Mary was the daughter of Missionary parents born in March 1903, in Leh, Ladakh, Kashmir, a province of North India. Her parents Dr & Mrs Ernest Shawe ran the Mission hospital there but the family returned to England following the death of Dr Shawe, who died of Typhus. Mary and her brother Jack vowed to return to Leh and continue with their parents’ missionary work.
Mary and Jack were both educated at Fulneck School. Jack went on to teach at Fulneck although a heart defect prevented him from returning to Leh. Mary went on to Leeds Medical School and obtained her MD whist residing at the Widow’s House on Fulneck. In 1930 she realized her ambition and set off back to Leh to continue her father’s life work in the hospital.
Travelling to Kashmir in the 1930’s was a long and arduous journey. To reach the Mission Station took five weeks from England via the Mediterranean, the Red Sea, the Indian Ocean to Bombay, three days by train up the Indus Valley, a 200 mile drive in a 1930s car, not one of the comfortable cars of today, to Srinagar, capital of Kashmir. Then there was a difficult and dangerous climb through a mountain pass of 11,300 feet either on foot or on the back of a mountain pony. This pass was closed by snow and ice in Winter and Summer, often subjected to falls of ice and landslides. After the pass, a narrow bridle path hugging the side of a precipice and occasionally a rope bridge over the raging Indus River. Finally, the mission Field was reached!
The Ladakhi people were known as Tibetans and were of Mongolian stock, short, thickset, high cheek bones, flat faces and thick black hair. They wore long robes, very like a dressing gown, with a six yard long girdle wrapped around their bodies. All their belongings were either fastened inside the girdle or suspended inside the robe. Their basic diet consisted of roasted barley flour and wheaten flour made into a paste with either tea or water. They were great tea drinkers like us, but unlike us they bought their tea in a block, put it in a vessel and then poured water over it. Salt and soda were added then boiled. The tea was then left for two or three days and a lump of butter, larger than a cricket ball was put in. It was then left on the hob for anyone to help themselves.
The Tibetans were under the influence of the Lamas and conversion to Christianity was disappointingly slow. Up to 1942 after one hundred years of work there was only 150 Christians to be found. It was the most difficult mission ever undertaken by the Moravians. The Tibetan religion is Lamaisam, a form of Buddhism.
Apart from running the hospital, Mary would take medical missionary tours through the villages, when preaching was supplemented by healing by dispensing medicines. This was in stark contrast to the Lama physician with his goatskin wallet of herbs put up in little bags, mysterious charms and terrifying rituals. The Tibetans began to learn from Mary, that they could receive skilled treatment and real sympathy and would not be turned away because of poverty.
Mary dealt with cases of midwifery, cateract operations, frostbite, heart disease, septic wounds and fractures. She was called out to cases of influenza and typhus in other villages. The other side of the Indus river had to be visited before July as the Indus was too full after that to be crossed by an inexperienced traveller alone. Her mode of travel was on foot or by horseback, carrying a tent and all her equipment. Most operations she performed in the open as there was less likelihood of contamination than in enclosed buildings. Some of her problems were during epidemics, making people understand not to be in close proximity of the ill patient. Another problem was to get patients to continue with their medication, as many of them would become weary of treatment before they were cured. Another problem was that a patient would never arrive alone. They always came with their families, with one member to cook and look after the patient. The rest would sit and wait until the patient recovered.
Throughout it all, Mary was trying to get the message of Jesus Christ across to them and I quote, “In 1930, we try to make our hospital a real testimony to the Christian faith. Each day we have Bible stories followed by prayer. We know some of the people realize that the work is done in the name of our Saviour Jesus Christ, but further than that, we cannot tell the result of the work carried on. 1931 – We are glad to think that we can help these men, women and children, and we pray that by the path of healing, the Spirit of God may work among the people who live and visit Ladakh. 1932 – We see little of spiritual results, but surely some of the patients learn something of the Gospel of love, though they see but a glimmering of the splendour of it. May God show us how to keep our lights shining in Leh”. These words were written by Mary to the Mission board each year, in her annual reports.
