Historic Huntingdonshire Women

If I asked you to name an important man in the history of Huntingdonshire, I’m sure that in no time at all, you would be able to think of one or two – Oliver Cromwell, perhaps? Revered by some, hated by others, he certainly made an impact on our country’s politics! Perhaps Samuel Peyps, with his journalistic legacy? You might find it harder to name important women, however. History has a habit of forgetting to tell the stories of those women who did have achievements and influence, so here are a few greater-or-lesser known women from history with a Huntingdonshire connection.

Maud, Countess of Huntingdon (1074 – 1130/31) “Queen of Scotland”

Maud of Huntingdon (Queen Consort of Scotland)

Also known as Matilda, this great-niece of William the Conqueror was the wife of King David I of Scotland; queen consort and grandmother to King Malcom IV – so in terms of both local and national importance, pretty high!

She was the daughter of Waltheof, Earl of Huntingdon (one of the last major Anglo-Saxon earls to remain powerful after the Norman conquest in 1066), and Judith of Lens, who is the namesake for the parish of Sawtry Judith. The domesday book states that Judith had land-holdings in no less than 10 counties in the Midlands and East Anglia, so Maud had a powerful parentage.

The young Maud married Simon de Senlis, a Norman nobleman, who received the honour of Huntingdon, probably ‘in right of his wife’. When de Senile died two decades later, Maud married David, brother-in-law of Henry I of England – she was almost forty and her new husband was nearly ten years her junior.

The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography describes the lands acquired by David on his marriage to Maud, known as the ‘honour of Huntingdon’, as stretching from south Yorkshire to Middlesex but chiefly concentrated in the shires of Northampton, Huntingdon, Cambridge, and Bedford.

Maud had seven known children – three by her first husband, four by King David. Unfortunately, of her later four children, only Henry survived into adulthood, and he did not outlive his father, and the Kingship passed straight on to Maud’s grandson, Malcolm.

Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon (1707 – 1791) “the St. Theresa of the Methodists”

You may expect to see a “Countess of Huntingdon chapel” in Godmanchester or St Ives, but would you expect to see one in such far flung places as Manchester, or St Ives Cornwall? The story behind the, at one point 200 strong, network of churches, seminaries and missions which still survive in part today is really the life story of Selina Hastings.

Selina Hastings in later life (c.1770)

Born into the English aristocracy in 1707 (her father was 2nd Earl Ferrars), she married Theophilius Hastings, ninth Earl of Huntingdon with whom she had seven children, and was known as “Lady Bountiful” for the good works she did in and around her husbands estate.

So far her life reads like that of many an 18th century noblewoman, however aged around thirty, following a period of illness, she was introduced via her sister-in-law to Methodism and had a religious awakening.

By all accounts she took to Methodism, at this point an increasingly popular religious movement, with great passion, astonishing her social circle with her deep religious beliefs. At her husbands insistence she debated her newfound faith with the Bishop of Gloucester (his old tutor from Oxford) and ran rings around the cleric.

Her need to evangelise the people led her to open her first chapel in Brighton in 1761 where for £1200 she established a “a small but neat chapel”; she would later finance and supervise the opening of 64 chapels in England and Wales as well as missions and chapels in Europe, Africa and America.

COuntess of Hunts Bath.jpg
The only Countess of Huntingdon original chapel to survive in Bath, built in 1765.

Such was the demand for Methodist preachers to fill pulpits in her churches, as well as to be lay preachers and go abroad to missions elsewhere, that the decision was made to establish a Methodist seminary, a site was found at Trevecca and in 1768 (on her sixtieth birthday) the college was founded, over 20 years 250 young men were trained here, with many going on to be fully ordained.

Selina died at the age of 84, having ensured her lifework would live on via an association founded a few years before her death.

Frances “Fanny” Duberly (1829–1903) “one of the first war correspondents”

Born Frances Isabella Locke (but known throughout her life as Fanny), she was the youngest of nine children. Aged 11, following the death of her mother, she was sent to Wycombe for an education and would have been trained in all the skills a lady needed to marry well. She did this, marrying Lieutenant Henry Duberly whom she met at her sisters wedding to his elder brother (Major George Duberly). The family home of the Duberly’s was Gaines Hall, situated just outside Perry, where Fanny and her husband would inevitably have visited, if not lived.

Once again a life that so far reads like a Jane Austen novel, however, following her husbands deployment to first the Crimea, and then India, Fanny was about to come into her own.

The chief source we have of this period are the letters she wrote to her sister Selina. Fanny had a good eye for detail and a willingness to strike up a rapport with people; in the words of Lieutenant-Colonel Forrest, of the 4th Dragoons “she behaves in the most extraordinary way, riding and walking about with anybody”.

Fanny Duberly
Fanny and her husband, photographed in the Crimea by Roger Fenton 1855

Furthermore her contacts within the military allowed her to be in position to witness military actions as they happened, she was an eyewitness at the battle of Inkerman, the Charge of the Light Brigade (her description of which inspired Lord Tennyson’s famous poem, her account reads: “Fire seemed to be pouring from all sides… Faster and faster they rode…”) the storm of Sevastopol and later on the Indian mutiny.

Following the publication of her war memoirs; “Journal Kept During the Russian War: From the Departure of the Army from England in April 1854, to the Fall of Sebastopol” she was snubbed by society for her supposed improprietious behaviour (Queen Victoria refused to allow the book to be dedicated to her). However alongside William Russell of the Times she is one the most important firsthand sources we have of the Crimean war, and is responsible for bringing the horrors of modern warfare to the public attention, showing the terror and mud instead of the glory.

