Mary Ryott Sheepshanks was one of many daughters of Liverpool who gained prominence as a feminist, pacifist and educator in the struggles of the early twentieth century.
She was born near Harrogate, Yorkshire on 25th October 1872. Her father, John Sheepshaks, was a Church of England cleric and in 1873 he was appointed vicar of St Margaret’s Church on Belmont Road in Anfield. He would serve in the parish for some twenty years before becoming Bishop of Norwich. Her mother, Margaret Ryott, was a descendant of Oliver Cromwell. The 1881 and 1891 censuses show the family living at the St Margaret’s Vicarage at 1 Rocky Lane L6. She was the second of thirteen children and recalled her childhood years unhappily, feeling neglected by her parents and adversely treated compared to her brothers. Her sister, Dorothy Erskine Muir became a noted author and academic and her brother Thomas (later Sir Thomas) was a senior civil servant who was Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Housing.. Mary Sheepshanks attended the Liverpool High School for Girls (which became the Belvedere School) and then studied medieval and modern languages at Newnham College, Cambridge.
She became heavily involved in projects seeking to advance social justice and her ‘advanced views’ led to her being cut off by her family. She joined the Women’s University Settlement, later the Blackfriars Settlement , in Southwark. This was the worst poverty blackspot in London and she became a pioneering social worker. She was also one of the first women educational administrators, being appointed vice-principal of Morley College for Working Men and Women.
From 1899 to 1919 she lived at 1 Barton Street in Westminster, a home she shared with many of the leading suffragists of the period. Intellectually committed to the suffragettes’ cause, she was, however, averse to their more violent forms of protest. In 1917 she became the secretary of the International Women's Suffrage Alliance and editor of its monthly paper, Ius Suffragii. She adopted a pacifist approach to the First World War, continuing to lobby after its end for peace terms which would truly mitigate against future European conflicts.
During the late 1930s Mary Sheepshanks gave shelter in her own home to a succession of Trotskyist exiles, to Sudetenland socialists, and, increasingly, to German and Austrian Jews. Finally, in 1939, she had to renounce her lifelong pacifism and back the war against Nazi Germany. In 1945, however, she was deeply opposed to the dropping of the atom bomb. On 21st January 1960, confined by arthritis to a chair and faced with compulsory institutionalization, she took her own life, dying at her home, 15 Thurlow Road, Hampstead, London.
The Sheepshanks home whilst John Sheepshanks was Vicar of St Margaret's Church, Anfield.
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