Marie Corbett

Marie Corbett

1859 - 1932
Victorian women had few rights and little say in politics. Their place was very much in the home unless they were extremely wealthy and brave enough to break down barriers that restricted their equal freedom. One extraordinary woman did just that , using her wealthy status, her educated mind and her vision of philanthropy. Marie Corbett was a Victorian woman who wanted and fought for what she believed in, one of the places she took that fight to was the Eastbourne workhouse.


Early proponent of foster care, Co-founder Liberal Woman's Suffrage Society


Like so many well-to-do middle class Victorians, the young Marie Gray was privately  educated at home. Four elderly women, who were strictly conventional, believing strongly in class distinctions, were her teachers.

Victorian society did not fully recognise the existence of the lower class. The ‘poor’were simply invisible. The prevailing attitude believed the poor deserved the way they lived. The suggestion of lower classes being of the same flesh and blood was perceived as pure nonsense. Marie reacted strongly against this false perception andsoon developed an exceptionally tenacious and determined character.

Political activism was very much a part of Marie Gray’s life from an early age. Her parents were staunchly liberal and extremely progressive becoming the driving force behind the fierce sense of obligation she had for those less fortunate than herself, particularly children.

Marie Corbett


Marie was an energetic woman, an ardent feminist and a liberal. She was a suffragist, supporting votes for women her purposeful views and campaigns directed towards votes for women combined with her political activities, were often met with hostility from the disapproving crowds that she soon drew.

What Marie witnessed in the work house would lead to her greatest political and humane achievements. She was horrified and appalled to discover the awful conditions people were kept in, particularly the impoverished children. The Union Workhouse was adapted in 1834 as a genius solution to the poverty, thus creating a place for the spiralling impoverished and destitute to live and work.

Marie became determined not only to work on behalf of the friendless, impoverished children, but to set out and reform the conditions of the workhouses themselves. The 1894 Local Government Act altered the political system enabling Marie to join as a rural district council member, after which, members could become Poor Law Guardians for their areas. She took advantage of this and stood for election as a Poor Law Guardian and was appointed to Uckfield Union Board of Guardians the very same year. Marie was one of the first women in the country to be a Rural District Councillor and a Guardian standing for an extraordinary 36 years.

The women’s vote was partially won and from then on, as a member of the Ashdown Forest Boarding Out Committee, Marie devoted all her time to another other great cause; helping workhouse children. She visited the workhouse each week and began to undertake a
tremendous amount of humanitarian and welfare work. Focusing first on Uckfield, she set about finding people in the community who were willing to open their homes and foster children.

Marie went on to help children in the neighbouring parish of Eastbourne. Eastbourne Union workhouse had a reputation for harsh and callous treatment. Life for children of the workhouse was a bleak and horrifying fact of life. She had soon placed every eligible young child in a suitable home. At her peak, she had 40 children to visit every month with 100 under her care. With the workhouses finally empty of children, Marie had created a legacy of children whose lives had been transformed by the loving start they had been given from the families she had found for them.

Marie sadly died in 1932 at the age of 72.

To read Samantha’s full research click here


The odds were stacked against Marie. She could have conformed to tradition. She didn’t though, she had foresight and was not afraid to lead the way with new ideas and practices that had not yet gained mainstream acceptance. During my research, I have come to find Marie as an illusive yet formidable woman, forthright and unfaltering in her quest for equality. A true visionary in her attitude to empower people.
It would be imprudent of me not to emphasise the deep passion of her political force.

Marie was radical yet non-militant regarding women’s suffrage issues. Being one of three founding women, she helped to create the Liberal Woman’s Suffrage Society in 1887. Marie was a founder member and secretary of the East Grinstead’s Woman’s Soroptimist Society. Marie was instrumental in inspiring her children’s lifelong, continuing interests in political and social progressions.

I am sure there is more to Marie and feel obliged to delve even deeper to provide the acknowledgement she truly deserves. Researching her was a huge challenge, for someone who was so influential in changing children’s appalling lives she has not the recognition duly deserved. She has amazed me. I have struggled to find a present day British heroine that I could compare her to in order for you to relate to her achievements and life with.

Marie had used her education, wealth and status for the good of the poor. In conclusion this for me has been inspirational to research, learn and produce.


Samantha Cardno


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