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King, Gertrude May (1867–1954), social worker and missionary, was born in Great Barton, Suffolk, on the Lanchester estate of her mother's family, on 5 May 1867. She was the youngest daughter of the ten children born to William Norman King (d. 1914), a farmer who served as a justice of the peace, poor law guardian, and churchwarden, and his wife, Harriett Anne, née Lanchester. The Kings were prominent parishioners in a church-centred village community, and they raised their children according to Church of England doctrine of a stringent evangelical variety. Her elder brother George Lanchester King (1860–1941) later pursued a very different ecclesiastical path as the Anglo-Catholic bishop of Madagascar, secretary of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (SPG), canon of Rochester Cathedral, and assistant bishop of Rochester. He became persuaded of a more broadly inclusive catholic church and liberal theology under the influence first of the vicar at Great Barton (a curate of Charles Kingsley and a follower of F. D. Maurice) and then by his exposure to the new biblical criticism of Gore, Driver, Ewald, Davidson, and Lightfoot. Gertrude shared her brother's high churchmanship, and through him she became friendly with Brooke Foss Westcott and George Body, leaders of a liberal theological circle influenced by Charles Gore and dedicated to Christian socialism, service, and mission work. Among their other siblings, one other brother entered the church and two entered medicine.

Gertrude King became George Lanchester King's companion from his curacy to his episcopate. From 1885 to 1899 she engaged in urban and parochial mission work in several mining, dockyard, and railway centres of the industrial north—first during George's tenure as curate in Tudhoe Grange, then his curacy at Holy Trinity, Gateshead, and finally his charge of St Mary's, Tynedock, South Shields (all working-class parishes). In 1899 George was appointed bishop of Madagascar, a missionary diocese under the SPG. Gertrude went to Madagascar to join him the following year, after a year's self-financed training with the Wantage Sisters (the Community of St Mary the Virgin, an order that came out of the Oxford Movement with a strong missionary emphasis and branch communities in India and South Africa), working through the women's branch of the SPG. Upon arriving in Antananarivo, the capital, and attending a festival eucharist at the cathedral, she was struck by the earnestness of Christianity in Madagascar by comparison with its diminishing importance in English public life: ‘I could not help contrasting the numbers who came with many an English Church on All Saints' Day!’ (King to secretary of Women's Mission Association, 1 Nov 1900, CWW 98). But she also quickly adopted the widespread missionary preoccupation with secularization under a French colonial state which was generally hostile to protestant missions.

Over the next two decades King devoted her Christianizing efforts to education and moral reform, treating Antananarivo as the central training ground for what she considered the real base of evangelism in the rural areas, to be carried out by Malagasy catechists and their wives. In 1901 she founded St Lawrence's Training Home for Women, an industrial training college intended to professionalize women's lay ministry through traditional domestic industry and religious teacher training. The same year she began the first branch of the Malagasy Mothers' Union in Tananarive (by some accounts, the first indigenous branch anywhere in Africa); within its first decade the Mothers' Union (MU) in Madagascar had grown to seventeen branches and 1000 members. The MU in Madagascar reflected the high churchmanship both of the Kings personally and the SPG generally, manifested especially in the devotional character of meetings and special services. Under Gertrude King's leadership the MU in Madagascar fostered Malagasy women's early leadership in the church, but missionary fears of moral decay also led her to impose strict membership rules, particularly in prohibiting divorcees. The Madagascar MU's practice of admitting members on a communicant basis (requiring confirmation as well as baptism) was eventually adopted by the central MU in London and applied to membership criteria worldwide. The Madagascar MU also pioneered the practice of ‘linked branches’ that created epistolary relationships between British and non-Western members worldwide. Thus King's brand of female Christianity on the periphery shaped the MU at home and globally.

King was one of a number of missionaries working in Africa and Asia during this time who introduced the MU through other existing missionary work; in turn, these missionaries were central to transforming the union itself into a more explicitly missionary body. She continued this work after returning to London with her brother, who became the secretary of the SPG in 1919, after nearly twenty years' service in Madagascar. As the MU's overseas secretary from 1920 to 1934 she helped to broaden the organization into a more globally widespread and yet cohesive body, working first through missionary channels and then through all levels of membership to tie the global webs of the MU more closely to London and one another. In 1920 she spearheaded the first conference of overseas workers. The conference participants grappled with the moral boundaries of membership in a multiracial, transcolonial body, playing out the same tensions on a global scale that the Kings had encountered in Madagascar. But the conference also produced a new paradigm of universalism in launching the ‘Wave of Prayer’, an intercessory calendar that focused on women's issues in a different part of the Anglican communion each week—thus anticipating the Anglican cycle of prayer. This network paved the way for the MU's first worldwide conference in 1930, which brought together British and colonial women church leaders in London and continued subsequently to be observed decennially in conjunction with the Lambeth conference of bishops. After retiring as overseas secretary, King remained active on the MU's central executive committee and served as diocesan secretary for Gibraltar.

Under King's influence the MU grew from an English voluntary association into a global network of women. Although she never herself married she considered marriage and motherhood the centrepiece of women's Christian institution-building. This emphasis led her to develop rigid policies for non-Western inclusion in the church community, but she also believed that empowering women and spreading Christianity were mutually reinforcing endeavours that required professionalization, maternalist social reform, the indigenization of the church, and the building of a dynamic associational life across class, race, and national borders. Latterly her home was at The Riding, Horsell, Woking, Surrey. She died at the Woking and District Hospital, Woking, on 13 May 1954.

Elizabeth Prevost


E. E. Prevost, The communion of women: missions and gender in colonial Africa and the British metropole (2010) · C. Moyse, A history of the Mothers' Union: women, Anglicanism and globalisation, 1876–2008 (2009) · Bishop G. L. King: the man and his message (1941) · b. cert. · d. cert.


Bodl. RH, United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, committee on women's work · LPL, Mothers' Union

Wealth at death  

£7408 13s. 7d.: probate, 7 July 1954, CGPLA Eng. & Wales