Celebrating the unsung achievements of Teresa Merz

Photo: Tereza Merz pictured left was one of the founding members of our organisation. Photo courtesy of Simon Pringle

Based on Doing Good Quietly: The Life and Work of Teresa Merz (1879-1958) of Newcastle upon Tyne http://womenshistorynetwork.org/editors/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/Tere… an article by Elizabeth A. O’Donnell

In 1937, Newcastle journalist James Spencer published a collection of local people and places – a chapter called ‘They do good quietly’ introduced Miss Teresa Merz ‘one of the most remarkable women in the North East.’ ‘Though few people are aware of her activities, she has been a lifelong social worker, and knows the underdog as well as anyone in the kingdom.’ Teresa Merz was one of the founders of Connected Voice. She was also honoured by the Crown Prince of Serbia and the Red Cross for her work with war victims in the Great War, was appointed as a magistrate in 1921, and in 1928 Teresa was awarded an OBE.

The Bureau of Social Research for Tyneside (BSR) was set up in 1925 to research social problems and share findings through publications and at conferences and lectures. Their recommendations led to the formation of our organisation in 1929, which was then called Tyneside Council of Social Services (TCSS). Teresa Merz who had been on the Executive Committee of the BSR, became our first Vice President.

Teresa’s position in TCSS was pivotal in what was described as ‘the nerve centre of voluntary social work in the district’. Teresa and other women’s rights campaigners, including suffragette Norah Balls, highlighted the importance of unemployed women’s welfare at a women’s camp in 1931. In 1934, a women’s section of the TCSS was set up and chaired by Teresa. It organised keep fit and folk dancing classes, lectures on citizenship and ‘make and mend’ sessions in women’s clubs.

In 1929, the TCSS established the Newcastle upon Tyne Housing Trust (a Public Utility Society) and Teresa was on the management committee. It purchased large houses in the city that were no longer occupied and converted them into low rental flats. In less than ten years, sixty properties were secured, with a special focus on ‘bachelor flats’ for business girls and women.

In 1928, Teresa was awarded an OBE ‘for services in connection with the Newcastle Hostel for training boys for overseas settlement’. In May 1914, Teresa had had responsibility for four houses - two women’s hostels, a cottage for unemployed people and her ‘retreat’ – a farm cottage in North Northumberland. After her mother’s death in 1933, Teresa expanded this portfolio by converting the family home into a residential nursery for 'illegitimate' babies and toddlers. Encouraging the mothers to visit as often as possible, she freed them up to earn a living. By 1935, there were thirty residents, cared for by nine probationer nurses, a matron and two sisters. The mothers were expected to contribute to the cost, but if they could not, ‘Auntie Teresa’ took on most of the expense herself.

Teresa died at home on Wednesday 12 November 1958. She had been at work until two days before, despite feeling unwell. Her selfless dedication to social services was warmly praised in the local paper but she is virtually unknown today.