Academic journal article Journal of Correctional Education

Mary Carpenter: 19th Century English Correctional Education Hero

Academic journal article Journal of Correctional Education

Mary Carpenter: 19th Century English Correctional Education Hero

Article excerpt


This article introduces the scope of Mary Carpenter's work in prison reform and correctional education. The first section is a summary of the main themes of Carpenter's life and her views on the connection between correctional and alternative education. The second section presents selections from her writings that read almost like object lessons or parables, three brief reports about the relationship between the personalities of change agents and the changes they implemented. The authors hope this material will encourage readers by making information accessible about a very important historical figure's contribution to our field.


Professor J. Estlin Carpenter's book about his aunt Mary began with these words: "This book is chiefly written as a record of work for workers" (Carpenter, J.E., 1974/1881, p. v). The current article outlines the life and work of Mary Carpenter, a great correctional/alternative educator, institutional founder/manager, prison reformer, writer, and advocate for women's emancipation.

Notes: (a) One difference between correctional education in the in the 19th and 21 st centuries is that the field has become increasingly secularized. The authors believe that the similarities are striking, despite this important difference. Certainly the central aspects of Carpenter's view toward the field remain relevant.

(b) Unless otherwise referenced, the material in the next section is from J.E. Carpenter's 1974/ 1881 book.

Summary of the Main Themes of Mary Carpenter's Life

Early Life

Mary Carpenter was born in 1807, the daughter of a Unitarian Minister. In 1817 the family moved from Exeter to Bristol, England. Bristol remained her home base throughout her life.

As a child Mary taught Sunday school. In 1829 she started a school for girls in which her mother served as superintendent. As a young woman, Mary sought to imitate the work of prison reformer John Howard. Much later, in 1866, she actually wrote recommendations that Howard should have considered in his very influential report on the subject, including "instruction [for inmates] by a trained and efficient teacher" (p. 258).

In 1833 Mary Carpenter was converted to the cause of social activism by Dr. Joseph Tuckerman, an American minister who worked among the poor of Boston. In 1836 she had what today would be called an "out of body experience" that impacted her profoundly. She felt she knew God's intention for her life work.

By 1846 Carpenter was deeply involved in the effort to end slavery in America, a crusade to which she directed much of her time during the next two decades. She was concerned about the failure of John Brown's guerrilla initiative of 1859, which was intended to spark a slave insurrection in the U.S. She felt connected to the troubles that were brewing in 1861 which soon erupted into the American Civil War. Carpenter contributed to English antislavery bazaars to help fund abolitionist efforts. She was depressed about news of Lincoln's assassination, and favored the radical Republican cause during Reconstruction.

The Ragged School Movement

Ragged schools extended literacy to the poor, to help them read the Bible. In 1846 Carpenter established her first Ragged School in a rented building-organized somewhat like a Sunday school-with an enrollment of about 200. Like the antislavery effort, the ragged School theme endured until the end of her life. Soon she started a Night School as well. These were pioneer efforts. J.E. Carpenter later wrote "the field was altogether new..." (p. 91).

By 1849 Carpenter was networking, writing, publishing, and organizing a nationwide Ragged School movement. She came into contact with Matthew Davenport Hill, the recorder (court official) in Birmingham, England, who later helped get word of Maconochie's South Pacific penal reforms to Crofton in Ireland. These were the seeds of what became Reformatory Prison Discipline-an alternative to the brutal treatment that previously characterized adult prisons. …

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