The industrialisation of towns and cities across Scotland in the early 1800s, resulted in huge increases in population as people moved from rural areas to towns for work. The population of Dundee rose from 26,000 in 1801 to a staggering 166,000 in 1840 with the development of the textile, shipbuilding and whaling industries. Housing and sanitation couldn’t keep pace with such expansion and so many working class families, including the Slessors, ended up living in overcrowded slum areas with little or no sanitation.
With no welfare state at this time, families without a regular income could fall quickly into desperate circumstances, suffering from hunger and disease, with infant mortality extremely high.
Many people tried however to retain an image of respectability despite their desperate living conditions, especially in front of those in authority such as church elders, even if this meant going to the pawn shop on a Saturday night to retrieve Sunday best clothes to attend church the next morning.
Dundee City Council, Dundee Art Galleries & Museums: Port of Dundee in the 1800s
DC Thomson & Co Ltd: Illustration from the Press & Journal, 9th June 1958 showing an incident from Mary's life. A group of youths try to intimidate her by swinging a piece of lead around her head. Mary stood her ground and persuaded them to attend the meeting at the Queen Street mission.
In her twenties, Mary volunteered to teach at a new Dundee mission in Queen Street, in one of the poor areas of the city. Bible study was taught and what would be considered a youth group nowadays was organised with trips to the country for the local children to give them some respite from their daily lives. Her sense of humour and down to earth approach made her a popular teacher. Her own experience of growing up in poverty and deprivation meant she could relate well to the local children and understood what their lives were like.
In 1873 the famous British explorer and missionary David Livingstone died in Zambia. Livingstone’s exploration and work in Africa had been regularly covered in the national press. Extensive press coverage in the newspapers was given to his body being returned to England and his burial in Westminster Abbey. This resulted in increased fervour about missionary work and more new recruits to missionary societies. Mary felt a personal call to become a missionary herself.
By this time she was twenty five. Her two brothers Robert and John had both died from illness, as had her father. The family’s living conditions had improved slightly with her younger sisters Janie and Susan able to work and so Mary felt it was possible to apply to the Foreign Mission Board to become a missionary in Calabar.