Isabella Lucy Bishop (Bird)

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Isabella Lucy Bishop (Bird)

Birthplace: Boroughbridge Hall, Yorkshire, UK
Death: October 07, 1904 (72)
Edinburgh, City of Edinburgh, UK
Place of Burial: Edinburgh, City of Edinburgh, Scotland, United Kingdom
Immediate Family:

Daughter of Edward Bird and Dorothy Bird
Wife of Dr. John Bishop
Sister of Henrietta Bird

Occupation: Traveller Explorer & Author
Managed by: William Hamilton Codrington Nation
Last Updated:
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Immediate Family

About Isabella Lucy Bishop (Bird)

Isabella Lucy Bird (October 15, 1831 – October 7, 1904) was a nineteenth-century English explorer, writer, and a natural historian

Early life

Bird was born in Boroughbridge in 1831 and grew up in Tattenhall, Cheshire. As her father Edward was a Church of England priest, the family moved several times across Britain as he received different parish postings, most notably in 1848 when he was replaced as vicar of St. Thomas' when his parishioners objected to the style of his ministry.

Bird was a sickly child and spent her entire life struggling with various dieases Much of her illness may have been psychogenic, for when she was doing exactly what she wanted she was almost never ill. Her real desire was to travel. In 1854, Bird's father gave her £100 and she went to visit relatives in America. She was allowed to stay until her money ran out. She detailed the journey anonymously in her first book The Englishwoman in America, published in 1856. The following year, she went to Canada and then toured Scotland.

Time spent in Britain always seemed to make her ill and, following her mother's death in 1868, she embarked on a series of excursions to avoid settling permanently with her sister Henrietta (Henny) on the Isle of Mull. Bird could not endure her sister's domestic lifestyle, preferring instead to support further travels through writing. Many of her works are compiled from letters she wrote home to her sister in Scotland.


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 Loa.[1] She then moved on to Colorado, then the newest member of the United States, 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 Leisure Hour, comprised her 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, 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.

At home, Bird again found herself pursued, this time by John Bishop, an Edinburgh doctor in his thirties. Predictably ill, she went traveling again, this time to Asia: Japan, China, Vietnam, Singapore and Malaysia. Yet when her sister died of typhoid in 1880, Isabella was heartbroken and finally accepted Bishop's marriage proposal. Her health took a severe turn for the worse but recovered by Bishop's own death in 1886. Feeling that her earlier travels had been hopelessly dilettante, Bird studied medicine and resolved to travel as a missionary. Despite her nearly sixty years of age, she set off for India.

Later years

Arriving on the subcontinent in February 1889, Bird visited missions in India, crossed Tibet, and then travelled in Persia, Kurdistan and Turkey. 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 1892, she became the first woman inducted into the Royal Geographical Society. Her final great journey took place in 1897 where she travelled up the Yangtze and Han rivers which are 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.[1] She died in Edinburgh within a few months of her return in 1904, just shy of her seventy-third birthday. She was still planning another trip to China. "There never was anybody," wrote the Spectator, "who had adventures as well as Miss Bird." In 1982, Caryl Churchill used her as a character in her play Top Girls. Much of the dialogue written by Churchill comes from Bird's own writings. In 2006, Bird was featured in Bedrock: Writers on the Wonders of Geology 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.


The Englishwoman in America (1856)

Pen and Pencil Sketches Among The Outer Hebrides (published in The Leisure Hour) (1866)

The Hawaiian Archipelago (1875)

The Two Atlantics (published in The Leisure Hour) (1876)

Australia Felix: Impressions of Victoria and Melbourne (published in The Leisure Hour) (1877)

A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains (1879)

Unbeaten Tracks in Japan (1880)

Sketches In The Malay Peninsula (published in The Leisure Hour) (1883)

The Golden Chersonese and the way Thither (1883)

A Pilgrimage To Sinai (published in The Leisure Hour) (1886)

Journeys in Persia and Kurdistan (1891)

Among the Tibetans (1894) Available online from the University of Adelaide, Australia.

