Mary Taylor is said to have been born on 26 February 1817 and was baptised on 29 March 1817 at Birstall, Yorkshire, England, one of six children of Joshua Taylor and his wife, Ann Tickell. Joshua Taylor, like many of his forebears and relatives, engaged in the wool business and banking. The family lived in the Red House, Gomersal, built in 1660 by a Taylor ancestor.
Although the Taylors were not well-to-do, Mary and her only sister, Martha, two years her junior, were sent to a boarding school, Roe Head, Mirfield, a few miles from their home. Here in January 1831 Mary Taylor met Charlotte Brontë and they became firm friends. They both left the school in 1832 and in the next few years regularly stayed in each other's home. Of all Charlotte Brontë's friends Mary Taylor was the one who seems to have been closest to her intellectually. When Charlotte Brontë died in 1855 Mary Taylor sent her biographer, Elizabeth Gaskell, a long, lively account of their friendship, and Mrs Gaskell gave Mary Taylor's verdict on Charlotte Brontë's character as the conclusion to her biography, The life of Charlotte Brontë, published in 1857.
Charlotte Brontë vividly described the Taylor family in her novel Shirley, published in 1849. Called the Yorkes, the family were said to be 'peculiar, racy, vigorous; of good blood and strong brain; turbulent somewhat in the pride of their strength, and intractable in the force of their native powers'. Mary Taylor's father (Hiram Yorke) was portrayed as a cultivated man, differing from his fellow merchants in his love of art and his ability to speak French and Italian fluently. Charlotte Brontë's picture of the family appears to be a true one, which Mary Taylor (Rose Yorke in the novel), with some reservations, commended.
In politics Joshua Taylor was a radical; in religion he dissented from the established church without forming an attachment to any other branch of religion. Mary Taylor learned from her father, and perhaps to a lesser extent from her mother, for whom she did not much care, some of the clear-headed attitudes which distinguished the adult Mary Taylor – independence, blunt speaking, hatred of hypocrisy and coolness towards religious dogma. Her family's financial difficulties were also to influence the development of her feminist ideas, leading her to emphasise the value of work for women.
The household at the Red House broke up in 1840 after Mary Taylor's father died leaving debts. She considered emigrating to New Zealand, believing (according to Charlotte Brontë's account) that 'she cannot and will not be a governess, a teacher, a milliner, a bonnet-maker nor housemaid' and that she would fare better in New Zealand. Although her youngest brother, William Waring Taylor, arrived in Wellington in April 1842, Mary Taylor spent several years in Belgium and Germany, studying music, French and German, and teaching, before returning to her plan to emigrate to New Zealand. On 18 March 1845 she left London on the Louisa Campbell and arrived at Wellington on 24 July. Charlotte Brontë acquiesced in her decision to emigrate but described her personal loss: 'To me it is something as if a great planet fell out of the sky'.
Mary Taylor settled in Wellington and her life there can be reconstructed from her letters (not all of which have survived), supplemented by accounts of her activities and feelings, based on her letters, which Charlotte Brontë and other friends exchanged with each other. She lived at first with her brother, Waring, in a house in Herbert Street, Te Aro, and at other times with friends. She built a house in Cuba Street which she let for 12s. a week, and earned more money by teaching the piano. Charlotte Brontë wrote in 1846 that Mary Taylor was 'in her element – because she is where she has a toilsome task to perform, an important improvement to effect – a weak vessel [Waring] to strengthen – She will remain in New Zealand as long as she can there find serious work to do – but no longer'. The important improvement was perhaps in Mary Taylor's own prospects. Soon after she reached New Zealand Charlotte Brontë sent her £10, having heard that her circumstances were worse than they in fact were. She bought a cow with the money.
Her earliest surviving letter from New Zealand, written during June and July 1848, related that she had bought cattle with money borrowed from two of her brothers, hoping to sell the cows at a profit. (This money later became a gift.) She mentioned that she had sent articles to English magazines, none of which appear to have been published, and referred to writing 150 pages of a novel, presumably Miss Miles, which was published over 40 years later, and to working on another book which she hoped would revolutionise society. This perhaps was the material which appeared later in her articles on the position of women.
