Biography of Mary Howitt

Mary Howitt
Picture of Mary Howitt.jpg
Mary Howitt
Born12 March 1799
Coleford, in Gloucestershire
Died30 January 1888 (age 88)
Educationat home
Spouse(s)William Howitt
ChildrenAnna Mary Howitt, Alfred William Howitt, Herbert Charlton Howitt, Margaret Howitt
Parent(s)Samuel Botham and Anne (née Wood)
Mary's portrait in a book
Mary Howitt
A book by William and Mary called Abbeys and Castles of Great Britain. It features a number of photographs and sells today (2007) for over 1000 pounds.
"Ansitz Mair am Hof". The summer retreat in Dietenheim, near Brunico, 1871–1879
Marienruhe M.A.H. in Meran
Former US First Lady Laura Bush just after reading from Mary Howitt's book The Spider and the Fly on 27 October 2006 in Florida

Mary Howitt (12 March 1799 – 30 January 1888) was an English poet, and author of the famous poem The Spider and the Fly.

Background and early life

She was born Mary Botham at Coleford, in Gloucestershire, the temporary residence of her parents, while her father, Samuel Botham, a prosperous Quaker of Uttoxeter, Staffordshire, was looking after some mining property. Samuel had married his wife Ann in South Wales in 1796, when he was 38 and she was 32. They had four children Anna, Mary, Emma and Charles. Their Queen Anne house is now known as Howitt Place. Mary Botham was educated at home, read widely, and began writing verse at a very early age.

Marriage and writing

On 16 April 1821 she married William Howitt and began a career of joint authorship with him. Her life was bound up with that of her husband; she was separated only from him during the period of his Australian journey (1851–1854). She and her husband wrote over 180 books.

They lived initially in Heanor in Derbyshire, where William was a pharmacist. Not until 1823, when they were living in Nottingham, did William decide to give up his business with his brother Richard and concentrate with Mary on writing. Their literary productions at first consisted mainly of poetry and other contributions to annuals and periodicals. A selection was published in 1827 as The Desolation of Eyam and other Poems.

William and Mary mixed with many important literary figures, including Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. On moving to Esher in 1837, she began writing her well-known tales for children, a long series that met with signal success. In 1837 the couple went on a tour of Northern England and stayed with William and Dorothy Wordsworth. Their work was well regarded: in 1839 Queen Victoria gave George Byng a copy of Mary's Hymns and Fireside Verses.

William and Mary moved to London in 1843, and after a second move in 1844, could count Tennyson amongst their neighbours.


In the early 1840s Mary Howitt resided at Heidelberg, where her literary friends included Shelley's biographer Thomas Medwin and the poet Caroline de Crespigny, and her attention was directed at Scandinavian literature. In company with a friend, Madame Schoultz, she set about learning Swedish and Danish. She then translated and introduced Fredrika Bremer's novels (1842–1863, 18 vols) to English readers. Howitt also translated many of Hans Christian Andersen's tales, such as

  • Only a Fiddler (1845)
  • The Improvisators (1845, 1847) 1900 edition at the Internet Archive
  • Wonderful Stories for Children (1846)
  • The True Story of every Life (1847).

Among her original works were The Heir of West Way Ian (1847). She edited for three years the Drawing-room Scrap Book, writing (among other articles included) "Biographical Sketches of the Queens of England". She edited the Pictorial Calendar of the Seasons, translated Joseph Ennemoser's History of Magic, and took the chief share in The Literature and Romance of Northern Europe (1852). She also produced a Popular History of the United States (2 vols, 1859), and a three-volume novel called The Cost of Caergwyn (1864).

Mary's brother-in-law Godfrey Howitt, his wife and her family emigrated to Australia, arriving at Port Phillip in April 1840. In June 1852, the three male Howitts, accompanied by Edward La Trobe Bateman, sailed there, hoping to make a fortune. Meanwhile, Mary and her two daughters moved into The Hermitage, Bateman's cottage in Highgate, which had previously been occupied by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

The men returned from Australia a number of years later. William wrote several books describing its flora and fauna. Their son, Alfred William Howitt, achieved renown as an Australian explorer, anthropologist and naturalist; he discovered the remains of the explorers Burke and Wills, which he brought to Melbourne for burial.

