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Barbara Bodichon

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Barbara Bodichon
Barbara Bodichon portrait by Samuel Laurence
Barbara Leigh Smith

(1827-04-08)8 April 1827
Whatlington, Sussex, England, United Kingdom
Died11 June 1891(1891-06-11) (aged 64)
Robertsbridge, Sussex, England, United Kingdom
Other namesBarbara Leigh Smith
Known forCo-founder, Girton College, Cambridge
SpouseEugène Bodichon

Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon (born Barbara Leigh Smith; 8 April 1827 – 11 June 1891) was an English educationalist and artist, and a leading mid-19th-century feminist and women's rights activist.[1][2] She published her influential Brief Summary of the Laws of England concerning Women in 1854 and the English Woman's Journal in 1858. Bodichon co-founded Girton College, Cambridge (1869). Her brother was the Arctic explorer Benjamin Leigh Smith.

Family and upbringing[edit]

Barbara Leigh Smith was born on 8 April 1827, to Anne Longden, a milliner from Alfreton, Derbyshire and a Whig politician, Benjamin "Ben" Leigh Smith (1783–1860), the only son of the Radical abolitionist William Smith.[3] Her parents did not marry and she was the eldest of five children born to the couple.[4] Her father had four sisters including Frances "Fanny" Smith, who married William Nightingale (né Shore) and produced a daughter, Florence (the nurse and statistician); and Joanna Maria, who married John Bonham-Carter (1788–1838) MP and founded the Bonham Carter family.[5]

Benjamin Leigh Smith's home was in Marylebone, London, but from 1816 he inherited and bought property near Hastings: Brown's Farm near Robertsbridge, with an extant house built about 1700, and Crowham Manor, Westfield, which included 200 acres (0.81 km2). Although a member of the landed gentry, Smith held radical views. He was a Dissenter, a Unitarian, a supporter of free trade, and a benefactor to the poor. In 1826 he bore the cost of building a school for the inner city poor at Vincent Square, Westminster, and paid a penny a week towards the fees for each child, the same amount paid by their parents.[6]

Smith met Anne Longden while on a visit to his sister in Derbyshire. She became pregnant by him and he took her to the south of England, housing her in a rented lodge at Whatlington, near Battle, East Sussex, as "Mrs Leigh", the surname of Ben Smith's relations on the Isle of Wight. Barbara's birth caused scandal, as the couple did not marry. Smith rode from Brown's Farm to visit them daily, and in eight weeks Anne was pregnant again. When their son Ben was born, the four went to America for two years, during which another child was conceived.[4]

On their return to Sussex, they lived openly together at Brown's and had two more children. After the last was born in 1833, Anne fell ill with tuberculosis. Smith leased 9 Pelham Crescent, Hastings, which faced the sea, whose healthy properties were highly regarded at the time. A local woman, Hannah Walker, was employed to look after the children. Anne did not recover and so Smith took her to Ryde, Isle of Wight, where she died in 1834.[7]

Smith, unusually for the time, sent all his children to the local school to learn alongside working-class children,[8] rather than sending the older males to boarding or an elite day school. He later shared financial endowments equally with all the children, both male and female, giving each an income of £300 per annum from the age of majority (21).[9]

Adult life[edit]

Ventnor, painted by Barbara Bodichon
Barbara Bodichon's name on the Reformers' Monument, Kensal Green Cemetery

Early in her life, Barbara showed a force of character and breadth of sympathies that would win her prominence among philanthropists and social workers. Independent income gave her a freedom not normally possessed by many women[9] and Bodichon and a group of London friends began to meet regularly in the 1850s to discuss women's rights, and became known as "The Ladies of Langham Place". This group became one of the first organised women's movements in Britain. They pursued many causes vigorously, including their Married Women's Property Committee. In 1854, she published Brief Summary of the Laws of England concerning Women,[10] which helped to promote the passage of the Married Women's Property Act 1882. During this period Bodichon became friends with the artist Anna Mary Howitt, for whom she sat on several occasions.[11]

Bodichon's first romantic relationship was with John Chapman, editor of the Westminster Review, but she refused to marry him and lose her legal rights.[9] On 2 July 1857, she married an eminent French physician, Dr Eugène Bodichon, at Little Portland Street Chapel.[12][13] Incidentally this was in the year that the Matrimonial Causes Act 1857, for which Bodichon had campaigned, allowed women access to divorce courts.[9] Although wintering for many years in Algiers, Bodichon continued to lead the movements she had initiated on behalf of Englishwomen.[14]

In 1858, Bodichon set up the English Women's Journal, a periodical which emphasised direct employment and equality issues for women, in particular manual or intellectual industrial employment, expansion of employment opportunities, and reform of laws pertaining to the sexes.