In August 1849 Mary Taylor's cousin Ellen Taylor arrived in Wellington on the Jane Catherine from England. With financial help from Mary's brothers in England the two women leased a subdivision of Town Acre 178 on the south-western corner of Dixon and Cuba streets and there Ellen built a small, two-storeyed house. They then carried out the plan, which Mary had been considering for some time, of opening a shop. Mary had met many potential customers and had gained valuable experience in business by observing, and probably taking part in, her brother Waring's dealings. He had a shop and import agency, near where Mary and Ellen had their drapery and clothing shop, and traded in a variety of commodities including land, wool, cattle and clothing. Waring taught bookkeeping to the two women and helped with the wholesale purchases. Mary and Ellen took turns in the work week about, one attending to the shop and the accounts while the other did housework in their living accommodation over and behind the shop.
The arrival of her cousin not only encouraged Mary Taylor to open this shop, but also provided her with a closer companionship than she had previously known in New Zealand. In 1850 she wrote to Charlotte Brontë that she had wished for 15 years to earn her own living and that keeping a shop appeared healthier than schoolteaching. She hoped to make a profit of £300 or £400 per year. Once the shop was established, she was delighted with it and thoroughly enjoyed the manual labour involved. The necessity of work for women, as a guarantee of independence, was one of the central beliefs of Mary Taylor's life. She wrote rebuking Charlotte Brontë for suggesting in Shirley that work was for some women only: 'You are a coward and a traitor. A woman who works is by that alone better than one who does not and a woman who does not happen to be rich and who still earns no money and does not wish to do so, is guilty of a great fault – almost a crime'.
Ellen Taylor died of tuberculosis in December 1851. Mary Taylor, who had nursed her cousin in her illness, was deeply grieved but continued alone with the shop. Since the building had been put up with Ellen's money, Mary bought it from Ellen's brother. The shop continued to be successful: Mary extended the premises and took on an assistant; relatives and friends continued to supply her with goods from England; and she appears to have been the first to import a sewing machine to Wellington. By 1853 the Wellington Almanack listed her shop as one of the principal stores.
Several years after Ellen's death, however, Mary found her shop was becoming less profitable and by June 1858 she had stopped ordering any more goods from England. She had decided to leave New Zealand by the following year. It seems never to have been her intention to settle in the country permanently; she viewed emigration as a means of providing for herself financially in a way that she could not easily do in England. Although in England she had brothers both able and willing to help her, her middle class background would have made it harder for her to choose to work; in particular it would have been difficult to keep a shop and trade in cattle. But she appears to have on the whole enjoyed life in Wellington and wrote that she expected that on her deathbed it would be the part of her life which she would consider most agreeable. While in Wellington she had made a number of friends, although no close ones, taken part in local festivities, sketched and, in the last year or so, ridden her pony about the district. On the other hand, few people she met interested her deeply, and her heart remained in Yorkshire, where she had many relatives and friends and where she felt intellectually more at home.
Before she left, Mary Taylor sold her shop to her assistant and invested £400 of her capital in buying two blocks of land in Te Aro. She left Wellington for Wanganui in May 1859 and by the following year had returned to Yorkshire where she lived for the rest of her life.
It was during this last 33-year period that Mary Taylor began to have work published. This literary flowering was not merely an outcome of her beliefs but also a continuation of work begun in Wellington and (among other things) an affirmation of her working life in Wellington. By this time, moreover, women's education and employment were becoming of interest to a wider public. Between 1865 and 1870 she published a series of articles in the Victoria Magazine, which show the strong feminist beliefs which she had held since girlhood, in particular her conviction that women should earn their own living and that to marry for money was degrading. She also attacked the prevalent idea that women were bound in duty to sacrifice themselves for others (she had criticised Charlotte Brontë for doing this). In 1870 these articles were published in London as a book, The first duty of women.
With four other women Mary Taylor wrote Swiss notes by five ladies, published in Leeds in 1875. This describes an expedition which Mary Taylor organised to Switzerland, a country which she visited regularly. Miss Miles or a tale of Yorkshire life 60 years ago was published in London in 1890. In this book, set in the Gomersal area, Mary Taylor examined the lives of five women and developed her ideas on the necessity of work for women: four of the women survive financially and psychologically because they work for their living, while a fifth woman, who cannot muster the courage to work, is doomed to misery.
The only known likeness of Mary Taylor, made in her later years, shows a serious, strong-featured woman. She had shown throughout her life an independent temper and a forthrightness of speech that was often tactless. It is clear that some people in Wellington had considered her to be odd and that this did not displease her. Although her ideas were considered less radical as the nineteenth century drew to a close, in her emphasis on the value of work for women and on the right of women to lead their own lives, Mary Taylor was more uncompromising than most feminists of her time. She died at Gomersal on 1 March 1893.