May Kendall (writer) (1861-1943)


May Kendall was a poet, novelist and sociologist with a keen interest in science. She had 39 pieces, mainly poems, published in Punch between 1885 and 1895, making her the second most prolific female Punch contributor of the nineteenth century, after Ada Leverson. Kendall first began to write for Punch when her friend, the poet and folklore collector Andrew Lang, himself a Punch contributor, submitted work to Punch on her behalf. As Kendall wrote to M.H. Spielmann, ‘Mr Andrew Lang introduced my first piece to Punch, though he has done his friends so many good turns of this nature that I daresay he has forgotten all about it. It seemed very wonderful to be in Punch, which I had venerated from my youth up.’2 Kendall’s first few Punch contributions, ‘The Lay of the Trilobite’ (24th January 1885), ‘Ballad of the Ichthyosaurus’ (14th February 1885), ‘The Conquering Machine’ (18th July 1885), ‘The Jelly-Fish and the Philanthropist’ (27th November 1886) and ‘Ballad of Bathybius’ (28th January 1888), all poems about science, were wrongly attributed to Lang in the contributors ledger.3 The mistaken belief that these poems were written by a man, and an existing Punch contributor, may have helped to smooth Kendall’s path to writing for Punch at a time when there had been few female contributors and those women who had been published in Punch had tended to focus on acceptably feminine subjects, such as domestic life. Kendall’s Punch contributions cover a range of subjects including science, spiritualism, art, literature, romantic relationships, and the New Woman.

At around the same period that she began writing for Punch, Kendall collaborated with Lang on a satirical novella, That Very Mab (1885), an exploration of Victorian society from the perspective of a fairy. She also published two volumes of poetry: Dreams to Sell (1887), which included several of her Punch poems, and Songs from Dreamland (1894). She wrote three novels: From a Garret (1887), Such is Life (1889) and White Poppies (1893), and one volume of short stories: Turkish Bonds (1898). As well as writing for Punch, she published numerous poems and short stories in periodicals such as Longman’s Magazine, St James’s Gazette and Sylvia’s Journal, and essays in The London Quarterly Review and The Wesleyan-Methodist Magazine. In the twentieth century she focused more on non-fiction, carrying out sociological investigations with B. Seebohm Rowntree and contributing to his books and articles, particularly How the Labourer Lives (1913). She published some poetry in the Cornhill Magazine between 1927 and 1931 but did not produce any more collections once she had become involved in social investigation.4

There has been little published biographical work on Kendall and there are gaps in the surviving information about her.5 However, official documents and archives yield some information. She was born Emma Goldworth Kendall in Bridlington, Yorkshire in 1861. Census returns reveal that she was the youngest of four children of Rev. James Kendall, a Wesleyan minister, and his wife Eliza Goldworth Kendall.6 As a Wesleyan minister, James Kendall was required to move frequently, never staying in one place for more than three years. During Kendall’s lifetime her family lived in Bridlington, Durham, Blyth in Northumberland, Otley in Yorkshire, Ashby-de-la-Zouch in Leicestershire, Alford and Boston in Lincolnshire, Selby and Guisborough in Yorkshire before settling in York when her father retired in 1890.7 Kendall appears to have lived with her parents until their deaths in 1903 and 1909, and to have remained in York for the rest of her life. Towards the end of their lives Kendall’s parents seem to have been quite wealthy. They kept a servant and lived in Heworth Green in York, where most of their neighbours were people of independent means.8

Kendall studied at Somerville College, Oxford, between 1887 and 1889. She studied philosophy, ethics and literature but did not sit any exams.9 The entry for her in the Somerville College register reveals that she had previously been educated at a high school in London and had attended lectures at University College Liverpool (later Liverpool University).10 Later, in the 1891 census, she gave her occupation as ‘Scholar’ but I have not yet been able to discover whether this means that she continued in formal education or whether it refers to independent study and writing.11 Kendall’s most popular and widely anthologised poems often focus on the theme of science, and she appears to be fairly knowledgeable about the details of scientific theories but, as yet, I have been unable to find out how much formal education she had in science and how much she educated herself.

