Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon (1827-91) was one of the
founders of the women's rights movement in Britain. She was born in
Whatlington, near Battle, Sussex, died at nearby Robertsbridge, and was connected
to the Hastings area throughout her life.
Barbara's father, Benjamin Leigh Smith, was an MP's eldest son. One of his four sisters
married into the Nightingale family and produced a daughter, Florence; another married
into the Bonham-Carter family. Smith's home was 5 Blandford Square, Marylebone, London,
but from 1816 he inherited and purchased property near Hastings: Brown's Farm near Robertsbridge, with a
house built around 1700 (extant), and Crowham Manor, Westfield, which included 200 acres.
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 as paid by their parents.
Ben's father wanted him to marry Mary Shore, the sister of William Nightingale, an in-law by marriage; however,
on a visit to his sister in Derbyshire in 1826 Smith met Anne Longden, a 25-year-old milliner
from Alfreton. She became pregnant and Smith took her to a rented lodge at Whatlington, a small village in Sussex.
There she lived as 'Mrs Leigh', the surname of Ben Smith's relations on the Isle of
Wight. The child, Barbara, was born on 8 April 1827. Smith rode on horseback from
Brown's Farm to visit them daily, and within eight weeks Anne was pregnant again.
When little Ben was born the four of them went to America for two years, during which
time another child was conceived. On their return to Sussex they lived openly
together at Brown's (left), and had two more children. After their last
child was born, in 1833, Anne became ill and Smith leased 9 Pelham Crescent, which
faced the sea at Hastings; the healthy properties of sea air were highly regarded
at the time. A local woman, Hannah Walker, was employed to look after the children.
Anne did not recover so Smith took her to Ryde, Isle of Wight, where she died in 1834.
It is something of a mystery that the couple never wed.
The scandal of marrying a woman from a
lower social class was nothing compared with raising
five children out of wedlock. Biographer Pam
Hirsch feels that perhaps Smith did not want Anne and
the children to become his chattels, as the law
would have deemed them had the pair married. This
would certainly have fitted in with Smith's radical
beliefs and later actions.
In 1836, when Barbara was nine, Smith and the five children settled
permanently into 9 Pelham Crescent (right). Smith was elected
MP for Norwich and while at the House of Commons, he asked Aunt Dolly
Longden or Aunt Julia Smith to look after the children. Local people
were employed to help: Catherine Spooner, governess; Harry Porter,
Latin and history tutor; and Mr Willetts, the
foremost local riding master. In 1842 Smith spent
£215 on a beautifully ornate, eight-seater omnibus
from the best coachbuilders in Hastings, Rock and
Baxter of 6 Stratford Place, West Parade. With
coachman Stephen Elliott at the reins, four horses
drew the magnificent vehicle carrying the Leigh
Smith children and their staff around Sussex and
the home counties.
During the 1840s Benjamin Smith bought more land to the
south and west of Robertsbridge, including
Scalands Farm (extant), Mountfield Park Farm (extant)
and Glottenham Manor (rebuilt and now a
nursing home). The latter included the ruins of a
14th-century fortified and moated house. When
each of his children reached 21, Smith broke with
tradition and custom by treating his daughters the
same as his sons, giving them investments which
brought each an annual income of £300. He also gave
to Barbara the deeds of the Westminster school.
The combination of an unconventional upbringing
and a private income placed Barbara in an
extraordinary position for a mid-Victorian woman.
Whereas most women were raised to be obedient and
expected only to marry, bear children and live in
subordination to a husband, Barbara was free to
live her life almost as she pleased. Money could not
buy everything, however; for example her brother Ben
went to Jesus College Cambridge in 1848, but Barbara was denied
such academic opportunities, since no university would admit women. But she
did not succomb to housewifery; she became a painter and social
reformer. Despite her wealth Barbara eschewed high society and allied herself
with the bohemian, the artistic, and the downtrodden.
