Isabella Bird

Isabella Bird
Image of Isabella Bird
Born Isabella Lucy Bird
(1831-10-15)15 October 1831
Boroughbridge, Yorkshire, England
Died 7 October 1904(1904-10-07) (aged 72)
Melville Street, Edinburgh
Resting place Dean cemetery, Edinburgh
Nationality English
Other names Isabella Bishop
Occupation English explorer, writer, photographer and naturalist
Spouse(s) John Bishop (m. 1881)
Children none
Parent(s) Dora Lawson, Edward Bird

Isabella Lucy Bird, married name Bishop FRGS (15 October 1831 – 7 October 1904), was a nineteenth-century English explorer, writer,[1] photographer [2] and naturalist.[3] With Fanny Jane Butler she founded the John Bishop Memorial hospital in Srinagar.[4] She was the first woman to be elected Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.[5]

Early life

Bird was born on 15 October 1831 at Boroughbridge Hall, Yorkshire, the home of her maternal grandmother. Her parents were Rev Edward Bird BA (1794-1858) and his second wife, Dora Lawson (1803-1866).[1] Boroughbridge was her father's first curacy after taking orders in 1830, and it was here he met Dora.

Bird moved several times during her childhood. In 1832, Reverend Bird was appointed curate in Maidenhead, where Isabella's brother Edward was born and died in his first year. Because of her father's ill health Bird's family moved again in 1834 to Tattenhall[6] in Cheshire, a living presented to him by his cousin Dr John Bird Sumner, Bishop of Chester, where in the same year Bird's sister, Henrietta, was born.

Bird was outspoken from an early age. When six years old, she confronted the local MP for South Cheshire: "Sir Malpas de Grey Tatton Egerton, while he was campaigning, asking him "did you tell my father my sister was so pretty because you wanted his vote?"[7]

Edward Bird's controversial views against Sunday labour caused his congregation to dwindle, and in 1842 he requested a transfer to St. Thomas's in Birmingham. Here again objections were raised which culminated in the minister's being pelted "with stones, mud, and insults".

In 1848, the family moved again and, after spending some time in Eastbourne, took up residence in Wyton in Huntingdonshire (now Cambridgeshire.)[7]

From early childhood Bird was frail, suffering from a spinal complaint, nervous headaches, and insomnia. The doctor recommended an open-air life,[1] and consequently, Bird learned to ride in infancy, and later to row. Her only education came from her parents: her father was a keen botanist, and Isabella studied flora with him, and her mother taught her daughters an eclectic mix of subjects. Isabella became an avid reader.[7] However, her "bright intelligence, [and] an extreme curiosity as to the world outside, made it impossible for her brain and her nature generally to be narrowed and stiffened by the strictly evangelical atmosphere of her childhood".[8]

Bird's first publication was at the age of 16, a pamphlet addressing Free Trade v Protectionism after which she continued writing articles for various periodicals.[5]

In 1850, a "fibrous tumour was removed from the neighbourhood of the spine". Bird continued to be unwell, suffering from unspecified ailments resulting in lassitude and insomnia. The family spent six summers in Scotland in an effort to improve her health.

Doctors urged a sea voyage and in 1854 Bird's life of travelling began when the opportunity arose for her to sail to the United States accompanying her second cousins to their family home. Her father "gave her [£]100 and leave to stay away as long as it lasted".[7] Bird's "bright descriptive letters"[5] written home to her relations formed the basis for her first book, An Englishwoman in America (1856),[9] published by Murray. John Murray, "as well as being Isabella's lifelong publisher, ... [became] one of her closest friends".[10]

Travels In Middle Life

Isabella Bird wearing Manchurian clothing from a journey through China.

Bird finally left Britain in 1872, going first to Australia, which she disliked, and then to Hawaii (known in Europe as the Sandwich Islands), her love for which prompted her second book (published three years later). While there she climbed Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa.[11] She then moved on to Colorado, then the newest state in the USA, where she had heard the air was excellent for the infirm. Dressed practically and riding not sidesaddle but frontwards like a man (though she threatened to sue the Times for saying she dressed like one), she covered over 800 miles in the Rocky Mountains in 1873. Her letters to her sister, first printed in the magazine The Leisure Hour,[11] comprised Bird's fourth and perhaps most famous book, A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains.

Bird's time in the Rockies was enlivened especially by her acquaintance with Jim Nugent, "Rocky Mountain Jim", a textbook outlaw with one eye and an affinity for violence and poetry. "A man any woman might love but no sane woman would marry", Bird declared in a section excised from her letters before their publication. Nugent also seemed captivated by the independent-minded Bird, but she ultimately left the Rockies and her "dear desperado". Nugent was shot dead less than a year later.

The illustration of two Ainu men, originally from her 1880 book Unbeaten Tracks in Japan

At home, Bird again found herself pursued, this time by Dr John Bishop, an Edinburgh surgeon in his thirties. Predictably ill, she went traveling again, this time to Asia: Japan, China, Korea, Vietnam, Singapore, and Malaysia. When her sister Henrietta Amelia Bird died of typhoid in 1880, Isabella was heartbroken and thereafter accepted John Bishop's marriage proposal. They were married in February 1881.[1] Bird's health took a severe turn for the worse but recovered following John Bishop's death in 1886, at which point she inherited a large amount of disposable income. Feeling that her earlier travels had been hopelessly dilettante, Bird studied medicine and resolved to travel as a missionary. Despite being nearly 60 years of age, she set off for India.