Mary had been working for about four years in Leh when Norman Driver, a Moravian Missionary arrived in Leh to work. In 1936 Mary and Norman married following permission from the Mission Board. They were then moved up to a small up-country village called Khalatse. Unfortunately for Mary she had to relinquish the Hospital which was subsequently closed down. Now that Mary was married and a Missionaries wife, she could no longer be a Missionary herself!
In 1937, their first child Ann was born three weeks early so Norman had to deliver the baby with Mary telling him what to do. Pregnancy and babies were very much at risk because of the altitude and diet, and although Ann was strong and healthy she was painfully thin. In fact their diet left a lot to be desired and they all lacked food. Sheep were available but they were tough to cook and eat. They kept hens and grew their own vegetables but there were no freezers to store food. Mary wrote “ A good bit of time has been taken up seeing to things in the garden and drying cooking apples for the Winter. It’s the only way they will keep. Making apple jelly, ripening tomatoes, drying onions, making tomato sauce and chutney. We’ve nearly finished that and then I must think about making mincemeat for Christmas”.
In October 1938, the family arrived home on furlough for six months and managed to get back to Khalatse just before World War 2.
In October 1941 their second daughter Margaret was born. Everything continued as normal but then in 1943 the Tibetan for some reason began to be hostile towards them, boycotting them and refusing to sell then food or fuel. The health of Margaret and Mary was in danger, particularly Mary’s as she has suffered intermittent loss of her hands, arms and sight in one eye, only to regain it later. This was the start of the crippling disease Multiple Sclerosis, a disease that no one was aware of the time. Following a medical, Mary was advised to move to Bombay during the winter months as it appeared that she could no longer stand the altitude.
In 1945 Mary and family moved back to Leh, a town fifteen feet above Khalatse. The people were more educated there and appreciated the work they were doing. Mary was able to open the hospital again and worked with great enthusiasm to get it up and running. Some of the local women were interested in nursing and Mary made plans for them to go to Srinagar for formal training.
In 1946 the family travelled back to England to leave their daughters Ann, now 10, to board at Fulneck and Margaret 5, to live with Guardians until she was old enough to board at 8. Mary and Norman felt much anguish at leaving the girls. There were many problems with the mail from Leh, birthday cards and presents never seemed to reach the girls.
Upon Mary’s return to Leh she continued with her medical work and Sunday School, helping with a Day School they had started up. In 1948 war between India and Pakistan began, both of them wanting Kashmir. Leh is an important town as all the trade routes from Central Asia, Tibet and India meet there. Mary wrote, “life is different in Leh from what is was a while ago. Soldiers have appeared, especially to train volunteers. The Colonel lives behind our compound and the soldiers are also very near. The presence of troops means that wood for fuel is scarce, also paraffin for lighting and this month we cannot get sugar so we have had to switch off sweet things for the most part”. During all this upheaval the Commanding Officer of the Indian troops made Norman “Prime Minister of Leh” and Mary “Health Minister”. Norman said it was like something out of Gilbert and Sullivan, but it was all very real.
In 1952 Mary’s health was being undermined and the paralyzing illness became so aggravated that in 1952 they returned home. They both still expected to return to Leh and so left most of their belongings and furniture. Unfortunately, they were forced to retire from the Mission Service. Their belongings were never returned to them and all the diaries they had kept for the Church were lost.
Ministries followed in Tytherton, Bedford and Fairfield. Mary bore her disability well and still continued with Sunday School. Her whole life was devoted to Christ’s work and her faith never diminished. She passed away days before her 60th birthday. Her husband Norman wrote in his diary, “A grand lass, a bonny fighter, a great helpmate, made me what I am, a stern critic, yet to all a great partnership for God and Church. Rejoicing not sad”.
Acknowledgements – Molly Lythe, Extracts from “Letters from Mary and Norman Driver, 1934-1949” by kind permission of Margaret Atherton, Extracts from the “Diaries of Norman Driver” by kind permission of Ann Wigney, “Leh Mission Hospital Reports 1930-1935” courtesy Church House, Moravian Mission Magazine 1934 “At the Gate of Tibet” 1942 Moravian Book Room.