By Penny Smith

Mabel Shaw opened her school amid suspicion from the local population. Initially, it began with four girls:  Elizabeth Chungu, Janet Mupelwa, Ila Semba and Nellie Musonda. The girls were aged between seven and eight. In spite of the London Missionary Society (LMS) suggesting to take girls from nine years of age, Mabel wanted them younger. She felt they had not developed or assimilated ideas about traditional life and for Mabel, between seven and eight years of age was the best time to begin character training (some might call it indoctrination).  Seven new girls, aged between five and seven, joined the following year bringing the number to 11. 

Popularity Rising

Enrolment at the school remained consistent from 1930 to 1940.

In 1920, Mabel reported the school was “very popular” among parents.   The school also catered for Euro-African girls born out of affairs between white district officials and African women.  Often girls whose mothers had died or who had been abandoned were taken in and several were “adopted” by Mabel or the Mission.   In 1920 enrolment figures were 56, in 1922 – 70, in 1925 – 100, in 1930 – 153.  153 became the maximum and this number became constant until 1940; there were often waiting lists.  Because of the success the LMS sent another teacher, Winifred Bishop, to assist Mabel.

Instruction focused on the three Rs, geography, history (in the form of stories), some English (Chibemba was the main language of instruction), hygiene and mother craft.  Girls were trained in cooking (English methods preferred but some African), sewing, gardening, basket weaving and pottery during the afternoons.  No African dances or songs were taught in the class but were sung and danced at Insaka (communal meeting place usually in the evenings of selected weekends).

A Scholarly Sorority

Picture from Children of the Chief.  Is this Mabel standing at the back left?

Eventually the school was organized into thirteen houses, each with a dozen or so girls of different ages.  Each house was physically separate and organized with two house mothers who cared for the younger girls. They would also do their laundry, put them to bed, and make sure they behaved well. They were to perform the roles of “elder sisters” and shared the duties of the house among the members according to the ability of each person.  The girls lived and behaved as members of a family, as they would have done if they had still lived at home.

There were problems including language barriers and different cultural beliefs. Education was not believed as necessary for girls, that it might make it difficult for them to find marriage partners and some Africans thought that education made a girl less submissive or respectful to her spouse. Many saw education as a nuisance, which interfered with the proper traditional training of girls for motherhood and the conduct of puberty rites. In addition, there were demands of girls for domestic duties and as a labour source. There was a lack of role models for girls.  Concern was expressed that female education would dilute local cultures and customs.  There was suspicion of the strange church observances and the encouragement of girls to adopt “foreign” names and western dress or clothing.

Underfunded and Hungry

There was a chronic problem of finding adequate food for its boarders; this was a regular occurrence.  At one time in 1931 the school was temporarily closed because of the shortage of food but was quickly reopened when parents and Christians living around the mission organised emergency supplies.  Mabel encouraged the girls to grow food and parents to pay part of the fees in foodstuffs.    Part of the problem was caused by demands from mining towns and Greek traders who would buy the food at higher prices than Mabel could afford to pay. 

Funding was also a constant battle.   Parents paid fees for girls to attend but this was often in kind (vegetables, grain, etc) and was small in comparison to the cost of feeding and clothing each girl.  The LMS made an annual grant but often the society was also struggling for funds and there was no central government funding available.  The Carnegie Foundation (who often sent out visitors to assess and review the school) regularly made generous donations and there was grant aid from local government and commissioners. Donations were received from numerous other philanthropic organisations but often as a “one-off”. 

One of several publications authored by Mabel Shaw OBE.

A Prolific Publisher

Mabel wrote books.  Her first, “Children of the Chief”, was published by the London Missionary Society in 1924, and is semi-autobiographical and the “Chief” is God.  “Dawn in Africa: Stories of Girl Life” followed in 1927 and “God’s Candlelight’s: an Educational Venture in Northern Rhodesia” in 1932 sold 40,000 copies across 14 re-prints, and finally in 1936 “Treasure of Darkness”.  Profits from the last three were applied to the benefit of the school and associated projects.  She also contributed articles to the missionary press including “The Chronicle of the London Missionary Society” and the edition from May 1927 carries a picture of the now renamed school.

A Lady of Letters

Mabel wrote several letters each year of between 20 and 30 pages in length.  These were all descriptive and told of her many journeys away from the mission station, the children, and her activities. Additional letters detailed school changes and developments, local difficulties, funding and grants, visitors to the school and mission, and local difficulties.  Her letters comment on FGM and her fear that an abandoned three year old child she calls Ruth, who has been placed in her care, would be abducted by native women “to make her ready for marriage according to their custom”. She also writes of her first journey home by air (she was not impressed) and much more besides.   

Ref DX-308/24 Courtesy of Wolverhampton Archives.

A letter of 1930 talks of travelling 2000 miles in the back of a Bean Lorry which she had previously seen on the docks at Southampton.  In 1936 another says that “Treasure of Darkness” is about to be published and will sell for five shillings, one shilling of which will support the House of Life.  Another in 1945 describes unexpectedly meeting a school friend of her brother, Tom, at passport control in South Africa and discussing Wolverhampton and Bilston with him.  Tom had joined the Tank Corp during WW1; he was awarded the Military Cross in 1917 for conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty before transferring to the newly formed RAF in 1918.

Mabel’s brother Tom won the Military Cross in 1917.

 These letters were sent to a correspondence secretary who then made multiple copies for distribution.  Those on the circulation list would make contributions to cover the costs of the letters and the excess would be applied to the school funding.  There are copies of some letters at Wolverhampton Archives.  

Expanding Horizons

Eventually Mabel was encouraged to open day-schools for girls in surrounding villages and her work influenced the opening of other girls’ boarding school. Other missionary groups emulated her, but found varying degrees of success.   

In 1922 Mabel was one of the LMS delegates to the Third General Mission Conference at Kafue, where she presented a paper on her work.  This led to her being appointed to the Advisory Board for Native Education because by now she was so widely regarded.

The LMS opened schools across the world, such as this effort in Samoa. Pictured in 1948.

The work of this committee resulted in a recommendation that Mbereshi should also become a teacher-training centre which clearly pleased Mabel as it provided a further opportunity to develop opportunities for her girls and many went on to become teachers.  Mabel was called on to provide teachers for various schools around Central Africa for example in 1934 William Lammond, Missionary in Charge of the Christian Mission in Many Lands at Johnston Falls asked for assistance in running his girls’ boarding school and Mabel sent three women teachers who helped to put the school on its feet.   In 1938 the University Mission to Central Africa at Chipili Mission made a similar request – two teachers were sent.

In 1925 Mabel was nominated by the Governor of Northern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) to the Advisory Board for Native Education.  The Board included five Government Officers, two business nominees (John Brown, a farmer, and the Hon. W. Doull, a Railway Official) and eight religious’ nominees from various groups including Mabel.  Mabel was the only female. 

In Part 3 next week, we will look at the last chapter in Mabel Shaw’s remarkable life and work…

If you missed Part One, find it here:

The book much of Mabel Shaw’s account is taken from can be found here: