Image of Isabella Lucy Bird


Lifetime: 1831 - 1904 Passed: ≈ 119 years ago


Explorer, Writer, Photographer. Naturalist


United Kingdom

Isabella Lucy Bird

Isabella Lucy Bird, married name Bishop, was a nineteenth-century British explorer, writer, photographer, and naturalist. With Fanny Jane Butler she founded the John Bishop Memorial hospital in Srinagar. She was the first woman to be elected Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.

Isabella Bird was born on 15 October 1831 in Boroughbridge Hall, Yorkshire, the home of her grandmother and her father's first curacy after taking orders in 21. Her parents were Rev Edward Bird his second wife, Dora Lawson (1803–1866).

Bird moved several times during her childhood. In 1832, Reverend Bird was appointed curate in Maidenhead. Because of her father's ill health Bird's family moved again in 1834 to Tattenhall 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?"

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.)

From early childhood Bird was frail, suffering from a spinal complaint, nervous headaches, and insomnia. The doctor recommended an open-air life, 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 who instructed Bird in flora, and her mother taught her daughters an eclectic mix of subjects. Bird became an avid reader. 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".

Isabella'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.

In 1850, a "fibrous tumour was removed from the neighbourhood of the spine". Bird continued to suffer 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". Bird's "bright descriptive letters" written home to her relations formed the basis for her first book, An Englishwoman in America (1856), published by Murray. John Murray, "as well as being Isabella's lifelong publisher, ... [became] one of her closest friends".

Bird left Britain again in 1872, going initially 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. She then moved on to Colorado, 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, 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.

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 with her family in Dean Cemetery in the west of the city. The grave lies in the small curved southern section, near the small path which divides it in two. She was planning another trip to China at the time of her death.

Books by Isabella Lucy Bird

A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains Cover image

A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains

Fiction Novel Travel
Geography Mountains

A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains is a travel book, by Isabella Bird, describing her 1873 trip to the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. The book is a compilation of letters, that Isabella Bird wrote to her sister, Henrietta. The book was printed, in O...

Unbeaten Tracks in Japan Cover image

Unbeaten Tracks in Japan

Non-Fiction Travel
Geography Letters

Unbeaten Tracks in Japan is a book by the English travel writer Isabella Bird, in the form of letters to her sister, describing her journey from Tokyo to Hokkaido in 1878, when she was 47. It was first published in two volumes in 1880 by John Murray,...

The Englishwoman in America  Cover image

The Englishwoman in America

History Religion Adventure Politics Ship America Geography Scenery United States

Miss Bird traveled through eastern Canada and the United States as a young twenty-something woman in 1854. She wrote extensive observations on society, Atlantic steam-ship travel, hotels, politics, religion, the scenery, and every other thing that ca...

Korea and Her Neighbors Cover image

Korea and Her Neighbors

Memoir Travel
19th century War Travelling Geography Modern Memory

In this book, Isabella L. Bird, who had been elected a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society only 2 years prior, describes her travels through Korea from 1894 - 1897 in her well-known style. She went on lengthy trips through the interior of what i...

The Hawaiian Archipelago Cover image

The Hawaiian Archipelago

Non-Fiction Travel
Adventure Travelling Island Geography Letters

Six months among the palm groves, coral reefs, and volcanoes of the Sandwich Islands.