Mary Hughes: Biography

Mary Hughes (1756-1824) was the youngest daughter of the Rev. Edward Hughes, Anglican Rector of Norbury, in Staffordshire. He died (1758) when she was a child, and her mother (d. 1818) instilled in her (they were relatively poor) the virtues of the devotional life and a life of “rigid self-denial” (735). Later the family lived at Hanwood, near Shrewsbury, and she became known for her charitable giving, establishing a Sunday School with her sister, which she told in one of her stories, “The Sunday Scholar” (735), based upon the life of Mr. Edward Morris of Glasgow, a businessman who was a Wesleyan Methodist and lay preacher (in a footnote Aspland Jr. lists all 20 tracts by Hughes). Though belonging to the Church of England, the Hughes were influenced by another local clergyman, a Rev. Edward Harries, who had become a Unitarian and he passed that on to them, though he remained in the Church, not openly teaching Unitarianism (735), but he was eventually asked to give up his congregation at Hanwood (736). Mary Hughes was about 18 when her family became Unitarians and she was not living at home, but upon her return found her family turned Unitarian. She was much grieved at first, but then became a believer in the “Divine Unity” herself after a short time (736). Harries died in 1812, and Mary Hughes wrote a tract in his honor about his life. This was shortly before she met Aspland.

Robert Aspland felt a need for the distribution of moral and religious tracts from a Unitarian perspective and in 1808 the Society was proposed in an issue of the Monthly Repository. Mary Hughes contributed money to the Society and the first tract, “William’s Return, or Good News for Cottagers,” with the second tract by Richard Wright and the third by Mrs. Cappe. Other early tracts were by Mrs. Price (niece of Mary Hughes) and some others. Aspland was the Society’s first Secretary (359). Aspland’s son, the writer of the Memoir, notes in 1848 that “At the time when it was established, there were comparatively few publications for the poor that were not disfigured by a sectarian spirit, or by other objectionable qualities. This, happily, is no longer the case; yet it is to be hoped that the sterling excellences of the Christian Tracts and the increasing demand for such works, will ensure to the Society a succession of supporters as liberal and successful as were its founders” (359). The original Committee of the Christian Tract Society [Unitarian] included Aspland and, among others, William Frend (Mary Hays’s former beau and friend of George Dyer) and J. T. Rutt (Hays’s relation). Yet Hays’s tracts do not seem to have been written for this Society.

Though he knew her as a writer for some time and had corresponded with her the previous year, Aspland did not meet Mary Hughes until the summer of 1813, on a tour of various counties in the Midlands and the West of England (734) [he named his youngest daughter Mary Hughes in her honor in 1814]. She wrote to him on 23 January 1812 about her life (she had only come to know about the Unitarian world and the Monthly Repository in 1807), lamenting, with him, “the coldness and worldly-mindedness of many rational believers, a stronger proof of which could not be given than a diminution in [738] the sale of the Repository. To view our Maker as he is, all goodness and benevolence, does not seem to excite a degree of love and gratitude sufficient to animate them to exertion; the base principle of fear appears to have a more powerful influence on the generality of people than the brightest and most glorious hopes and expectation. ‘This,’ Hannah More would triumphantly say, ‘clearly proves the deep corruption of our nature.’ But we shall not be forward to join her in throwing our crimes and follies on our first frail progenitor, or rather in believing that an infinitely just God formed a weak, fallible creature, and to punish his transgression caused all his successors of the human race to be born with hearts ‘desperately wicked’ and inclined to evil continually. You will guess that I have been reading ‘Practical Piety,’ a work which, though much that is good is taught in the course of it, as far as I have gone, leaves a gloomy, disagreeable impression upon my mind, unfavourable to a love of our Creator, or a cheerful performance of the duties he requires from us” (737-38). She adds near the end of her letter about the publication of moral tracts, “Nothing can be more desirable than publications of that kind; for the best hope we can entertain for the reformation of mankind must arise from a more careful and enlightened attention to their early impressions” (738).

During his visit in the summer of 1813, Aspland, in a letter to his wife, described Mary Hughes as “rather a small woman, not handsome nor elegant, but of a soft and expressive physiognomy: I think of a fair complexion and light hair. Her eye I call to min with pleasure: the tones of her voice are plaintive. She may be about the size of my mother: as I guess, she is about forty-eight years of age. Her conversation is exactly in the style of her writing – even, sensible, pleasant and benevolent” (740). Her mother died in 1818 and the next year she moved to Bristol, where she died in 1824 [she moves there not long after Hays has left Pennington’s residence]. They attended at Lewin’s Mead, mostly to hear John Rowe, who had formerly preached near them at Shrewsbury.

For an account of her life, see Robert Brook Aspland, “Memoir of the late Rev. Robert Aspland,” The Christian Reformer, Or, Unitarian Magazine and Review, New Series 4 (1848), 359, 735-40. For her obituary, composed by her niece, Mrs. Price, on 8 February 1825, see Monthly Repository 20 (1825), 114-16 [which followed a short notice that appeared in vol. 19 (1824), 754.]