“In our teeth are thrown the names of one or two distinguished ladies, such as Mrs Bishop, whose additions to geographical knowledge have been valuable and serious. But in the whole of England these ladies can be counted on the fingers of one hand!” – George Curzon, FRGS 30th May, 1893
Isabella Bird was one of the most famous travel writers and explorers of Victorian England. Her trips saw her visit dozens of countries and travel thousands of miles, often alone. What is more astounding is that she spent much of her childhood an invalid and suffered with bouts of crippling depression and illness throughout her whole life.
Childhood and Early Life
Born in Yorkshire in 1831, 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 at the age of six —she confronted the campaigning MP for South Cheshire (the outrageously named 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 to try to strengthen her back. Her ill health seemed to continue, so aged nineteen she had corrective spinal surgery to remove a growth from her back, and following the operation she suffered from insomnia and depression. Her doctor advised her to travel for the sake of her health and so her father gave her £100 and his permission to go where she wanted; she was twenty two years old and this was to be the beginning of a life-long passion.
America & Canada
Isabella elected to visit North America, she went first to Canada to stay with cousins and then spent seven months travelling around the continent from Toronto to Boston to Cincinnati, Chicago and finally down the St. Lawrence river. She wrote long letters to her sister during her travels and these would later for the basis of her first book; “The English-woman in America” published in 1856 by John Murray, who became a friend for life. This first travel-narrative sold very well she received a substantial income from this book and from articles submitted to magazines; this private income would fund future trips and expeditions for Isabella.
England and Scotland
In 1858 Isabella’s father died of influenza, her family were forced to quit the house they had been living in and Isabella, her mother and sister settled into a flat in Edinburgh. Here the family settled into a quiet middle-class Victorian existence, and Isabella into a retired spinsterhood. She continued to suffer with mental health problems and and ill health — social events tired her and she withdrew into herself, mostly writing religious tracts. In 1864 she wrote: “I feel as if my life were spent in the very ignoble occupation of taking care of myself, and that unless some disturbing influences arise I am in great danger of becoming perfectly encrusted with selfishness”. Such a change was coming.
Australia and Hawaii
In 1872 aged 41 her doctor advised she travel to Australia as the warmer clime would help her recover. The journey was long and arduous and when she finally arrived she found Australia to not be to her liking. She hated the heat and the conditions and soon left again. On her return voyage she stopped at Hawaii, a place she fell in love with. She climbed volcanoes, stopped riding side-saddle (as it was an inconvenience) and spent six months “visiting remote regions … living among the natives and seeing Hawaiian life in all its phases”. The climate and rigorous activity seem to have helped improve her health, and the bulk of her written correspondence once again formed the basis for another book, “Six Months in the Sandwich Isles” published in 1875. It was another instant best seller.
She loved Hawaii so much that she was not inclined to leave; “Every step now seemed not a step homewards but a step out of my healthful life back among wretched dragging feelings and aches and nervousness.” Only her desire to see her sister again convinced her to go, but her adventures on this trip were not over just yet.
“A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains”
She took the boat for America, landing in San Francisco and then catching a train. Although she could have got a train the whole way across from the Pacific to Atlantic coast she decided to stop along the way. Her first stop was the prospecting town of Truckee in the Sierra Nevada, where she hired a horse and travelled alone out to Lake Tahoe and back. Despite encountering a bear along the way she decided that she wanted to travel within America more.
Catching the train to Denver she disembarked, hired a horse and a guide, a one eyed, heavily armed Indian scout called Mountain Jim, whom she described as “as awful looking a ruffian as one could see”. She would spend months on the Rocky mountains covering over 800 miles on horseback and foot, travelling alone or with Mountain Jim, other travellers, hunters and cowboys.
This unsurveyed wilderness was mostly uninhabited and posed a genuine danger to her; she survived snowstorms (“utter loneliness, the silence and dumbness of all things, the snow falling quietly without wind, the obliterated mountains, the darkness, the intense cold”), the risk of avalanche, injury and illness, attacks by predators and possibly also predatory men. Her best defence was her confidence, her willingness to work (she was a cook for cowboys for a while when she run out of money) and her belief in “the habit of respectful courtesy to women”. Her letters to her sister would once again act as the basis for a book and this book, “A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains”, published in 1879, would prove to be her best selling work.
Having finally continued to the Atlantic coast, Isabella returned to Edinburgh and her beloved sister. She was wooed by Dr John Bishop, the family’s physician, but Isabella refused his advances, concentrating on writing up her travel books, campaigning for better conditions for croft and slum dwellers and submitting articles to magazines. Within a short span of time the familiar depression and illness started to return, and she decided to travel again.
Japan was a country in flux; after 220 years of self-imposed isolation, in the 1850’s, its borders had been opened to the world. Keen to see the country she sought advice from those few who had been, and in 1878 she set off to explore. Upon arrival she hired a native speaker as a guide and translator and they struck out for the interior of the country, far from the increasingly westernised ports and coastal areas. She travelled light; her total baggage for her trip to Japan was;
“a folding-chair and air-pillow for kuruma [rickshaw] travelling, an india-rubber bath, sheets, a blanket, and last, and more important than all else, a canvas stretcher [for sleeping] … a small supply of Leibig’s extract of meat, 4 lbs. of raisins, some chocolate, both for eating and drinking, and some brandy in case of need. I have my own Mexican saddle and bridle, a reasonable quantity of clothes, some candles, Mr. Brunton’s large map of Japan, volumes of the Transactions of the English Asiatic Society, and Mr. Satow’s Anglo-Japanese Dictionary.”
