Martha and Mary

A True Narrative

Front cover of the booklet "Martha and Mary A True Narrative" by Mary Howitt.
Design by N. Stanyer
Front Cover design by N. Stanyer

This delightful little story of early Quaker days written by Mary Howitt was first published in the British Friend and afterwards issued in booklet form by J. Halden, Printer, 4, Eastgate Street, Stafford in 1877. It was reprinted by J Halden in October 1930 concurrently with the 200th anniversary celebrations of the Friends Meeting House Stafford. This was made possible by the generosity of Friends in Birmingham . It has been republished here in 2008 by W. J. Walley on behalf of Staffordshire Area Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends


In a monthly journal devoted to the interests of the Society of Friends, published 34 yours ago, appeared the charming and interesting story of “Martha and Mary,” written by the talented authoress, Mary Howitt.
Several individuals who have recently read the story have decided on re-producing it in the present form, in order that the circumstances therein related, as to the persecutions endured two centuries ago by some of our forefathers in the cause of truth, may be more fully known, especially by the young, who will be charmed and edified by its incidents, and stimulated to virtue by the noble characters exhibited.
The story having local references renders it increasingly interesting in this neighbourhood.
There were living in Stafford, 200 years ago, a few persons holding the religious views of George Fox, the Quaker, who met from time to time, for religious intercourse, in the small and mean building in Foregate-street, joined by others like-minded, living some miles distant, among whom was Walter Pixley, who very frequently rode over many miles of rugged roads to meet them in the county town, and by whom he was much honoured and trusted, for it is recorded at one of those meetings, “That — and Walter Pixley are ordered to goe to the next Generall Meeting to London for this present year 1673.
Walter Pixley’s home was Uttoxeter, or Stramshall, a village contiguous to that town. At the former place no chapel of the “Friends” existed until 1700; while at Stramshall, in the year 1671, a grant was made to Pixley and others of land for a burying-ground in that village, thus shewing that at that period there were families of “Friends” living there, and perhaps, that good man expected that sacred spot would receive the remains of himself and of the members of his family; yet the unexpected precautions and troubles he passed through led him, with his household, to leave his native land, and seek a home across the ocean, and find a final resting place when the trials of life were over. Such, we are told was the sequel of his life, in the final paragraph of the story.
From one of the families who lived at Stramshall, or Uttoxeter, the authoress of “Martha and Mary” is descended.
She was born at Uttoxeter, and the historian of that ancient town says, “Many of her ancestors, who were attached to the Society of Friends, have suffered for the assertion of their rights in religious matters.”
In reference to the persecutions alluded to, the volumes entitled the “Sufferings of the Quakers,” afford ample information, and those which took place in Stafford stand out with lamentable prominence. Fines and whippings were required by public authority to be enforced with severity by those holding office in the borough; and imprisonment in the wretched dungeons then existing in the Gaol-square, of scores of worthy people, are facts fully placed on record.
These preliminary remarks will assist the reader in appreciating this interesting story so beautifully told by the gifted writer. The various incidents recorded are touching and romantic. The heroic efforts of “Mary, the foundling” (if we may so call her) to rescue her kind benefactors from their cruel persecutors, resulting in her appearance at Court, and crowned by her successful intercession with King James II., present an episode in personal history rarely paralleled.
It is hoped and believed that the story of “Martha and Mary” will be read with equal pleasure and profit by every person into whose hands it may come.

