Mary Ann Parker was born in London, England, on 5 July 1817, the daughter of William Parker, an Anglican clergyman, and his wife, Ann. Very little is known about Mary's childhood and education, although she later suffered ill health which seems to have had its origins in a sickly childhood. Her early life, possibly sheltered and domestic, was certainly deeply religious. Her father was rector of St Ethelburga's, a parish in Bishopsgate (although they lived in nearby Islington), and her older sister, Elizabeth Parker, married John Rodwell, another clergyman.
In the late 1830s Mary Parker was fired by John Williams's A narrative of missionary enterprises in the South Sea islands. Her own opportunity to embark on a similar adventure came when, on 3 April 1841 at St Ethelburga's, she married William Martin, a barrister who had just been appointed chief justice of New Zealand. William shared Mary's religious devotion and it was this, together with his asceticism and scholarship, that attracted her to him. She had little interest in his legal work, his position or status, but was eager to join him in taking Christianity and civilisation to a new colony.
Within four days of their marriage William Martin sailed for New Zealand. More than eight months later Mary Martin followed, with a companion, Elizabeth Smith. They departed from Plymouth aboard the Tomatin on 26 December 1841, part of a large party including Bishop G. A. Selwyn, his wife, Sarah Selwyn, and a number of clergymen and students. They were farewelled by Edward Coleridge, a clergyman and master at Eton, with whom Mary Martin formed an immediate spiritual bond and with whom in the following years she corresponded regularly. Mary Martin impressed her fellow travellers. The young clergyman William Cotton found her 'a most charming person, very clever indeed, and never says anything which is not worth hearing, and has plenty to say'. The Tomatin reached Sydney in mid April 1842 and Mary Martin sailed as soon as she could for Auckland, on the Bristolian, arriving on 30 May.
As a semi-invalid and the chief justice's wife Mary Martin was somewhat restricted in her activities; but, having settled with her husband at Taurarua (Judges Bay), with the aid of a number of domestic servants she kept open house for the Anglican missionary and clergy families. Bishop Selwyn stayed there on his visits to Auckland from Waimate North in the early 1840s; and Sarah Selwyn, with her children and maids, frequently took up residence when her husband was touring the country or the Pacific islands. The Martins' neighbour, the bachelor attorney general William Swainson, as well as the staff of St John's College, seem to have regarded the Martins' house as a second home.
Mary Martin's childlessness, and her husband's preoccupation with affairs of the court and the church, gave her time for other people. She had a talent for friendship, which she extended to many, especially women. She recognised that in a new country 'the lack of sympathy…is the most trying part of a woman's lot'. She possessed this sympathy and was generous with it. Her warmth, light-hearted gaiety and spontaneity lightened many heavy clerical and legal evenings and helped strangers feel that New Zealand could become their home. A stream of new arrivals, sick women, children and people alone were taken into the Martins' home.
In 1842, with Elizabeth Smith, Mary Martin began a hospital and dispensary service for Maori patients at Taurarua. The hospital first consisted of two or three rough huts and a tent made from blankets. Eventually a three-roomed raupo hut was built, financed by friends in England. Although Mary Martin had brought a good stock of quinine and other medicines from England, the remedies were usually simple – good food, rest, herbal poultices, fresh air and prayers. When necessary Dr William Davies was called in to assist. Elizabeth Smith seems to have performed most of the actual nursing while Mary Martin advised, raised funds and provided spiritual counsel. Even after the government opened a hospital in 1847 some patients preferred the less formal services offered at Taurarua.
Passionately devout, Mary Martin also supported the Anglican efforts to establish a network of training institutions for young Maori men and women. She believed that even if 'Mission clergy [were] to be dotted over the land like flax bushes, they would not act upon the mass of the natives effectually. They are still Pakehas.' If Christianity and civilisation were to take root, a team of Maori preachers had to be trained, and young women educated as 'good wives' to assist them. Mary Martin took a keen interest in the work of St John's College, and in St Stephen's School for Native Girls, which began at Kohimarama in 1846 and shifted to Parnell in December 1850. The girls came to her regularly for tuition, particularly in history. Mary Martin was avid for experience and made three long trips out of Auckland, to Waimate North in 1844, to Tauranga in 1846 and to Waikato in 1852. Unable to walk or ride on these journeys she had to be carried on a sort of litter, or armchair with poles, borne by Maori.
In the mid 1850s William Martin suffered a severe illness and on 8 March 1856 the Martins left on a three year visit to England. During this time William Martin resigned from the position of chief justice. Back in Auckland in December 1858, they devoted themselves to a life of religion and scholarship. John Coleridge Patteson, nephew of Edward Coleridge, had joined the staff at St John's College and became a close friend. In 1859 the Martins spent several months at the college and Mary Martin helped 'Coley' teach the younger boys. In 1860 the Martins took charge of St Stephen's for a time, and in 1861 and 1862 they spent several months living at the Melanesian mission at Kohimarama, to help in its work. They attended the consecration of Patteson as bishop of Melanesia in February 1861 and later nursed him through two illnesses contracted in the Pacific islands. In 1860 William Martin was knighted; Mary Martin found the elevation gratifying but amusing.
The wars of the 1860s changed the Martins' lives. Old friendships with Maori were broken, patients stopped coming to the hospital, and they found themselves in disagreement with the majority European view. William Martin engaged in political controversy but gradually they retreated into affairs of the church. In April 1865 they accompanied the Selwyns to the Anglican General Synod at Christchurch. When the Selwyns returned to England in 1867 the Martins felt more isolated, and in 1871 the murder of Patteson was a great blow. On 14 April 1874 they left for Lichfield in Staffordshire, England, where Selwyn was bishop. After Selwyn's death in April 1878 they moved to Torquay, Devon, where they had friends among the Coleridge and Patteson families. In Torquay Mary Martin became involved in the work of the recently founded Girls' Friendly Society. After her husband's death on 18 November 1880 she remained in Torquay, working for the church and the society until a short, severe chest infection brought her own death on 2 January 1884.
Throughout her years in New Zealand Mary Martin had been a listener as well as a talker. A keen observer, always interested in and curious about people, she kept a diary. This was the basis for a series of articles in the Monthly Packet, an English magazine begun in 1851 by Charlotte Yonge, a distant relative of the Coleridge family and the major benefactor of the Melanesian mission at Kohimarama. Several of these articles were later included in Mary Martin's well-known book, Our Maoris, published posthumously in 1884 by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.
Our Maoris, written to prove that indigenous people could be converted to Christianity, is more significant as a record of events and an indicator of Mary Martin's attitudes towards the people she had lived and worked with. She had lived in Auckland during dramatic times. She had witnessed the famous Maori feast at Remuera in 1844, the arrival of refugees from the northern war in 1845, and the impact of the Waikato wars in the early 1860s. She shared the view of her husband and the 'philo-Maori' group, that the role of Europeans in New Zealand was to convert and civilise, and was distressed that the wars had driven a wedge between Maori and European. Although she was unable to accept that British people could ever 'wilfully' do anything wrong, her sympathies remained more with the Maori people. In her work, and that of the church, she found a purpose in life which sustained and made meaningful her own existence.