Kendall was an active socialist and a founding member of the York branch of the Fabian Society.12 She is also frequently referred to by critics as a feminist but this is more questionable. Her most overtly feminist poem is ‘Woman’s Future’, which concludes the science section in Dreams to Sell.13 In this poem the narrator mocks the evolutionary argument that women’s slightly smaller brains mean that they are doomed to be the inferior sex. She argues that the ‘laws of the universe, these are our friends’ (l. 6) because the nature of evolution is change and so by rejecting trivial occupations and ‘do[ing] something worth doing’ (l. 27), women can bring about a future in which they are recognised as the more intelligent sex. On the other hand, a couple of Kendall’s later poems in Punch are critical of the New Woman and of women who try to compete with men professionally or to be like men. In ‘A Dream of the New Woman’, a woman dreams that she has achieved complete equality with men but the ‘Eternal Feminine’ in her nature drives her to pine for dresses, chivalry and romance. Upon waking and finding that it was a dream she expresses relief and declares that ‘I should not like my knowledge/ To make me cleverer than – JACK!’.14 In ‘To Atalanta’ the narrator addresses the character from Greek mythology who declared that she would only marry a man who could outrun her, and who was finally defeated when Hippomenes used enchanted golden apples to distract her so that he could win the race. Kendall’s poem asserts that the reward of marriage is worth surrendering independence for, and that Atalanta did not regret her defeat. The poem then addresses modern women who try to compete on equal terms with men and warns them that they are running the risk that they might ‘lose the race,/ And likewise lose the apple’ by missing out on marriage and family but also being unable to compete with men professionally.15 Kendall’s work rarely comments overtly on the theme of gender and she often adopts a persona in her poetry so it is hard to tell what her own views were on the subject.

In the twentieth century Kendall largely moved away from creative writing to focus on sociological investigation with the philanthropic Rowntree family. She assisted B. Seebohm Rowntree in writing books on social problems, using ‘her gift for homely anecdote [to make] many of Rowntree’s articles and books more readable than they otherwise would have been’.16 She was acknowledged as a co-author of How the Labourer Lives, for which she interviewed rural labourers’ wives about their finances and nutritional intake to highlight the inadequacy of labourers’ wages.17 Although she was not credited as a co-author of Rowntree’s other books, she is known to have ‘“polished” Rowntree’s style’ in many publications, including The Human Needs of Labour (1918).18

Aside from a few documents held by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation there is very little evidence of Kendall’s movements in the twentieth century. Armstrong, Bristow and Sharrock note that in her old age Kendall was ‘renowned for her eccentricity, living for many years at 10 Monkgate in a house overrun with cats’.19 Her home at 10 Monkgate was a two-room attic flat above a house occupied by a butcher and his family, where she was living at the time of the 1911 census.20 In the last months of her life Kendall lived in a public assistance institution and appears to have been suffering from dementia.21 Her cause of death is given as ‘Senile’.22 The Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust paid for Kendall’s doctors’ fees and funeral and arranged for an obituary to be placed in the Yorkshire Gazette.23 She was buried in York Cemetery with her brother William, who had died in 1930. Their grave is unmarked but is close to that of their parents.24

Kendall’s work was largely forgotten for most of the twentieth century but now there is increasing interest in her, and particularly in her scientific poetry. Her work is amusing and accessible but also includes a commentary on political and social questions and on the meaning of scientific discoveries for human society. Her work has received some critical attention but her association with Punch is just beginning to be explored.25