Stafford, March, 1877


It was when the persecution of the people called Quakers had, for a short season, somewhat abated its rigour, and they ventured to attend their religious assemblies without Tear of injury to their families in the meantime, that Walter Pixley and his wife, a staid and respectable couple belonging to that despised community, rode eleven miles to their county town of Stafford, to be present at a meeting appointed by that apostle-like young man, Edward Burrough, leaving their little daughter, Martha, under the care of an aged woman, who was, at that time, their sole female domestic.
Martha was a grave child, though but seven years of age: her young mind had taken its tune from both of her parents. She had been born in a season of persecution, had been cradled, as it were, in anxiety and sorrow; and as she grew old enough to comprehend the circumstances that surrounded her, she saw her parents constantly filled with apprehension for the safely of their lives and property. She had heard them talk over their grievances, spoiling of goods, the maimings, the whippings, and the horrible sufferings of their persecuted brethren – persecuted even to the death: had heard of little children enduring, with the steadfastness of early martyrs, imprisonments and pains, which would overcome even the strong man; till, unlike the ordinary child of her years, her countenance habitually wore a look of gravity, and her heart bled at the least thought of suffering or sorrow.
Martha’s home was in a country place, surrounded by fields – a pleasant, quiet valley, the patrimonial heritage of her father. It was harvest time, and in the coarse of the morning the old servant went out with the reapers’ dinners, leaving little Martha to amuse herself in her usual quiet way. She had not been long alone, before a beggar-woman presented herself with a young child in her arms. Martha knew that it was her mother’s custom to relieve distress in whatever shape if presented itself; and the story the woman told, whether false or true, touched her to the soul; she gave her, therefore, the dinner which had been set aside for herself, and compassionated her in words of the truest sympathy; and when the child in the woman’s arms wept, her heart yearned towards it. Strange it may be to all, but so it was, for our story is true. When the beggar-woman saw the affection with which little Martha regarded the child, she proposed to sell it to her, and Martha, innocent of all guile, readily accepted the proposal. All her little hoard of money was produced, the bargain was struck, and the two parted perfectly satisfied with the transaction. The child was beautiful in its form and features; and Martha sat down with it upon her knees, and lavished upon it all the endearing tenderness which her most affectionate nature suggested.
In a short time the child fell asleep; and as she sat gazing upon it, a half-defined tear stole into her mind that perhaps she had done wrong in taking upon her this charge unknown to her parents, that perhaps they would be displeased. She rose up in haste, and looked from door and window for the beggar-woman, but neither across the fields, nor down the valley, nor upon the distant highways, was she to be seen; and then she was afraid, and thought to hide the child. She made it a comfortable warm bed with a blanket, in a large press, and kissing it sleeping eyes, and wishing that she had no fear, she left it to its repose, and began with great anxiety to look out for the return of her parents. To the old domestic she said not one word of what, she had done.
After two hours, all which time the child had slept soundly, Walter Pixley and his wife returned. The good mother, who was accustomed to help in all the domestic business, employed herself in preparing the early afternoon meal, and Martha sat down with her parents to partake of it. While Walter Pixley and his wife were in the midst of their review of the events of the morning – of Edward Burrough’s extraordinary sermon, and of the concourse to whom it was addressed, they were startled by what seemed to them the cry of a child. Martha’s heart beat quick, and her sweet face grew suddenly pale, but her parents were not observing her. The good man stopped in the middle of a sentence, and both he and his wife turned their heads to the part of the house whence the sound proceeded, listened for a second or two, and then, all being again still, without remarking upon what they supposed was fancy, they went on again with their conversation. Again a cry louder and more determined was heard, and again they paused. “Surely,” said the wife, “that is the voice of a young child.”
The critical moment was now come – concealment was no longer possible; and Martha’s affection mastered her fear, as the infant continued to cry, she darted from the table and exclaimed. “Yes, yes, it is my child!” and the next moment was heard audibly soothing her little charge, in the chamber above, with all the tenderness of the fondest mother.
