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Mabel Tolkien

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Mabel Tolkien (née Suffield, January 1870 - 14 November 1904) was the mother of J.R.R. Tolkien and Hilary Tolkien,[1] being the daughter of John Suffield and married to Arthur Reuel Tolkien.



Marriage to Arthur Tolkien

It was a March day of 1891 when Mabel Suffield set sail from England to meet and marry her fiancé and marry in South Africa after a long engagement of three years (for her father, John Suffield, would not allow her to marry until she turned twenty-one). Behind her lay Birmingham, where she had grown up, and ahead lay Bloemfontein, South Africa.

On 3 January 1892, she gave birth to a son who was christened John Ronald Reuel and on 17 February 1894, they had a second called Hilary Reuel.

Hilary proved to be a healthy child who flourished in the Bloemfontein climate, but his elder brother was not doing so well. Teething upset him badly and made him feverish, so that the doctor had to be called in day after day and Mabel was soon worn out. It was clear that the heat was doing a great deal of harm to Ronald’s health, but Arthur had no intention of settling down in England again.

In November 1894, Mabel took the boys to Cape Town and made preparations to sail to England, while Arthur agreed to come and join them in England when his job allowed. They set sail in April 1895. However, before Arthur could join them, he contracted rheumatic fever and died after suffering a severe haemorrhage on 15 February 1896.[2]

Raising Two Sons

For all his hard work and conscientious saving, Arthur had only amassed a modest sum of capital and it would not bring her an income of more than thirty shillings a week, scarcely sufficient to maintain herself and two children even at the lowest standard of living.

It was summer of 1896 when Mabel finally found somewhere cheap enough for herself and the children to live independently. It was a house in Sarehole, 5 Gracewell, a semi-detached brick cottage at the end of a row.

When at Sarehole, Mabel began to teach her two sons writing, reading, languages, art and botany. She began to realize that her son Ronald had a special aptitude for language. She began to teach him French. He liked this much less, not for any particular reason; but the sounds did not please him as much as the sounds of Latin and English. She also tried to interest him in playing the piano, but without success. It seemed rather as if words took the place of music for him, and that he enjoyed listening to them, reading them, and reciting them, almost regardless of what they meant.[3]

Conversion to Catholicism

Christianity played an increasingly important part in Mabel Tolkien’s life since her husband’s death, and at first each Sunday she had taken the boys on a long walk to a High Anglican church. In May of 1900, Mabel, along with her sister, May, were accepted into the Catholic Faith.

Immediately the wrath of their family fell upon them. Their father, John Suffield, had been brought up at a Methodist school, and was now a Unitarian. That his daughter should become Catholic was to him an outrage beyond belief. May’s husband, Walter Incledon, considered himself to be a pillar of his local Anglican church, and for May to associate with the Catholic Church. As May returned to Birmingham he forbade her to enter a Catholic church again and she obeyed him.

Walter Incledon had provided a little financial help for Mabel Tolkien since Arthur’s death. But now there would be no more money from that source. Instead Mabel would have to face hostility from Walter and from other members of her family, not to mention the Tolkiens, many of whom were Baptists and strongly opposed to Catholicism. But nothing would shake her new faith, and against all opposition she began to instruct Ronald and Hilary in the Catholic religion.[4]

Life in Moseley and Edgbaston

That same year, the family moved to Moseley, conveniently situated on the tram route to Tolkien’s new school. A Tolkien uncle who was uncharacteristically well-disposed towards Mabel paid the fees, which then amounted to twelve pounds per annum.

But Mabel still was not satisfied, and she moved the family again, to Edgbaston, where they found a house near the Birmingham Oratory, a large church in the suburb of Edgbaston that was looked after by a community of priests. What was more, attached to the Oratory and under the direction of its clergy was the Grammar School of St Philip, where the fees were lower than Tolkien’s previous school and where her sons could receive a Catholic education. There, the family met Father Francis Xavier Morgan, the parish priest. In him Mabel soon found not only a sympathetic priest but a valuable friend. He soon became an indispensable part of the Tolkien household. In Edgbaston, she started to teach her boys again, but soon Tolkien started to attend St Philips, and Mabel was left only with Hilary.

Soon Ronald had outpaced his class-mates, and Mabel realised that St Philip’s could not provide the education that he needed. So she removed him, and once again undertook his tuition herself: with much success, for some months later he won a Foundation Scholarship to King Edward’s and returned there in the autumn of 1903.[5]


The New Year of 1904 did not begin well. Ronald and Hilary were confined to bed with measles followed by whooping- cough, and in Hilary’s case by pneumonia. The additional strain of nursing them proved too much for their mother, and as she feared it proved ‘impossible to go on’. By April 1904 she was in hospital, and her condition was diagnosed as diabetes.

Insulin treatment was not yet available for diabetic patients, and there was much anxiety over Mabel’s condition, but by the summer she had recovered sufficiently to be discharged from hospital. She was given a cottage to recuperate in by the Oratory. The boys went to live with her there during the summer holidays, but went back to school in Birmingham in the autumn.

She deteriorated again in November, ending up in a sudden diabetic coma. Six days later, on the 14 November 1904, she died with Fr. Francis and May at her side.

Mabel was buried in the Catholic churchyard at Bromsgrove, and Fr Francis provided a cross for her headstone – the same design of stone cross as was used for the Catholic clergy in the Rednal cemetery. She left £800 of invested capital, and appointed Fr Francis as guardian to John and Hilary.[6]


Mabel’s death had a profound impact on her son’s faith. Years later, Tolkien wrote, “My own dear mother was a martyr indeed, and it is not to everybody that God grants so easy a way to His great gifts as He did to Hilary and myself, giving us a mother who killed herself with labour and trouble to ensure us keeping the faith.”[7]


  1. Christina Scull and Wayne G. Hammond (2006), The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide: II. Reader's Guide, pp. 1018-20
  2. Humphrey Carpenter, J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography, pp. 17-24
  3. Humphrey Carpenter, J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography, p. 25-30
  4. Humphrey Carpenter, J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography, p. 31-32
  5. Humphrey Carpenter, J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography, p. 32-35
  6. Humphrey Carpenter, J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography, p. 36-39
  7. Humphrey Carpenter, J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography, p. 39