Chapter 18 » 18.13

Mary Hughes (1860–1941) was a daughter of Judge Thomas Hughes, author of Tom Brown’s schooldays. In her late thirties she started to live in the East End of London. She identified herself completely with those around her, sharing their poverty, their privations and their lack of opportunities for cleanliness. She joined the Society of Friends in 1918 and Friends long remembered the stirring of conscience that was felt in Yearly Meeting when her white-haired, red-cloaked figure was present:

The longest journey Mary Hughes made was in spiritual conception. In her youth she … took part in work on behalf of the poor and unfortunate. You drove to that work in a carriage and when the work was done you drove back to a beautiful house… Mary Hughes was never a one for condemning the way in which other people lived their lives; she was too busy with the way in which she chose to lead her own. If she had ever consciously wondered why this way, which she saw in her youth, was not satisfactory to her, she could have found the answer … in those words when the work was done. It became clear to her that what she had to do could never be done, not even for an hour. Her life itself must be her work, but it could be her work only if it were lived in the appropriate circumstances. She didn’t want to visit the poor. She wanted to be with the poor and to be poor herself…

She had no set schemes. She founded no institution. Neither did Jesus… ‘He went about doing good.’ So did Mary Hughes… It was a question of being rather than of doing. You trusted to the contagion of goodness rather than to homily or sermon. Necessarily, such a personality, linked as it was to endless sources of spiritual strength, became a magnet, and there again one hears the echo of an old phrase: ‘I will draw all men unto Me.’ As this magnet drew the poor and dispossessed, there was plenty to do; and Mary Hughes went about the doing of it in her own idiosyncratic way… She never turned down man or woman who had duped or bamboozled her. It was in the nature of things that the world contained sinners, and she wished above all to live close to the nature of things. This she could confidently do because of her belief that the overriding reality is spiritual. She would have thought herself most faithless if a few sinners had shaken her… Burning with shame, radiant with love, she set her course and followed it… The whole point of her life will be missed unless we can share her faith that ‘the things that are seen are temporal, the things that are unseen are eternal’. Looked at from that point of view, this shabby and sometimes verminous woman becomes one of the few, ‘of whom the world is not worthy’.

Howard Spring, 1949

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