Despite having illegitimate children, Benjamin Smith was highly regarded and he became a magistrate
in Hastings in 1845 after retiring from Parliament. His children were accepted by Hastings
society and during her seventeen years at Pelham Crescent Barbara became acquainted with
many notable people. In 1846 she met her best friend
Bessie Rayner Parkes (left), when Bessie's father hired rooms
from Smith at 6 Pelham Crescent. In Hastings Barbara also met Anna Howitt and her children;
Eliza Fox Bridell; Gertrude Jekyll; Marianne North,
whose father was one of the two Hastings' MPs; Miss Bayley of 2 Holloway Place;
and Ann Samworth and her children, who lived at Brooklands Cottage, Holloway place, Old London road.
The three Samworth girls and the three Leigh Smith girls enjoyed painting expeditions around
Hastings. Barbara studied art at Bedford Square Ladies College (London) during 1849
and gained some reknown as a painter. Some of her work is held at Hastings Museum; other
paintings are at Girton College, Cambridge. The Hastings & St Leonards Observer wrote (in 1891)
of her paintings:
Among the canvasses the scenes of Algerian
landscapes are such that only a born artist would dare to paint.
The most vivid colours are dashed about in wonderful profusion,
and such a critic as Ruskin has spoken in terms of high praise
of her clever work.
In the art world Barbara met the painter William Hunt, who lived during the winter in a
small house at the foot of the East Cliff,
Hastings. Barbara's painting tutors included W.
Collingwood Smith, who took her to meet John Hornby
Maw in West Hill House. Through Miss Bayley she met
George Scharf, later director of the National
Portrait Gallery. Through the Howitts she met
Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Anna Jameson, Adelaide
Procter and William Johnson Fox, the Unitarian
minister. In 1852 she met George Eliot, who was to remain a lifelong friend.
As well as art, Barbara studied political economy and law at Bedford Square.
Another lifelong friend was William
Ransom (b.1822), a printer and stationer based at
42 George Street, Hastings. He gave her the opportunity
to get her radical ideas into print by
allowing her to write women's emancipation articles for
his newspaper, the Hastings & St Leonards
News. From June to August 1848 Barbara wrote, under the
pen-name 'Esculapius', An Appeal to the
Inhabitants of Hastings, Conformity to Custom and
The Education of Women.
In 1850 Bessie Parkes introduced Barbara to her cousin, the first
woman physician, Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell. However, Barbara's cousin Florence
Nightingale snubbed her Uncle Ben's illegitimate offspring.
As young women of 21 and 23, Bessie and Barbara were, most unusually, allowed to go
unchaperoned on a walking tour of Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, visiting Mary Howitt in Munich.
The three discussed women's inferior status and wanted to change it. But men held all political
power and would fight to preserve the system which served their interests so well.
The two did, however, indulge in a little personal liberation. Female costume at the time
was uncomfortable, impractical and restrictive. They abandoned their corsets and shortened
their skirts, prompting Barbara to pen the lines:
Oh! Isn't it jolly
They were also, rather audaciously, swanning around in heavy boots and wearing
blue tinted spectacles!
From the early 1850s Barbara divided her life between Hastings and London. The
opening of the railway line to London in 1851 shortened her journeys to just
2 1/2 hours. Prior to this, the journey took 8 hours, either by road, or by road and
rail via Staplehurst Station.
To cast away folly
And cut all one's clothes a peg shorter
(A good many pegs)
And rejoice in one's legs
Like a free-minded Albion's daughter.
Willie Leigh Smith became estates manager at Glottenham and Ben was training to be a barrister
so in 1853 their father gave up Pelham Crescent. Smith and Barbara lived at Blandford
Square or in Sussex, staying often at Scalands Farm. While in the Hastings area Barbara continued
to spend time among artists and bohemians. Among her friends were members of the Pre-Raphaelite
Brotherhood including Rossetti and Siddal. It was she who arranged convalescent accommodation
for Lizzie Siddal at 5 High Street in 1854.
