Mary Greg

Mary Greg

Mary Greg collected everyday domestic objects during the late 1800s and early 1900s. She was particularly interested in pre-industrial handmade objects and wanted to preserve examples of traditional artisan skills.

In this section you’ll discover more about Mary’s background, her extended family and where she lived. You’ll also find out about the development of her collecting habit, her relationship to other prominent collectors of the day and her involvement with Victorian philanthropic and educational institutions such as the the Guild of St George.

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Women, museums and everyday things

I was recently contacted by a PhD researcher at Cambridge, who came across Mary Greg through this very blog. Laura Carter’s research demonstrates that Mary was not alone in her interests and commitment to both the material culture of everyday life and the development of British museums during the interwar period. In fact, since starting my PhD, I have come to realise that there is a groundswell of academic interest in the active role of women in this area during the late 19th and 20th centuries, much of which has gone unrecorded for many years.

Laura’s email also contained the exciting news that Mary donated material to the Geffrye Museum in 1936. That makes a total of 30 institutions so far recorded as recipients of her generosity! Laura also offered to write something for the blog about her own research, which makes fascinating reading, especially in relation to the fuzzy boundaries between amateur and professional practice during this period. If there are other researchers out there, looking at similar material, please do get in touch.


Laura Carter

Cover of A History of Everyday Things in England by Marjorie and CHB QuennellMy PhD thesis is entitled ‘Everyday life’ and ‘everyday things’ in British popular culture, c.1910-1969. It examines how people published, preserved, and sometimes sought to re-make, the ‘everyday’ past in British popular culture. One chapter focuses on the life and work of Charles (1872-1935) and Marjorie Quennell (1883-1972), in particular their series A history of everyday things in England (1918-1934), and its reception. As ‘amateur’ historians in an age of professionalization, the Quennells enjoyed much commercial success with these books. They showcased social and aesthetic history instead of the more familiar political epochs. When Charles died in 1935, Marjorie became the first female curator of the London County Council’s newly overhauled Geffrye Museum in Shoreditch.

Marjorie Quennell had an impact on the consumption of popular history in Britain in the mid-twentieth century, despite being an ‘amateur’ in all of the fields she entered. Her trajectory is worth tracing and situating. It can tell us a lot about how the notion of the ‘everyday’ found its way into British popular cultures. Marjorie’s story also highlights the centrality of women to this social turn in popular history, a point that has been understated in favour of studies of male academic popularisers.

As a young housewife in the years before the First World War, Marjorie Quennell was exposed to Arts and Crafts influences through her husband’s involvement in the Junior Art Workers Guild. In the 1920s and early 1930s, Marjorie assisted her husband in creating their famous books, which successfully repackaged Ruskinian and Morrisite ideas of the ‘everyday’ into a more demotic format. By the late 1930s, she carried these intellectual influences into the centre of a burgeoning museums movement.

At the Geffrye, Marjorie was able to realize narratives of the ‘everyday’ in practical forms – through enlarging the museums collection of bygones and furniture (including around 100 objects donated by Mary Greg 1936-7), arranging the exhibits into domestic interiors, and by initiating a highly progressive museum education programme that involved the impoverished children of Shoreditch in their labour heritage. In this context, ‘everyday life’ came to be physically and experientially reconstructed for wholly democratic purposes. Marjorie remained at the Geffrye until late 1939, when ill health forced her to retire. In 1940 she boarded the last passenger boat to America, as her doctor had advised her that her delicate health would not withstand the bombing.

The Geffrye Museum has a forthcoming small display celebrating the museum’s centenary, opening on 1 July 2014, which will recognise Marjorie’s transformation of and contribution to the museum, and display some of the objects Mary donated to the museum during Marjorie’s tenure.

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And counting…

Heard yesterday from Bridget Yates, a researcher who has done a lot of work on inter-war village museums including Mary’s Westmill Museum. Am looking forward to reading her work. Her research suggests that there may be material given by Mary in the following museums and other institutions:

The V&A, British Museum, London Museum, Canterbury, Liverpool, Carisbrooke Castle, Brighton, Cambridge, Ipswich, Exeter, Brentford, Aylesbury, Manchester (obviously), Edinburgh, Dorchester, Norwich, Buxton, Winchester, Worcester, Letchworth, the West Highland Museum, Fort William and the Hertfordshire Institute of Agriculture.

Gosh. Some work to do.


Home » Mary Greg »The Letters

Snippet from the letters No.7

Four Keys from Mary Greg's collection

One of my favourite quotes from the letters…November 10th 1928

To Mr Batho from Mary Greg.

“…If a number of any set of things are put together they at once become more interesting – this is most of our collections become of any value – I began by buying a key which interested me by its fine work – a friend said ‘oh’ I have an old key I do not want you shall have it & so on until my collection as you know is a most valuable one – & so on with other things…”


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Mary The Maker

As well as being a passionate collector, Mary was also passionate about making things (including drawings as her nature diaries reveal).  This she saw as a way of making a noble contribution to education and learning.  There are numerous references throughout the letters of her making activity and a number of objects made by her hand are evidenced in the collection.  Many of these came to light through information contained in the letters (further proof of how valuable these letters have been to our understanding of Mary and her bygones).  On November 6th, 1934 in her letter to William Batho she mentions a firescreen

….with embroidery which I worked on one side and a sampler on the other…

After reading of this in the letters we searched for the firescreen in the collection.  And there it is, sitting on a shelf wrapped in bubble wrap. Peeking beneath the plastic, we could just make out her embroidered initials making claim to her handiwork!  For a moment it was as if Mary was there in the room with us!  The real value of the hand crafted object is that it stands just one degree separation from it’s maker.

