Mary Cecil Hay

Mary Cecil Hay (1839-1886) was a novelist who grew up in Shropshire, England and spent the final years of her life in a small village on the Sussex coast called East Preston.  Her work was often serialised and appeared in periodicals and weeklies in the UK, America and Australia.

She was the daughter of Cecilia Carbin and clockmaker Thomas William Hay of Shrewsbury who had three sons and three daughters:  Arthur, their eldest son, was apprenticed to a bookseller and printer in Wolverhampton, and at the age of fifteen took his own life.  Thomas, the youngest son, followed his father into the clockmaking business whilst the middle son, Walter, became a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Music.  He was an organist, ran his own music school, conducted orchestras and was the Diocesan Inspector of Choirs for the Rural Deanery of Shrewsbury. One of his pupils was the composer Sir Edward German.

The three daughters, Francis, Mary and Susan, remained unmarried, and lived primarily in the family home, first in Shrewsbury, later moving to Chiswick with their mother.  The children were all baptised in the Shrewsbury, Swan Hill Chapel, an independent church based on Congregationalist principles whose worshipers were referred to as Nonconformists.  Mary was christened Mary Cecilia Hay but adopted the middle name of her brother Walter Cecil Hay

Mary’s father died in 1856 aged sixty-five; his wife Cecilia continued to run the business in Shrewsbury despite financial difficulties.  In 1867 her son Walter was one of two trustees appointed to manage her affairs due to bankruptcy.  In 1872 she passed the business to her son, Thomas, who became the third generation of clockmakers in the family.  He had also been declared bankrupt in 1867 with trustees appointed to manage his affairs.  A newspaper report indicated that he died in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1873.

Out of the five censuses that covered Mary’s life (1841 to 1881) only one shows her away from the family home, and this was in 1861 when she was governess at the Grade and Ruan Minor rectory in Cornwall.  This was the home of Rev. Frederick Christian Jackson, a talented and exhibited painter who sold his works to raise money for church repairs.  The story goes that he also persuaded actress Madame Modjeska, to put on an impromptu performance in the rectory grounds for the organ restoration fund.  It was said of Jackson that he welcomed “Nonconformists as well as Churchmen”. Mary’s novel, For Her Dear Sake, is part set near the Lizard in Cornwall, a short distance from the Grade and Ruan parishes.

Starting in the late 1860s Mary’s poetry and short stories were published in periodicals such a Family Herald, The Argosy and The Belgravia, initially under the pseudonyms of Mark Hardcastle, Markham Howard or Sidney Howard. The Arrandel Motto was her first full length novel published in about 1871 using the name Mark Hardcastle, later re-issued as The Arundel Motto (approx. 150,000 words).

In the early 1870s the pseudonyms were dropped and  work appeared under her own name of M. Cecil Hay and later Mary Cecil Hay. Her novels were sometimes published with a collection of her short stories, for example:

The first full length novel using her own name was Hidden Perils of about 117,000 words in three volumes, published in England in 1873 by Hurst & Blackett and in America by Harper & Brothers. These three volume versions were intended for subscription libraries, whereas the single volumes were for direct sale to the public.

Although the literary critics paid little regard to  Hay’s work she was a highly read author, published in countries outside the UK such as America and Australia.  One of her most acclaimed books was Old Myddelton’s Money, a long novel of over 130,000 words.  Old Myddelton of the title was a very wealthy unmarried man, murdered (supposedly) by his nephew Gabriel, who was tried and convicted of the murder, but escaped.  The murdered man’s fortune passes to Myddelton’s sister, Lady Lawrence, who is childless, and it is supposed that she will leave the money to various of her in-laws.  A stranger called Royston Keith arrives in town and takes interest in the affairs of the family, much to the concern of a villainous lawyer who hopes to be one of the beneficiaries.   The stranger and another potential beneficiary, Honor Craven, form an attraction, and it goes on from there.   One of the villains is called Bickerton Slimp and the middle name of a trustee in the 1867 Hay’s bankruptcy was Bickerton.  Perhaps no coincidence that she gave this unusual name to the most despised person in the book.

East Preston 

In the 1881 census Mary was living with her mother and two sisters in Woodstock Road, Chiswick and her occupation was given as “Author”.  In this same census, her sister Susan listed herself as “Artist” and mother listed her occupation as “Literary Pursuits”, possibly assisting Mary.  Not long after this the ladies moved to the house in East Preston on the Sussex Coast called Bay Trees.  The house is believed to be still in existence and located in The Street opposite the Sea Lane Junction (now a rest home), but due to there being a Bay Tree farm in the vicinity some years ago this name has several occurrences in the village.

On July 3, 1884, Mary was present at the death of her sister, Francis Ann Hay, in East Preston.  Two years later she herself  died on July 24, 1886 at Bay Trees after a long and painful illness.  Her personal estate was valued at £272 0s. 6d.; a rough estimate of this today is about £32,000.  The executor of her estate was her sister, Susan Elizabeth Hay, of Gloucester Road, Kew.

Mary’s mother died in 1888 and her death was registered in Kingston, Surrey, near to where she had been living with her daughter, Susan, in Kew.  Susan died in 1908 and her executor was her niece, Amy Isabel Dovaston (daughter of Mary’s brother Walter and his wife Emily (Henshaw) Hay).  Amy was mother to artist  Margaret Dovaston.

Listed below in alphabetical order are many of Mary Cecil Hay’s novels and short stories.  It is not comprehensive and some stories may have had alternative titles when published outside the UK.  A small number were published under her pseudonyms of Mark Hardcastle, although they may have been republished later in her life under her real name.

Mary also contributed reviews to The Art Journal for the exhibitions at the Royal Academy and the Grosvenor Gallery.


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