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“How doth the little busy bee Improve each shining hour” – Mary Ann Frances Burnell – A Sampler, 1870

By Hugh Dominic W Stiles, on 15 March 2019

Mary Ann Frances Burnell was born in Cosgrove, Northamptonshire, in 1857, daughter of a labourer, William Burnell (aslo Burnal) and his wife, Elizabeth.  She was not described as deaf in the 1861 census when she was three, but a later census says she was ‘deaf from birth’ (1891).  She had at least one hearing brother and sister surviving, but many more that died very young.

This beautifully done sampler was made by her when she was a pupil at Edgbaston School, which she entered aged 9 in 1867, and left in 1873.  It says,

How doth the little busy bee
Improve each shining hour
And gather honey all the day
From every opening flower
Mary Ann Frances Burnell
Aged 14 years 1870
Deaf and Dumb School
Edgbaston

It may not surprise you to know that she became a lace-maker – Northamptonshire being famous for its lace at that time.  In the 1881 census she was living with her parents in Cosgrove.  By the late 19th century however, modern materials and methods of mass manufacture had ruined the old lace-making trade, and she and her mother were working as laundresses, a very tough job.  Mary died in Oxfordshire, in 1947, never having married. 

I wonder if the sampler came to us via Selwyn Oxley.  He went on several mission trips to Oxfordshire and worked there in some capacity for a while on a voluntary basis.

On the left is a list of some of the pupils in the school in 1872.  Click onto the image for a larger size.  It is possible that we could find her in some of the mission news, but it seems likely that as an adult she was the only Deaf person in her immediate area, and she lived in a village rather than a town where she might have had the company of other Deaf people as she had at school.

The Embroidery & Seamstress pictures come from the 1857 book, An Illustrated Vocabulary Prepared for the use of the Deaf and Dumb.


1861 Census – Class: RG 9; Piece: 927; Folio: 29; Page: 16; GSU roll: 542722

1881 Census – Class: RG11; Piece: 1537; Folio: 28; Page: 13; GSU roll: 1341370

1891 Census – Class: RG12; Piece: 1189; Folio: 20; Page: 7

1901 Census – Class: RG13; Piece: 1413; Folio: 25; Page: 13

1911 Census – Class: RG14; Piece: 8351; Schedule Number: 79

Free BMD Deaths Mar 1947 Burnell, Mary A F aged 89 Oxford 6b 1242

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