Mary Slessor was born on 2nd December 1848 in Gilcomston, a suburb of Aberdeen, the second of seven children, only four of whom survived childhood. Her father, Robert Slessor, originally from Buchan, was a shoemaker to trade. Her mother, from Oldmeldrum, was a deeply religious woman of sweet disposition, who had a keen interest in missionary work in the Calabar region of Nigeria. She has been described as the “Mother of All the Peoples.”
In 1859, the family moved to Dundee in search of work. Mrs. Slessor became a member of the Wishart Church, named after the nearby Wishart Arch from which Protestant martyr George Wishart had reputedly preached to plague victims during the epidemic of 1544.
Mary's father became an alcoholic and was unable to continue his shoemaking work. He finally took a job as a mill labourer. Mrs. Slessor was determined to see her children properly educated, and the young Mary not only attended Church but, at the age of eleven, began work as a “half timer” in the Baxter Brothers' Mill. Mary spent half of her arduous day at a school provided by the mill owners, and the other half in productive employment for the company. Thus began a harsh introduction to the work ethic which was to dominate her life.
By the age of fourteen, Mary had become a skilled jute worker. The life of a weaver, no longer with the benefit of company schooling, was daunting by modern standards. Up before 5.00a.m. to do the housework, Mary worked from 6.00a.m. to 6.00p.m. with just an hour for breakfast and lunch. The photograph of a Dundee millgirl is not contemporary, but depicts a working life in which little had changed during the intervening years.
Fortunately, Mary had benefited significantly from her rudimentary education. More importantly, she developed an intense interest in religion and, when a mission was instituted in Quarry Pend (close by the Wishart Church), Mary volunteered to become a teacher. Later, the mission moved to Wishart Pend, where the Church still stands, and so began a formative period in Mary’s life during which she learned to cope with both physical and mental hardship.
The story is told of how she stood her ground against a local gang, who swung a metal weight on a string closer and closer to her face. This stalwart young woman defied the gang by obtaining their agreement that, should she not flinch, then all her tormentors would join the Sunday School class. Mary triumphed, and gained experience which she would later exploit in her contacts with even more threatening tribes in a distant land.
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