Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Sewell, Mary

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SEWELL, MARY (1797–1884), authoress, was born on 6 April 1797, at Sutton in Suffolk. She was daughter of John Wright, a gentleman-farmer, and his wife Ann, daughter of John Holmes of Tivetshall, Norfolk. Both parents were members of the Society of Friends. When Mary was twelve her father gave up farming, and joined business with a shipowner at Yarmouth. With the exception of a year spent at a school at Tottenham, Mary received her education at home. All regular study ended at the age of fifteen, when she commenced reading on her own account such authors as Moore, Byron, Southey, and Scott. Her father's affairs not prospering, she was for a time governess in a school in Essex. In 1819 she married Isaac Sewell, youngest son of William Sewell of Great Yarmouth, who had courted her for five years. They settled at Yarmouth, and there a daughter Anna was born on 30 March 1820. Soon afterwards they came to London, where a son Philip was born on 14 Jan. 1822. Isaac Sewell was not successful in business. At one time he kept a small shop near Bishopsgate Street, at another travelled for a large Nottingham lace factory. At length, in 1835, he was appointed manager of the London and County Joint-Stock Bank at Brighton. For the next ten years the family lived at Brighton, and subsequently at Lancing, Hayward's Heath, and Grayling Wells, until 1857 (when Sewell retired from the bank). Mrs. Sewell busied herself with the training of her children, writing for them her first book, ‘Walks with Mamma,’ in words of one syllable. In 1835 she left the Society of Friends for the church of England, into which she was eventually baptised. Her tone of mind was deeply religious, and she took great interest in philanthropic movements. She was a member of the Anti-Slavery Association.

In her sixtieth year Mrs. Sewell began seriously to write verses, with the object of inculcating moral virtues in all relations of life. ‘Homely Ballads’ was printed for private circulation in 1858 (it reached a fortieth thousand in 1889). Shortly afterwards Mrs. Sewell went to live at Blue Lodge, Wick, within a short distance of both Bath and Bristol, and there most of her works were written. In 1860 appeared her ballad, ‘Mother's Last Words,’ which had an unprecedented sale of 1,088,000 copies. It tells in simple language the story of two poor boys who were kept from evil courses by the memory of their mother's last words. Of another ballad, ‘Our Father's Care,’ 1861, no fewer than 776,000 copies were sold; ‘Children of Summerbrook,’ 1859, a tale in verse for little schoolgirls, and ‘Patience Hart's Experiences in Service,’ 1862, a prose tale, each had a sale of thirty-three thousand copies. Her stories were short, and published in pamphlet form.

In 1867 Mrs. Sewell returned to Norfolk, and spent the rest of her days at Old Catton, near Norwich. There her daughter died in April 1878, and her husband on 7 Nov. following. Mrs. Sewell's old age was remarkably vigorous. She died on 10 June 1884, and was buried beside her husband and daughter in the Friends' burying-ground at Lamas, Norfolk.

The popularity of her verses was due to the simplicity of language and form, to the simple faith they inculcated, and to the obviousness of the moral. Her poems were collected in 1861 under the title of ‘Stories in Verse,’ and again after her death in 1886, as ‘Poems and Ballads,’ in two volumes, with a memoir by Mrs. Bayly.

Anna Sewell (1820–1878), authoress, only daughter of the above, was born at Yarmouth on 30 March 1820. The severe spraining of both ankles in early childhood lamed her, and made her an invalid for life. In 1871 she began in the intervals of sickness to write her attractive ‘autobiography’ of a horse; it was published in 1877 under the title of ‘Black Beauty,’ and had a remarkable success (nearly a hundred thousand copies had been sold by 1894, when a new edition appeared). It was translated into French, Italian, and German. Its general aim was to induce kindness and sympathy towards horses, while it specially denounced the use of the bearing-rein; it was warmly recommended by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Miss Sewell died in April 1878.

[Life and Letters of Mrs. Sewell by Mrs. Bayly, 1889, with portraits of Mrs. Sewell and her daughter; Devonshire House Portraits, pp. 600–2; Allibone's Dict. ii. 2001, and Supplement, ii. 1332; private information.]

E. L.