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Leicester Special Collections

The Three Ages of Mary Swainson

Mary Swainson in later life

Black and white photograph of Mary Swainson captioned 'Listening at a counselling session'.

The Three Ages of Mary Swainson

Baptised Beatrice Mary Swainson she changed her name throughout her life to reflect the different stages of her development. 

'A valuable experience'  Beatrice 

Born in rural Somerset to an inward thinking Anglican clergyman and his musical wife, Swainson was home schooled until she was 11 when she was sent to Gardenhurst, a private school at Burnham on Sea and then Redlands High School at Bristol. At boarding school, she had a mixed experience. She relished the freedom but suffered at the hands of her music teacher and as a result struggled with depression. With hindsight, however she realised this “experience of feeling a complete failure in life” was “probably a valuable experience” for a future therapist.  

'Talk, discuss, explore, live'  “Bunny” 

Aged 19 she went to study at University College of the South West (now Exeter University) and reflecting the “full and joyous” life she was now experiencing she styled herself “Bunny”. Here she met Professor W Stanley Lewis and became inspired by his motto: “Don’t just sit and swot, talk, discuss, explore, live it!”. She also later recalled seeing first year students "running wild" for the first time, though dismissed it at the time as a release from the pressures of school. It was Lewis’s wife, Eve who sparked an interest in psychology. She went on to study Educational Psychology at Oxford before returning to Exeter after the outbreak of WW2 to help her parents look after 19 wartime evacuees. She re-joined the university there and it was during this second stint she met J W 'Billy' Tibble, a senior lecturer in the department of education. It was while talking with Tibble one night on fire watch she first shared her dreams of building a counselling service for students.  

Leicester – A pioneer output - Mary

Tibble moved to Leicester in 1946 to become professor of Education and two years later Swainson was persuaded to join him in the “sodden and unkind” East Midlands taking up a post as lecturer in educational psychology and changing her name toMary.1948 had been a difficult year for her, losing her father and being solely responsible for her ageing mother, but the move to Leicester and her friendship with Tibble gave her the opportunity to follow her dreams. While lecturing she also began counselling students on a small scale. By 1951 she had published her first paper on the subject “Building a University Psychological Service: The First Three Years”. Many more were to follow, including papers for UNESCO, all of which attracted enquiries from universities, colleges of education around the globe who were seeking to establish their own services. 

In 1955, the University College of Leicester officially recognised her work leading to the creation of the Psychological Advisory Service, one of the country’s first student counselling services.  

In 1967 the service joined with the Student Health Service, and she later wrote “I shall value the mutual aid and team work more than I can say”. 

Researched and written by Virginia Wright

Inscription from Library copy of Mary Swainson's autobiography. 'To inspire counsellors for the future. Obstacles can be overcome with patience and determination. With best wishes, Mary Swainson.'

Inscription written on the flyleaf of the University of Leicester Library copy of Mary Swainson's autobiography. Reads: "To inspire counsellors for the future. Obstacles can be overcome with patience and determination. With best wishes, Mary Swainson'.