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date: 18 September 2020

Bateson, Maryfree

  • Mary Dockray-Miller

Bateson, Mary (1865–1906), historian and suffragist, was born on 12 September 1865 at Ings House, Robin Hood's Bay, Yorkshire, the daughter of William Henry Bateson (1812–1881), master of St John's College, Cambridge, and his wife, Anna Aikin (1829–1918), a promoter of women's rights and liberal causes in Cambridge. William Bateson, the biologist, was her elder brother, and Margaret Heitland, the journalist and women's suffragist, was her elder sister. She attended the Misses Thornton's school in Cambridge in the mid-1870s before spending a year at the Institut Friedländer in Baden, Germany. Her command of German was substantial enough for her to be engaged as the German teacher at the Perse School for Girls at the same time as she was a pupil there (1881–4), preparing to enter Newnham College, Cambridge, of which her parents had been among the founders in 1871. She attended Newnham from 1884 to 1887, taking a first class in the historical tripos at Cambridge in 1887 and winning the historical essay prize at Newnham for a dissertation, 'Monastic civilisation in the fens'.

Bateson remained a member of the Newnham community for the rest of her life as an associate, lecturer, and fellow of the college. She lectured in English constitutional history, served on the college council, and shared in the unsuccessful effort of 1895–7 to have women admitted to full membership of Cambridge University. Eleanor Sidgwick, second principal of Newnham, described Bateson, who recognized the connection between financial security and scholarly production, as the prime mover behind the foundation of Newnham's research fellowships. Bateson was awarded one of the first of these fellowships in 1903 from a fund to which she had contributed £250. Upon the expiry of her fellowship she gave the money back to the fund to assist other scholars.

It is primarily for her medieval scholarship that Bateson is remembered outside Newnham. Under the mentorship of Cambridge colleagues Mandell Creighton and, later, F. W. Maitland, Bateson continued her studies of medieval culture, editing texts and publishing both scholarly and popular history. Her earlier work focused on monastic and religious history; her editio princeps of Ælfric's Letter to the Monks of Eynsham, which was published as appendix 7 in G. W. Kitchin (ed.), Compotus Rolls of the Obedientiares of St. Swithun's Priory, Winchester (1892), remained the only available text of this important Benedictine reform document until 1984. Her essay 'Origin and early history of double monasteries' (Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, new ser., 13, 1899, 137–98), is a foundational text in the history of women's religious communities. Using a wide range of primary sources, Bateson established a history and a precedent for ‘double monasteries’—houses for monks and nuns ruled by an abbess, usually of royal birth.

In almost every year from 1890 to 1906 Bateson contributed an article or short edited text to the English Historical Review; she collaborated with its editors (Maitland and R. L. Poole) to prepare The Charters of the Borough of Cambridge (1901) and the Index Britanniae scriptorum (1902). She also contributed 108 biographical articles to the original edition of the DNB. The subjects of all these entries are men; they include saints, monks, and noblemen. Some date to the Anglo-Saxon or early modern periods; most cluster in the Anglo-Norman and high middle ages.

By the mid-1890s Bateson's focus had changed from monasteries and cathedrals to boroughs and towns, and her later work tends to address the medieval history of municipal customs and laws. She edited the Records of the Borough of Leicester (3 vols., 1899, 1901, and 1905) as well as the Cambridge Gild Records (Cambridge Antiquarian Society, 1903). Her final and probably most important editorial work was the mammoth two-volume Borough Customs (Selden Society, 1904 and 1906) that brought together tenth- to seventeenth-century texts such as charters, law codes, custumals, letters patent, patent rolls, council orders, and ordinance rolls to 'set out the rules which obtained in the borough-moots', as she notes in the introduction to volume 1.

Bateson's essay 'The laws of Bréteuil' (English Historical Review, 15, 1900, 73–8, 302–18, 496–523, 754–7; and 16, 1901, 92–110, 332–45) is still an important text in the field of legal history, as it illustrates that the Norman town of Bréteuil, not the English town of Bristol (as was previously believed), is the origin of many English borough laws and customs. Her substantial scholarly reputation was such that she was asked to be the prestigious Warburton lecturer at the University of Manchester in 1905; her two lectures were entitled 'Survivals of ancient customs in English borough law'.

