Priscilla Wakefield, nee Priscilla Bell (31 January 1751 – 12 September 1832) was an English Quaker philanthropist who wrote on feminist economics and scientific subjects, as well as producing children's non-fiction.
Priscilla Bell was born into a family in Tottenham, a village north of London. Her father was Daniel Bell of the nearby village of Stamford Hill, Middlesex. His wife Catharine was the granddaughter of the Quaker theologian Robert Barclay. She was one of several sisters; Catherine Bell married John Gurney of Earlham Hall and had many remarkable children, the best-known of whom is probably Elizabeth Fry.
In adult life, Priscilla remained a member of the Society of Friends, and conformed to their religious practices, but did not observe the restrictions on dress or abstinence from amusements.
She married Edward Wakefield (1750–1826), a London merchant, and had three children. Writing to support her family financially, she wrote 17 books in two decades. She was one of many female English writers at the end of the 18th century who began to demand a wider life for women. Charities which she founded included a maternity hospital, a Female Benefit Club, and a penny bank for children, which developed into England's first savings bank.
The Wakefields had five children, of whom three survived to adulthood. The two sons were Edward Wakefield (1774–1854) and Daniel Wakefield. The daughter, Isabella (died 17 October 1841), married Jeremiah Head, a mechanical engineer of Ipswich. Her grandchildren included Edward Gibbon Wakefield, Daniel Bell Wakefield, William Hayward Wakefield, Arthur Wakefield and Felix Wakefield.
Priscilla Wakefield died at the house of her daughter, Isabella Head, on Albion Hill, Ipswich, on 12 September 1832, and was buried on 20 December in the Friends' burial ground at the town's New Meeting House.
A portrait of Priscilla Wakefield, her husband Edward Wakefield and her sister, Catherine Bell Gurney, painted by Francis Wheatley, was exhibited in South Kensington in 1868. A portrait in lithograph is in the London Friends' Institute.
Wakefield wrote books on a range of subjects, including natural science, feminism, and economics. She also wrote children's literature.
Wakefield published a book on feminism in 1798, Reflection on the Present Condition of the Female Sex; with Suggestions for its Improvement, which was published by the radical publisher Joseph Johnson. Although this work is concerned with how women could become financially independent, it takes a traditional view of their role in society. Wakefield examined women's prospects for employment in the modern world in light of Adam Smith's writings, and supported broader education for women. However, she thought better education for women would make them better wives rather than advocating education for its own sake.
Priscilla Wakefield was widely known as a writer of moral guides for children. Her early publication, Juvenile Anecdotes, Founded on Facts, was successful, and she went on to publish other books of the same nature, and of a more advanced character, dealing with science and travel. She was the first woman to write scientific books for children.
Wakefield had considerable knowledge of botany and natural history, and in 1796 she published the very popular An Introduction to Botany, in a Series of Familiar Letters, which was translated into French in 1801 and reached an eleventh edition in 1841. It was illustrated with a series of uncredited full-page illustrations showing plant parts in detail. It was followed by An Introduction to the Natural History and Classification of Insects, in a Series of Letters.
By the time she died, Wakefield had written two dozen books, many of which had appeared in several editions and been translated into foreign languages.
- Mental Improvement: Or, the Beauties and Wonders of Nature and Art, 1794
- An Introduction to Botany, in a Series of Familiar Letters, London, 12mo 1796
- Juvenile Anecdotes, Founded on Facts, 1795-8 (2 well received volumes that went to an eighth edition in 1825)
- Reflections on the Present Condition of the Female Sex, With Suggestions for Its Improvement, 1798
- The Juvenile Travellers: Containing the Remarks of A Family During a Tour Through the Principal States and Kingdoms of Europe, 1801. (Her most popular work, of imaginative fiction reaching the 19th edition in 1850)
- Domestic Recreation: Or, Dialogues Illustrative of Natural and Scientific Subjects, 1805
- Sketches of Human Manners, 1807
- An Introduction to the Natural History and Classification of Insects, in a Series of Letters, London, 1816, 12mo.
Wakefield was an active philanthropist, promoting education, maternity provision and savings banks for the poor in Tottenham. She formed the Lying-in Charity for Women in 1791. It supplied poor pregnant women with midwifery care and an initial supply of linen and baby clothes as well as a small amount of money. It was supported by annual subscription and continued into the nineteenth century.
In 1792, she also co-founded the School for Industry which taught girls reading, writing, sewing, knitting and arithmetic. In 1798 she founded the first 'frugality bank' in England to help those on low incomes save money. Members paid, according to age, a monthly sum which would give them a pension after they were 60 years old and money if they were sick. Women and children were encouraged to save what they could of their income. Similar savings banks were set up nationally, but they were eventually nationalised when the Post Office Savings Bank was established in 1865.
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