in the teaching of George Dawson, an independent preacher famous for his oratory. It is very likely that the Rogers’ were among the congregation at Dawson’s Church of the Saviour with many others of the above Liberal ‘caucus’, that drove through social reforms which transformed Birmingham from a squalid chaos to the ‘best governed city in the world.’

While the men tackled the ‘physical reform’, Mary and her women volunteers tackled ‘moral reform.’ She visited brothels, prisons, magistrates courts to try to prevent girls sinking into prostitution, sitting with them in their cells before their trials offering support and comfort. Many then stayed at the Reform Home which in was renamed Mrs. Rogers’ Memorial Home for Friendless Girls after her death in 1884.The Home hoped to provide moral and practical training and included the Three R’s, mending, cooking, cleaning and household management. The Snowdrop League provided Bible stories and moral guidance. The girls were helped to develop their social graces, attending garden parties given by the committee. However, these efforts proved a small solution to a massive problem. Mary’s daughter in law, Mrs. Hallewell Rogers, founded a Girl’s Night Shelter in 1888-after various changes it finally closed in the 1990s.

Mary, with her interest in women’s health was also responsible for pioneering Birmingham’s first Women’s Hospital in an ordinary house in Sparkhill offering eight beds. Its chapel had two vertical stained glass windows which are now in the present Birmingham Women’s Hospital - a memorial to a wonderful achievement.

Although, she did not live to see its triumph, Mary was involved in the birth of the Suffrage movement. In 1866 a Petition was signed by 1,499 women “Praying that enfranchisement should be without distinction of sex.” Mary became the Honorary Secretary of the Birmingham Suffrage Society in 1868. She was aware that change would only come from Parliament. By the end of the 19th century Women’s Suffrage was a brilliantly organised mass movement and after the essential contribution of women to victory in 1918, the franchise was extended to women over 30 years of age it had taken 52 years of struggle to achieve. The full franchise was finally achieved in 1928.

Prim Glover - JQRT