In 1866, cooperating with Emily Davies, Bodichon produced a scheme to extend university education to women. The first small experiment in this, at Hitchin, developed into Girton College, Cambridge, to which Bodichon gave liberally of her time and money.[14]

In 1869, she wrote a Brief Summary in Plain Language of the Laws of England Concerning Women which helped pass Married Women's Property Act 1870.[3]

Bodichon was a Unitarian, who wrote of Theodore Parker: "He prayed to the Creator, the infinite Mother of us all (always using Mother instead of Father in this prayer). It was the prayer of all I ever heard in my life which was the truest to my individual soul."[15]

On 21 November 1865 Barbara Bodichon, helped by Jessie Boucherett and Helen Taylor, brought up the idea of a parliamentary reform aimed at achieving the right to vote for women.[16]

Despite all her public interests, Bodichon found time for society and her favourite art of painting. Bodichon studied under William Holman Hunt. Her water colours, exhibited at the Salon, the Royal Academy and elsewhere, showed originality and talent, and were admired by Corot and Daubigny. Bodichon's London salon included many literary and artistic celebrities of her day. She was an early member of the Society of Female Artists (SFA) and showed 59 art works with them between 1858 and 1886.[17] She was George Eliot's intimate friend and the first to recognise the authorship of Adam Bede. Her personal appearance is said to have inspired "the tall, red-haired heroine of Eliot's Romola with her 'expression of proud tenacity and latent impetuousness'".[18]

Bodichon died at Robertsbridge, Sussex, on 11 June 1891.[14]

Education and activism[edit]

She was an English leader in the movements of education and political rights for women during the 1800s. Her marriage did not deter her from continuing her campaigns for women's rights to education.[19][20]

Bodichon studied at the Ladies' College in Bedford Square founded in London, England in 1849. Here she was given instruction for work as a professional artist rather than an art instructor. Bodichon came from a liberal Unitarian family with a private income. Their independent wealth gave Bodichon more freedom to grow as an artist.[21]

In 1852, after she had enrolled in Bedford College, she developed and opened Portman Hall School in Paddington, having researched practices at other primary schools,[8] in conjunction with its first head teacher, Elizabeth Whitehead.[3]

In 1854, Bodichon published the Brief Summary in Plain Language of the Most Important Laws Concerning Women, which was crucial in the passage of the Married Women's Property Act. In 1866, in collaboration with Emily Davies, she presented the idea of university education for women, being able to conduct the first experiment at a college in Hitchin, which developed into Girton College and of which Bodichon became a dedicated patron. She studied under the English artist William Henry Hunt to develop her skill in watercolours.[19][20]

Bodichon belonged to the Langham Place Circle, a group of forward-thinking women artists who developed the English Woman's Journal. During the 1850s, this group fought for women's education, employment, property rights, and suffrage. In 1859, Bodichon, along with many female artists including Eliza Fox, Margaret Gillies, and Emily Mary Osborn all signed a petition demanding access for women to the Royal Academy School. Their request was denied, stating that it would require the Royal Academy to develop "separate" life classes. In 1860, Laura Herford, one of the women artists fighting for access, submitted an application to the Royal Academy School using only her initials. She was accepted, much to the embarrassment of the Academy. Herford's enrolment was permitted, and gradually more women artists were accepted in subsequent years.[21]


In 2007 Irene Baker and Lesley Abdela helped to restore Barbara Bodichon's grave in the churchyard of Brightling, East Sussex, about 50 miles (80 km) from London. It was in a state of disrepair, with railings rusted and breaking away and the tomb inscription scarcely legible.[22] The historian Dr Judith Rowbotham at Nottingham Trent University issued an appeal for funds to restore the grave and its surroundings, which raised about £1,000.[citation needed] The railings were sand-blasted and repainted and the granite tomb was cleaned.


