1797  — 1868

Mary Ann Aldersey


Independent missionary educator


Historians have been revising the history of Christian missionaries in China over the last few decades. In particular, they have been taking a closer look at the role and activities of women missionaries, as well as the missiology of the leading mission agencies. Mary Aldersey deserves more attention, not only because she was a more effective missionary than we knew but also because she was part of a major struggle in the mission agencies over the role and fitness of women for this work.

One of the most effective mission stations was in Ningpo (now Ningbo), and it appears that this was due in no small part to her work. Several missionaries testified to how they were influenced by her, not the least of which was Hudson Taylor, the founder of the China Inland Mission (CIM).

Early Years in London

Joseph Aldersey (1762-1847) and his wife Elizabeth Baker were both relatively wealthy. They had four children, the youngest of whom was Mary Ann Aldersey, who was born June 24, 1797, in Hackney, England. The family were members of the Homerton (or as it was often called after its founder, Ram’s Chapel) Church of England community in Hackney, where the Rev. John Eyre was the minister. He was an evangelical and one of the founders of the London Missionary Society (LMS). He died in 1803 and the next year, seven parishioners under the leadership of Joseph Aldersey seceded and became a Congregational Church, with Rev. William Pye Smith (a fervent abolitionist) becoming the first pastor. In 1810, it moved its location to the Old Gravel Pit Meeting house, where in 1818 Mary Aldersey was confirmed as a member. In 1822, the death of her mother became one significant factor in the delay of her own move to China until 1837.[1]

The Rev. Dr. Robert Morrison, who was the first and most famous missionary from the LMS, had been in China since 1807. He took a sabbatical in England from March 23, 1824 to May 5, 1826 and was received with adulation and interest, taking on the trappings of a celebrity and being received by the King.[2] His main residence during the sabbatical was in Hackney. Having brought with him a library of 10,000 Chinese books, he took the opportunity to present seminars on China, establish the (Universal) Language Institution, plead for support of schools in China including the Anglo-Chinese College in Malacca, make the case for women as well as men to become missionaries, and teach classes in the Chinese language. This inspired a number of people to become missionaries and learn the language. Unsurprisingly, women were not admitted by the Language Institute into his classes in Hackney.[3] Samuel Dyer (22 years old) and Samuel Kidd (25 years old), amongst others, did take his classes at the “male only” Institute.

Morrison then invited the women into his home to learn the language as well and to recruit them to the China mission. Maria Tarn (21 years old) and Mary Aldersey (27 years old) were amongst this group, as was probably Maria Newell (30 years old).[4] Maria Tarn was the daughter of the Director of the London Missionary Society; she later married Samuel Dyer and went to Malacca in 1827, accompanied by Maria Newell. The Dyers were at the first Missionary Conference in Hong Kong in August and September 1843, after which, in late September, they moved to Ningbo.[5] After Samuel Dyer died in October 1843 in Ningbo, Maria stayed on there, renewing her friendship with Mary Aldersey, who had also moved there after the Conference upon the recommendation of John R. Morrison (son of Robert Morrison). Later, Maria Jane Dyer, one of her daughters, married Hudson Taylor[6], while her other daughter Burella Dyer married the Rev. J. S. Burden, who later became Bishop of Victoria (Hong Kong). Maria Newell married Karl Gützlaff (another important missionary in China) in 1829 in Jakarta.

After Mary Aldersey determined that her care responsibilities to her father and siblings would not permit her travel to China immediately, she went on a fundraising effort, contributing money herself as well, to pay for the passage of Maria Newell and support other women seeking to be missionaries. She worked closely with women who later launched “The Society for Promoting Female Education in China and the East.” This had been proposed by Robert Morrison in May 1825 in a meeting with William Allen, the driving force behind the British and Foreign School Society. Subsequently, it was officially launched on July 25, 1834, after a visit to London from the Rev. David Abeel (who had been sent out to China in 1829 by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions). He had been tutored in Chinese by Robert Morrison and embraced his promotion of such an organization. One of the women Aldersey supported at this time was Miss Martha Wallace, who went out to Malacca in 1828 financially supported by the British and Foreign School Society, but who later was “adopted” by the LMS.[7]

In addition to fundraising, Mary Aldersey, accompanied by other women who had been tutored in Chinese by Morrison, continued studies in Chinese, utilizing the services of a Chinese teacher.[8]

In one meeting, it was suggested to her that she go to China. She thought about it and advised her father that she wanted to go. He demurred, but later (early 1832) changed his mind and supported her plan. Unfortunately, her sister-in-law died suddenly, leaving eight children and her husband. Aldersey stayed on for another three years, providing support and care until her brother Richard Aldersey remarried. During that time, Abeel’s visit to England (see above) must have further galvanized her.

Mission in Indonesia and China

In 1836, the Rev. William Medhurst, who returned to England from Jakarta (then called Batavia) met with Aldersey and convinced her to travel with him back there, where she arrived on December 2, 1837. She apparently paid for her own trip and commenced work in Surabaya (550 miles west of Jakarta).