Mary Howitt had several other children. Herbert Charlton Howitt was drowned while engineering a road in New Zealand. Anna Mary Howitt spent a year in Germany with the artist Wilhelm von Kaulbach, an experience she wrote up as An Art-Student in Munich. She married Alaric Alfred Watts, wrote a biography of her father, and died while on a visit to her mother in Tirol in 1884. Margaret Howitt wrote the Life of Fredrika Bremer and a memoir of her own mother.

Mary Howitt's name was attached as author, translator or editor to at least 110 works. She received a silver medal from the Literary Academy of Stockholm, and on 21 April 1879 was awarded a civil list pension of £100 a year. In her declining years she joined the Roman Catholic Church, and was one of an English deputation received by Pope Leo XIII on 10 January 1888. Her Reminiscences of my Later Life were printed in Good Words in 1886. The Times wrote:

Their friends used jokingly to call them William and Mary, and to maintain that they had been crowned together like their royal prototypes. Nothing that either of them wrote will live, but they were so industrious, so disinterested, so amiable, so devoted to the work of spreading good and innocent literature, that their names ought not to disappear unmourned.

Mary Howitt was away from her residence in Meran in Tirol, spending the winter in Rome, when she died of bronchitis on 30 January 1888.

Her works

Among those written independently of her husband were:

  • Sketches of Natural History (1834)
  • Wood Leighton, or a Year in the Country (1836)
  • Birds and Flowers and other Country Things (1838)
  • Hymns and Fireside Verses (1839)
  • Hope on, Hope ever, a Tale (1840)
  • Strive and Thrive (1840)
  • Sowing and Reaping, or What will come of it (1841)
  • Work and Wages, or Life in Service (1842)
  • Which is the Wiser? or People Abroad (1842)
  • Little Coin, Much Care (1842)
  • No Sense like Common Sense (1843)
  • Love and Money (1843)
  • My Uncle the Clockmaker (1844)
  • The Two Apprentices (1844)
  • My own Story, or the Autobiography of a Child (1845)
  • Fireside Verses (1845)
  • Ballads and other Poems (1847)
An illustration by her daughter for her 1847 book "The Children's Year"
  • The Children's Year (1847)
  • The Childhood of Mary Leeson (1848)
  • Our Cousins in Ohio (1849)
  • The Heir of Wast-Waylan (1851)
  • The Dial of Love (1853)
  • Birds and Flowers and other Country Things (1855)
  • The Picture Book for the Young (1855)
  • M. Howitt's Illustrated Library for the Young (1856; two series)
  • Lillieslea, or Lost and Found (1861)
  • Little Arthur's Letters to his Sister Mary (1861)
  • The Poet's Children (1863)
  • The Story of Little Cristal (1863)
  • Mr. Rudd's Grandchildren (1864)
  • Tales in Prose for Young People (1864)
  • M. Howitt's Sketches of Natural History (1864)
  • Tales in Verse for Young People (1865)
  • Our Four-footed Friends (1867)
  • John Oriel's Start in Life (1868)
  • Pictures from Nature (1869)
  • Vignettes of American History (1869)
  • A Pleasant Life (1871)
  • Birds and their Nests (1872)
  • Natural History Stories (1875)
  • Tales for all Seasons (1881)
  • Tales of English Life, including Middleton and the Middletons (1881)

The Spider and the Fly

This poem was originally published in 1829. When Lewis Carroll was readying Alice's Adventures Under Ground for publication, he replaced a parody he had made of a negro minstrel song with the "Lobster Quadrille", a parody of Mary's poem.

The poem was a Caldecott Honor Book in October 2003.

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