In London Barbara met the Americans
Elizabeth Stanton and Lucretia Mott, and Harriet Martineau and Mary Somerville,
all now famous for their feminist activism. In 1854 Barbara wrote her first
nation-wide publication, A Brief Summary, in Plain Language, of the Most Important Laws concerning
Women. This remarkable document listed for the first time the legal disabilities and
restrictions under which women lived. Barbara proved herself a researcher and scholar by sifting
through all the laws of Britain to create 'a pamphlet very thin and insignificant looking, but
destined to be the small end of the wedge which was to change the whole fabric of the law'
[Englishwoman's Review, 1891, p149.] It was widely read and discussed and provided an agenda for
action. Barbara's friends and fellow feminists Florence and Rosamund Davenport Hill discussed
the pamphlet with their solicitor brother Alfred, who took it to the Law Amendment Society, of
which he was a member, which appointed a committee to investigate the laws listed.
As Barbara may have been aware, women's suffrage had already been taken up in a very small way by
Anne Knight (1786-1862), who had founded a Female Political Association in 1847 to demand votes
for women, and petitioned parliament; and also by Harriet Taylor Mill (1807-1858), who in 1851
argued for women’s suffrage in the Westminster Review, a paper edited by her husband, John
Stuart Mill. Barbara's priority however was to tackle women's non-existence within marriage.
When a woman married, everything she owned, inherited or earned belonged solely to her husband to
dispose of as he wished (see my brief overview of women's status).
This arrangement was long standing and was
rarely questioned. At the time, to even contemplate changing it seemed outlandish;
yet Barbara formed a committee whose intention was to reform
the law and give married women rights to their own
property. Many men said it would cause arguments between married couples;
others said that the move would upset the "natural" balance of power between
husbands and wives; some feared that women would become self-assertive, a fearful prospect
Within a year Barbara's little committee had become a nation-wide campaign group,
and she drafted a petition, the text of
which was published in the Hastings and St Leonards News
on 15th February 1856. A footnote informed
the reader that one of the 70 copies of the petition was
lying at Mr Winter's shop at 59 George Street,
The paper had "no doubt that many ladies will
find their way thither to attach their
names." The committee also compiled case studies of how
individual women were suffering because of
the law. There were hundreds of instances of women losing
everything on marrying a man who
absconded after the wedding, leaving them destitute. If
such a woman was subsequently to earn or
inherit any money, the errant husband could return at any
time, seize all she had and leave once
more. The petition was intended to support the suggestions of the Law Amendment Society.
The 70 parts were pasted together and presented to the House of Lords in March 1856 with
26,000 signatures. This was the first organised feminist action in the UK.
Its rejection comes as no surprise given that Parliament consisted of
men, most of whom were married and therefore benefited directly from the status quo. However,
the ladies did not give up. In 1857 the Married Women's Property Bill passed
its first and second readings in the House of Commons.
Barbara's personal qualities were lauded in her day and after. Bessie described
Barbara as "the most powerful woman I have ever known." Dale Spender points out that Barbara is
"almost invariably portrayed... as a woman of glowing strength, active intelligence, warmth,
understanding, and energy". Barbara's friend Jessie Boucherett described her as "beautifully
dressed, of radiant beauty, and with masses of golden hair", and historian Ray Strachey remarked:
There seems to have been something particularly vigorous about
Barbara Leigh Smith, who was taken by George Eliot as the model for Romola [the eponymous
heroine of a novel]. Tall, handsome, generous and quite unselfconscious, she swept along,
distracted only by the too great abundance of her interests and talents, and the too great
outflowing of her sympathies... Life was a stirring affair for Barbara. Everything was before her
- Art (for her painting was taken seriously by many eminent painters), philanthropy, education,
politics - everything lay at her feet. The only trouble was to pick and choose.
Another of her interests was spiritualism: she attended a series of séances
in London during 1853 with Rossetti, Bessie, and the Howitts. Stress and overexhaustion led to a
serious nervous collapse in 1856 on returning from a trip to Rome.
