Updated on 2 March 2021
The blue plaque for Mary Hughes (1860 – 1941) states she was a ‘Friend Of All In Need’.
Hughes was an English social worker in Whitechapel, London. She was the youngest daughter of Thomas Hughes, Christian Socialist and author of Tom Brown’s Schooldays. At the age of 23, Hughes left home in 1883 to become housekeeper for her uncle John Hughes, a vicar in Berkshire.
Helping The Poor In East End London
In 1892, Hughes joined the local Board of Guardians, who helped run the workhouses in Berkshire. She reportedly caused controversy by suggesting the paupers who lived in the workhouses might be allowed to drink tea twice a day instead of once. The resulting row over drinking tea twice a day lasted several months, but Mary got her way in the end.
In 1895, Hughe’s uncle died and she went to live with her sister Lily, wife of the Rev. Ernest Carter. This was in Whitechapel, East London, and soon Hughes joined the Board of Guardians for Stepney. After her sister and brother-in-law drowned on the Titanic, in 1915, Hughes moved to live with local friends, in the buildings that were later to become Kingsley Hall, Bow.
She joined the Quakers in 1918 and moved back to Whitechapel, living in the Blackwall Buildings continuing her work as a poor law Guardian and volunteer visitor to the local infirmary and children’s home.
The Dewdrop Inn
In 1926, Hughes acquired an old pub, the Earl Grey, 71 Vallance Road, Whitechapel, which she turned into a refuge, renaming it the Dewdrop Inn (a pun on ‘Do Drop In’).
Here, Hughes slept in a tiny room near the front door on a sort of padded bench, which she often gave up to homeless woman. She would go without food to feed others, and more than once ended up in hospital with bronchitis from sleeping on the cold stone floor.
When a passage about her life was being considered for the 1949 Quaker publication Christian Faith and Practice, an objection was made to her being described as ‘sometimes verminous’. However, the words were accepted when someone declared “Her lice were her glory!”
Hughes was a well known local figure in the East End of London. She used to wave her umbrella and step out to cross the road, saying, “the dear trams, they always stop for me” until one day a tram didn’t stop.
She was knocked down, but refused to be put in an ambulance until she had written down on a piece of paper “it was not the tram driver’s fault, it was my fault. Mary Hughes.”
She was taken to hospital and when told that she was getting better faster than expected, she sat up in bed and shouted “Three cheers for vegetarianism and teetotalism!”
Through the 20’s and 30’s she was passionately involved with the problems of the unemployed and she took part in a number of marches and rallies. In 1931, when Gandhi was visiting Britain for that year’s Commonwealth Conference, he insisted on meeting Hughes.
When they met, they clasped hands, looked at each other and burst out laughing. Hardly a word was said but ‘each had recognised the quality of the other’s life’.
In early 1941, aged 81, Hughe’s health began to fail and was taken to St. Peter’s Hospital nearby, where she died.
The blue plaque commemorating her is on the side of the old Dewdrop Inn building and she is remembered in Panel 51 (opens in new tab) of the Quaker Tapestry.
Today, the Dewdrop Inn is now a privately owned house.
Images from lookup.london/, www.peerage.org and pubwiki.co.uk/