Britain’s Pioneering Female Explorer: Who Was Isabella Bird? | History Hit

Britain’s Pioneering Female Explorer: Who Was Isabella Bird?

Peta Stamper

01 Jun 2022
Isabella Bird wearing Manchurian clothing from a journey through China
Image Credit: G.P. Putnam's Sons, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Isabella Bird was one of Victorian Britain’s most remarkable explorers. Against the conventions of 19th century British society, she travelled the world without a husband or male chaperone.

In 1892, Bird made history as the first woman to be accepted into the Royal Geographical Society, an institution dominated by the patriarchal assumption that women were not fit to be explorers.

Yet her career was not limited to documenting far off places for the development of science and geography. Bird brought distant horizons closer for those unable to travel through her photography and writing, and paved the way for future female explorers.

Here’s the exceptional life of Isabella Bird.

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A curious childhood

Born in Yorkshire in 1831, Isabella Bird moved called many places home during her childhood, a pattern that would characterise the rest of her life. Her father, Rev Edward Bird, was a priest and the nature of his work sent the family across the country, from Yorkshire to Berkshire and Chesire, before moving on to Birmingham and Cambridgeshire.

Portrait of Isabella Bird

Image Credit: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Bird’s youth was also shaped by her poor health. She suffered from spinal pain, compounded by nervous headaches and exhausting insomnia. The prescribed antidote was fresh air and plenty of exercise, so Bird was encouraged to ride and row from a young age, and spent time studying flora and fauna outside with her father, a keen botanist.

Despite chronic illness, Bird showed “bright intelligence, [and] an extreme curiosity as to the world outside”. She was an avid reader and at age 16, published a pamphlet on the Free Trade v Protectionism debate, after which she continued writing articles for different periodicals.

An Englishwoman in America

In 1850, Bird had a tumour surgically removed from her spine. The surgery did little to alleviate her discomfort and this time her doctor recommended a sea voyage. Her first opportunity for travel came in 1854 when she was invited to accompany her cousins to their home in the United States.

Cover of ‘An Englishwoman in America’

Image Credit: US Library of Congress

With £100 in her pocket, Bird set sail on what became the first of many journeys. She wrote about her experience as a traveller in her first book, An Englishwoman in America, published in 1856 by her close friend John Murray. Murray’s publishing house had for 4 generations published the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle, Jane Austen, David Livingstone and Charles Darwin’s revolutionary, The Origin of Species.

The book was immensely popular in Britain; Bird’s entertaining and accessible writing style allowed others to travel alongside her from their home.

Where did Isabella Bird travel?

The trip to America was just the beginning for Bird. In 1872, aged 41, she left Britain again for Australia before sailing to Hawaii which inspired a second book and a love for mountaineering.

Bird’s next stop was Colorado, where she trekked some 800 miles in the Rocky Mountains. Along the way she befriended the one-eyed outlaw, Rocky Mountain Jim, and caused a sensation by riding astride like men rather than side-saddle as women were expected. Bird argued that side-saddle was impractical for long journeys, and threatened to sue The Times for describing her appearance as ‘masculine’.

The letters she wrote to her sister Henrietta were published as a third book, A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains, providing an invaluable glimpse into life as a female explorer. Her life defied conventions of how women were expected to live in the 19th century; Bird often travelled alone to remote or dangerous places.

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In February 1878, she ventured to Asia: Japan, China, Korea, Singapore, Vietnam and Malaya. During this time her sister died of typhoid, and Bird was moved to marry John Bishop in 1881.

However, Bishop died just a couple of years later, leaving Bird a significant sum of money. By 1889, she was back on the road and headed to India, Tibet, Kurdistan, Pakistan and Turkey. She invested her medical education, inheritance and resolve to work as a missionary into opening the John Bishop Memorial Hospital for women in India.

Broadening horizons

In 1892, Bird became a fellow at the Royal Geographical Society. This was considered an exception – Bird’s male counterparts did not see women as capable of making meaningful contributions to scientific and geographical knowledge. Nonetheless, Bird had set a historic precedent and defied their expectations.

Isabella L. Bird on an Elephant, 1883

Image Credit: US Library of Congress

In 1896-7, her final epic journeys took her up the Yangtze and Han rivers in China and Korea before heading to Morocco, where she travelled among the Berbers. In 1897 she was elected to membership of the Royal Photographic Society.

Long before her death in 1904, she had become not only a household name but a role model for her contemporaries. Although she had not been part of the Suffragette movement, her image was later used on Suffragette placards as a symbol for broadening the horizons of 19th century women.

Peta Stamper