Korea and her Neighbours (1898)

The Yangtze Valley and Beyond (1899)

Chinese Pictures (1900)

Notes on Morocco (published in the Monthly Review) (1901)


Isabella Lucy Bird, "Isabella Lucy Bird (1831-1904) broke out of the conventional, circumscribed, life of a middle-class woman in Victorian Britain and established herself as a determined and intelligent traveller. But she did more: by writing up her travel adventures she challenged and delighted a wide and appreciative audience. Her travel books which still, one hundred years later, inform and entertain, made her one of the most famous women in late-Victorian Britain. She was ambitious, determined and ruthless, striving to achieve fulfilment through her travels, and subsequently, by her writing. Even so, once returned home from one of her great adventures, she collapsed, a chronic invalid, cultivating sickness and ill-health. Throughout her girlhood, and most of her adult life, she was said to suffer from 'spinal prostration'. Given her appetite for exhausting and hazardous travel one must wonder what this means. She was supported by her husband, Dr John Bishop, and by her sister Henrietta (Henny), both of whom died at an early age, neither able to cope with the single-minded ambitions of a driven woman. She was born at Boroughbridge Hall, North Yorkshire, on 15 October 1831, into a clerical family in comfortable circumstances. Because of this, at home, she knew influential people,1 and, abroad, she, always courteous, assumed the authority of her class. Wherever she went she was supported by British representatives overseas. Her arrival was eagerly awaited, her visit a treat for those serving in remote and lonely stations. Her father, the Rev. Edward Bird, himself related to William Wilberforce, had harmed his career as a minister, by adopting an uncompromising stance on Sabbath observance. Edward Bird, by 1850 semi-retired to a country parish, was curious about various aspects of the Christian religion in the North American continent. Surprisingly, it was he who gave Isabella Bird the opportunity to travel. She, his older girl, was to be treated not as a daughter, but as a son, to be sent on her travels, to do his research into American Christianity in the field. Thus, in her early twenties, Isabella Lucy Bird went travelling, alone, in Canada and the United States, for the first time. It was a twentieth-century opportunity for a nineteenth-century woman. She grasped it eagerly, with both hands. When she returned, family celebrations turned to mourning as Edward Bird sickened and died. To Isabella fell the task of sorting out her material and preparing a book for publication. The Englishwoman in America was published in 1856 when she was twenty-five years of age. The book sold well. Earlier, through her family connections, she had had an introduction to John Murray iii of the 'aristocratical' publishers of Albermarle Street, London. The Murrays became and were to remain, her publisher, and personal friends, for the rest of her life. It was a fruitful relationship which brought prestige and profit to both author and publisher. After the death of the Rev. Edward Bird, his widow and her two daughters removed to Edinburgh where they established themselves as permanent residents. Isabella, searching for a role, devised various schemes, writing and researching in Scotland. After Mrs Bird died in 1866, Isabella and her sister Henrietta, although still close, lived separate lives. Henrietta settled in a small cottage overlooking Tobermory, on the Isle of Mull, whilst Isabella remained based in Edinburgh. The years after 1866 were, until Isabella travelled abroad again in the early 1870s, exceptionally difficult. In October 1871 she was forty years of age, and had, she felt, no challenges in her life. How could she escape? In the end it was her medical adviser who gave her a ticket to freedom. 