Further proof of her making activity is shown in a letter dated April 27th, 1925 she writes

….then there are three shops!  Which I am responsible for and which with help from 2 or 3 have been very much my work during the dark, dull days

She would readily involve others in the making of things too!

Mrs Greg…is getting on with the furniture of the dolls house and the bed in particular.  She wanted to know if you could get four tops made for the posts of the bed like the one I am sending.

She was particularly keen that her collection would inspire others to make things.  In a letter dated May 3rd, 1934 she writes

I should like to think that some of those who enjoy the models would make things which in the future would be equally interesting, while at the same time would give them happy enjoyment and work!  This applies to the women too!

How delighted she would be at the emerging and growing number of artist responses to her collection today.  These contemporary responses provide not only new interpretation and meaning for this historic collection but at the same time contribute a new collection of objects for future generations to interpret and respond to.  Sharon

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Mary The Second

I was wondering why there has been some confusion over Mary’s birth date.  I know in my own research I have come across reference to her birth date being in both 1849 and in 1850.  This has puzzled me, so I revisited and cross referenced the various versions we have of her family tree.  I noticed on one that there are two Mary’s marked, one born in 1849 and another born in 1850.  There were two Mary Hope Greg’s!  The first Mary Hope Greg died before the age of one, our Mary Hope Greg being born the following year. I have added my working document of Mary’s family tree so you can see my notes so far on her genealogy (I’ll draw up a better version and repost when I can).

Hope Family Tree (draft)

How tragic for her parents. Even though infant mortality rates were much higher then and the loss of a child more commonplace, it must still have been a terrible event for the family (you’ll see from the family tree that there are other infant deaths in both the preceding and following generations). How curious that they should give their next daughter the same name.  Was this a common occurrence in those days?  And, I wonder if our Mary knew about her namesake.  How did it feel for her to be named after a deceased sibling? Was this naming in remembrance and commemoration or mourning and loss?  Any genealogists out there with any knowledge of these matters?  Sharon

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Mary’s Eye

From reading Mary’s letters to the Art Gallery in the archive I knew she lost the sight in one eye in her later years.  I thought this may have been down to old age but when researching the Guild of St George link in the Sheffield Archive I came across another reference to this.  In a letter to the Guild dated 22nd November 1939, she writes

I have had a bad accident to one of my eyes from the handle of a lift door… had to be taken out to save the other….  I have to be thankful that I still have one good eye.

She was in her 90th year.  Her optimistic tone under such difficult circumstances is a reflection of both her physical and mental resilience and determination (nothing was ever going to beat her!) and I think helps further build the picture of her indomitable character.  At the time of writing she is living near Holcombe, Bath, I think with her niece and clerical husband (there is reference to this in a subsequent letter dated 20th June, 1945).

Mary carried on writing and latterly, dictating correspondence right to the end of her life.  Too frail to write herself, the last letter in the Art Gallery archive which bears her name (written on her behalf by Elizabeth Tranter) is dated June 26th 1949, a mere three months before her death on September 15th in the same year.  Sharon

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The elusive Greg family

I am at the gallery today trying to hunt down some relations of the Greg family. They seem to have gone all quiet after 1938, when the mill and Norcliffe House were given to the National Trust. However I have made some enquiries with Norcliffe Chapel in Styal, a unitarian chapel that the Greg’s founded in 1823  so hopefully they should get back to me.

I think the strongest link is Alexander Carlton Greg who died in 1990, hopefully he had some children. Another possibility is Henry Gair Greg who was in charge of the Reddish Mill near Stockport that the Greg family also controlled. He died in 1978. Whilst looking for him I came across another mill in the area which had been owned by William Henry Houldsworth. Perhaps the same one that wrote the letter containing Samuel Crompton’s threads?

William Henry Houldsworth

So I shall be getting in touch with the National Trust at Styal Mill and Wilmslow’s Record Office and hopefully we can track down some descendents. It’s nice to be back in the Mary Greg -sphere!


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Around and about

We’ve had a couple of links to online resources related to John Ruskin from Dr Stuart Eagles. There’s a John Ruskin Facebook page and also the Eighth Lamp, an online Ruskin-related journal.

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Mary Greg 1850-1949

I particularly liked the silhouette of Mary in the extracts from ‘The Gregs of Westmill’ by Sheila Ormerod that Dr Stuart Eagles sent us (lovely detail on the rim of her hat).  I wonder where the original is?  If anyone out there has any idea maybe you could let us know.  There was mention I recall of some Greg artefacts from the Westmill museum being accessioned into the museum or art gallery at Stevenage, I think.  I wonder if it was amongst those things? It would be great to get hold of  it (if it still exists) for inclusion in the exhibition.  Sharon

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“You know you are only allowed ONE egg, dear”

Through our links with Dr Stuart Eagles, Sharon has just forwarded some pages copied from the fantastic book by Sheila Ormerod, ‘The Gregs of Westmill’ (Buntingford, 1996).  A few more clues about Mary emerge…

She was remembered as an overly frugal housekeeper who would not allow her husband to have two eggs for breakfast and was much impressed by a lecturer who declared that margarine was better than butter for domestic staff. (p.18)

And as if by way of an afterthought, the paragraph continues…

However, she was generous to the village.

So, beneficent to the world, but alas, not to poor Thomas!

The article also points out that at 8 years older than Thomas, Mary would not have married until she was 45.  Perhaps this is a reason for their lack of children?

Alongside this reading, I have been busy pursuing links with the Guild of St George, and have contacted the former Master, Dr James Dearden who is an authority on Mary Greg, as well as Robert Wilson who is the Director of Westmill interests, so I’m eagerly anticipating further information…

Hazel and I also met this morning to plan our session at this year’s Association of Art Historians Conference in Glasgow on Friday morning.  More to follow after the event.