She went on from Japan to China, Korea, Vietnam and Singapore, but her time in Japan was the subject of her oriental travelogue, “Unbeaten Tracks in Japan”, published in 1880. Despite worries from her publisher that the lurid descriptions of rural Japan with its vermin, squalor, terrible food and disease would put off the reading public, the book was another best seller.
Return to Tragedy
Returning to her sister in Edinburgh in 1880 for what was to the be the last time, Isabella settled back into a middle class existence. The loss of her sister in 1881 to tubercular fever seems to have hit her hard. Aged 50 and in the wake of her sisters death, she finally acquiesced and married John Bishop. She insisted on wearing her mourning clothes for the wedding, as if, in the words of a friend, “she was marrying under protest”.
After only five years of marriage, John Bishop also died. Isabella seems to have been genuinely heartbroken; aged 57 and mourning this latest tragedy, she began to train as a medical practitioner herself. Once qualified, she elected on her personal cure-all for depression and set off again, this time to India.
India and the Great Game.
Having arrived in India in 1888 she travelled alone as was her preference. As well as travelling, she used her personal wealth to establish the Henrietta Bird Hospital in Amritsar and then later the John Bishop Memorial Hospital in Srinigar. She still had her fair share of adventures; travelling to Tibet her horse fell through a bridge and drowned, whilst Isabella broke several ribs. She travelled widely through Northern India and again into China, running ad hoc medical clinics in villages as she passed through.
Returning through India, she joined a British expedition led by Major Herbert Sawyer; this government-sponsored reconnaissance was to check for Russian influences in the Middle East. A terrible concern for British governments for much of the 19th century was that losing control of the Middle East would allow Russia to invade or interfere with India, the machinations, bribery, spying and proxy wars between tribes in the area became known as “the Great Game”.
Isabella did not enjoy having an escort but reluctantly agreed that the territory was too dangerous to traverse alone, and the expedition lasted for almost all of 1890. They passed from Basra to Baghdad and Tehran, through blizzards and past the frozen bodies of other unlucky travellers, across Persian Kurdistan to Eastern Turkey. Her travels informed another book, “Journeys in Persia and Kurdistan” published in 1891.
England and Scotland
Having safely returned to England, she became a vocal proponent for the British government to assist the Armenians who were being persecuted across the Middle East. These atrocities would lead to the Armenian Genocide in the early 20th century (an ethnic cleansing that saw 1.5 million Armenians killed or forcefully deported by the Turkish Ottoman empire). Isabella met with William Gladstone (PM) and addressed a Parliamentary committee on the subject. So well known had she become through her writings that she became a fellow of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society, and amongst the first female fellows of the (British) Royal Geographical Society in 1893.
Return to the Orient
In 1894, getting restless and with no surviving family in Scotland, she departed again once more for Asia. She voyaged to Yokohama in Japan, then spent several months in Korea, leaving in a rush when the Sino-Japanese war broke out, and Korea was occupied by Japan. She became a kind of unofficial war correspondent, photographing Chinese soldiers heading into Korea, and then following the advance to record the devastation the war had caused.
She left Korea and sailed up the Yangtze river and then overland into Sichuan. Here she encountered increasing anti-Western abuse, being assaulted by a mob, having the building she was in set on fire and even being stoned unconscious at one point. She crossed into Tibet once more and from there headed home to Britain. Having travelled over 8,000 miles in the course of her fifteen month trip, she published her last book, “The Yangtze Valley and Beyond” in 1901.
Final Expedition and Death
Having returned to Edinburgh she began to plan a new trip to China, and in 1901 she visited Morocco (her first time in Africa). She travelled widely in the Atlas mountains, but upon returning fell ill. She spent the last few years of her life in Edinburgh, too ill to travel, and died there in October 1904.
Hers was a life most extraordinary, and as she said herself in a letter to a friend in 1897; “I have freedom, and you know how I love that! I am so thankful for my capacity for being interested. What would my lonely life be without it?“
Victoria Calleway 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 Calleway 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.
Anon, 2014, “Isabella Bird (1831–1904)“. The John Murray Archive, National Library of Scotland
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Bosworth, E, 1989, “Bird Isabella L”, Accessed via: http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/bird-isabella-l, On: 22nd February 2020
Calder, J, 2016 “Writer, Explorer, Trailblazer”, Accessed via: http://dangerouswomenproject.org/2016/04/24/isabella-bird/, On: February 22nd 2020
Ireland, D, 2015, “Isabella Bird: Tales of a pioneering adventuress in 19th century China”, The Independent, 8th March 2015
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
Parks, C, 2014, “The Peripatetic Life of Isabella Bird”, The Appendix, In Motion, October 2014, Vol. 2, No. 4
Stoddart, A.M, (1906) “The Life of Isabella Bird, Mrs Bishop”, J. Murray, 1st Edition