'You must travel for your health', he suggested. It was advice which she would eagerly accept, over and over again, until the end of her life. Isabella sailed for Australia in the autumn of 1872 and celebrated her forty-first birthday at Chalmers' Manse, Melbourne, in October 1872. She hated the heat and the dust of Australia in high summer and found New Zealand no better. During this unhappy time she was also dosing herself with bromides and chlorodyne. These, in common use at the time, must have had serious effects on her mood and morale. The curious thing about this antipodean adventure was that, despite her unfavourable comments, she wrote no less than nine small notes on the pleasures of being in the Southern hemisphere under the title of 'Australia Felix: Impressions of Victoria' for the Leisure Hour in 1877. Isabella Bird steamed away north from Auckland, New Zealand, in January 1873. It was during this hazardous Pacific journey, on an old patched up paddle-steamer, the Nevada, that, in the midst of a raging storm, she realized that she thrived on danger. Her excitement was great as she arrived in the Sandwich Islands (now Hawaii). Her euphoric state lasted for six months as she continued to enjoy the wonders of these then unspoilt islands, revelling in long arduous horseback rides, and climbing the mountains with their lava fields and spewing volcanic peaks. Her sister Henny, back in Scotland, wrote to Elizabeth Blackie,2 astonished at the flow of good cheer which poured from her sister's letters. Isabella rebuffed Henny's suggestion that the sisters should meet up in Hawaii. She then left Hawaii for the Rocky Mountains. Isabella Bird landed in San Francisco and travelled to Colorado where she had her romantic adventure with the 'desperado' Jim Nugent. For months in the high Rockies, in and around Estes Park, as autumn turned to winter, Isabella was beguiled not only by the wild Rocky Mountains but also by the charms of Mountain Jim who took her on expeditions and encouraged her boldness. With Jim's assistance she became the second woman to climb Long's Peak, a mountain of over 14,000 feet. The ascent of the mountain was, despite the heavy snowfalls, an exciting episode. Isabella lingered on - it seemed as if she could not tear herself away from the beautiful wilderness which was a haven to her admirer Mountain Jim. Finally, she gathered herself together and left on 13 December 1873. When she reached New York on Christmas Eve 1873 she wrote, for the first time in a year, to her close friend Eliza Blackie, in Edinburgh, that she had 'cast off her swagger with her spurs'.3 How could this euphoric Isabella have explained the intensity of her happiness both in Hawaii and in the Rocky Mountains? This wonderful year resulted in two books. The Hawaiian Archipelago was published in 1875. A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains, which could have been published in 1876, did not appear until 1879. Both books brought her much public praise. There seems little doubt that Isabella worried endlessly about how she would account to her readers for her friendship with Jim Nugent. It was a great relief that when the Rocky Mountains book was published to find that, as Isabella wrote, 'the critics have not scented out impropriety'.4 Isabella Bird's next adventure was in Japan in 1878. Japan had been 'opened' by the imperialist powers in 1859, while the Restoration of the Emperor had taken place in 1868. Although there were some changes in Tokyo and other big cities, 'old Japan' remained untouched and so was an attractive objective for Isabella. Miss Bird arrived in Japan in May 1878 and, with the help of Sir Harry Parkes, then British Minister in Tokyo, and Lady Parkes, prepared for her Japanese journey. There were some fears for her safety. Attacks on foreigners by discontented samurai were not unknown and the phrase 'revere the Emperor and expel the barbarian' was common. It is possible that the young man, Ito, who became Miss Bird's servant, guide and factotum, was officially sanctioned by the government. In any event Ito proved an ideal assistant, who approved of the courteous way with which Miss Bird dealt with the Japanese with whom she was involved on her travels. Isabella planned to travel north from Tokyo through Honshu, the main island of Japan, via Nikko, one of the foremost shrine sites in Japan, then north-west to Niigata and farther north to Aomori. The route she chose was difficult, along poor tracks and riverbeds, sometimes riding on horseback, sometimes being carried, jolted in an uncomfortable kago carried by bearers. Her guide, Ito, may have ensured that he and 'his lady' avoided Wakamatsu, earlier the scene of a last bitter battle against the new Meiji government, where a foreigner would not have been welcomed. But he was embarrassed by Miss Bird's close examination of peasant villages which demonstrated, despite constant work on the productive fields, the poverty of rural life. The weather was hot, the mosquitoes persistent, but Miss Bird was enchanted by all she saw. She stayed with missionaries in Niigata before pressing north to Aomori. There she boarded a ferry for the crossing to Hakodate. From Hakodate she travelled to visit the original Ainu people, even