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Remembering Mary Dormer-Harris (1867–1936), local Historian and her cultural legacy

In the next in her local history series, Jill Kashi of Westwood Heath History Group shares research on a remarkable local woman. Look out for more local history stories in future editions of our community newsletter.

“The History of Warwickshire is a great story in little room, one of mighty happenings in one small nook of the earth. When it has been studied more scientifically than hitherto…we may find a great deal that may help us with modern problems. For when all is said and done, our forefathers were very little removed in feeling and thought from us, the present inhabitants of this insignificant planet”.

So wrote Mary Dormer Harris (known as Molly) in 1908. A local girl, born at Dale House Farm, Stoneleigh in 1867, and with relatives in Westwood Heath and the surrounding area, she became a well-respected local historian. Her contribution to the cultural life of Warwickshire endures to this day: in her academic work; as an educator; a suffragist; a heritage campaigner and dramatist.

A historian with wide appeal

Molly was privately educated, but later reflected on the experience with disappointment; she knew her education had not been as good as that given to boys. Her experience at Oxford University (1886-1888) was more rigorous and enlightening, although as a woman she was unable to be formally awarded her degree, a situation that would continue until 1920. Having studied English Literature, she went into teaching; in her long holidays she immersed herself in the archives of the Treasury at St Mary’s Hall, Coventry. There, she taught herself to read medieval manuscripts, using her skills to write well-received books and papers, including Life in an Old English Town (1898), Unknown Warwickshire (1924) and the transcription of the mighty Coventry Leet Book, begun in 1904. Her lively, engaging style of writing and her keen observations of people and places ensured her work was never dull or dry and secured its popularity with a wide readership. Being a woman was not a barrier to her productivity, but she encountered the discrimination prevalent at the time. As a woman, she was not allowed to present her own paper to the Society of Antiquaries in 1895; it was read by a man on her behalf. Four years later she addressed the Birmingham and Warwickshire Archaeological Society, the first woman to do so.

Suffragist and Pacifist

Molly’s mother and grandmother were strong women - clever, resilient and hard-working. Their example clearly imprinted itself on her. She was a keen advocate for the rights of women in all aspects of life. In her writing, she lamented the lot of the women spinners in medieval Coventry, “notoriously oppressed and cheated by their employers” and she highlighted the plight of women workers in her own time, writing of the “sweating” toil of the Birmingham home workers. She documented the contribution of women throughout Coventry’s history in “The Story of Coventry”. Molly became active as a suffragist from 1898, joining the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, corresponding with Christabel Pankhurst and organising local fundraising. In 1913, she acted as an official steward on the march of suffragists known as “The Pilgrims” from Warwick to Leamington. Having witnessed the tragic consequences of World War I, she was committed to pacifism. Horrified by the prospect of war in the 1930s, she joined the League of Nations Union, writing, “If half a dozen sensible WOMEN from different countries met and arranged things we could sleep in peace”.

A commitment to lifelong learning for all

Following her initial teaching experience as a young woman, Molly retained a passion for education. In 1919, she became Vice President of the Workers’ Education Association, an organisation delivering quality education to working people, regardless of gender, age or social class. In 1927, she was appointed as Local History lecturer at the University of Birmingham, in her first year teaching the course, “Local Medieval and 16th Century History”.

Heritage campaigner

Molly’s love of old buildings developed when travelling through France and Germany, aged just 17, studying and sketching the picturesque houses. By 1914, she was dismayed by Coventry Corporation’s view that many medieval buildings and streets needed to be cleared and the city modernised – a view shared by many citizens of the city. This prompted her to join the newly formed City of Coventry Guild, which aimed to preserve buildings and to “influence, where possible, the artistic development of the city”. Molly later became Vice President, the only woman to hold that position. She compiled a list of ancient buildings and in 1921 helped to establish a museum in the former Bablake School. She used her writing to raise awareness of the situation; in her 1924 book, “Unknown Warwickshire”, she described the old “apparently doomed” buildings. By the mid-thirties, threat to Coventry’s buildings was becoming a reality; on January 1st 1936, demolition began in readiness for the construction of New Trinity Street and the Owen & Owen department store. Virtually no assessment of these old buildings had taken place and this was undoubtedly a serious blow to Molly and the Guild. Nevertheless, the following month she addressed the Guild in typically pragmatic fashion: “we must try and work for the future…much beauty still remains, and the Guild must preserve the beauties of nature while making our modern buildings and planning worthy of the past”


Molly had been interested in plays and performance since her student days. In 1922, she became a founder member of the Warwick and Leamington Dramatic Study Club, known as the Loft Theatre from 1932. Her writing became more creative in this period; she produced some short stories and also plays, performed by the theatre company. Her first, “The Waters of Forgetfulness” was performed to packed audiences in 1933. Its concerns with the threat of war, the loss of old traditions and the coming of new technologies must have resonated with the audience of the era. Indeed, much of the drama performed at The Loft was experimental, with new writers having plays performed alongside established playwrights. This forward-thinking attracted young talent and younger members of the audience; by 1936 The Loft had 200 members. Molly became popular with the young members of the theatre; play readings at her house were followed by noisy parties, making her unpopular with her genteel neighbours!

Although she enjoyed modern drama, as a historian she always had an eye on the past. Many academics at the time were contemptuous of folk lore and old legends, but Mary believed that these old stories and customs were a key to the lives and beliefs of the ordinary people of former generations. In 1925, she wrote down the Stoneleigh Mummers’ Play as told to her by an old gentleman who had acted in it. These plays, originating in medieval times and performed largely outdoors, were passed on through generations in the oral tradition. The Stoneleigh Mummers’ Play was revived in 1975 and is still performed annually on Boxing Day by the Coventry Mummers.

Enduring legacy

It is sad that Mary Dormer Harris died so suddenly when she was still fully occupied with her writing projects and in local life. On 3rd March, 1936, after a typically busy day, she was hurrying home from an evening meeting when she was knocked down by a car and killed instantly.

This account scratches the surface of Molly’s work and legacy: the foundations of what became the Coventry City Archive; her documentation of buildings – now lost – and her contribution to heritage preservation; her fascinating books, written in her spirited and absorbing style; her contribution to the Loft Theatre - and last, but by no means least, the Mary Dormer Harris Memorial Bursary. This was formed by public subscription in 1938, when heads of secondary schools in Warwick, Leamington and Stratford were invited to nominate students for bursaries. The bursary was, and still is, offered to promising students planning to enter Higher Education and seems a fitting tribute to Molly and her values.

Her loss amongst colleagues was immense and the tributes flooded in. Her great friend, Florence Hayllar shared a very personal recollection of this remarkable woman:

“In Molly’s company all the things that count – joke and merriment, poetry, the lives of people, discussions on the problems of life and being – were enhanced, lighted up, freshly coloured. One was always so glad when she was coming and so sorry when she went away”.

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