(c. 1765-1840)

Mary Egerton Scott was a devout evangelical Anglican but she had many close friendships and doctrinal sympathies with evangelical dissenters, such as Maria Andrews Saffery and her sister, Anne Andrews Whitaker, before and after their conversion to the Baptist faith in Salisbury c. 1793-94. Mary Egerton had served for a time as their governess in the late 1780s and a teacher in the school in Isleworth run by Mrs. Andrews. Mary Egerton was the sister of Thomas Egerton, a bookseller in Charing Cross, 1784-1830, and John Egerton, with whom Thomas traded from 1784-95. Thomas Egerton also operated the Military Library from 1796 to 1802 [1]. His father had been a military man, which may explain the latter connection. Egerton’s greatest claim to fame as a book publisher is the fact that he was the first London publisher of the novels of Jane Austen. Both brothers appear in several of the early letters of Mary Egerton. Apparently, relations became Thomas and John became strained in the late 1780s, and John left England and lived for a time in Jamaica, returning in late 1789 or early 1790 in poor health yet determined to join a Naval ship at Woolwich, a decision that greatly displeased his brother. By 1794 John was no longer in the navy, but his health was broken; he died on January 17, 1795 of rheumatic fever [2].

During her time with the Andrews in Isleworth, Mary Egerton became a kind of elder sister to Maria Grace and Anne, providing academic, social, and spiritual guidance in a home that was clearly not “evangelical.” By August 1788, when Mary Egerton’s letters to the Andrews sisters and mother begin (these thirteen letters reside in the Saffery/Whitaker Collection, Angus Library, Regent’s Park College, Oxford, and have been published in Whelan, Nonconformist Women Writers, 1720-1840, vol. 6), she was in her early twenties and living in Grovesnor Square, a fashionable street about three blocks south of Oxford Street, between Upper Brook Street and Brook Street, in Westminster, London. The square was built in the 1720s and was the largest square in the West End at that time. Most likely, she was living with her relations, either her brother Thomas or possibly William Tatton Egerton, who lived in the Square until 1797 (he may be the father of Thomas, John, and Mary Egerton) [3]. She was also spending considerable time in the home of a ‘Mrs N.’ in Grosvenor Square, in this case not as a governess but as a companion, a situation many educated single women used as a means of employment at this time [4]. Some of her neighbours also appear in her letters, including Thomas Woodhouse, bookseller and publisher of Cheyt Sing, and her eventual husband, Thomas Scott.

Not long after leaving the employ of Mrs Andrews, Egerton began serving as a governess or possibly a companion/assistant to Mrs Thomas Scott, though her exact relationship is not clear from her letters. The Rev. Thomas Scott (1747-1821) was a close friend of John Newton and author of the popular Family Bible and Commentary (1788-92). After serving as vicar of a small parish near Olney (where he first met Newton), Scott became chaplain of Lock Hospital in London in 1785, remaining until 1803, when he moved to Aston Sandford, Buckingshamshire. There he served as vicar and assisted in the training of missionaries for the Church Missionary Society [Anglican] until his death in 1821. As a writer, he espoused, in a more exegetical manner, the same evangelical principles his friends, John Newton and William Wilberforce, had made popular in their preaching and writing. His popularity was great among both Anglicans and Calvinist nonconformists, as demonstrated by his relations with the Andrews sisters after they became Baptists and his long-standing friendship with John Ryland, Jr., Baptist minister at Northampton and later at Bristol [5].

Thomas Scott’s first wife (she appears in several of Egerton’s letters) died after a short illness on September 8, 1790. Scott now found himself in a precarious situation with four children under the age of thirteen, a burdensome preaching load and writing commitments, the absence of any close relations living nearby, and a deep depression as a result of his wife’s death. Scott’s solution was Mary Egerton, and less than two months after his wife’s death, Scott married Egerton on 4 November 1790 [6]. The marriage was a clear breach of the generally accepted time of bereavement for a widow or widower (usually one year), and many in London, both friends and strangers to Scott, thought the action highly inappropriate.

After their marriage, the Scotts continued as friends and spiritual advisors to the Andrews sisters, who by 1793 were now moving in Baptist circles in Salisbury and in London (represented by the Safferys in Salisbury and the family of Saffery’s brother-in-law, John Shoveller, who lived in London, 1791-5). Though membership and baptism into the Baptist church in Brown Street was not something the Scotts found necessary or advisable, they did not deem it a sufficient cause for any diminution in their friendship with Maria and Anne. As her correspondence makes clear, communications between Mrs Scott and the two sisters continued long after their marriages to Philip Whitaker and John Saffery in the late 1790s; in fact, during the late 1820s, one of Anne Whitaker’s sons attended a boarding school operated by Thomas Scott, Jr., at Gawcott [7].