then being squeezed out of their traditional homelands. She left Hokkaido on 14 September and after further visits in Japan sailed away on 19 December 1878. Upon her return to England she protested that it would be too difficult to prepare a book on Japan, but in fact Unbeaten Tracks in Japan was successfully published in 1880. On the journey back home she was persuaded to stop off at the Straits Settlement (formerly the Federation of Malay States, now Malaysia) where she travelled for two months, with the aid of consular officials. The resultant book The Golden Chersonese and the way thither was published in 1883. It contains essays on the development of Malaya, as well as Isabella's usual racy and informed account of her travels, in this case riding on elephants. Nevertheless, one consular official's wife took issue with the fact that Isabella had written a book on such small acquaintance with the country. Emily Innes's book The Golden Chersonese with the gilding off was intended as a reply to Miss Bird. Isabella was nervous about the book on Malaya, and she never again wrote on a country through which she had not, as an independent traveller, journeyed footsore and hungry. After Miss Bird returned from Japan and Malaya at the beginning of 1879 she was not able to travel solo again for more than ten years. Because of developments in her personal life she was, of necessity, confined. In fact Isabella had fled from her nearest and dearest to get to Japan following a proposal of marriage from Dr John Bishop, who was a close friend. Dr Bishop - like the two Bird sisters deeply interested in the Edinburgh medical mission movement, which grew out of the work of Dr David Livingstone in Africa - sent Christian doctors to heal the poor in non-Christian countries in the hope of then converting them. He was fascinated by Isabella's travel exploits and felt, wrongly, as it turned out, that if he could give her the stability of home life she would settle down. After much agonizing, for he was ten years younger, she accepted him. But this decision so upset her younger sister, Henrietta, that at this stage Isabella rejected all thoughts of marriage and left for Japan. On her return to Edinburgh, in May 1879, her sister Henny was still suffering from poor health. Despite nursing by Isabella and Dr Bishop she died, aged forty-five, at her home in Mull on 4 June 1880. Within months of Henny's death Isabella Bird, just six months short of her fiftieth birthday, married Dr John Bishop on 8 March 1881. They paid a series of post-marital visits to Isabella's friends and relations in England, but within eighteen months of their marriage Dr John Bishop's health began to fail and he became an invalid. Their home in Edinburgh was abandoned and they travelled in Southern Europe, seeking a less harsh climate. On 3 January 1886 Sir Joseph Lister, with whom Dr John Bishop had worked at Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, came to Cannes and performed a blood transfusion. This pioneering operation, at a time when there was insufficient knowledge of blood groups, was premature. Sadly, John Bishop died, aged forty-four, of pernicious anaemia on 6 March 1886. Isabella was distraught. She felt lost and abandoned. Three years passed before she could consider further travel. When she did decide to resume her travelling life, she planned to go to India to set up mission hospitals which she would fund in memory of her sister and husband. She left for India in February 1889. It seems almost certain that she had in mind the prospect of further and more ambitious travel, but her first priority in India was to find sites for her mission hospitals. She also made an interesting pilgrimage which was described in Among the Tibetans (1894). Probably because of her notoriety as a traveller and writer, while in India, Isabella was offered the chance of travelling in Persia with a Major Sawyer. Isabella was excited by the prospect and hurriedly concluded her business in India. During the nineteenth century the British and the Russians, anticipating rich resources of oil and minerals, were constantly struggling for supremacy in the Middle East. To this end the British set up various exploratory expeditions: one of these was that of Major Sawyer. In order to make this journey Isabella had to forfeit her independence and in January 1890, hooded and covered as any Muslim woman, she left Baghdad as an addition to Major Sawyer's party and travelled, in deplorable conditions, towards Teheran. They arrived in the Persian capital at the end of February