Mary Noel Baxter was well known as a petite, attractive lady, a teacher and a missionary imprisoned by the Japanese during the Second World War.
Mary was born on Christmas Day 1898 in a house Hull Road opposite First Lane. Her parents were Richard and Louise Baxter and they had two other children – Edward and Kathleen. Mr Baxter who was a corn merchant in Lime Street in Hull had built the family home. She was educated at home by a private governess before attending Airville House, a private school at the corner of South Lane owned by Mr Sutton, whose daughters taught there. At 11 Mary went to Aston High School on Anlaby Road in Hull, where they experienced a Zeppelin raid on 16th June 1915. Afterwards the pupils were evacuated to the Head’s home in Aberdeen.
Later the family moved to South Cave and Mary began to teach in Beverley as an untrained tutor. After a friend suggested she should train to apply to a university to take a degree she became one of the first girls to attend Hymers College and then went to Bristol University, where in 1921 she was awarded a BA degree. She followed this with two years in London doing a Diploma of Education.
Mary’s greatest desire was to be a missionary but she was a year too young for the Church Missionary Society, so she applied to the India Office and in 1922 went to a school in the Simla Hills in northern India to teach in the girls’ section. She taught there until 1928, becoming head of the girls’ school. She applied again to the Church Missionary Society and was accepted and spent the next 16 years at St Stephen’s Girls’ College in Hong Kong. Here she grew to love the Chinese people and corresponded with many of them for the rest of her life.
Mary loved to travel and whenever she returned home for holidays she would travel various routes to visit new places. She made notes of her holidays in the Holy Land and Formosa. She attended an international conference for teachers in Tokyo in 1937. In early 1939 she travelled home on leave, crossing the Pacific to North America, crossing Canada by train and sailing from there to Liverpool.
While she was on leave World War II was declared, and when she tried to return to Hong Kong she was forced to stop in Canada as non-nationals were already being evacuated from Hong Kong by boat. She stayed in Alberta and for five months taught Blood Indians. Her heart was in Hong Kong so she travelled down into the USA (which was not then in the war) to San Francisco and crossed to China. Mary arrived in Hong Kong a month before the Japanese Army. On Christmas Day 194 Hong Kong surrendered and Mary was placed in Stanley Internment Camp. The camp covered part of a former prison so conditions were passable, although food was minimal. Initially Mary shared a room with a family and later with three other women. She organized a school for the children, but the shortage of food meant they had little energy for learning and it lasted only half a day. She wrote letters home and kept a secret diary which is now in the Bodleian Library in Oxford. In August 1945 Japan surrendered and eventually the internees were returned to Britain. Before leaving Hong Kong, Mary made sure that her old school was all right. Mary received the letter from King George VI which was sent to all prisoners of war.
Mary was reunited with her parents in South Cave and became involved in many societies and charities. She wrote many letters campaigning for good causes and was very upset about apartheid in South Africa .
In 1950 Mary’s father died and she and her mother moved back to Hessle to a house in Tranby Avenue. She held garden parties and sales to raise money for various causes. Her mother died in 1955. Mary answered a call for more teachers and spent six years at Somerset Street School in Hull. In 1973, All Saints’ Church magazine featured her as the ‘parish personality’. In 1983, aged 85, Mary was awarded an honorary MA by the University of Hull. Mary was small, unassuming and selfless, and not afraid to speak out against injustice. Her Christian faith remained strong throughout her life and when she died in 1996, the church was full for her funeral service, which was conducted by the former Bishop of Hull, the Rt Revd Donald Snelgrove.