Benjamin Stillingfleet

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Benjamin Stillingfleet
Benjamin Stillingfleet by Johann Zoffany, RA.jpg
Stillingfleet by Johann Zoffany, RA
Died15 December 1771[1]
Resting placeSt James's Church, Piccadilly
Known forthe source of the phrase Blue Stocking

Benjamin Stillingfleet (1702–1771) was a botanist, translator and author. He is said to be the first Blue Stocking, a phrase from which is derived the term bluestocking now used to describe a learned woman.[2]


Benjamin Stillingfleet was born in Wood Norton, Norfolk, in 1702 to Mary Ann and Edward Stillingfleet, a physician. He was one of four children, and the only son.[3] His grandfather, a bishop, had died in 1699, but left no money to Benjamin's father as he disapproved of his father's opinions and his marriage.[4]

Stillingfleet was educated at Norwich School before obtaining a B.A. at Trinity College, Cambridge in 1723.[5] He failed to become a Fellow, partially because of the influence of Richard Bentley, Master of the college, who considered it a shame for a man of Stillingfleet's range of talents to 'be buried within the walls of a college'.[6] He served as a tutor to bring in income. He was tutor to his relative William Windham at Felbrigg Hall and he taught him from the age of seven to twenty. He then set out to accompany William Windham on the Grand Tour[7] returning several years later in 1742. Whilst in Switzerland they had organised over several winters a set of pantomimes using other "tourists" as cast helpers and audience. Stillingfleet was in charge of the music and the scenery. This group was known as the "Common Room". During the summers the same group would set out on scientific explorations finding the undocumented glaciers of the Alps.

Finally they returned to England, Stillingfleet, now out of work, was awarded a pension of 100 pounds per year for the next seven years by the Windham family. This gratitude was not entirely undeserved. Windham was to become a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1744 based on the explorations that he, Stillingfleet (and others) had made of glaciers in Switzerland and his mathematical abilities which Stillingfleet had tutored.

Stillingfleet was again noted for his contribution when William Hudson FRS was lauded for his publication of Flora Anglica in 1761, said to be the first application of Linnean principles to botany in England.[8] Others however have pointed to Stillingfleet's earlier work as the first.[3] Stillingfleet also published a Calendar of Flora (1755) based on the observations of Theophrastus. It was an early formalization of the study of plant phenology and based on Linnaeus' promotion of the idea of natural calendars.[9]

Anna Letitia Barbauld - poet and writerElizabeth Carter - translatorAngelica Kauffman - artistElizabeth Sheridan - singerHannah More - writerCharlotte Lennox - writerCatharine Macaulay - historianElizabeth Montagu - Leader of Blue Stocking SocietyElizabeth Griffith - playwright and novelistUse your cursor to explore (or Click icon to enlarge)
Portraits in the Characters of the Muses in the Temple of Apollo by Richard Samuel include Elizabeth Carter, Angelica Kauffman, Anna Laetitia Barbauld, Catharine Macaulay, Elizabeth Montagu, Elizabeth Griffith, Hannah More, Elizabeth Ann Sheridan and Charlotte Lennox.[10] Use a cursor to see who is who.

A society was founded in the early 1750s by Elizabeth Montagu, Elizabeth Vesey and others as a literary discussion group primarily for women. The society was noted for wanting conversation and did not encourage card playing. They invited various people to attend including Anna Laetitia Barbauld, Catharine Macaulay, Elizabeth Griffith, Hannah More, Elizabeth Ann Linley, Charlotte Lennox[10] and Stillingfleet. One story tells that Stillingfleet was not rich enough to have the proper formal dress, which included black silk stockings, so he attended in everyday blue worsted stockings. James Boswell records that during a period of poor conversation when Stillingfleet was absent that it was remarked that they were "nowhere without blue stockings".[3] The term came to refer to the informal quality of the gatherings and the emphasis on conversation over fashion.[11] The word bluestocking today is used to mean any learned woman. Other derivations of the term have also been suggested.

In his Letter from Mr. Stillingfleet to Mr. Windham on his coming on age, the botanist showed himself apologetic of Christianity.[12] Stillingfleet died at his lodgings in Piccadilly and his papers were burnt following his own instructions.[3] He left his estate to his one remaining sister. A monument was erected only after some years to his memory at nearby St James's Church, Piccadilly by his nephew.


Stillingfleet's habits are said to be the derivation of the name of the Blue Stockings Society. The phrase is the derivation of the English word bluestocking which is applied to a learned or intellectual woman. The word by loan translation is also used in German as Blaustrumpf, in Dutch as blauwkous and in French as bas-bleu.[2]



  1. ^ Town and Country Magazine. volume 3, supplement. page 717.
  2. ^ a b Bluestocking, derivation and etymology at, accessed February 2010
  3. ^ a b c d I. D. Hughes, 'Stillingfleet, Benjamin (1702–1771)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Sept 2004; online edn, May 2008 accessed 26 Feb 2010
  4. ^ "Stillingfleet, Benjamin" . Dictionary of National Biography. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885–1900.
  5. ^ "Stillingfleet, Benjamin (STLT720B)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.
  6. ^,_Benjamin_(DNB00)
  7. ^ "Benjamin Stillingfleet". Notes and Queries: 224. 29 May 1948.
  8. ^ "Hudson, William (1730?–1793)" . Dictionary of National Biography. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885–1900.
  9. ^ Jankovic, Vladimir (2000). "The Place of Nature and the Nature of Place: The Chorographic Challenge to the History of British Provincial Science". History of Science. 38: 79. doi:10.1177/007327530003800104.
  10. ^ a b Portraits in the Characters of the Muses in the Temple of Apollo, Richard Samuel, National Portrait Gallery, accessed February 2010
  11. ^ Barbara Brandon Schnorrenberg, "Montagu, Elizabeth (1718–1800)," Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Ed. H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison. Oxford: OUP, 2004. 22 April 2007.
  12. ^ The British Critic, Volume 49. (1812). F. and C. Rivington, p. 60
  13. ^ Stillingfleet, Benjamin (1811). Literary life and select works of Benjamin Stillingfleet. 2. p. 651.
  14. ^ IPNI.  Still.

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