The mother was soon at the daughter’s side, full of the most inconceivable astonishment, and demanded from her whence I he child had come, or how it had been consigned to her charge. Martha related the story with perfect honesty. The old domestic was then summoned, but she knew nothing of the affair. They were not long deliberations that followed. The family could not conscientiously burden themselves with another dependant, and one especially who had no natural claim upon them, in these perilous and anxious times, when they could not even insure security for themselves; and besides this, how did they know but this very circumstance might be made, in some way or other, a cause of offence or of persecution, for the world looked with jealous and suspicious eyes upon the poor Quakers. Walter Pixley, therefore soon determined what he had to do in the affair – to make the circumstances known at the next village; to inquire after the woman, who, no doubt, had been seen, either before or after parting with the child; and also to state the whole affair to the nearest justice of the peace.
Within an hour, therefore, after the discovery of the child, the good man might be seen making known his strange news at the different places of resort in the village, and inquiring from all if such a person as the little girl had described the woman to be, had been seen by any; but, to his chagrin and amazement, no one could give him information – such a person had evidently not been there. He next hastened to the justice’s. It was now evening, and Walter Pixley was informed that the justice very rarely transacted any business after dinner, and that especially “he would not with a Quaker.” Walter, however, was not easily to be put by; he felt his business was important, and by help of a gratuity to the servant, he gained admittance.
The justice was engaged over his wine, and he received Walter Pixley very gruffly, and in the end threatened him with a committal to jail for his pains. The poor Quaker had been in jail the whole of the preceding winter, and he remembered too woefully the horror of that dungeon, to bring upon himself, willingly, a second incarceration. It was of no use seeking for help at the hands of the justice; therefore he urged his business no further, and returned quietly to his own house.
Against the will, therefore, of the elder Pixleys, the child was established with them; and it was not long before the father and mother as cordially adopted it as their little daughter had done from the first beholding it. “For who knows,” argued the good Walter Pixley, “but the child may be designed for some great work, and therefore removed thus singularly from the ways of evil for our teaching and bringing up? Let us not gainsay or counteract the ways of Providence.” This reasoning abundantly satisfied the pious minds of the good Friends, and the little stranger was regularly installed a member of the family by the kindred name of Mary.
At the time little Mary was first received under this hospitable roof, she might be about six months old, a child of uncommon beauty; nor as the months advanced into years, was the promise of her infancy disappointed. She was, in disposition and tone of mind, the very reverse of her grave and gentle elder sister, as Martha was now considered; she was bold and full of mirth; full of such unbroken buoyancy of heart, as made the sober mother Pixley half suspect that she must have come of some race of wild people. Certain it was, the subdued and grave spirit of the Pixleys never influenced her; and as Martha grew up into womanhood, and the quietness and sobriety of her younger years nurtured into fixed principles, she embraced with a firm mind the peculiar tenets in which she had been brought up, and would have stood to the death for the maintenance of them. Mary also advanced past the years of girlhood, but still remained the gay, glad, bold-spirited being that she had ever been. She revered all the members of the persecuted body to whom her friends belonged, and would have suffered fearlessly for their sakes; still their principles and practices she never would adopt. Her beautiful person was adorned, as far as she had opportunity, in the prevailing fashion of the times; and-she often grieved the sober minds of every member in the family, by carrolling forth “profane songs,” as the Pixleys called them, while how she became acquainted with them remained for ever a mystery. Often did the conscientious mind of Waller Pixley question with himself, whether it was quite right to maintain so light a maiden under his roof; but then the affectionate being, who had no friends save them in the world, had so entwined herself round the hearts of all the household, that the good man banished the idea as inhuman, and never ventured to give it utterance. Martha and her mother, meantime strove to win over this bright young creature to their own views, and for a few moments she would settle her beautiful face to a solemn expression, try to subdue what her friends called “her airy imagination,” and attend the preaching of some eminent Friend. But it would not do – the true character burst forth through all – Mary was again all wit and laughter, and though her friends reproved, they loved her, and forgave all.
