Autograph Letter Collection: Women Travellers

Archive Collection

Scope and Content

The collection contains letters from Isabella Bird to a friend, 1868; to Captain Coburn, 1879; to Mrs Waller, 1879; to Miss Gilpin, 1887; to Mrs Smith, 1887; to unnamed man, 1889; to unnamed man, 1889. Constance Gordon-Cumming to Miss Smith, 1897. Mary Kingsley to Mr Maclehose, 1899. Rosita Forbes to Mr Simpson, 1910. Mary Hall to Mr Simpson, 1910. Olive Macleod to Mr Simpson, 1910-1911. Edith Durham to Mr Christy, 1912-1914. Freya Stark to Lady Currie, 1933-1936. Evelyn Cheesman to Miss P Strachey, 1936; Note by Miss Strachey introducing Miss Cheesman's lectures; letter from Miss D Steiner about programme of lectures.

Administrative / Biographical History

Isabella Lucy Bird (1831-1904) started travelling at the age of forty, following the advice of her doctor as a cure for a spinal complaint and insomnia. She married the same doctor, John Bishop, in 1881. In 1892, she became the first woman to address a meeting of the Royal Geographical Society. In that same year she was the first of fifteen women to be elected to the Society's fellowship. Her travels took her to America, Canada, Japan, Persia, Tibet and China. She died aged 73.

Constance Frederica Gordon–Cumming (1837-1924) was born into a wealthy Scottish family, which enabled her to travel. She first travelled abroad in 1868, journeying to India via Egypt. Her travels then took her to Ceylon, Fiji, South Sea Islands, California, China, Japan and Hawaii. In addition to writing about her travels she was a keen artist and produced over a thousand paintings of foreign vistas. Her later years were spent in publishing and printing her books and articles and arranging her paintings for an exhibition. She died aged 87.

Edith Durham (1863-1944) worked as a political missionary in the Balkans. She first visited the area in 1900 aged 37. Edith started travelling in search of health and was an anthropologist as well as a gifted artist. She became a correspondent for the Times and other newspapers. She travelled to the Balkans annually from 1900 to 1914. When uprisings occurred, in 1903 and 1909, Edith provided medical aid and food. Following the end of the Second World War, Edith Durham was offered a permanent home in Albania by the Albanian Government. She refused, choosing to remain independent and settled in London writing books and articles.

Mary Hall (1857-1912) was an accomplished traveller when she became the first woman to cross Africa, travelling from the south to the north in 1905 ('from the Cape to Cairo'). She covered 7000 miles in three months. She published two books, A Woman's Trek from the Cape to Cairo, in 1907 and A Woman in the Antipodes and the Far East in 1914.

Mary Henrietta Kingsley (1862-1900) was the daughter of George Henry Kingsley (1827-1892) and Mary Bailey and the niece of Charles Kingsley (1819-1875), she became known as an explorer, ethnologist and travel writer. After the death of her parents Mary Kingsley went to West Africa for six months in 1893, aged 31. She returned there in 1894, staying for a year and working as a trader. Whilst there she discovered a new genus of fish, six new species, an unknown snake and a rare lizard. Mary Kingsley donated pickled specimens of these to the British Museum. She lectured widely and wrote on her travels. Her most famous works include Travels in West Africa (1897), West African Studies (1899) and The Story of West Africa (1899). She worked as a nurse during the Boer War, departing for South Africa in Mar 1900 but dying in Jun 1900 of a fever contracted whilst nursing Boer prisoners of war. Mary Kingsley is known to have deliberately distanced herself from the women’s movement and to have adopted a conservative position with regard to questions of equality, opposing, for example, the admission of women to learned societies. On 27 Feb 1900, in one of her last public engagements before leaving the country, Mary Kingsley participated in a debate on women’s suffrage. This is recorded in a letter which she wrote to Sir Matthew Nathan: ‘I have been opposing women having the parliamentary vote this afternoon and have had a grand time of it and have been called an idealist and had poetry slung at me in chunks. Argument was impossible so I offered to fight the secretary in the back yard but she would not so you can all write me down impracticable.’

Olive Macleod was born in 1886, her father being Sir R Macleod and her sister Dame Flora Macleod. In 1910 she travelled to West Africa to seek the answers to the death of her fiancé Boyd Alexander. In 1912 she married Charles Lindsay Temple (1871-1929) who was a colonial administrator, traveller and author. In the same year Olive Temple published Chiefs and Cities of Central Africa, across Lake Chad by the way of British, French and German Territories.

Rosita Forbes (1893-1967) was born in 1893 and later married a soldier with whom she travelled to India, China, Australia and South Africa. During WWI She worked as an ambulance driver and received two medals for her war services from the French government. After the war she toured America and China. She turned to journalism in order to fund her trips and was engaged to write some articles on French colonisation in northern Africa. Whilst there she travelled extensively, including entering the 'forbidden' city of Kufara in 1920, and learnt Arabic. After a visit to England, Rosita Forbes visited Morocco and then went to Abyssinia where she made a travel film entitled From Red Sea to Blue Nile. She married Arthur McGrath in 1921. Later she visited Persia and in 1930 travelled through Syria, Palestine, Iraq and Transjordania. Her other travels took her to South America, Russia and from Kenya to the Gold Coast. Rosita Forbes was awarded a Fellowship of the Royal Geographical Society. She retired to the Caribbean where she died.

Freya Stark (1893-1993) was a renowned historian, philosopher, traveller and artist. Having been born in Paris, Freya Stark spent her childhood in Devon and Asolo in Northern Italy. In 1927 she visited Syria and Persia enabling her to practise her knowledge of Arabic. She worked for two years as a journalist in Baghdad and spent the start of the Second World War as a southern Arabia expert to the Ministry of Information in London. In 1952 she visited Turkey, then, in her early seventies she visited China and Afghanistan aged seventy-six. Later trips involved a voyage down the Euphrates and a pony trek in Nepal. Freya Stark had written over twenty books concerning her travels before her death in 1993. Evelyn Cheesman, having been denied a career as a vet, worked as an entomologist at Regent's Park Zoo. In 1924 she was invited to join a zoological expedition to the Marquesas and Galapagos Islands. She spent approximately twelve years on similar expeditions. She made numerous expeditions to New Guinea, the New Hebrides and other islands in the Pacific. She wrote many scientific papers and was the author of a number of books on entomology and her travels. She was associated with The Natural History Museum, London having worked as a volunteer for many years. Evelyn Cheesman was awarded an OBE for her contribution to entomology.

Conditions Governing Access

This collection is available for research. Readers are advised to contact The Women's Library in advance of their first visit. Available on microfiche only.

Other Finding Aids

Abstracts of individual letters in the autograph letters collection were written and held alongside the letters. This work was done from the 1960s by volunteers including Nan Taylor. In 2004 Jean Holder completed a 3 year project to list the letters, copy-type the abstracts, and repackage the letters to meet preservation needs. In 2005 Vicky Wylde and Teresa Doherty proof read and imported the entries to the Special Collections Catalogue.

The original card index of all correspondents, including date of letter & volume reference, is available on the microfiche.

Alternative Form Available

A copy of this archive is available on microfilm held at The Women's Library.

Custodial History

This collection consists of letters taken from various sources and filed individually in ring binders. The original source of the item (often from archive collections) is not generally indicated.