On 30 June 2019, a Blue Plaque jointly commemorating the founders, Barbara Bodichon and Emily Davies, was unveiled at Girton College by Baroness Hale, President of the Supreme Court, as part of the college's 150th anniversary celebrations. The plaque is sited on the main tower at the entrance to Girton, off Huntingdon Road.[23]

See also[edit]

English women painters from the early 19th century who exhibited at the Royal Academy of Art


  1. ^ "Bodichon: founder of the women's movement?". Law Gazette.
  2. ^ "Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon - National Portrait Gallery".
  3. ^ a b c "Bodichon, Barbara (1827–1891) | Encyclopedia.com". www.encyclopedia.com.
  4. ^ a b Credland, Arthur G. (1980). "Benjamin Leigh Smith: a forgotten pioneer". Polar Record. 20 (125): 127–145. doi:10.1017/S0032247400003132. ISSN 1475-3057.
  5. ^ "CARTER (afterwards BONHAM CARTER), John (1788-1838), of 19 High Street, Portsmouth, Hants and 16 Duke Street, Mdx".
  6. ^ Helena Wojtczak. "Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon: The Hastings Connections". Hastings Press. Archived from the original on 20 April 2016. Retrieved 24 September 2014.
  7. ^ Robinson, Jane (2024). Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon Trailblazer - The First Feminist to Change Our World. Penguin. ISBN 9780857527776.
  8. ^ a b "Barbara Bodichon". Spartacus Educational. Retrieved 4 February 2020.
  9. ^ a b c d Awcock, Hannah (29 December 2016). "Turbulent Londoners: Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon, 1827-1891". Turbulent London. Retrieved 4 February 2020.
  10. ^ "Barbara Leigh-Smith Bodichon, A Brief Summary of Laws Concerning Women, 1854". womhist.alexanderstreet.com. Archived from the original on 10 November 2015.
  11. ^ Hirsch, Pam (January 2011) [2004]. "Howitt [Watts], Anna Mary (1824–1884)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/63040. Retrieved 9 July 2011. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  12. ^ "Eugène Bodichon | Orlando".
  13. ^ "Married". Morning Post, Thursday 9 July 1857, p. 8, via British Newspaper Archive. Retrieved 9 April 2021.
  14. ^ a b c Chisholm 1911.
  15. ^ Lingwood, 2008.
  16. ^ "Jessie Boucherett". Spartacus Educational.
  17. ^ Baile de Laperriere, Charles (1996). The Society of Women Artists Exhibitors 1855-1996. Hilmarton Manor Press. pp. 117, Volume 1.
  18. ^ Uglow, Jenny (1987). George Eliot. London: Virago Press. p. 69. ISBN 0860684008.
  19. ^ a b "Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon." Encyclopædia Britannica. 20 July 1998. Web. 20 February 2017 [1].
  20. ^ a b "Bodichon, Barbara (1827–1891)." Women in World History: A Biographical Encyclopedia. Encyclopedia.com. 23 February 2017 [2].
  21. ^ a b Whitney Chadwick, Women, Art, and Society, 5th edition. London: Thames & Hudson, Ltd, 2012.
  22. ^ "Campaigner's tomb appeal launched". 5 September 2007. Retrieved 9 January 2019.
  23. ^ "Cambridge college unveils blue plaque for 'pioneering' women founders". BBC News. 1 July 2019. Retrieved 1 July 2019.

Further reading[edit]

  • Bodichon, Barbara (1972). An American Diary, 1857–1858. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul. ISBN 0710073305.
  • Burton, Hester (1949). Barbara Bodichon. London: John Murray. ASIN B0006D73UQ.
  • Helsinger, Elizabeth K. (1983). The Woman Question; Social Issues, 1837–1883. Taylor and Francis. ISBN 0824092325.
  • Herstein, Sheila R. (1985). A mid-Victorian feminist, Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon. New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-03317-6.
  • Hirsch, Pamela (1998). Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon: Feminist, Artist and Rebel. London: Chatto & Windus. ISBN 0-7011-6797-1.
  • Lingwood, Stephen (2008). The Unitarian Life: Voices from the Past and Present. London: Lindsey Press. ISBN 978-0-85319-076-9.
  • Marsh, Jan; Gerrish Nunn, Pamela (1998). Pre-Raphaelite Women Artists. London: Thames & Hudson. ISBN 0-500-28104-1.
  • Matthews, Jacquie. Barbara Bodichon: Integrity in diversity (1827–1891) in Spender, Dale (ed.), Feminist theorists: Three centuries of key women thinkers, Pantheon 1983, pp. 90–123 ISBN 0-394-53438-7
  • Uglow, Jenny (1987). George Eliot. London: Virago Press. ISBN 0860684008.

External links[edit]