On the accession of James II., which is the period at which our little narrative is now arrived, persecution raged again with greater violence than ever, and the Pixleys, along with seventeen other Friends, both men and women, were dragged from their meeting-house by a brutal soldiery, under the command of the justice we have before mentioned, to the dungeon-like county jail, in the depth of winter. The hardships they endured were so dreadful, that it is painful to relate them (see Footnote). They were kept many days without food, and allowed neither fire nor candle; their prison was damp and cold, and they were furnished with straw only for their beds; they were also forbidden to see their friends, who might have procured them some of thee necessaries of life; nor were they allowed to represent, by letter, their case to any influential man of the county, who might, have interested himself on their behalf. And to all this was added the brutality of a cruel jailer, who heaped upon them all the ignominy he could devise. In these dreadful circumstances lay the gentle Martha Pixley and her parents. Mary, not having accompanied them to their place of worship did not share their fate.
Poor mother Pixley’s health had long been declining, and this confinement reduced her so low, that in a few days her life was despaired of; still, no medical aid could be procured, and the cloaks and coats of many of her suffering companions were given up to furnish covering for her miserable bed.
When the news came to Mary of the committal of her friends to jail, the distress of her mind exhibited itself in a burst of uncontrollable indignation; and then asking counsel of no one, she threw on her hat and cloak, and taking with her an old man who lived in the family as a labourer, she hurried to the justice’s, and us she did not appear with any mark of the despised Quaker, either in dress or manner, she soon obtained admittance. The magistrate was somewhat startled by the sudden apparition of so fair and young a maiden, and demanded her pleasure with unwonted courtesy, seating her in the chair beside him, and removing from his head the laced hat which he was wearing at her entrance. Mary made her demand for the liberation of her friends, the Quakers. The justice stared, as if doubting his senses, and rallied her on the strangeness of her request, charging upon the Quakers all those absurd and monstrous things which were alleged against them in those days. Mary, nothing abashed, denied every charge as false, and demanded, if not the liberation of her friends, at least the amelioration of their sufferings. As Mary pleaded, the justice grew angry, and at length the full violence of his temper broke forth, and the high-spirited girl, even more indignant, than terrified, rushed from his presence.
What was next to be done? She ordered her old attendant to saddle the horses, and mounting one, and bidding him follow on the other, she set off to the county town. There she found great numbers of Friends surrounding the prison with baskets of provisions, bedding, warm clothing, and fuel, begging for admittance to their perishing brethren. Little children, too, were there, weeping for their imprisoned parents, and offering their little all to the jailor, so that they might he permitted to share their captivity. Mary made her way through this melancholy crowd, peremptorily demanded access to the jailor, and was admitted – her garb, unlike that, of the persecuted Quakers, obtaining for her this favour, as at the house of the justice. But here again her errand debarred her further success; the jailor would neither allow her to see her friends, nor would he convey a message unto them. Mary could have wept in anger and vexation, and from intense sympathy with the grief she had witnessed outside the walls – but she did not. She retorted upon the jailor the severity of his manner, and bidding him look to the consequences folded her cloak round her, and walked forth again into the circle of Friends who surrounded the gate. The jailor laughed as he drew the heavy bolts after her, and bade her do her worst.
Among the Friends collected in the street before the prison, Mary heard that William Penn, who had just returned from his new settlement in America, was now in London. As soon as she heard this, she determined upon her plan of conduct. She knew his influence with the King, who, when Duke of York, had induced his brother, Charles II., to bestow on him that tract of land called Pennsylvania. To him therefore, she determined to go, and pray him to represent to the king the deplorable sufferings of Friends in those parts.
When her old attendant heard of her meditated journey, he looked upon her as almost insane. To him the project was appalling. It would require many days to reach London, and who must take
charge of the farm in his absence, seeing his worthy master was in prison? And then, too, though he had been willing to attend her as far as the next town would it be right for a young maiden and an old man to endanger their lives by so long and so strange a journey!
Mary was uninfluenced by his reasoning, nor was she to be daunted by his fears “If” she said, “he would not accompany her, she would go alone.” She bade him therefore to have her horse saddled by break of day, and retired to her own apartment, to prepare for the journey.
“Of a surety,” said the old man to himself, “she
is a wilful young thing.”
In the morning, however she found not only her horse prepared, but the old man and his also, for wilful as she was, the old man loved her; and though he could not conjecture the object of so strange a journey, “he would.” he said, “go with her to the