Following her return to England in 1864 she never wrote again, dying in 1903 at Cheltenham.

Isabella Bird (1831 – 1904) “explorer, writer, doctor, missionary”

Image of Isabella Bird
Isabella Bird

This nineteenth century explorer, writer, photographer and naturalist lived quite an incredible life…

Born in Yorkshire and the daughter of a Reverend (Revd Edward Bird) and a Reverend’s daughter (Dora Lawson), she inherited strong evangelical views and in her early years she moved from place to place when her father’s curacy changed. As a young child she suffered from a spinal complaint and nervous headaches and was advised by doctors to spend her time outdoors for the sake of her health – she learned to ride and spent much of her time on horseback, leading her to be an expert horsewoman in later life.

Though suffering from illness she was a strong character – according to a biography, even at the age of six, she confronted the campaigning MP for South Cheshire (whose fantastically fancy name was Sir Malpas de Grey Tatton Egerton) asking him “did you tell my father my sister was so pretty because you wanted his vote?”

In 1848, the family moved to Wyton in Huntingdonshire, where she learnt rowing on the Ouse. When she was twenty two, she was recommended a sea voyage for her health & spent seven months on a trip to Canada and the United States. This was the start of a lifetime of travel for Isabella, who recorded her experience in ‘The English-woman in America’, published by John Murray, who became a friend for life.

Her family moved to Edinburgh, where she spent her time between travels, but she was soon off to New Zealand, Australia, and the Sandwich Islands. She went to Hawaii where women rode astride, and abandoned the side saddle enabling her to ride more comfortably for longer distances. She wrote affectional letters to her sister Henrietta, which formed material for her many books.

Shortly after her sister Henrietta’s death, she married Henrietta’s medical advisor, John Bishop, however their happiness only lasted 5 years before he too passed away. Despite her loss, she was not one to sit around, retraining in medicine and going travelling again on medical missions, establishing several hospitals, which were dedicated to her husband and sister .

Over the course of her life, countries she visited included America, Hawaii, Australia, India, Kurdistan, the Persian Gulf, Iran, Tibet, Malaysia, Korea, Japan and China. She saw a great many things, rode thousands of miles on horseback, and even a few miles on an elephant.

In her sixties she was the first woman to be elected a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society in 1892. She left for another trip to the orient, covering 8,000 miles across China, over 15 months, this would be her final expedition. She was planning another trip to China (now in her 70’s!) but fell ill and died at her home in Edinburgh in 1904.


Illustration from “My Home in the Rocky Mountains”

Of the four women, we most enjoyed learning about Isabella Bird’s rich and full life of travel which we could only touch up on here – if you would be interested in a blog post with more detail on the places she visited and the things she did, get in touch via Facebook, Twitter, or email. Likewise if there any Huntingdonshire women who you think we should have covered, let us know!

#IWM #Herstory #feminist #women

Co-written by Victoria Spurway and Matthew Callen

Victoria Spurway is a very amateur historian indeed but learnt to be discerning about her sources through her English Literature and Theatre degree. Incidentally, these are a few of her favourite things, along with board games, cheese, and her cats, Asparagus and Macavity.

Matthew Callen is a reader, writer and all round creative type. He can often be found behind a desk planning things for the Huntingdonshire History Festival or else in the Cambridgeshire countryside walking, cycling and swimming in rivers.


Burn-Murdoch, B, (1996), “Whats so Special About Huntingdonshire?”, Friends of the Norris Museum, 1st Edition

Anon, (1926), “Sawtry Judith”, via: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/rchme/hunts/pp230-231

Anon, (1999-2017),“The Domesday Book Online”, via: http://www.domesdaybook.co.uk/landownersj-l.html

G. W. S. Barrow (2004), “David I”, via: http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-7208#odnb-9780198614128-e-7208-headword-2

Cook, F (2001), “Selina Countess of Huntingdon”, via: https://www.evangelical-times.org/27188/selina-countess-of-huntingdon/

Kirby, G.W., (2002), “The Elect Lady: A Biography of Selina Hastings”, Trustees of the Countess of Huntingdons Connexion, 3rd Edition,

Overton, J. H., “Hastings, Selina”, The Dictionary of National Biography 1885-1900, Pages 133-135)

Anon, “Captain Henry Duberly Esq, Paymaster of the 8th (The King’s Royal Irish) Light Dragoons (Hussars) and Mrs Fanny Duberly, 1855”, National Army Museum, via: https://collection.nam.ac.uk/detail.php?acc=1964-12-151-6-38

Anon, (2007), “Fanny Duberly”, Via: https://womenofvictorianwars.com/fanny-duberly/

Jardine, C, (2007), “She wanted to cause a stir… and she did”, The Telegraph, via: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/features/3631985/She-wanted-to-cause-a-stir…-and-she-did.html

Anon, 2014, “Isabella Bird (1831–1904)“. The John Murray Archive, National Library of Scotland

Lucas, C.P, (1912). “Bishop, Isabella Lucy”, Dictionary of National Biography.

Middleton, D, (2004), “Bishop [Bird], Isabella Lucy (1831–1904)”, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

Stoddart, A.M, (1906) “The Life of Isabella Bird, Mrs Bishop”, J. Murray, 1st Edition

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