Elizabeth and Mary Kirby

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Hummingbirds by Mary and Elizabeth Kirby from the Smithsonian

Elizabeth Kirby (1823–1873) and Mary Kirby (later Mary Gregg, 1817–1893) were successful writers and illustrators of books for children and books on natural science. Mary Kirby is known particularly for leading the crowd-sourced Flora of Leicestershire and Elizabeth for her children's books. They both had a lifelong writing partnership that popularised science. Mary is thought to be the only British woman to publish a scientific study of the flora of her county in the nineteenth century.[1]


Mary and Elizabeth Kirby were two sisters of a sometimes prosperous family who were brought up in Leicester. Mary was six years older than her sister and whilst they were still in their teens their invalid mother Sarah Bentley died. She had been the second wife of their father. Their father, John was a spiritual man who had a hosiery business. When he died in 1848 he left them with no income. He did however leave a journal which Mary continued.[2]

Golden Tail and Azure Crown Hummingbirds by Mary and Elizabeth Kirby.

Eventually his assets yielded five thousand pounds.[2] This was the same year as Mary had the first draft of the Flora of Leicestershire published which she had created with the significant assistance of Andrew Bloxam[3] and her sister who added supporting non-botanical information. The book was cleverly crowd-sourced in 1848 as every other page was left blank.[1] The plan, which proved successful, was to ask early purchasers to make notes on the blank pages.[1] This enabled the main edition published in 1850 to list 939 different species and the book was complimented by the leading naturalist Sir William Hooker. Mary is thought to be the only woman in the nineteenth century to write a book about the flora of her county.[1]

With no long term income the sisters' ambitions turned to becoming professional writers.[4] They had both been well educated and Mary had knowledge of languages and she had made use of the lectures at the local mechanics institute.[5]

St Michael and All Angels, Brooksby

Over 25 years the sisters created books including a number that popularised science.[4] They also wrote articles for magazines, school books, fiction as well as the natural science guides that were complete with illustrations. Their inheritance and their earnings enabled them to buy "the living" of Brooksby church for the Reverend Henry Gregg who Mary had married in 1860. Up to this time the sisters had been living in Norfolk where they had published Plants of Land and Water in 1857. After Mary's marriage the three lived together at Melton Mowbray in Leicestershire. From their purpose built house called Six Elms they worked through a number of different publishers under either their joint names or occasionally Elizabeth published her own books. Elizabeth died in 1873.[5]

The following year lightning struck the steeple on Brooksby Church and Mary and her husband had to handle that difficulty. The initial strike was said to have just taken a "bite" out of the steeple but eventually the whole structure collapsed. Undeterred by the damage, Gregg arranged for temporary repairs whilst services continued in parallel.[6] The church was restored by 1874 by R.W.Johnson.[7]

The Reverend Gregg died in 1881 and Mary had to again study her finances. Mary died in 1893 after completing her autobiography. She was buried in the same grave as both her marital partner and her writing partner at Brooksby church. Mary left her money to a surviving sister.[5]

Books include[edit]

  • Plants of Land and Water, 1857
  • Caterpillars, Butterflies, and Moths, 1857
  • Kirby, Mary (1850), A Flora of Leicestershire, London: Hamilton, Adams & Co., OCLC 15190119 
  • The Sea and its Wonders, 1873
  • Chapters on Trees, 1873
  • Sketches of Insect Life, 1874
  • Hummingbirds, 1874
  • Beautiful birds in far-off lands; their haunts and homes
  • Leaflets from my Life, Mary Kirby, 1888[6]


  1. ^ a b c d Mary R. S. Creese (1 January 2000). Ladies in the Laboratory? American and British Women in Science, 1800–1900: A Survey of Their Contributions to Research. Scarecrow Press. p. 33. ISBN 978-0-585-27684-7. 
  2. ^ a b Trade Flat Money Scarce Spirits Low, David Wykes, Leicester University, retrieved 15 September 2014
  3. ^ Kirby 1850, pp. vi–vii
  4. ^ a b Lightman, Bernard (2007). Victorian popularizers of science designing nature for new audiences. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 109. ISBN 0226481174. 
  5. ^ a b c Ann B. Shteir, 'Kirby , Mary (1817–1893)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 accessed 15 Sept 2014
  6. ^ a b Leaflets from my Life, Mary Kirby, pp. 234–240, retrieved 15 September 2014
  7. ^ Brooksby Hall, retrieved 15 September 2014
  8. ^ IPNI.  (Mary) Kirby.