  1. May Kendall at Somerville College in 1888 and 1887. Somerville College archives P1/13 and P1/11. Reproduced with the permission of the Principal and Fellows of Somerville College, Oxford. Not to be reproduced without permission.
  2. May Kendall, Letter to M.H. Spielmann, 5th June 1894, ‘Punch Contributors Ke-King’, Punch Archive, British Library Add Ms 88937/4/62.
  3. Contributors Ledger 1880-1885, Punch Archive, British Library Add Ms 88937/4/1. ff. 62, 67; Contributors Ledger 1885-1898, Punch Archive, British Library Add Ms 88937/4/2. f. 15.
  4. Catherine Birch, ‘Evolutionary Feminism in Late-Victorian Women’s Poetry: Mathilde Blind, Constance Naden and May Kendall’ (doctoral thesis, University of Birmingham, 2011) pp. 56-7, 307-8.
  5. In addition to my PhD thesis, cited in the previous footnote, further biographical information about Kendall can be found in Isobel Armstrong, Joseph Bristow and Cath Sharrock (ed.), Nineteenth-Century Women Poets: An Oxford Anthology (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998); Virginia Blain (ed.) Victorian Women Poets: A New Annotated Anthology (Harlow, Essex: Pearson Education Limited, 2001); Marion Thain, ‘May Kendall’, Dictionary of Literary Biography 240: Late Nineteenth- and Early Twentieth-Century British Women Poets (Farmington Hills, MI: The Gale Group, 2001) 118-123.
  6. 1851, 1861 and 1871 censuses, accessed via
  7. David J. Waller, An Alphabetical and Chronological Arrangement of the Wesleyan Methodist Ministers and Preachers on Trial in Connexion with the British and Irish Conferences, 19th ed. (London: Wesleyan Methodist Book Room, 1900), p. 120. Thanks are due to Philip Thornborow, Methodist Connexional Archives Liaison Officer, for helping me to locate this information and for supplying a photocopy of the relevant pages of Waller’s book.
  8. 1901 census, accessed via
  9. ‘M. Kendall, Reports of Collections’ and ‘May Kendall, Register Entry’, Somerville College archives. I am grateful to Kate O’Donnell, Assistant Archivist at Somerville College, for supplying digital copies of these documents.
  10. ‘May Kendall, Register Entry’.
  11. 1891 census, accessed via
  12. Asa Briggs, Social Thought and Social Action: A Study of the Work of Seebohm Rowntree 1871-1954 (London: Longman’s, Green and Co. Ltd., 1961), p. 23.
  13. May Kendall, ‘Woman’s Future’, Dreams to Sell (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1887), pp. 38-9.
  14. ‘A Dream of the New Woman’ Punch 108 (12 Jan 1895) 17.
  15. ‘To Atalanta’ Punch 108 (2 Feb 1895) 59.
  16. Briggs p. 83.
  17. B. Seebohm Rowntree and May Kendall, How the Labourer Lives: A Study of the Rural Labour Problem 2nd ed. (London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1913.
  18. Briggs pp. 83 and 151.
  19. Armstrong, Bristow and Sharrock p. 760.
  20. 1911 census, accessed via
  21. Birch, p. 64.
  22. Death Certificate, Emma Goldworth Kendall. Copy supplied by General Register Office, 10 January 2008.
  23. Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, ‘Cash Ledger 1939-1946’, Ms. JRCT 93/II/1 (e), f. 46 and ‘Cash Book Dec 1939 – Dec 1951’, Ms. JRCT 93/II/1 (b) f. 153, both held at Borthwick Institute for Archives, York.
  24. Burial Records: James Kendall, Eliza Goldworth Kendall, William Clement Kendall, Emma Goldworth Kendall. Obtained from the Genealogical Team, York Cemetery, March 2008.
  25. John Holmes looks at ‘Lay of the Trilobite’ in relation to its publication context in Punch in ‘“The Lay of the Trilobite”: Re-reading May Kendall’, 19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century 11 (2010), Other critical work on Kendall includes Diana Maltz, ‘Sympathy, Humor and the Abject Poor in the Work of May Kendall’, English Literature in Transition (1880-1920) 50:3 (2007): 313-332, Marion Thain, ‘What Kind of a Critical Category is “Women’s Poetry”?’, Victorian Poetry 41:4 (2003): 575-584; Fabienne Moine, Women Poets in the Victorian Era: Cultural Practices and Nature Poetry (Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2015).