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Merington, Martha Crawford (1830/31–1912), poor-law guardian, was born in London, the eldest daughter in the family of at least four daughters and four sons of Richard Whiskin Merington (1807–1874), deputy principal of the discount office of the Bank of England, and his wife, Margaret (1802–1877). By 1871 she was living with her unmarried sisters in her parents' home in Kensington. She was well connected: her close associates included Caroline Biggs (editor of the Englishwomen's Review and member of the Committee for Promoting the Return of Women as Poor Law Guardians), Helen Taylor and Augusta Webster (members of the London school board in the 1870s and 1880s), the educationist Emily Anne Shirreff, and the philanthropist Mary Anne Donkin.

The earliest reference to any public activity on the part of Martha Merington (or Merrington as her name was often misspelt) is a minute of the London school board (10 January 1872), where it is recorded that she had joined Chelsea divisional committee in January 1872. This was a local body formed to assist the London school board in the struggle over school attendance, and she served alongside Emily Shirreff, the co-founder of the National Union for the Improvement of the Education of Women of all Classes. Later that same year Mary Anne Donkin joined the committee. A worker for the Charity Organization Society, she lived just the other side of Kensington High Street from Merington (London school board minutes, 18 Dec 1872). By June 1874 Miss Merington was manager of three elementary schools in Notting Hill (ibid., 7 May and 22 Oct 1873, 17 June 1874). In these years she also established crèches for the babies of working women in Kensington.

In the spring of 1875 Merington put herself forward as a candidate for the Kensington board of guardians. She polled 3893 votes and was elected eighteenth of eighteen successful candidates (Kensington board of guardians minute book, 16 April 1875). The first woman to be elected to a poor-law guardianship, she was appointed to a local relief committee, as well as becoming a visitor to the workhouse and the workhouse infirmary. Six months later, when one of her male colleagues from the visiting committee, Frederick Edgcombe, pressed the appointment of a committee to visit the asylums and schools, she joined him on it.

For the next three years Martha Merington took an active interest in poor-law administration. Authorized to reorganize the staffing of the workhouse infirmary, she earned the gratitude of her male colleagues when she managed to produce a weekly saving on the wages bill of £4 17s. 6d. (Kensington board of guardians minute book, 16 March 1876). She had previously visited a school at Herne Bay, Kent, where some Kensington pauper children were boarded. Her concern led the guardians to appoint a lady volunteer visitor and in December 1875 Mary Anne Donkin was deputed to produce a further report. The experiment was a success. Miss Donkin submitted a list of recommendations and the guardians thanked her ‘for the careful and efficient manner in which she had conducted the enquiry’ (ibid., 30 Dec 1875). In April 1877 Merington's efforts were acknowledged when she was elected twelfth of eighteen guardians. For two years she prioritized her duty visits to the infirmary and pauper schools and became an infrequent attender at board meetings (ibid., April 1877 to May 1879). She was disqualified from serving in 1879 when a ratepayer took legal action against her candidacy on the grounds that she was moving house when the election took place.

In November 1879 Merington joined the controversy over the administration of Upton House, the London school board's new truant school. Replying to a letter from Helen Taylor informing her of the conditions at the school, she proposed a radically different approach. In particular, she pressed the case for altering the management of the day schools in order to promote school attendance. First, she suggested that there should be a good fire in the entrance room or hall; second, that a ‘kind old woman not a teacher’ should greet the children, reward the early arrivals with a ‘bun or sugarplum’, take their outer clothing, and ‘send them into the schoolroom warm and happy—whereas they now go in cold and crying to undergo school discipline’ (Merington to H. Taylor, 18 Nov 1879, Mill–Taylor MSS). Writing as the school board faced the triennial elections, she also offered her services as a public speaker and informed Helen Taylor of a campaign meeting to be held at her home in Harrington Gardens on behalf of Augusta Webster. Merington set a precedent for female involvement in local government. It seems fitting that in 1881 Mary Anne Donkin inherited her seat on the Kensington board of guardians.

In 1881 Martha Merington was living with her schoolmistress sister, Emily, at 10 Harrington Gardens, Kensington, on income derived from property; twenty years later she was living with two young nieces in Croydon, as a self-employed teacher of languages. She died at 20 Lingfield Road, Wimbledon, on 2 September 1912.

Jane Martin

Sources  

minute books, 1875–80, LMA, Kensington board of guardians archives · London school board minutes, 1870–80, LMA · P. Hollis, Ladies elect: women in English local government, 1865–1914 (1987); pbk edn (1989) · London School of Economics, Mill–Taylor collection · census returns, 1871, 1881, 1891, 1901 · d. cert. · The Times (5 Sept 1912)

Archives  

LMA, Kensington board of guardians · London School of Economics, Mill–Taylor collection


Wealth at death  

£69 7s. 6d.: probate, 9 March 1895, CGPLA Eng. & Wales