Mary Sumner founded the Mothers’ Union with a vision for an organisation that would unite mothers of all social classes in mutual support and promote motherhood, with all its tremendous responsibilities, as the most important profession. Today the Union is a global movement with over 3.6 million members.
Mary Elizabeth Heywood was born in Lancashire in 1828 and married George Henry Sumner, son of Charles Richard Sumner, Bishop of Winchester, and a relative of William Wilberforce in 1848. The family moved to Old Alresford Rectory in 1851 when George was made Rector. After the birth of her first grandchild in 1876, Mary was inspired to bring together the mothers of the parish in mutual support and held the first meeting of what was to become the Mothers’ Union in the rectory.
The Mothers’ Union continued to flourish during the latter part of the 19th century and in 1896 the Mothers’ Union Central Council was formed. Mary was unanimously elected president, a post she held into her nineties. In 1897, during her Diamond Jubilee, Queen Victoria became patron, giving it an unprecedented stamp of approval.
Mary Sumner’s Mothers’ Union set up branches throughout the British Empire, beginning in New Zealand, then Canada and India. Mary lived to lead the Mothers’ Union to act in rebuilding the heart of Britain after the First World War, and saw the first Mothers’ Union Conference of Overseas Workers in 1920. Mary in 1921 at the age of 92 and is buried with her husband, who had died in 1909, in the grounds of Winchester Cathedral.