Hannah Mary Thom (née Rathbone)

Artisitce impression of the slums of liverpool in the 1830s

30 May 2024

In the annals of Liverpool's rich history, three remarkable Unitarian women stand out for their contributions to social reform and welfare: Eleanor Rathbone, Kitty Wilkinson, and Mary Hannah Thom. Each played a pivotal role in shaping the city's approach to social justice and community care.

Eleanor Rathbone was born into a Unitarian family and became a tireless champion for women's rights and social well-being. Her legacy includes the direct allocation of family allowances to women and the establishment of the Age Concern charity. Influenced by her father, William Rathbone VI, Eleanor’s political and social philosophy cantered on granting women greater independence from the male head of household.

Another iconic figure was Kitty Wilkinson, affectionately known as the Saint of the Slums. During Liverpool's cholera epidemic, Kitty selflessly washed the clothes of those infected in the disease-ridden North End, an area plagued by poverty, overcrowding, and abject living conditions. Interestingly, the term "slum" originated as a shortened version of "back slum," referring to dirty back alleys or rooms, though its true etymology remains a mystery.

However, the life and contributions of Hannah Mary Thom, wife of the prominent Unitarian minister John Hamilton Thom, offer a unique perspective on maternal dedication and social commitment. While not as famous as Kitty or Eleanor, she remains equally important to the Unitarian heritage.

Artistic impression of the slums of Liverpool in the 1830's

Artistic impression of the Slums of Liverpool in the 1830's

Eleanor Rathbone's life is often viewed through the lens of the inspirational women who influenced her. Women are frequently relegated to the footnotes of history, their achievements overshadowed by those of men. Rev. Dr. Anne Peart's book, Unitarian Women, has shed light on the invaluable contributions of women, bringing them out of the shadows. In research, women are often mentioned in passing, leaving much to conjecture to uncover their substantial contributions. Yet, even these small pieces of information are worth the effort to unearth.

Among these hidden figures is Mary Hannah Thom, who held the title of "Lady Superintendent of District Nurses." Mary Hannah Thom, the youngest child of William Rathbone V and sister to William Rathbone VI, married the esteemed Unitarian minister John Hamilton Thom. His portrait hangs in the vestry, a testament to his ministry and the impact of his congregation, which included some of the most influential people in the city and the country.

Portriat of Hannah

Hannah Mary Thom

The Domestic Missions, championed by Rev. Thom and supported by the philanthropy of the Renshaw Street Chapel, which preceded the Ullet Road Church, was one of the congregation's most remarkable endeavours. The first minister dedicated to serving the poor was John Johns, a native of Devonshire. He devoted eleven years to helping the impoverished community before succumbing to contagion on June 23, 1847. Though his life was tragically cut short at the age of 46, his compassionate work left a lasting legacy. His memorial can be found in the vestibule north porch, a testament to his selfless service and the enduring impact of the Domestic Missions on the community.

Mary Hannah Thom's life is a testament to the significant impact she had on healthcare in Liverpool, showcasing her commitment to caring for the most vulnerable in society. She recognized the urgent need for trained nurses and midwives, becoming the Superintendent of the Nurses Training School. Despite her affluent background and education, Mary felt a profound calling to nurse the dying, the poor, and the diseased. She and her team worked tirelessly in the overcrowded courts and cellars of Liverpool, often dealing with squalid conditions infested with vermin. She tended to those suffering from fevers that ravaged the Liverpool slums, delivered babies, and comforted the dying. Often referred to as the Florence Nightingale of Liverpool, she played a crucial role in the health and welfare of the community.

Portriat of J H Thom

John Hamilton Thom

Mary Hannah Thom served the community of Marybone in the northern part of the city for 20 years. Despite witnessing depravity, poverty, and illness, she is remembered for her kindness, compassion, and charity. Though she was not a mother herself, she mothered and cared for an entire community, embodying the true spirit of nurturing and service.

Mary Hannah Thom died at the age of 57, on December 21, 1872. Her funeral took place at the Ancient Chapel of Toxteth, conducted by the eminent Unitarian minister Charles Beard, considered a founder of Liverpool College, now part of the University of Liverpool. The funeral cortege departed from the home of John Hamilton Thom, Oakfield in Greenbank.

Her home, now a Grade II listed building and part of Spire Hospital in Greenbank, reflects her lasting legacy. The funeral cortege was a who's who of Unitarianism in Liverpool, including the Rathbone families, Holts, Jevons, Mellies, Gaskells, Tate, and other well-known residents. Upon her death, thousands of families benefited from her aid in the Parish of the Holy Cross. In gratitude, the community, despite their poverty, collected funds to erect a statue in her honour, fashioned as a water fountain. This fountain bore a simple yet heartfelt inscription: "This fountain was erected to the memory of Hannah Mary Thom, born November 24th, 1817 - died 1872, by the many friends in this neighbourhood whom she visited in sickness and sorrow."

Hannah Mary Thom Statue with Emerson

Statue of Temperance, dedication to Hannah Mary Thom at Mazencourt

The area of Liverpool once plagued by sectarian violence, saw significant Unitarian support for the emancipation of Catholics. In the early 20th century, a statue dedicated to Hannah Mary Thom was damaged and subsequently taken down. It was hidden away in a confessional box in the Church of the Holy Cross. In 1987, the statue was repaired and relocated to Mazenod Court, an elderly residential home, where it still stands today.

Mary Hannah Rathbone, married to John Hamilton Thom, was the aunt of Eleanor Rathbone. Eleanor was only eight months old when Mary Hannah Thom died, but she undoubtedly heard many wonderful accounts of her aunt's work. There is no doubt that Eleanor was inspired by her aunt's dedication to helping those on the margins of society.

Hannah Mary Thom on Original Site

The original site of the statue at Marybone

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