Later life

Korea and Her Neighbours (1898)

Arriving on the subcontinent in February 1889, Bird visited missions in India, visited Ladakh on the borders of Tibet, and then travelled in Persia, Kurdistan, and Turkey. In India, she worked with Fanny Jane Butler to found the John Bishop Memorial Hospital in memory of her recently deceased husband. The following year, she joined a group of British soldiers travelling between Baghdad and Tehran. She remained with the unit's commanding officer during his survey work in the region, armed with her revolver and a medicine chest supplied – in possibly an early example of corporate sponsorship – by Henry Wellcome's company in London.

Featured in journals and magazines for decades, Bird was by now something of a household name. In November 1892, she became the first woman inducted into the Royal Geographical Society.[12] She was elected to membership of the Royal Photographic Society on 12 January 1897. Her final great journey took place in 1897, when she travelled up the Yangtze and Han rivers in China and Korea, respectively. Later still, she went to Morocco, where she travelled among the Berbers and had to use a ladder to mount her black stallion, a gift from the Sultan.[11]


The grave of Isabella Bird, Dean Cemetery

A few months after returning from a trip to Morocco, Bird fell ill and died at her home on 16 Melville Street, Edinburgh on 7 October 1904. She was buried in the Dean Cemetery on the west side of Edinburgh.[1] Her parents, sister and husband Dr John Bishop, an Edinburgh surgeon (who, after his premature death in 1886, had funded her travels through his inheritance), lie with her. The grave lies in the small curved southern section.

She was planning another trip to China at the time of her death. "There never was anybody," wrote the Spectator, "who had adventures as well as Miss Bird".


Caryl Churchill used Bird as a character in her play Top Girls (1982). Much of the dialogue written by Churchill comes from Bird's own writings.

Bird was featured in Bedrock: Writers on the Wonders of Geology (2006), edited by Lauret E. Savoy, Eldridge M. Moores, and Judith E. Moores (Trinity University Press) which looks at writing over the years and how it pays tribute to the Earth and its geological features.[13]

Bird is also the main character of the manga Fushigi no Kuni no Bird, a novelization of her travels to Japan.

The building of the clock tower on Tobermory, Mull harbour wall was funded by Bird in memory of her beloved sister Henrietta. It was designed by mountaineer and explorer Edward Whymper.[7]

Clock tower in Tobermory built with funds donated by Isabella Lucy Bird



  1. 1 2 3 4 5 Middleton, Dorothy (2004). "Bishop [Bird], Isabella Lucy (1831–1904)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press.
  2. "Isabella Bird (1831–1904)". The John Murray Archive. National Library of Scotland. Retrieved 16 March 2014.
  3. Ogilvie, Marilyn Bailey (1986). Women in science : antiquity through the nineteenth century : a biographical dictionary with annotated bibliography (Reprint. ed.). Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press. p. 38. ISBN 9780262650380.
  4. "Health Care Institutes - John Bishop Memorial Mission Hospital, Kashmir". Diocese of Amritsar. Retrieved 2015-04-21.
  5. 1 2 3 "Mrs Bishop". The Times. Obituaries. London, England (37521): 4. 10 October 1904.
  6. Lucas, Charles Prestwood (1912). Bishop, Isabella Lucy. Dictionary of National Biography.
  7. 1 2 3 4 5 Stoddart, Anna M, (1906) The Life of Isabella Bird, Mrs Bishop : London, J. Murray OCLC 4138739
  8. "The Life of Isabella Bird". The Spectator. London: 6. 26 January 1907.
  9. Bird, Isabella L. (1856). The Englishwoman in America. John Murray OCLC 169934144.
  10. David McClay. "Travels with Isabella Bird (transcript)". National Library of Scotland. Retrieved 17 March 2014.
  11. 1 2 3 Bird, Isabella (2004). "Biographical Note". The Hawaiian Archipelago. eBooks. p. i.
  12. Bell, Morag; McEwan, Cheryl (1996-01-01). "The Admission of Women Fellows to the Royal Geographical Society, 1892-1914; the Controversy and the Outcome". The Geographical Journal. 162 (3): 295–312. doi:10.2307/3059652. JSTOR 3059652.
  13. Savoy, Lauret E. & Moores, Eldridge M. & Moores, Judith E. 2006. TX: Trinity University Press.
  14. Bird, Isabella (1877). A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountaing.
  15. Unbeaten Tracks.
  16. Bird, Isabella (1883). The Golden Chersonese and the Way Thither.
  17. Bird, Isabella. The Golden Chersonese and the Way Thither. A Celebration of Women Writers.
  18. Bird, Isabella (1894). Among the Tibetans (online ed.). Australia: University of Adelaide.
  19. Bird, Isabella (1894). Among the Tibetans (online ed.). US: Project Gutenberg.
  20. Bird, Isabella (1898). Korea and Her Neighbours.
  21. Bird, Isabella (1898). Korea and Her Neighbours. Volume 1.
  22. Bird, Isabella (1898). Korea and Her Neighbours. Volume 2.
  23. Bird, Isabella (1898). Korea and Her Neighbours.


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