In Surabaya she lodged with a Dutch Christian clockmaker for six months and then moved out of the European quarters so that she could organize a school for Malay Chinese girls. Very few families were willing to allow their daughters to attend her school and if they did, it was only on the condition that the girls remained secluded and well protected. Ati (then about 12 years old) and Kit were among her first students; the former was especially keen to learn to read. Ati was so inspired by Aldersey that her mother became very angry and even threatened to kill her.

It was likely that both girls faced persecution because they wanted to become Christians, and so Miss Aldersey planned not only to leave for Hong Kong with 14 year old Mary Leisk (who later married William Russell, who became Bishop of North China in 1872) but also devised an escape route for the two girls which involved walking at night to the home of a foreign Christian family. The girls, at their request, were baptized by Medhurst before they travelled to Singapore. Miss Aldersey and Mary, had, however, already left Singapore for China, first to Macau and then to Hong Kong.

In Singapore, Ati and Kit stayed with Charlotte and Benjamin Keasberry and became friends with Hanio and Chunio, who were studying at the Chinese Girls School (CGS) started by Maria Tarn Dyer. They reached Hong Kong and were reunited with Miss Aldersey on December 25, 1841 – seven months after their daring escape from their homes in Surabaya.[9]

As noted above, a Missionary Conference was held in Hong Kong in August and September 1843, following the opening of additional ports to Westerners.[10] As Aldersey knew several of these people and spent time talking with William Lockhart and J. R. Morrison, and as Ningbo became one of the recommended cities to expand the missionary effort, she moved there.[11]

Aldersey was to spend the next sixteen years at Ningbo, focusing on creating schools and mentoring her staff and “converts.”[12] By some accounts (Milne, Martin, Taylor), of all the missions in the Treaty Ports opened after 1842, the Ningbo mission was the most successful and in no small measure due to her efforts.[13] There are several accounts of missionaries in the area who reminisce about how their social and missionary gatherings were held at her home.

The schoolroom in the Ancestor’s Hall at Miss Aldersey’s rented house in Ningbo. The Chinese teacher is seated in front.

In addition, “she also developed another career – that as a matchmaker.” She may have been determined to stay single herself so that she could be a missionary, but she seemed equally determined to organize the lives of the girls who worked with her. By 1852, she had arranged marriages for Kit, Ati, and Mary. Kit (Christiana A-Kit) married Kew Teen-shang in December 1847. He had attended a mission school in Jakarta and was baptized in Shanghai in November 1845. In 1848, Miss Aldersey wrote to the London Missionary Society (LMS) that he was working as a printer for that mission in Shanghai. She added that this was the first marriage of two such converts in that region.

It is likely that Kew Teen-shang also undertook evangelistic journeys for Miss Aldersey, since he recorded in July 1851 that he had just returned from his second visit to Hunan Province and brought back with him two Jews and five scrolls of the Jewish Law. Ati (Ruth A-Tik) married Tseng Lai-sun in July 1850. He came from a poor family in Singapore and after he was converted to Christianity was sponsored by missionaries to go to the USA for his education. Afterwards he worked with the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions in Guangzhou until 1853, when he moved to Shanghai and, thanks to his language skills, had a varied career as a businessman, and later with the Fuzhou Naval School and the Chinese Educational Mission, before becoming the chief private English secretary to a Chinese viceroy. Of the couple’s six children, one son became a very successful journalist (Spencer 曾笃恭 ), another (Elijah 曾溥 ) was probably China’s first “scientifically trained engineer” after studying in Germany, and two of their daughters married Westerners. The eldest of those was a founding member of the Chinese Red Cross Society. Mary Leisk married the Rev William Russell in September 1852. They spent most of their married life based in Ningbo and never had any children. He was consecrated Bishop of North China in December 1872; he died in October 1879. His widow continued working among Chinese women in Ningbo until her death in August 1887.

After Kit, Ruth Ati and Mary were married, Miss Aldersey recruited two more teenagers to help her – Maria Tarn Dyer’s daughters Burella and Maria Jane. Most of the girls who came under Miss Aldersey’s influence did accept her guidance.[14] There was one exception at least to this. She was apparently not in favor of Hudson Taylor’s marriage to Maria Jane and made extensive efforts to derail the relationship for almost two years.[15] The reasons for this seem to be her failing health and her long oversight of Maria and the other women in Ningbo, as well as her conviction that Taylor lacked the necessary qualifications (ordination, medical degree, etc.) for a suitable partner to Maria.

While she was not technically an “authorized” LMS missionary, she made regular reports to the LMS in London[16] and was in continual conversations with other influential missionaries during those years.

Move to Australia

Eventually, her health continued to fade and she retired to McLaren Vale, Adelaide South Australia in 1860 to be with her brother, who had moved there in 1849. There she proceeded to establish a residence named Tsong Gyiaou which was the best translation of the name of a village near Ningbo where she had really invested significant effort – “San Ch’iao.” In retirement she became known for her work with the poor and with her promotion of education for girls. She died September 30, 1868.

