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World Explorer Isabella Bird

Isabella Bird (married name Bishop) was an English explorer, writer and photographer. She was the first women to be made a Fellow at the Royal Geographical Society. Bird was born near Leeds, in Boroughbridge in the Harrogate district of North Yorkshire, on 15th October 1831.

Black and white photograph of Isabella dressed in beautiful dress with a bird print design
Isabella Bird, World Explorer

From a young age, Isabella Bird suffered with health problems. Her doctors recommended a sea voyage to help improve her condition and in 1854, aged 23, she set off to America on her first international journey. This was documented in her first of several books, The Englishwoman in America. Her books were written in an entertaining and accessible way and became very popular. This gave many people the chance to learn about the world beyond their home.

Black and white photograph of a young man mending shoes.  He is sitting between two wicker baskets of equipment
'The Cobbler' by Isabella Bird

Isabella’s trip to America was just the beginning of her adventures. She explored countries all over the world including Australia, Hawaii, China, Japan, Vietnam, Korea, India and Iran. She climbed mountains, trekked through jungles, and rode for thousands of miles on horseback. She even rode on elephants! Her final travels were to Morocco when she was in her 70s.


Isabella Bird’s Photography

Isabella Bird was 60 years old by the time she took up photography. She produced beautiful images on her travels, and her later writings were published with her photographs alongside.


Black and white photograph showing adults and children in jalabiya with donkeys in the foreground.
'North Africa' by Isabella Bird

Difficulties Facing Women Explorers

Isabella Bird led a life full of adventure and excitement, exploring sometimes dangerous regions and often setting out on her travels alone. This meant that her life was very different from how women were expected to live in the nineteenth century.

When she became a Fellow at the Geographical Society in 1892, it was regarded an exception by the council members. They did not see women in general as able to contribute to scientific and geographical knowledge, and it was argued that women were not well suited to being explorers.

Women tended to ride sidesaddle which was developed as a way of allowing fine dresses to be worn while on horseback. But Isabella noted how this was very limiting, and instead rode frontwards, the way that was typical of male horse riders.

In 1873, she rode 800 miles throughout the Rocky Mountains in North America. She was angry when a Times review of her book that described this journey described her appearance as “masculine” because of her clothing.

Black and white image of Isabella Bird on a pony near a wall.  There is a Tibetan man holding the reins of the pony
Isabell Bird in Tibet

Although she was not a part of the Suffragette movement, she has been regarded as an important role model for women, and her images was used on  a Suffragette placard.  Isabella Bird is a character in Top Girls, a 1982 play by Caryl Churchill that looks at women’s roles and success in society. Churchill took quotes from Isabella Bird’s books to make up much of the dialogue of Isabella’s character in the play.