Mary Elizabeth Townsend

Mary Elizabeth Townsend at age 32

23rd July 1841— 14 June 1918

23rd July, is the anniversary of our GFS Founder’s birth — born on this date in 1841.
Let us just pause here a moment to set the scene and ponder a little on what we know of England at that time in 1841.

  • It was a celebratory year – the year that the young Queen Victoria, aged 22, married her beloved Prince Albert who came from a small German Principality which existed at the time.
  • A new phenomenon called “taking a likeness” (later called photography) was being experimented with.
  • The streets of London and major cities were being lit with gas lighting making them brighter and much safer after dark.
  • Some short single line railways were in operation.
  • It was a place of great contrast – enormous wealth for some who had become rich living off the proceeds of American slave plantations but abject poverty for many others.
  • It was the so called “exciting times” of the Industrial Revolution. Young people flocked to the cities for work, but found no excitement – only loneliness, long hours, low wages, hunger, danger and exploitation.

Now let us get back to Mary – Mary Elizabeth Butler was born in St. John’s Vicarage, Kilkenny, Ireland, daughter of the Rev. Robert Butler and his wife Grace (nee Hamilton). Her parents were both from strong Christian and church backgrounds but, sadly, both parents died when Mary was quite young and she was sent to England to be raised by two aunts, (her father’s sisters) who provided for her and gave her what education and Christian upbringing they could.

Mary proved to be a considerably talented child with a great love of literature, a proficiency in languages, music and art, all of which she utilized throughout her life writing books, translating, and producing sculptured and artistic works.

At age 22 she married Frederick Townsend in 1863, an artist and botanist, almost twice her age, and who bore the title “Squire of Sheffield”. After marriage they went to live at Sheffield Hall (still standing today and in use as an Aged Care Home). It was a happy and productive marriage and Mary was known to have said that “she put herself in his hands, and was happy to grow and develop under his care”, both Frederick and Mary worked to improve the lives of people living and working on the Estate. Mary concentrated on the education of girls, the Orphanage, and the care of the elderly.

Enter the Bishop of Winchester whose name was Samuel Wilberforce and who was the son of WILLIAM WILBERFORCE (great Christian, Member of Parliament, and main Spokesman in the House of Commons arguing relentlessly, and finally successfully, to bring about the Bill for the Abolition of Slavery in 1807, although the slavery market continued on well into the 19th century. It was found very hard to control, and took quite a time to be completely eliminated).

Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Winchester became alarmed at the large number of girls appearing before the Courts charged with stealing food! He had heard of Mary’s interest, concern, and her individual efforts. The Bishop wrote to Mary inviting her to a meeting at Lambeth Palace London, (official residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury) to discuss the situation and what might be done. A committee of five people was formed (later called “The Historic Five”) who became impressed with Mary’s ideas, suggestions and recommendations on the need for structure and organisation.

Further meetings and discussions finally saw The Girls Friendly Society established and begun officially on 1st January 1875. It grew rapidly and became enormously successful. Membership was necessary. It received the Royal patronage of Queen Victoria and by the end of the century had more than a quarter of a million members. The Society was non-denominational although it used the structures of the Church of England.

The official history, published in 1911, shows clearly that Mary Townsend was the driving force behind GFS. Men of all classes had their Clubs, Benefits and Associations. She had now extended this to girls and women. She was the first President of The Girls’ Friendly Society. Accommodation was vital. Premises were acquired and lodges (later called hostels) were established where educational and domestic skills were taught along with the gospel message. The organisation flourished and subsequently became world – wide as it remains today.

Also, in 1875 Frederick Townsend received an inheritance from an uncle – Honington Hall, a 17th Century Estate near Shipton-on-Stour, in Warwickshire, where they lived from that time onwards. Mary continuing her GFS work and other interests – Frederick becoming a Conservative Member of Parliament for Stratford-on-Avon until 1892, passing away in 1905 at the age of 82 years, with Mary herself passing away on 14 June 1918 aged 77 years. Both are buried in All Saints churchyard in Honington, Warwickshire, England.

Little else is known or recorded of Mary’s life and we must leave her here with some measure of “privacy” of life to which we are all entitled, and give thanks to God for her steadfast faith and commitment to her Lord, her dedication to the task, and the great benefit women over the last 147 years have derived from fellowship in GFS and are still doing so today in their various countries.

In conclusion – In a secular world, this would be the time for us to stand and announce a toast to our Founder on her birthday, but for GFS members it is more fitting to stand and give thanks to our Heavenly Father for her life and work in which we all participate and enjoy to-day.

Thanksgiving Prayer

Gracious Lord, We thank you for the life of Mary Elizabeth Townsend who, although having an earthly life with many creature comforts available to her, chose rather to spend her time and energy in service to those around her who were critically in need of guidance, care, safety, and the message of salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.

We thank you for the benefits we receive, so many years later, through her tireless efforts in establishing our GFS Organisation, and may we also be inspired and renewed in our daily endeavours to serve you and others throughout the world, with our GFS Sisters in Christ, and always live to bring honour to you — through Jesus Christ our Lord.