The Parochial Women’s Association – Emma Faulkner

The Parochial Women’s Association

‘ In a recent letter to the Times, Lord Hatherley (whose experience in connection with charitable institutions is a guarantee for his judicious advocacy) describes the operation of these missions. He says: ‘The organisation is very simple. A small body of lady managers overlook the whole work. To them any clergyman desiring to establish a mission in his parish applies, and guarantees a portion of the cost, which averages 80l. a-year for each mission. He selects, subject to the approval of the managers, his own mission-woman and a “lady superintendent” of her labours among the lowest and poorest. A room is hired (or appropriated if he have a suitable one at his disposal), in which such poor women as are able to attend meet the lady superintendent at least once a-week, and enjoy a little cheerful reading under circumstances of, to them, unusual comfort, and may select and work on the articles for which they have made weekly payments to the mission-woman at her visits to their own homes. Many have first been taught to work at these meetings. The clergyman usually commences or closes them with a short service and prayer, and has the opportunity of meeting many of his poorest parishioners assembled together’. 

In the latter part of the nineteenth century, Lord Hatherley, a British statesman, wrote to the Times Newspaper on the subject of The Parochial Women’s Association. [1] He provided a glowing review of the organisation, describing how the small body of female managers were successfully administering moral and religious guidance to the Victorian working class. In the Victorian period, the ‘slum’ came to represent a breakdown of the moral and religious codes that governed the rest of society. Consequently, many individuals and groups entered the slum to rectify this situation. [2] The Parochial Women’s Association was one of a number of groups to spread its wisdom amongst the poor in the so-called ‘Devil’s acre’. [3] However, the organisation’s structure, as well as its beliefs, were distinctly different to the many other organisations that were entering the slum in this period.

The Association was organised according to three principles, the first of which stated that ‘the mission should be subordinate to the parochial system of the Church’. [4] The organisation, which was established in 1860, was headed by four female managers belonging to the Church of England. According to Lord Hatherley, the organisation was formed in the same vein as the so-called ‘Bible Women’; to adhere to the ‘spiritual wants of the metropolis and its’ suburbs’. [5] In his letter to The Times newspaper, Lord Hatherley describes how ‘any clergyman wishing to establish a mission in his parish’ would choose a lady superintendent (under the guidance of the managers) and mission woman that would oversee the mission. [6] As well as this, the clergyman was expected to secure a room in which working-class women were able to gather under the instruction of the Lady Superintendent. According to Doughan and Gordon, by 1892, the organisation operated in many large towns and 178 missions were employed in all. [7]

The second principle on which the Association was formed upon sets the organisation apart from other societies that engaged in district visiting in this period. The principle states that ‘the mission woman (being of course a member of the Church of England) should be selected by the incumbent of the parish from amongst the poor’. [8] In simple terms, this principle asserts the importance of the mission woman being from the same or only a slightly superior class to those she is being employed to work with. Mayne claims that it was only middle class women who journeyed to the poor London districts; however the Parochial Women’s Association actively challenged this by employing women of lower classes. [9] This issue of class is discussed further by Lord Hatherley in a speech he delivered to a church congress in 1863. [10] He describes the issues that may arise if middle class employees were used in the organisation; ‘there is always the risk that the visits of the wealthy’ may lead to ‘false or hypocritical display of either poverty or good order’. [11] Furthermore, he claims ‘the object in view would be frustrated if the mission woman were raised by the society above their position’. [12] Accounts produced by Dora Hope, a visitor to the slum, support this claim. [13] According to Hope’s writings, her friend and guide treated the poor with condescension, which in turn led to resistance by those they wished to help. [14] In contrast to this depiction, the mission women of The Parochial Women’s Association were expected to build a strong rapport with individuals in the slum, and overcome and class boundaries.