after what Isabella described as 'an awful journey'. But she soon recovered and left the haven of the British Residence. While travelling alone south to Isfahan in good weather in Persia, she allowed herself to consider the practicality of travelling, with an interpreter, north-west, through to the Black Sea. She was sure it could be done, although her own position as a woman would inevitably complicate matters. During her side-trip to Isfahan, on what was 'so far a delightful journey',5 she had removed her veil and head covering whilst enjoying a gallop on her horse, alone, only to be spotted and chased as a feringhi (foreign) woman. She escaped on this occasion, but such a hue and cry reminded her of her vulnerability. After much thought she decided to press on and so, eventually, she set up her own 'caravan' at Hamadan, adding an interpreter and a guide to her entourage. She left for the Black Sea on 15 September 1890. With extraordinary fortitude she travelled, as the winter closed in, towards the north-west with her small party via Urmi, Van, Bitlis and Erzerum, reaching Trebizond on 12 December. She had journeyed from Persia through Kurdistan and Turkey, a perilous journey at any time, in winter weather. Her book Journeys in Persia and Kurdistan was published in 1891. It enhanced her reputation, but she was irritated by the greater praise which G. N. Curzon received following the publication of his Persia and the Persian Question in 1892. There was, however, a sequel: William Ewart Gladstone, about to become Prime Minister for the fourth time, at the age of eighty-two, and always sensitive to the persecution of Christians wherever they were, enquired about Mrs Bishop's experiences amongst Nestorian Christians, who were known to be preyed upon by the Muslim Kurds. On 18 June 1891 in Committee Room 15, she appeared before a large audience - including Gladstone - at the House of Commons, to answer questions about atrocities against the despised Christians. Mrs Bishop impressed a large and appreciative audience with her lucid answers to the many questions posed.6 She celebrated her sixtieth birthday in October 1891 and it seems likely that, despite having many good friends, with no close relatives left in Edinburgh, she felt somewhat lost. In January 1894 she left again to travel, this time in East Asia, particularly in China and Korea, and it is worth noting that she was absent from her native shores for three years and three months. The predations of the Western powers in China and Korea and the increasing activity of the Japanese in East Asia, often brought a response from local people. Increasingly, foreigners were suspect. Mrs Bishop was travelling around these countries (with some visits to Japan for rest breaks) for over three years. In both Korea and China she was threatened from time to time. These were frightening experiences for anyone, even for an intrepid lady like Isabella Bird. She was then in her mid-sixties and it was almost as if she did not care what happened to her. In Korea she spent a total of nine months in a series of four visits; the country was, she noted, 'a mere shuttlecock' caught between the conflicting demands of Russia, China and Japan. Korea 'the Hermit Kingdom' had, in effect, been forced open by Japan, already flexing military muscles in the region. Mrs Bishop, who knew the Korean royal family, was shocked when the Japanese engineered the murder of the Queen. Mrs Bishop's distrust of the Japanese as overlords of Korea was shared by other foreign observers, who commented on the insensitivity of the Japanese occupation. Mrs Bishop, during her stay in Eastern Asia, spent two long periods travelling in Northern and Central China. She visited the north and Manchuria, partly out of curiosity to see where the Russians were, and partly to visit various medical missionaries in Mukden. Her major journey was in Central China up the Yangtze Kiang and into Sze Chuan. It was spectacular, as the crew had to manhandle the boat up the I-chang gorges. From Sze Chuan, much to the annoyance of the Chinese authorities, she insisted on travelling farther west. There is no doubt of her courage and audacity, but the party was short of food and she was forced to turn back. On her return to Edinburgh, Isabella prepared Korea and her Neighbours (1898) and The Yangtze Valley and Beyond (1899). Both books were well received. But she did not rest on her laurels. In the early months of 1901, in her seventieth year, she spent six months in Morocco and wrote this up as 'Notes on Morocco', which was published