In 1825, four years after the death of Thomas Scott, Mary Scott remarried, this time to a Mr Dawes. In 1822, John Scott, her stepson, in his biography of his father, noted that his father pronounced on his dying bed that Mary Egerton Scott “had been an unspeakable blessing to him and his for more than thirty years.” [8] John Scott also added at the end of his volume an advertisement of some works still in print by his father, and a listing of the five printed works by Mary Scott, identified only as ‘Written by Mrs. *****,’ her identity unfortunately hidden from her titles more than two decades after their publication. A final word on Mary Egerton Scott comes from Anne Andrews Whitaker’s diary, in which she inserts the news of her old friend’s death as part of her entry on May 28, 1840:

Heard this day of the death of one of my earliest and dearest friends – one who was made very useful to me in directing my thoughts to the all important concerns of eternity. She proved for many years a safeguard to my inexperienced youth and through her I was introduced to that most estimable Servant of God the late reverend Thomas Scott whose friendship was indeed a blessing.

My friend was a person of varied endowments – She possessed a vigorous intellect, much taste and many graces of manner her understanding was highly cultivated and her heart deeply impressed by religious truth God grant that after a long separation on earth we may meet before the throne of God and the lamb to celebrate the riches of that grace by which we have been brought through the sorrows and temptations of time to the unutterable bliss of eternity. [9]

Even though Mary Egerton Scott has endured anonymity as a writer since the early nineteenth century, her work was not completely unknown within the evangelical circles of London, as reviews of her publications make clear, especially her work in instructing those among the poor and working classes [10]. Her reputation in this area was not unlike that of Hannah More (1745-1833), her fellow Anglican evangelical writer from the West Country and old friend of Anne and Mary Steele of Broughton. More’s Cheap Repository Tracts had sold more than two million copies by 1798. In its earthy dialogues between two working class characters, Scott’s Plain Truth bears striking similarities to More’s Village Politics (1792), especially in its criticism of Thomas Paine [11]. Another work by Scott, The Path to Happiness, consists of a series of six discourses on traditional Christian themes, such as ‘the vanity of human pursuits’, the importance of revelation, the truth (or ‘inerrancy’) of biblical revelation, and the secrets to a happy family. The work combines some mild theological exegesis with fervent exhortations and practical guides to attaining and maintaining a state of moral and spiritual affluence. Scott’s opening chapter is similar to Mary Steele’s prose meditation, ‘Thoughts on Discontent’ (composed in 1775 but not printed until 1814), as well as the meditations of Hannah Towgood Wakeford and Jane Attwater Blatch [12]. In their prose writings, these women never hesitate to assume as part of their authorial persona the authority (not the actual role) of the preacher, an authority accessible to them through their anonymity and readily granted them by their audience as a result of their proficiency as writers [13]. Two other works, The History of Mrs. Wilkins and Plain Truth for Plain People, are conventional moral tracts that enjoyed wide distribution by evangelicals in their mission to evangelize the working classes of England and beyond. In these works, Scott mounts her printed pulpit and delivers stern pronouncements to her readers, especially pregnant women, whose minds, like that of the “old” Mrs Wilkins, are all too often not properly focused on spiritual concerns. Plain Truth for Plain People reveals that the fear of infidelity, one of the chief reasons by 1800 for defeating the French, was still prevalent in 1807 [14]. Many within the Evangelical establishment viewed the poor working classes as a seedbed for infidelity because of their lack of church attendance, illiteracy, and general ignorance [15]. Scott’s story presents three dialogues between two carpenters, Joseph Chisel and Thomas Wood, both men literate in terms of being able to read and write, but Wood being completely illiterate in spiritual matters. Joseph shares scriptural knowledge with Thomas by recounting sermons he has heard from the local evangelical minister. What is more telling than Joseph’s remarkable memory is Mary Scott’s ability to recreate so authentically the voice of the evangelical minister through the mouthpiece of Joseph. In so doing, her voice as writer is first subsumed into that of Joseph and then further subsumed into the voice of the preacher, though all originate with Scott. Though her anonymity is reinforced through another nameless, genderless title page, it is that very anonymity that ironically allows her to preach through her imaginative creations with a forcefulness and specificity that would never have been allowed in a public pulpit for an evangelical Calvinist woman in 1807.


[1] Ian Maxted, The London Book Trades 1775-1800 (Folkstone, Kent: Dawson, 1977), 73.

[2] Maxted, London Book Trades, 73.

[3] See Whelan, Nonconformist Women Writers, 1720-1840, vol. 6, letters 3, 4, and 9.