end of the world.”
Mary had ventured to make use of the stores in Walter Pixley’s coffers, for she considered the lives of her friends were at stake. She was therefore sufficiently supplied with money for their journey.
For this time the wild gaiety of Mary’s spirits was gone, but, instead, was a strong energy and determination of character, which supported her above fatigue, or the apprehension of danger; and day after day, from town to town, in the depth of winter, did she and her attendant journey onward. They had no intercourse with travellers on the road, nor did they make known to any one the object of their journey.
When she arrived in London, she went straight to the house where William Penn had his temporary residence, and without introduction, apology, or circumlocution, laid before that great and good man the sad condition of her suffering friends. She then made him acquainted with her own private history, her obligations to the family of the worthy Walter Pixley, and the anxiety she now felt for the life of her who had been as a mother unto her.
William Penn heard her with evident emotion, and promised to do all that lay in his power for her benefactors; though he assured her she had overrated his influence with the king, he then desired Mary to take up her abode under his roof: and bidding an attendant call in his mistress, he gave her into the hands of his fair and gentle wife, briefly relating to her upon what errand the young maiden had come.
When Mary found her mission thus so far happily accomplished and the door shut upon herself and her kind hostess, the overstrained energy of her spirit for a moment relaxed, and she wept like a feeble child. The fair wife of William Penn understood her feelings, soothed her with sympathy, and encouraged her to open her heart freely. Never had Mary seen goodness so graceful and attractive as in the high-minded and gentle being before her. Her very soul blessed her as she spoke; she could not doubt but that all would be well; and with her heart comforted, assured, and filled with gratitude, it seemed as if a new life had been given to her.
The next day William Penn obtained an audience of the king, and so wrought upon him by the story of the heroic young creature under his roof, and the sufferings of her friends, that he desired she might be brought before him, and receive from his own hands the order for their enlargement.
Mary was accordingly arrayed in the best garments her scanty wardrobe permitted, by the elegant and gentle hands of Guilelma Penn, who surveyed her beautiful face and figure with admiration, and then kissed her and blessed her, as an affectionate mother might bless a beloved daughter.
Leaning upon the arm of her protector, she was conducted through a great, chamber of lords and ladies, assembled for the occasion, into the presence of the king. Mary’s heart beat violently, as her companion drawing her arm from his, presented her to his sovereign, who graciously bade her speak her wishes without fear. Reassured by the kindness of the king’s manner, almost forgetting the presence in which she stood, for what seemed to her the greater importance of her errand, she made her petition gracefully and well. She related all she had told William Penn of the great kindness of the Pixleys to her, and her otherwise desolate condition; she told of their domestic virtues, of their piety, and their firm loyalty; and lastly, of their wretched condition in the jail, with that of many others; and of the cruelty of the justice and the jailor; and then, almost unconsciously falling on her knees she prayed so eloquently that they might be released, that the king turned aside to wipe away a tear before he put forth his hand to raise her.
The petition was granted. The king himself put into her hands the order for their release, and then praying God might bless her, and taking leave of William Penn very kindly, passed out of the presence-chamber. Many of the lords accompanied the king, but the rest closing round the almost terrified maiden, overwhelmed her with compliments. William Penn, who saw her confusion, apologized for her with all the grace of a courtier, and extricating her from the admiring company, conveyed her, like a being walking in a dream, to his own house.
Not a moment was lost in sending down, by express the order for the friends’ enlargement, and together with that a dismissal from his office for the jailor. Rest was now absolutely necessary for Mary after these extraordinary exertions; William Penn detained her, therefore, a few days under his roof, and then conveyed her himself in his own comfortable carriage to the house of her friends. It is impossible to describe the joy which her return afforded, and which was not a little increased by the presence of her illustrious companion.
The troubles and persecutions of the Pixleys here came to an end, for they went over to Pennsylvania, with its distinguished founder, on his return, and became noted among the most worthy and influential of the settlers there. Mary, however, returned to England, being affluently married; and I myself several years ago, was possessed of a piece of needlework said to have been of her doing.