in the Monthly Review later in 1901. In 1892 Isabella Bird had discovered photography. During her three-year sojourn in East Asia she became an ardent practitioner. She not only carried her own camera but also the equipment necessary for developing the pictures as she travelled. In explaining her undoubted achievement she remarked that each print 'was a joy and a triumph'. The Boxer Rebellion in 1900, during which Chinese rebels attacked and killed many foreigners, aroused much anger in Britain. The foreign legations in Peking and Tientsin were besieged and later relieved, by an army, led by the Japanese, in August 1900. In response, in London, Messrs Cassell, publishers, persuaded Mrs Bishop7 to dictate brief notes as a commentary on sixty full-page reproductions of her own Chinese photographs. Chinese Pictures gave her the opportunity to demonstrate her photographic skills and also to respond 'with moderation' to the international outrage then rampant against the Chinese. Morocco was to be the end of her adventures abroad. She returned to Edinburgh and there she lived, either with friends or in lodgings. She had attempted a last home of her own at Hatfield Hurst, Wyton, near Huntingdon, where her father had had his last charge, but she could not settle. Her doctors, as always, rallied to her side. They said that the house was too low lying, too near the river Ouse. She concurred and returned to Edinburgh where she died on 7 October 1904. Following her death there was some discussion as to the career of this remarkable woman. How, it was asked, could a woman have two personalities - as the Edinburgh Medical Journal put it, 'The invalid at home, and the Samson abroad'?8 How indeed? Looking back, it is not hard to see how a strong-willed and gifted woman, determined to make the most of her skills, should cultivate the image of an invalid gentlewoman at home only to reappear abroad as energetic and strong. As the conventions of her time required submissive women, she could only enter the active male world by translating herself, for months and sometimes years, to places far away where restrictions did not apply. It would seem as if Isabella Bird, or Mrs Bishop, if you prefer, was a feminist who believed, as she wrote, 'in a woman's right to do what she can do well'.9 There is no doubt that she herself cultivated two personae: the frail invalid at home and the tireless traveller abroad. She did this in order to enter the man's world of activity and adventure, but having achieved her own solution to her own personal problems she would not have wished to go further. Isabella Bird, a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society in London and the first woman Fellow of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society in Edinburgh, was a famous Victorian, who richly merited her place in the Dictionary of National Biography. By following up her adventures in remote places with her well-informed books, she ensured a continuing interest in her life and in her experiences. Olive Checkland Cambridge, 1998 For further information see Olive Checkland, Isabella Bird (1831-1904) 'and a Woman's Right to Do What She Can do well' (Edinburgh: Scottish Cultural Press, 1996). This book is also available in Japanese from Nihon Keizai Hyoronsha, Tokyo. 1 One of the Rev. Bird's cousins, John Bird Sumner, became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1848; another, Charles Richard Sumner, became Bishop of Winchester. 2 John Stuart Blackie papers (hereafter JSB), National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh, Henrietta Bird to Eliza Blackie, 10 September 1873, MS 2641, f. 19. 3 JSB, Isabella Lucy Bird (hereafter ILB) to Eliza Blackie, New York, 24 December 1873, MS 2631, f. 83. 4 JSB, ILB to Eliza Blackie, 23 November 1879, MS 2633, f. 143. 5 ILB, Journeys in Persia and Kurdistan, vol. 1, letter 10. 6 Stoddart, Anna M., The Life of Isabella Bird (Mrs. Bishop) (London, 1906), p. 247. 7 Chinese Pictures 'by Mrs J. F. Bishop' was incorrect, her husband's birth certificate gives his name as John. 8 A. Stodart Walker, Edinburgh Medical Journal, 1904, vol. 16, p. 383. 9 JSB, ILB to Eliza Blackie, 17 November 1880, MS 2633, f. 308.

Born: Boroughbridge hall, Yorkshire, England 15th Oct 1831 Baptised: Died: Edinburgh, Scotland 7th Oct 1904 Buried: Family: Bird


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Isabella Lucy Bishop (Bird)'s Timeline

October 15, 1831
Yorkshire, UK
October 7, 1904
Age 72
Edinburgh, City of Edinburgh, UK
Edinburgh, City of Edinburgh, Scotland, United Kingdom