Just prior to this breakdown, Barbara had a love afair with her publisher John Chapman,
who was married. He was by all accounts a philanderer and rogue who Barbara's father wanted her to shun.
Ben Smith arranged trip to Algeria with her brother Ben and their sisters. There she met Eugène
Bodichon, a French physician, who she married on 2 July 1857. Most unusually for a woman at that
time, she wrote her profession on her marriage certificate ('artist'). Eugène was as
unconventional and free-thinking as Barbara: for much of their marriage she spent
half the year with him in Algeria and the remainder without him in England, where
she continued her profession and her feminist campaigning. During their
seven-month honeymoon they visited Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell in the USA and Barbara entreated
her to return to England. The following year Dr. Blackwell was a guest at Barbara's London home.
Barbara introduced her to Elizabeth Garrett, an aspiring physician. This meeting was to prove
a momentous one, for the two later opened the first women's medical practices in London.
(Garrett later became famous and London's Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital was named for
her.) Under Barbara's influence, in 1879, Blackwell moved to Hastings, where she remained until her death
30 years later.
In 1857 Barbara published a very radical pamphlet called Women and Work
in which she asserted: "No human being has the right to be idle... Women must,
as children of God, be trained to do some work in the world." She called for
equality of education and work opportunities and advocated that all married women
should work, citing nature as support: "Birds, both cock and hen, help one another
to build their nest" Again, this was an outrageous demand, and
thought by some to be subversive. Barbara did not hold back;
she said plainly that letting men hold all the financial
resources of the world and then refusing to admit women to any decently-paid work or
professional career forced them to marry for financial support, which amounted to
legal prostitution; and the 43 percent of women with no man to support them lived in poverty
which led many to succumb to casual prostitution. Barbara made plain that she meant
interesting, challenging occupations and not menial or domestic chores by emphasising
that women needed: "WORK - not drudgery, but WORK". In 1858 Barbara purchased The
Englishwoman's Journal and was able to disseminate her ideas more widely. It was
published nation-wide and informed women about the rights movement. From this sprung
the Association for Promoting the Employment of Women.
Between 1853 and 1863, Barbara was a frequent visitor to the Hastings area, staying on the
family estates, or back at No. 9 Pelham Crescent, where her sister's family now leased rooms, or with
the Samworths at Hastings. She painted Mrs Samworth's corn field in 1855, near the spot where
another of the Samworth's house-guests, Holman Hunt, had painted 'Our English Coasts' three
When Smith died in 1860 Barbara inherited 5 Blandford Square,
Ben inherited the Glottenham estates and
Willie inherited Crowham Manor. In 1863 Barbara leased
three acres from Ben and built Scalands
Cottage in a pinewood clearing in Harding's Wood. It was near Scaland's Farm but
closer to the road, and thus she called it Scalands Gate (extant, now Scaland's Folly).
The house was built to Barbara's own design and specification. The internal walls were
covered from floor to ceiling with Barbara's own paintings. Gertrude Jekyll created the
garden. The house was visited by Barbara's interesting circle of friends. In the 1860s these
included Mary Howitt, Rossetti and Siddal, Frederick and Marianne North, Dean and Lady Stanley, and Herbert Gladstone (who became Prime Minister). Later guests included
the Brownings, Gertrude Martineau, Lord Brassey, Henry Fawett, George Eliot and John Ruskin.
In 1865 Barbara, as a member of the Kensington Society, co-drafted another petition, this time
for women's suffrage. Two women took it to Westminster Hall: Elizabeth Garrett and Emily Davies,
(with whom Barbara founded Girton College).
