Mary Mather was a tireless campaigner for the rights of women and disadvantaged people in Britain and abroad. Born in Blackburn, Lancashire, she attended Folkstone county school for girls in Kent and went to study English at Girton College, Cambridge in 1944. She edited the Cambridge University socialist club bulletin. During the holidays she worked as a volunteer at Kingsley Hall in Bromley-by-Bow where she fell under the spell of the Lester sisters, Muriel and Doris, who had founded the community settlement with the aim of bringing people together regardless of class, race or religion.
In 1949 she was appointed lecturer in English at the University of Hong Kong. She had wanted to go to China from a young age, particularly having heard Muriel Lester’s travel stories. Her plans to travel into mainland China were thwarted by the communist revolution. The friendships she formed with her Chinese students and the writer Han Suyin did not endear her to the university authorities. She returned to London in 1953 to live in Canning Town women’s settlement in Plaistow, working in a sugar factory and teaching at the Keir Hardie primary school.
Active in the West Ham Labour Party during the 1950s and 60s, she got to know Elwyn Jones, who was appointed attorney general by Harold Wilson in 1964, and wrote speeches for him. She also ran equal opportunities courses for magistrates, but was turned down as a magistrate herself because MI5 had a file about her leftwing activities in Hong Kong.
In 1960, after another failed attempt to get into China during the Hundred Flowers campaign, she travelled in India with her father and joined Vinoba Bhave and other Gandhians trying to persuade landowners to give some of their land to those who had none (Bhoodan movement).
From 1966 to 1994 she lectured at the South Bank Polytechnic. In West Ham she established the first community relations council in the country, and for many years she ran a club which met twice a week for girls whose parents had recently arrived from the Indian subcontinent. Their crowning glory was a famine lunch where their meeting place, Durning Hall in Forest Gate, was transformed into an Indian Village complete with sand and saris. John Rowley remembers her:
“I met Mary first at a Summer School in the Abbey in the mid 90s. Thereafter, we had a few words at many Gandhi Foundation events and each time I felt an instant rapport with her. She was always quick to smile, ready to banter and very perceptive. I thought of her as a dedicated, radical, academic, practical, social reformer.”
Mary became actively involved with the Gandhi Foundation at the beginning of the new millennium when she suggested we might like to support a group of five villages in Orissa whose inhabitants had been displaced by a dam. She had come across them when she inquired of Bhoodan villages from Vinoba’s time. The GF gave financial support until 2005 when Mary felt that sufficient progress had been made by the villagers for them to no longer need outside help.
Her nephew Ian Mather (whose obituary of Mary in The Guardian supplied much of this appreciation) said of her: “Constantly fascinated by what was going on in the world, yet frequently absent-minded when it came to day-to-day practicalities, she had a unique ability to make people feel special and was adored by family and friends alike”.