* The philanthropic John Howard visited this prison a second time in 1788, and observes, in reference to it, in his report of the state of the prisons in the Oxford Circuit:- “No alterations in this crowded prison. Only one small day-room for men and women. In the dungeon for male felons I saw fifty two chained down, hardly fourteen inches being allowed to each. The moisture from their breath ran down the walls. I need not intimate the heat and offensiveness of this dungeon, and the paleness of the prisoners. The women were in irons, and lay in another dungeon. Last year seven of the felons died in their dungeon of the gaol-fever; and the free ward or county chamber being directly over it, nine out of thirteen of the poor debtors died.” If this was the state of things in 1788, what must they have been when the oppressed Quakers were crowded into the same place a century before.

A True Story of 17th Century Quakers in Staffordshire

This abridged version of the booklet “Martha and Mary: A True Narrative” was written by Tracy Adshead in September 1981 and subsequently published in the Evening Sentinel. It has been very slightly edited and updated here by William Walley (2005).

Three hundred and twenty-four years ago, in 1681, King Charles II granted a Royal Charter to the portion of land in America which came to be known as Pennsylvania. The ‘outright proprietor’ of the land was the English Quaker, William Penn, from whom the colony derived its name. In England at this time the intolerance to which Quakers and other religious minorities had become accustomed to had somewhat subsided. Amongst the Quaker families living in Staffordshire were the Pixleys, of Uttoxeter – Walter Pixley, his wife and daughter Martha.

Some years prior to the granting of Pennsylvania’s charter, it happened that Martha Pixley was home alone, her parents having gone to a Friends’ (Quaker) meeting in Stafford. A serious child, possibly as a result of an upbringing during a time of persecution, Martha was deeply moved when a beggar-woman with a six-month-old child appeared at the house. Having already been moved to give food to the woman, the girl was actually induced to buy the beggar’s child with her own savings. Feeling somewhat guilty afterwards, Martha first vainly tried to find the child’s mother, and then to conceal the child from her own parents when they returned home. Her charitable action was, of course, discovered almost immediately. Attempts by Walter Pixley to trace the beggar were fruitless, and he and his wife kept the baby, who they named Mary, bringing her up as their own daughter. Unlike Martha, she grew up to be lively and high-spirited, and whilst respecting the views of her adoptive family, she never embraced Quaker principles and practices.

In 1685 James II ascended to the throne of England. His pro-Catholic tendencies led to renewed persecution of non-conformists, including Quakers. During this period, Walter Pixley, his wife and Martha, were arrested, along with 17 others, at a Friends’ meeting in Stafford. They were jailed and kept in dismal conditions by a brutal gaoler. Mrs Pixley’s health suffered badly. Other Quakers attempted to get food and provisions into their brethren without success.

When Mary, who did not attend the meetings, heard of the arrest and imprisonment, she went immediately to the justice, to whom she was granted access as she did not dress or act like a Quaker, and had by this time become an extraordinarily beautiful young woman. However, upon learning what her business was, the justice refused to help, and she angrily left. Upon going to the gaol, she was again given admittance, but met with similar lack of success. The gaoler refused to let her see the Pixleys, or to send aid or a message to them.
Incensed at this treatment, Mary decided that the only thing that might help would be for her to ride to London and make a personal appeal to the influential William Penn. This was an arduous and dangerous journey for a woman to make alone, and she finally persuaded an old servant to accompany her when he realised that she was determined to go.

At this time, the mid-1680s, Penn had just returned from his first visit to Pennsylvania, upon which he had embarked in 1682. On reaching London, Mary went straight to his home and told him her story, begging for assistance . Moved by her plea he promised to help, and put the exhausted girl into the care of his wife, Gulielma. Penn, meanwhile, went to the King and managed to get her an audience with him.

So Mary re-told her story, to the King himself, making a passionate plea and, apparently, falling on her knees before him. James obviously recognised the girl’s courage and sincerity, as he gave her an order for her friends’ release. The rest of the Court were apparently moved also, as they are said to have surrounded Mary and overwhelmed her with compliments.

An express order for the release of the Friends was sent to Stafford, together with one for the dismissal of the gaoler. Mary stayed in London for a few days with the Penns, recovering from her exertions, then William conveyed her himself in his own carriage to her home in Uttoxeter. It is said that the joy which her return with Penn afforded is impossible to describe.

This was not the end of the Staffordshire connection with Penn. In 1699 he set sail once more for Pennsylvania, and with him this time went the Pixley family. The ship they sailed in was the Canterbury. Setting sail on 9th September 1699, they finally arrived in Pennsylvania twelve weeks later, the delay being caused by the ship drifting off course. The Pixley’s became noted as leading members of the settlers in Pennsylvania, where they stayed for the rest of their lives, all except for Mary, who returned to England and made a rich marriage.

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