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Friday, 15 October 2010

Mary Sheepshanks

In 1891 Mary Sheepshanks went to Newnham College to study medieval and modern languages. She later recalled: "College life meant for me a new freedom and independence ... The mere living in Cambridge was a joy in itself; the beauty of it all, the noble architecture, the atmosphere of learning were balm to one's soul ...To spend some of the most formative years in an atmosphere of things of the mind and in the acquisition of knowledge is happiness in itself and the results and memories are undying. Community life at its best, as in a college, brings contacts with people of varied interests and backgrounds and studying a wide range of subjects. Friendships are formed and new vistas opened. For a few years at least escape is possible from the worries and trivialities of domestic life."

While at Newnham College Mary began to teach adult literacy classes in the poor working-class district of Barnwell. This experience turned her into a social reformer. She also became friends with Bertrand Russell, a strong advocate of free love and women's suffrage. He was also highly critical of organised religion. Her sister, Dorothy Sheepshanks, recalled that, "Mary came to hold very advanced views in many respects, views of which father disapproved." John Sheepshanks, who was Bishop of Norwich at the time, was so shocked by Mary's views on politics and religion that he insisted that Mary must not spend any of her future university vacations at home.

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