Mary Essberger

MARY ESSBERGER'S first book was published when she was 54. Old Needlework Boxes And Tools: their story and how to collect them (1971) combined her skills as a freelance journalist with her love of ecclesiastical embroidery. She was a remarkable woman. Though handicapped by polio at the age of 33, and with three children to bring up, she refused to submit and started a career from home. She wrote for national periodicals, illustrated children’s books, edited the women’s page of Church News and broadcast talks, short stories and poems for the BBC.
     She was born Mary Smith in Kensington in 1917, the daughter of an Anglican clergyman, and educated at St Margarets, Bushey, in Hertfordshire. During the Second World War she served in the Red Cross and also as assistant to Sir William Rootes (later Lord Rootes), deputy to Lord Beaverbrook, then Minister of Supplies. In 1941 she married Josef Essberger, an Austrian refugee actively opposed to the Nazis.
     In 1967 the family moved to Herefordshire, where her deep love for the Welsh Borders led to several books on the area: Herefordshire, the Enchanted Land (1976), Homes and Houses of Herefordshire (1977) and Arthurian Links in Herefordshire (1995). She also edited a selection of poems by Thomas Traherne, the 17th-century mystic (The Image, 1974). All these books appeared under the name Mary Andere.
     She pursued vigorously the evidence of Apostolic influence in the west of England. She studied particularly the writings of the 16th-century Jesuit Robert Parsons, and pursued the story of Christianity in Britain centuries before Augustine’s mission. Her claim that both St Peter and St Paul visited Britain caused Viscount Tonypandy, in a foreword to her unpublished work, "Roots of Heritage", to write:
“As a lad I was taught that St Paul had preached at Llantwit Major in South Wales. I dismissed the idea as Welsh fantasy, but Mary Essberger has given me cause to think again. Her profound Christian commitment shines through this scholarly work”.
     Her faith - which shone through her, too - contained elements of High Church tradition, the desert walk of the contemplative and the rigour and simplicity of the Quakers, but it fully expressed itself in practical day-to-day love for her many friends and family. Her spirituality, deeply influenced by Dom Bernard Clements, led to her being a founding member of the Fellowship of Solitaries (she probably enjoyed the gentle irony in the title) and an Oblate of the Benedictine Sisters of Jesus Crucified.


Mary Vida Frances Essberger, writer: born London 28 April 1917; married 1941 Josef Essberger (died 1972; two sons, one daughter); died Cambridge 23 January 2000.

First published on 5 February 2000 in The Independent, by whose kind permission this obituary is reprinted here.