Lord Hatherley
Portrait of Lord Hatherley, a British Lawyer and Statesman, 1801 – 1881

The theme of gender is another key element that sets this society apart from others. According to Moore, philanthropy was considered to be the profession of a lady. [15] The Association, which was constructed of an entirely female workforce, focused primarily on aiding working-class women. In weekly meetings, clients were instructed on matters of moral and religious importance. This included being taught cleanliness, the vice of waste and how to make their homes more comfortable, all of which were skills explicitly linked to the female’s role within the household. From this, it is clear that those visiting the slum differentiated their aid in relation to gender. Scholars have applied this idea to a number of other organisations involved in slum visiting. For example, Kaplan claims that Toynbee Hall, a settlement that provided charity to the working class, had two separate and contrasting worlds. She asserts that the all male side ‘conducted boy’s clubs and a wide range of classes for working class men’, whereas the female side centred on meetings, ‘parish visiting and programmes for female servants’. [16] According to Anderson, the Association benefited not only its clients but also those volunteering within the organisation. Anderson claims The Parochial Women’s Association  enabled women to extend their boundaries. She states that for those who did not marry or have children, it offered professional opportunities and ‘new horizons in voluntary work’. [17]

The third and final principle of The Parochial Women’s Association was ‘that no direct relief in the shape of alms should be given but that the mission should be the extension of Christian civilisation among the poor’. [18] Instead of charitable giving, the association promoted ‘self discipline and self support’. [19] Clients were encouraged to give money to the mission women who visited them in their homes. This money would then be used as a fund to buy materials for clothing or bedding, which would be worked on in weekly meetings under the instruction of the superintendent. Others supported the Association’s decision to not give out material or financial charity. For example, Barnett claimed that alms giving was simply making the poor poorer and ‘tempting them to improvidence and hypocrisy’. [20]

Scholars debate the impact that organisations like the Parochial Women’s Association had on the working class. Anderson argues that the main aim of the groups entering the slum in this period was to civilise the lower classes. [21] She claims that this could only be done by direct contact between the rich and the poor. However, the Parochial Women’s Association went further than this. By employing working class women they were able to bridge the gap between the slum dwellers and the upper classes. In this sense, the mission women played the most important role; as a mediator between client and organisation. As Lewis has argued, in addition to building relationships between classes, the Association’s importance also lies in its ability to stretch the boundaries of gender roles. [22] These missions offered professional opportunities and allowed women to engage in matters that they may have previously been excluded from.  Finally, and arguably most importantly, did the organisation help the deserving poor? Many viewed the Parochial Women’s Association as a success as it provided the working class with the means to help themselves. Halcombe provides a positive concluding comment: ‘how grateful we ought to be to those who plant these parochial missions in our parishes’. [23]


[1] Hatherley, W., ‘The Parochial Women’s Association’ (unknown). Available online:

[2] For example the Salvation Army, information on which can be found in Murdoch, N. H., Origins of the Salvation Army (United States of America: University of Tennessee, 1995).

[3] Vaux cited in Dyos, M, J., ‘The Slums of Victorian London’, in Dyos, M. J., Cannadine, D. and Reeder, J., Exploring the Urban Past: Essay in Urban History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982).

[4] Hatherley, W., Parochial Mission: A Paper Read at the Church Congress’ (October 13th, 1863). Copy available online:

[5] Hatherley, Parochial Mission.

[6] Hatherley, W., ‘The Parochial Women’s Association’.

[7] Doughan, D., and Gordon, P., Dictionary of British Women’s Organisation, 1825-1960 (New York: Woburn Press, 2002).

[8] Hatherley, Parochial Mission.

[9] Mayne, A., The Imagined Slum: Newspaper Representation in Three Cities 1870-1914 (Leicester: Leicestershire University Press, 1993).

[10] Hatherley, Parochial Mission.

[11] Hatherley, Parochial Mission.

[12] Hatherley, Parochial Mission.

[13] Dora Hope, ‘My District and How I Visit It’, Girl’s Own Paper (October 1880)

[14] Hope, ‘My District and How I Visit It’.

[15] Moore, H., cited in Anderson, A., ‘Victorian High Society and Social Duty: The Promotion of “Recreative Learning and Voluntary Teaching”‘. History of Education, 31:4 (2002), pp. 311-334

[16] Kaplan, C., The Erotics of Talk: Women’s Writing and Feminist Paradigms (New York: Oxford University Press. 1996).

[17] Anderson, ‘Victorian High Society and Social Duty’, pp. 311-334.

[18] Hatherley, Parochial Mission.

[19] Hatherley, Parochial Mission.

[20] Barnett, cited in Anderson,‘Victorian High Society and Social Duty’, pp. 311-334.

[21] Anderson, ‘Victorian High Society and Social Duty, pp. 311-334.

[22] Lewis, J., Women and Social Action in Victorian and Edwardian England (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991).