[4] Cf. Eliza Gould’s experience in the home of Joseph and Rebecca Gurney in London in the late 1790s, in T. Whelan, Politics, Religion, and Romance: The Letters of Benjamin Flower and Eliza Gould Flower, 1794-1808 (Aberystwyth: National Library of Wales, 2008), xxxiii-vi.

[5] Newton left Olney in 1779 to become vicar at St Mary Woolnoth, London, where his preaching attracted considerable crowds and visitors from all denominations; Wilberforce gained considerable recognition as a spokesman for Anglican evangelicals with the publication of A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians (1797). A remarkable collection of letters that passed between John Ryland and Thomas Scott and two of his sons can be found in the collections of Bristol Baptist College Library.

[6] The ODNB incorrectly gives the date as ‘March or early April 1791’.

[7] Whelan, Nonconformist Women Writers, 1720-1840, vol. 6, letters 24, 215.

[8] Scott, Life, 298.

[9] Whelan, Nonconformist Women Writers, 1720-1840, vol. 8, p. 507.

[10] Mary Egerton Scott published at least five works: The Path to Happiness Explored and Illustrated (London, 1796; 2nd ed., 1797; American edition, 1798); The Happiness of having God for a Friend in Time of Trial, or the History of Mrs. Wilkins. Addressed to Pregnant Women (London, 1797); The Advantages of Early Piety: or the History of Sarah Thompson and Lydia Green (London, 1806); Plain Truth for Plain People; or, Dialogues between Joseph Chisel and Thomas Wood (London: L. B. Seeley, 1807); and finally, Memoir of Elizabeth Moulder, Who Resided Nearly Thirty Years in the Family of the Rev. Thomas Scott (London, 1822). The History of Mrs Wilkins, Advantages of Early Piety, and Plain Truth were still in print in 1829, appearing in an advertisement in the Baptist Magazine that year in conjunction with the works of Thomas Scott, with Mrs Wilkins a popular title with the Religious Tract Society. The Memoir of Elizabeth Moulder also appeared as ‘A Short Account of Elizabeth Molder’ in the Christian Guardian 14 (1822), 97-100. Mary Scott may have published other anonymous works, but they remain unidentified.

[11] See Wendell V. Harris, British Short Fiction in the Nineteenth Century: A Literary and Bibliographic Guide (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1979), 33-36. Scott attacks Paine’s Age of Reason (1795-6) in Plain Truth; More directed her criticisms in Village Politics at Paine’s Rights of Man (1791-2). More described her aims for the Cheap Repository Tracts in the Advertisement to her Tales for the Common People (1818): ‘To improve the habits, and raise the principles of the common people, at a time when their dangers and temptations, moral and political, were multiplied beyond the example of any former period, was the motive which impelled the author of these volumes to devise and prosecute the institution of the Cheap Repository. This plan was established with an humble wish, not only to counteract vice and profligacy on the one hand, but error, discontent, and false religion on the other. And as an appetite for reading had, from a variety of causes, been increasing among the inferior ranks in this country, it was judged expedient, at this critical period, to supply such wholesome aliment as might give a new direction to their taste, and abate their relish for those corrupt and inflammatory publications which the consequences of the French revolution have been so fatally pouring in upon us.’ See The Works of Hannah More, 8 vols (Philadelphia: Edward Earle, 1818), 2.262.

[12] For Steele, see Whelan, Nonconformist Women Writers, 1720-1840, 3.200-03; for Wakeford and Blatch, see Nonconformist Women Writers, 1720-1840, 8.87-94 and 117-38.

[13] Mary Steele may have come the closest to actually performing as a preacher. On Sunday 2 May 1784 Jane Attwater writers in her diary, ‘In ye afternoon Mr Steele read a sermon – in ye eve Miss Steele read a Sermon’. Mary Steele is not reading her own words from the pulpit, which would have truly placed her in the role of preacher, but instead is reading the words of another preacher, though the audience cannot escape the fact that what they are hearing is coming through the medium of a female voice. Nevertheless, the image of Mary Steele delivering the evening sermon, even if that sermon was the work of a male preacher, is most extraordinary for a Baptist church at that time. For Attwater’s entry, see Whelan, Nonconformist Women Writers, 1720-1840, 8.239.

[14]Beginning in the late 1790s, numerous sermons castigated the French for their infidelity and warned of its spread to England among the working classes, a fear made even more relevant by Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason (1795-96), a work mentioned by Scott in her pamphlet. One of the most important sermons on this topic was Robert Hall’s On Modern Infidelity (1800).

[15]Numerous works would attempt to address the lack of education and, in general, ‘knowledge’ among the poor (a reference generally to a knowledge of scripture and Christian doctrine). One of the most important works to address this issue was An Essay on the Evils of Popular Ignorance (1821), by the Baptist minister and essayist, John Foster (1770-1843).