Mary’s love of history began early. Brought up in Market Harborough, she attended the Collegiate School for Girls at Leicester, where she won the History Prize. She went up to Newnham College, Cambridge, where she achieved a degree of such high standard that it was not long before she returned to begin work on her doctorate. Characteristically, she came to her subject through her interest in recusant families, and particularly that of the enigmatic and tragic figure of Sir Thomas Tresham. From this beginning, her gift for historical enquiry led her on to a much wider study which bore fruit not only in her doctorate but in her subsequent book, The Wealth of Five Northamptonshire Families 1540-1640. This was published in 1956, at a time when there was sharp controversy in historical circles about “the decline of the aristocracy” and “the rise of the gentry”. This debate had engendered a good deal of heat but not very much light, until Mary came on the scene. It was she who showed what could be achieved, by meticulous research in the accounts, correspondence and legal records of her sample of families, towards building up an accurate picture of the wealth of the gentry through local studies. Most of the family archives she used were still in private hands, and her research involved her in journeys by motor-cycle across the Northamptonshire countryside, to spend long hours studying documents in the cold and ill-lit country houses of post-war Britain. The result was a landmark in the scholarship of the period, a best-seller for the local record society that published it, and a fitting monument to Mary as a historian.
When she started work on her doctorate, Mary had already decided that her career was to be in archives. On going down from Cambridge she had been appointed the first assistant archivist in the Wiltshire Record Office in Trowbridge. On completing her doctorate, she was appointed Archivist to the city of Chester. Then, in December 1958, she came to Lincoln, as Assistant Archivist in succession to Dorothy Owen. Here Mary worked with Joan Varley in the original Exchequer Gate premises of the Lincolnshire Archives Office. Here again, the cold was an abiding memory, as was the characteristic advice given by Joan Varley on how to cope with it: “Well, you must wear your mittens.” Mary immersed herself thoroughly in the collections she catalogued, gaining a deep knowledge of the families and institutions of Lincolnshire in the process. Fane of Fulbeck, Gregory of Harlaxton and Massingberd of Gunby were but three of the collections which benefited from her work. She listed the office records of the diocesan registrar, finding among them a fascinating bundle of letters of John Fardell, which she edited for the Lincoln Record Society. The articles she wrote for successive issues of the Lincolnshire Archivists’ Report are still of lasting value to researchers. Her knowledge of the archives was shared most generously with others. On discovering an unknown letter of George Herbert among the diocesan records, she communicated the details to a leading Herbert scholar, Professor Amy Charles, with full permission to publish an account of it. As an archivist, Mary was a traditionalist; if the work was to be done, it must be done thoroughly. By the time she became County Archivist in 1982, the world had moved on. She mistrusted the new world of information technology; she deplored the lack of interest among many county councillors, and the placing of the archives service with recreation and tourism. But she continued to provide an office where scholarship could flourish.
Mary’s life was not without tribulations. Her appointment in 1964 as County Archivist of East Sussex was curtailed when she was called back to Lincoln to look after her ailing parents. In her later years she suffered greatly from arthritis. But she was supported through all difficulties by her enduring faith. A daughter of the vicarage, she had been raised in the Catholic tradition of the Church of England, and this tradition remained her spiritual home throughout her life. In Lincoln she was drawn to the church of St Andrew, on the far side of Pelham Bridge, where she remained a loyal member of a dwindling congregation until its closure in 1967. In later years she attended the church of St Botolph, writing a charming account of one of its Victorian incumbents, Andrew Chrysostom Ramsay. She found the spirituality of Edward King House especially attractive. And she was a regular communicant here at Lincoln Cathedral. Mary’s religion was never thrust upon others; it was simply always there, a part of her everyday life, to which everything else related. She will be remembered as a fine historian, a meticulous scholar and archivist and above all as a person whose faith shone through in all she did. She died, peacefully in her sleep, on the Feast of St Cyprian. As we pray for her soul, we may recall the words of Bishop Edward King, in a letter discovered by Mary among the records of St Andrew’s church, as he condoled with the vicar on the death of a loyal member of his congregation: “The presence of such a [one] is a help upon the earth. But it was a nice day for the dear [one] to depart! A Sunday and the Feast of the Transfiguration.” We give thanks for Mary, praying that with her we may all be partakers of the heavenly banquet with Christ our Lord. Amen. Nicholas Bennett September 2007