Lady Explorers: Map Makers, Writers, Photographers, Pioneers
The achievements of the early Lady Explorers are mesmerising. Mary Kingsley climbed Mount Cameroon in the late 19th Century. Isabella Bird travelled through China and became the first female fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. Later, Freya Stark and Gertude Bell’s unparalleled knowledge of Arabia led to key war time roles.
The Royal Geographical Society hold an extensive and growing collection of material that make these women’s stories come to life and documents their role in advancing geographical knowledge. On the week that the Society will re-publish, intrepid Victorian traveller, Lillias Campbell Davidson’s Hint’s to Lady Travellers (a best selling Victorian Travel Manual featuring, with modern eyes often hilarious, guidance from Lillias and anecdotes from other female travel pioneers) I caught up with Head of Collections, Alasdair Macleod:
Alasdair explained that “The Society holds material relating to key figures including Mary Kingsley, Isabella Bird, Freya Stark and Gertrude Bell, combining maps, photographs, letters, journals and artefacts” which includes “…photographs by Isabella Bird which provide a unique record of Japan, Korea and China in the late nineteenth century.” I asked Alasdair what it was about the archives and achievements of these women that capture our imagination
“…the Society’s historical material relating to women travellers offers the chance for contemporary users to better understand the role which many played in the advancement of geographical knowledge through map making, written observation and (where relevant) the use of photography to record some of the earliest images of landscapes, people and places.”
The collection has recently been enlarged by the donation of an unseen archive from Rosalind Heyworth Dobbs’ family. Rosalind was a leading Edwardian explorer and Alasdair told me more about the donation “The main part of the collection comprises her manuscript diaries in approximately 88 notebooks, providing descriptions and commentaries on journeys taken to Egypt, Switzerland, the Near East, Norway, Italy, Austria, Greece, Tangiers, Morocco, India, Malaya, Iceland and Spitzbergen; and a world round-trip carried out with her second husband, George Cumberland Dobbs. Of geographical significance, through her observations Rosalind Heyworth Dobbs provides us with a detailed commentary on the landscapes, people and places that she visited. Her diaries and letters also provide historical context, with descriptions of her childhood and family life.” The writing provides significant and new perspectives on travel in the late 19th and early 20th Century. “As one example, in her diaries and letters, Rosalind Heyworth Dobbs offers an insight into the development of the Alpine tourism as a business; her second husband George Cumberland Dobbs worked for Henry Simpson Lunn who in part started the trend for British visitors to partake of winter sports in Switzerland. Dobbs records her life in Switzerland, before the First World War and subsequently in Wengen in 1919.”
My final question to Alasdair was about the connection between Isabella Bird and the Society and the importance of the recent digitisation of her photographs “Isabella Bird was amongst the first women to be elected to the Society as a Fellow. The Society holds over 300 photographs taken by Isabella Bird during her travels in the Far East dating back to the 1890s. These provide a remarkable record of the urban and rural landscapes, people and places of the time and are an excellent source of information for contemporary researchers."