Phillip Mayfield

Boston University Volunteer Researcher China Historical Christian Database

Ph.D. Program, [History], Princeton Theological Seminary

Master of Theology, [History], Andover-Newton Theological Seminary

Bachelor of Divinity, (Honors), [History], University of Melbourne

Bachelor of Arts, (Honors), [History], University of Adelaide

[1] He remarried in 1836.

[2] This sabbatical had a significant impact on English leaders and especially on the evangelical movement, and is deserving of a separate research effort.

[3] See Eliza Morrison, “Memoirs Vol 2,” p 335, “I shall continue to teach Chinese at the Language Institution, and to the ladies, till the end of February” (1826).

[4] Maria Newell was the first “official” female LMS missionary to China.

[5] Another event worth some research effort, as within weeks after the Conference ended, missionaries transited to places permitted by the Treaty of 1842/43 such as Shanghai, Amoy, Ningpo, etc. See footnote 9 below.

[6] This marriage was opposed by Aldersey (see below).

[7] The name is different in one account (Mary Christie Wallace) and the date is also different (1829).

[8] This person’s identity is not certain, but there is a reference in Bartle (p. 24) to a Malay Chinese woman residing in London at that time. There is also a reference to a man being the tutor in Manning (p. 68).

[9] There are accounts of this stay in Indonesia in Anglican And Protestant Missionary Societies In Great Britain: Their Use Of Women As Missionaries From The Late 18th To The Late 19th Century. Jocelyn Murray ,1992; and in A Woman Pioneer in China: The Life of Mary Ann Aldersey. E. Aldersey White, 1932; and in Hope Farm Chronicle: Pioneering Tales of South Australia 1836-1870. G.H. Manning, 1984.

[10] The attendees at this conference included some of the most notable missionaries at that time, including W.H. Medhurst (Chairman) [LMS], Samuel Dyer (Secretary) [LMS], Dr. Benjamin Hobson (Medical Doctor) [LMS], Rev. James Legge [LMS], Alexander Stronach [LMS], John Stronach [LMS], William Charles Milne [LMS], J. R. Morrison [LMS], Elijah Coleman Bridgman [ABCFM], Dyer Ball [ABCFM], William Dean [ABMU or ABMFM], Dr. Daniel Jerome MacGowan [ABBFM], Issacher Jacox Roberts [BMS], S. R. Brown [Morrison Education Society], and Jehu Lewis Shuck [BMS].

[11] Probably October or November 1843.

[12] Some accounts of this are in Manning, White and Murray.

[13] According to conversations related by G.H. Manning (p.44) “she had no less than eighty pupil boarders, the number at times even reaching higher than that. The teaching was always in the Chinese tongue, Miss Aldersey having a strong objection to teaching them English; and, of course, the main aim she had was to teach them the Christian religion.”

[14] The excerpt above was from Anglican And Protestant Missionary Societies In Great Britain: Their Use Of Women As Missionaries From The Late 18th To The Late 19th Century. Jocelyn Murray, 1992.

[15] 1857-1858. The source of this account is in Broomhall, Book Three: If I had a Thousand Lives, 1982, 79-126.

[16] Many of these reports are lodged in SOAS at the University of London.


Bartle, George F. “The Role of the British and Foreign School Society in Elementary Education in India and the East Indies 1813-75,” History of Education 23, no. 1 (1994): 17-33.

Broomhall, A.J. Hudson Taylor & China’s Open Century. Books 2, 3, 5. London: Overseas Missionary Fellowship and Hodder and Stoughton, 1982, 1982, 1985.

MacGallivray, Donald, ed. A Century of Protestant Missions in China (1807-1907). Shanghai: American Presbyterian Mission Press, 1907.

Manning, Geoffrey H. Hope Farm Chronicle: pioneering tales of South Australia, 1836-1870. Adelaide, Australia: Self-published, 1984. Journals kept by his great-great-grandfather and others and newspapers etc. ISBN 0 9595629 9 0. https://geoffmanning.info.

Manning, Geoffrey H. Hope Farm, Cradle of the McLaren Vale Wine Industry. Adelaide, Australia: Self-published, 1980. ISBN 0 9594394 4 0. https://geoffmanning.info.

Morrison, Eliza A. Memoirs of the Life and Labours of Robert Morrison. Vol 2. London: Longman, Orme, Brown, Green and Longmans, 1839.

Murray, Jocelyn. “Anglican And Protestant Missionary Societies In Great Britain: Their Use Of Women As Missionaries From The Late 18th To The Late 19th Century,” Exchange 21, no. 1 (January 1992): 1-28.

Pollock, John. Hudson Taylor and Maria: Pioneers in China. New York: McGraw Hill, 1962.

White, E. Aldersey. A Woman Pioneer in China: The Life of Mary Ann Aldersey. London: The Livingstone Press, 1932.

About the Author

Boston University Volunteer Researcher China Historical Christian Database

Ph.D. Program, [History], Princeton Theological Seminary

Master of Theology, [History], Andover-Newton Theological Seminary

Bachelor of Divinity, (Honors), [History] ,University of Melbourne Bachelor of Arts, (Honors), [History] ,University of Adelaide