Few people recognize the name Mabel Shaw today but in her time she was the most renowned female missionary in Africa. This is the first part of three chronicling her life and work.

The Original Grocer’s Daughter

Mabel Shaw OBE

Mabel Shaw was the third of eight children, born on 3rd December 1888 at Prestwood Road, Wolverhampton, to Walter and Elizabeth A. Shaw. In 1891 the census finds the family at 41 Church Street, Bilston and consists of Walter, a Manager of a Tea Grocers aged 28 who had been born in
Newbury, Berkshire, his wife, Elizabeth aged 25 born in Dowlais, Glamorgan, and their two daughters Lilian May aged 3 and Mabel aged 2. Lilian was one of twins but her brother, William Richard, had died before his first birthday and Lilian was to die in 1895 at the age of 7.

From the age of about 5 Mabel lived in Newbury with her “Baptist Granny” returning to Wolverhampton during school holidays. Her grandmother died when Mabel was 10 and Mabel was then sent to a boarding school for a short time on the Isle of Wight, again returning regularly to Wolverhampton.

A Family on the Move

By the time of the 1901 census the family had moved to 206A Lea Road and Walter is now described as a Grocer and appears to run his own shop from this address. Walter and Elizabeth, now recorded as Bessie, have several other children including Nora Lilian aged 1, Horace Charles aged 9, Thomas Joseph aged 4 and William Henry aged 3, as well as Mabel in the household. Another son, Donald Campbell, was born in 1905.

206 Lea Road, Penn Fields in 2015.
206 Lea Road, Penn Fields, pictured in 2015.

In 1911 the family is living at Penn Road. Walter now gives his occupation as Family Grocer. Elizabeth is aged 45 and says she has been married for 24 years and 8 children had been born within the marriage and six are still living. Mabel is still living with her parents and gives an occupation of School Teacher. She taught at Dudley Road School.

When in Wolverhampton, and after her time on the Isle of Wight, Mabel was a member of the Queen Street Congregational Church leading a study circle group. She taught Sunday School, joining the Band of Hope and actively supported the London Missionary Society (LMS). After hearing a missionary in Church one Sunday she decided that she too, would become a missionary.

Moving Away

Mabel Shaw applied to the LMS as a missionary candidate and was accepted in 1912 to study at St Colm’s College, a women’s missionary training college in Edinburgh. The college, was founded by Ann Hunter Small who had herself been a missionary and educationist in India. The LMS was affiliated with the Church of Scotland but accepted students from all religious groups. Whilst there from 1912 to 1915 she met and studied with a grand-daughter of David Livingstone. Queens Street Congregational Church supported Mabel financially throughout her time here.

Birmingham Gazette, 6 March 1915
Birmingham Gazette 6th March 1915

Although Mabel was keen to go to India the London Missionary Society appointed her as their first single female missionary to Africa where she was to set up a Christian school at Mbereshi, Northern Rhodesia, to educate girls. At meeting of the LMS held on 20th January 1914 it was agreed that the duties of the female missionary would be:

  • to superintend a boarding home for the girls
  • to superintend the work among women
  • to provide such homes for the bringing girls under the Christian influences out of school hours….making them fit to be wives of Christian men
  • Girls to attend ordinary day schools and would live on the same premises as, and under the close supervision of, the lady missionary and some suitable native woman who would assist her in looking after them
  • That their quarters should be like native quarters as much as possible
  • Girls from nine years of age would be eligible for admission and should be cared for until marriage

Setting Sail

HMHS Llandovery Castle
HMHS Llandovery Castle, on which Mabel made her voyage to Africa

Initially she was due to sail in September 1914 but the voyage was delayed because of the outbreak of WW1, when many ships were requisitioned by the Government. Eventually passage was arranged on the Llandovery Castle, a liner bound for Cape Town, departing on 6th March 1915 the same day a report appears in the Birmingham Gazette. The ship left London at night, under cover of darkness, and by morning the ship was passing through the Straits of Dover. Mabel later recalled hearing the sound of the big guns in France “sounding like the roll of distant thunder”.

In her semi-autobiographical book, Children of the Chief, published in 1921, Mabel relates details of the journey and mentions her memories of passing the Isle of Wight and, later the Madeira Islands being covered with masses of flowers of all colours and seeing white houses on the slopes of steep vine covered hills. An afternoon was spent on the island of Madeira. Later in the journey she reports seeing “swarms of flying-fish and happy leaping porpoises”.

Arrival in Africa

After a sea voyage of several weeks, a brief stopover in Cape Town followed. Subsequently Mabel took a three day train journey to Tiger Kloop where she stayed with LMS missionaries at their Native Institution. She would stop there for a further three days before she would see, first hand, the work of a native school. Another long rail journey followed, passing through Mafeking and Bulawayo, before crossing the Victoria Falls. She would eventually arrive at the end of the railway line terminus, Ndola. Here she was met by approximately 250 men who were to carry her luggage, supplies, cooking utensils, a bath, tables and chairs, and Mabel herself. The journey to Mbereshi where she was to be stationed was around 900 miles. Until this point in her journey Mabel had been accompanied by numerous other missionaries who had left her at various points along the journey for their own postings. From here on she was accompanied only by one other Western woman, the wife of the male mission station leader based several miles from “her” village.

A Machila, similar to one Mabel Shaw would have been carried in.
A Machila, similar to one Mabel Shaw would have been carried in.

Mbereshi lies south of Lake Muweru, south west of Lake Tanganyika, and east of the Congo. There followed a three-week journey, on foot, to Mbereshi. Sometimes Mabel walked, at other times she was carried in a machila (a hammock slung between two native bearers). At night huge fires were lit to ward off wild animals and Mabel slept, for the first time in her life, in a tent.

Children in Mbereshi village, where Mabel Shaw volunteered.

The first few months of her time in Africa was spent perfecting her language skills, understanding the regional dialect and local way of life. She also made sure she was visible to the locals and gained their trust. School buildings had been built by the male students attending the local boys mission school. Mabel was now involved in readying these for the start of her project…

This is the first installment of three about the life and work of Mabel Shaw. Part two will follow in a fortnight’s time.

Penny Smith is a genealogist and Chair of Friends of Wolverhampton Archives, a local group who raise funds to support City of Wolverhampton Archives. More details of the organisation can be found here:


Penny also runs the Wolverhampton branch of Midlands Ancestors, whose work can be found here:

Home Page of Midlands Ancestors

If genealogy is your thing, learn more about a chance meeting on Ancestry here:

Mabel Shaw’s own book can be found here: