Mary Elizabeth Barnes

Mary Elizabeth Barnes was born in 1864 in Stalybridge, Cheshire. She worked tirelessly over many years to improve housing, health, education and working conditions for the people of Farnworth, Lancashire

Mary Elizabeth Barnes was born in 1864 in Stalybridge, Cheshire. She worked tirelessly over many years to improve housing, health, education and working conditions for the people of Farnworth, Lancashire. She broke down many barriers to equality within those areas as well as barriers to the rights of women.

Mary’s husband was Harold Alfred Barnes, a prominent cotton manufacturer who was also the great nephew of Thomas Barnes of Farnworth (1812-1897), a cotton manufacturer, Liberal MP for Bolton and Chairman of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway. Mary was a member of the Women’s Local Government Association (WLGA) that was formed on 25 May, 1897; elected to the WLGA Executive Committee on 3 August 1897 and then elected vice-chair in 1916. In 1917, she joined the Bolton Suffrage Society that later became the Women’s Citizens Association and was vice-chair from 1919-1924 and then chair/president from 1924 until her death in 1942. She was also president of the Farnworth Branch, National Union of Women’s Suffrage Society and secretary/president of Farnworth & Kearsley Women’s Citizens Association from 1913 onwards.

Mary’s other achievement include being the first woman councillor for Farnworth where she served from 1922 – 1934; spent 35 years as a member of the Bolton Board of Guardians and serving as chair in 1921/22; a Bolton County Borough magistrate as well as sitting on the following committees in Farnworth: War & Old Age Pensions Committee, Education Committee, District Nursing Association, Maternity & Child Welfare Committee-Chairman.

Farnworth was one of the first local authorities in the country to introduce slum clearance and rebuilding work under the 1930 Housing Act, something Mary had been working for in the post-war period. She had also set up the Tipperary Club during World War One that provided a social network for women dependants of servicemen in the forces. Over 900 members met twice a week to sew clothing and send parcels to the front. In 1921, Mary was awarded the OBE for her war service. The club continued after the war as Farnworth Women’s Social Club.

Mary Barnes used her position within the community of Farnworth to improve the lives and living conditions of the people, giving over 40 years’ of service to the town. As a member of many committees, she instigated and encouraged positive changes to maternity, childcare, housing, pensions and education. Equality for women was important to her and in 1918, she requested of Farnworth Urban District Council that a tree be planted in Farnworth Park to commemorate women’s suffrage and the passing of the Representation of the Peoples Act. 

There is no permanent memorial to Mary in Farnworth, the area where she had most influence. Describing her efforts in a newspaper article published in 1913 about public spirited women, she said: “I feel it is all work which is so well worth doing, but I feel that there is much joy to myself in the little I can do, and yet there remains a great deal that needs to be done.”

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