Feeling self-conscious, they asked the apple-seller to hide the huge petition under her stall
while they waited for John Stuart Mill MP. She agreed, but bid the ladies unroll it a little
so that she could apppend her own signature. Mill accepted the petition (pictured) and
presented it to the House of Commons in 1866 to support an amendment to the Reform Act that would
give women the vote. It was defeated by 196 votes to 73. In 1869 Barbara contributed to the debate once again by publishing
for and against the Enfranchisement of Women and J.S. Mill published The Subjection
Barbara's life in the world away from Hastings was extraordinarily
varied, busy and productive. Her story has been admirably documented by her biographers
and will not, therefore, be repeated here. Pam Hirsch's 1998 work is highly reccommended. There
is also a 1949 biography by Hester Burton.
Instead we jump forward to 1882 and find Barbara bestowing her philanthropy increasingly on
her local area, in particular she funded Scalands Night School for the poor.
Barbara had hoped to have children, but this was not to be. After 28 years of marriage
Eugène died in 1885 and shortly afterwards Barbara suffered a stroke at her cottage at
Zennor, Cornwall, after which she was an invalid. In her declining years, Barbara specified
that Mr E. Taught of Castle Road, Hastings was to undertake her funeral and chose a quiet spot
in a country churchyward in which she wished to be buried.
When she died, in June 1891, the Hastings & St Leonards Observer wrote that
a movement started by her culminated in the Married Women's Property Act, and with a little help from
Miss Davies she founded Girton College. There is one other act that the deceased lady did,
for which the world is indebted to her, and that was to bring before the world the writings
of "George Eliot".
Strangely, since then, Barbara's achievements have been submerged and,
until recently, almost forgotten. She is not nearly as famous as some of her contemporaries
who achieved less.
The funeral procession route was lined with hundreds of people whom she had helped to educate
at the night school. The Hastings & St Leonards Observer wrote:
Those who were present will
never forget the sight so long as they live... From the house to the
grave side sad faces and tear-rimmed eyes filled the roads... [Inside the church were heard]
sobs that would not be stifled... She gave with a free hand, and left before the
recipient had time to thank her... She was a true Englishwoman, of noble character,
strong in purpose, and quick to act on any sensible suggestion, if someone would be blessed by it.
In another article the newspaper remarked that:
The deceased lady was a militant Radical,
but she lived only to do good. The poor of Scalands Gate have sustained the loss of a warm
sympathiser... she housed and educated her labourers and their families... Madame was accustomed
to receive the visits of politicians, authors, artists, and others of name and fame in the
great world... But upon none can have grief for her departure come more acutely than upon
Mr William Ransom and Miss Sanderson, both old, admiring and attached
friends... Her whole life was wrapped up in trying to elevate the poor, and alleviate the sufferings
of all that were downtrodden.
Barbara was buried at St Thomas à Becket Church, Brightling. The
inscription on her gravestone is now almost indecipherable. Her name
is absent from the church guidebook's list of the notable people buried there.
Her brother Ben is thought worthy of inclusion, as he was an Arctic explorer. Readers may ponder why
this is considered worthy of note while founding the British women's rights movement is not.
There was not even a Blue Plaque on No. 9 Pelham Cresent. This was rectified in April 2000, following
requests by myself and others to Hastings Borough Council - 109 years after Barbara's death. Scalands was partly destroyed by fire in the 1950s. It was
rebuilt on the same site and still stands, as Scaland's Folly.
I recently discovered a very curious connection. Ben Leigh Smith was rescued in 1882 by Henry Gore-Booth, a fellow
arctic explorer. Gore-Booth at that time had a 14 year old daughter, Constance. In 1918, she would become the
first woman elected to the British Parliament. His daughter Eva, then 12, was to become a well known
suffragette and campaigner for women's employment rights.
This short biography of Barbara Bodichon appears in my 2002 publication "Notable Women of Victorian Hastings".
Top - Barbara Leigh Smith (Madame Bodichon).
Second - Brown's Farm near Robertsbridge in 1999.
Third - Pelham Crescent c.1830s.
Fourth - Bessie Rayner Parkes (Madame Belloc).
Fifth - 59 George St, Hastings, June 2000
Bottom - Miss Davies and Miss Garrett present the petition to JS Mill. Painted by Bertha Newcombe, 1910.