Bateson also wrote a large quantity of popular history. Her only book that is not a scholarly edition of a historical text, Mediaeval England, appeared in the popular Unwin history series The Story of the Nations (1903). She contributed 'The French in America' to the 1903 edition of the Cambridge Modern History, and a number of social history essays to H. D. Traill's monumental historical encyclopaedia Social England (1901–4), as well as a chapter, 'The borough of Peterborough', for the Victoria County History of Northampton (1906). Bateson's skills as a writer for the general public were acknowledged when she was asked by Cambridge University Press to act as a general editor of the Cambridge Medieval History, a post which she was unable to take up before her untimely death at forty-one.

Mary Bateson the historian was also Mary Bateson the suffragist and women's rights crusader, despite the disapproval of Creighton, her Newnham colleague Alice Gardner, and others. She served the Cambridge Women's Suffrage Association (an affiliate of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies, the NUWSS) in a variety of capacities throughout the 1880s and 1890s: in a paid position as meeting organizer (1888), as executive committee member (1889), secretary of the association (1892–8), secretary to the special appeal (1894), and national conference delegate (1896).

Bateson spoke as part of a suffrage deputation to the prime minister, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, on 19 May 1906, representing women graduates of universities in a group of 350 representatives from twenty-five different NUWSS affiliates. She made a brief speech and presented a petition signed by 1530 women university graduates 'who believe the disenfranchisement of one sex to be injurious to both, and a national wrong in a country which pretends to be governed on a representative system' (NUWSS, 11).

Bateson also took the socially unusual step of moving out of her mother's house and into a home of her own on Huntingdon Road. It seems that she valued her peace and quiet over the custom of an adult, unmarried daughter living with her parents. She was remembered in obituaries as a gracious, compassionate woman with a sense of humour and a keen intellect. Gardner noted that any party was sure to succeed if Mary Bateson were on the guest list, and mentions Bateson's 'unexpected sallies of wit' at college meetings (Gardner, In memoriam, 34). Thomas Frederick Tout, the historian, stated that she 'was popular socially in circles that cared little for her personal [academic] distinction' and referred to her 'rare sense of humour … her deep, hearty laugh … [her] downright breezy good-fellowship' (Tout, 6). Bateson's Girton colleague Ellen A. McArthur recalled her as 'absolutely honest, independent, and fearless, full of commonsense, and endowed with a sense of humour' (McArthur, 1033).

Bateson's death from a brain haemorrhage, at the Nursing Hostel, Thompsons Lane, Cambridge, on 30 November 1906 shocked all the communities of which she was a part. Bertrand Russell, for one, found her death 'very sad—she will be a terrible loss to Newnham and to Cambridge … I respected and admired her very much indeed. She was the last person one would have thought of as likely to die' (Bertrand Russell to M. Llewellyn-Davies, 4 Dec 1906, McMaster University). She was buried in the Histon Road cemetery in Cambridge. She left her library and about £2500 to Newnham College, where she is commemorated by a named research fellowship. All the memorials refer to her good nature, her firm work ethic, and her enormous scholarly production. A bust of her, sculpted by her sister Edith Bateson, still stands at the old entrance to the Newnham College Library; it presents her, appropriately, reading a book.


  • A. Gardner, A short history of Newnham College (1921)
  • E. A. McArthur, ‘In memoriam: Mary Bateson, 1865–1906’, The Queen (8 Dec 1906)
  • E. B. Sidgwick, ‘Report of the principal, 1907’, Records of Newnham College
  • NUWSS, Women's suffrage deputation (1906)
  • E. Crawford, The women's suffrage movement: a reference guide, 1866–1928 (1999)
  • T. F. Tout, ‘Mary Bateson’, Manchester Guardian (3 Dec 1906)
  • A. Gardner, ‘In memoriam: Mary Bateson’, Newnham College Letter (1906), 34–9
  • letters to Margaret Llewellyn-Davies, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, Bertrand Russell archive VI, I
  • d. cert.


  • photograph, 1900, Newnham College Archives, Cambridge
  • photograph, 1900, repro. in McArthur, ‘In memoriam’
  • E. Bateson, bust, 1907, Newnham College Library

Wealth at Death

£8788 19s. 5d.: probate, 8 March 1907, CGPLA Eng. & Wales