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Bodichon, Barbara Leigh Smithlocked

  • Pam Hirsch

Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon (1827–1891)

by André Adolphe Eugène Disderi

Bodichon, Barbara Leigh Smith (1827–1891), artist and women's activist, was born on 8 April 1827 in Whatlington, near Robertsbridge, Sussex, the eldest of the five children of the radical MP Benjamin Smith (1783–1860) [see under Smith, William (1756-1835)] and Anne Longden (1801–1834), a milliner. The Smiths were a Liberal reforming dynasty, members of the nineteenth-century ‘intellectual aristocracy’. Barbara Bodichon's paternal grandfather was MP for Norwich and, together with William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson, played a significant role in bringing about the abolition of slavery. He was also the leading spokesman in parliament for protestant dissenters. Ben Smith believed that the laws of England were inimical to justice for women and gave that as a reason for not marrying Barbara's mother, Anne Longden. It seems likely that the liaison started in 1826 when Ben Smith met her on a visit to his sister, Fanny Nightingale, at her home, Lea Hurst, in Derbyshire. Anne Longden was the daughter of a corn miller in Alfreton, about 6 miles from the Nightingale home. After the death of Anne Longden from tuberculosis in 1834, despite advice from some sections of his family to have the children discreetly brought up abroad, their father brought them up himself, first at Pelham Crescent, Hastings, and later at his London home, 5 Blandford Square, Marylebone. As the Leigh Smith children were illegitimate they were not acknowledged by many of their Smith relations, including their aunt Fanny Nightingale and their first cousin, Florence Nightingale. Barbara's ambiguous social position paradoxically allowed her unusual social mobility.

Education and youth

In her early youth Barbara's education was largely supplied by a governess, Catherine Spooner, and a private tutor, Harry Porter. Ben Smith employed James Buchanan, a Swedenborgian who had originally been the teacher in Robert Owen's experimental school in New Lanarkshire, in Westminster infant school, which he supported. Ben sometimes sent Buchanan down to Sussex to teach the Leigh Smiths, where he principally read aloud to them from the Bible, the Arabian Nights, and Swedenborg, and took them on long walks, talking to them about the harmony of nature. Barbara's secondary education was at the Unitarian Misses Wood's School for Girls in Upper Clapton, London, where the rote learning struck her as dull compared with Buchanan's imaginative and child-centred teaching. In 1848, when her brother, Benjamin Leigh Smith, went to Cambridge University, Barbara studied political economy at home with a private tutor, Philip Kingsford, engaged by her father from the College of Preceptors.

Although the majority of the Smith relatives refused to recognize the ‘tabooed family’ when they were young, nevertheless Barbara's aunts Julia Smith, on her father's side, and Dorothy Longden, on her mother's side, befriended them. Several ‘motherly’ women also had great significance in her youth. These were Elizabeth Parkes (the granddaughter of Joseph Priestley), the writer Mary Howitt, and the art critic and historian Anna Jameson. The last two women also provided models of professional women earning their own living.

In 1848, on reaching her majority, Barbara's father gave her a portfolio of shares and property, which yielded an independent income of between £250 and £300 per annum. This independent income put Barbara Leigh Smith in a very rare position for a young woman of her time. She was able to study and to enact her ambitions to become a professional artist and to embody her social reforming theories. The closest friends of her youth were Bessie Rayner Parkes (later Belloc), the poet and writer, Anna Mary Howitt, the Pre-Raphaelite painter, and Joanna Samworth, a painter of landscapes and flower studies. In the early 1850s she met Marian Evans (George Eliot), who regarded Barbara as her 'first friend' (George Eliot Letters, 3.63), and Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman doctor, whom Barbara encouraged to move from America in order to open up the medical profession to women in England.

Early career and marriage

Barbara's first public statements were under the pen-name of Esculapius in the Hastings and St Leonards News. Early pieces included an attack on the foolishness of feminine fashion, especially the injurious habit of tight-lacing stays, and a plea for the education of women. In 1854 she adopted the initials B. B. to write two letters to The Leader on the subject of prostitution, advocating the provision of training and work opportunities for women as the way to 'cure' prostitution rather than Magdalen hospitals. She regarded prostitution as essentially an economic matter, and was never interested in quasi-spiritual cant about purity.

Barbara was an extremely striking young woman, tall, with vivid expression and golden-red hair. She had several suitors, but in 1855 both her personal attractions and her wealth attracted the attention of John Chapman, editor of the Westminster Review. He proposed a ‘free-love’ relationship with her, and she was deeply tempted despite his being already married. She withdrew from his influence after her father revealed that Chapman was feckless with both women and money. In the winter of 1856, owing to the ill health of one of her sisters, Isabella, Ben Smith took his three daughters to Algiers. There Barbara met Eugène Bodichon (1810–1885), a French physician, ethnographer, and scholar whom, despite the misgivings of some family members, she married on 2 July 1857 at Little Portland Street Unitarian Chapel, London. Her father's wedding gift was his house in Blandford Square, which had been his political base and was to serve Barbara similarly. As a consequence of her marriage she spent half of each year in Algiers with her husband concentrating on her artistic career and half the year in England involved with social reform. In 1859 she bought a Moorish-style house on Mustapha Supérieure, overlooking the Bay of Algiers, which she named Campagne du Pavillon. It became a centre for English and French artistic and literary visitors to Algiers, including Matilda Betham-Edwards, Eliza Bridell-Fox, Sophia, Lady Dunbar, Gertrude Jekyll, and Frederick Walker. As her husband hated London, in 1863 she built another house, Scalands Gate, on the Glottenham estate, Robertsbridge, Sussex, which her brother Benjamin Leigh Smith had inherited from their father. Her husband was an eccentric man who neither learned English nor made much effort to endear himself to her family or friends. More positively, he accepted his wife's commitment to her career as an artist and her work as a social reformer. Towards the end of their lives there were a few sad years when he was too ill to travel to England and she was too ill to travel to Algeria; they did not meet after 1880 and he died in 1885.

Artistic career

Barbara's ambition to be a professional landscape painter was formed at an early age. In Hastings she was taught by W. Collingwood Smith and Cornelius Varley, and was advised by William Henry Hunt. In 1849 she attended art classes taught by Francis Cary at the newly opened Bedford Ladies' College, London; she left Bedford College £1000 in her will. In 1850 Barbara made an unchaperoned trip across Europe with her friend Bessie Rayner Parkes to visit two artist friends, Anna Mary Howitt and Jane Benham (Hay), who had gone to study with Wilhelm von Kaulbach in Munich because the Royal Academy Schools were not open to women. While there Barbara formed a plan for an art-sisterhood of writers and painters, which Anna Mary Howitt described in An Art Student in Munich (1853). Barbara was at the forefront of campaigns to enable aspiring women artists to become professional. She helped to establish the Society for Female Artists in 1857 and in 1859 organized a petition to persuade the Royal Academy to admit women students.

Through her friendship with Anna Mary Howitt she came into the orbit of the Pre-Raphaelite group and was especially friendly with Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Elizabeth Siddal. They formed an art club called The Folio, in which they contributed paintings or drawings monthly, loosely based on a particular theme, and gave each other critical feedback. In 1864 she studied in Corot's studio in Paris and became a great friend of Charles-François Daubigny of the Barbizon school. In the 1860s she formed a fast friendship with Hercules Brabazon Brabazon, and they painted together whenever he was in England. Having no children she was free to travel widely and her landscapes included—as well as Sussex, the Isle of Wight, the Lake District, Cornwall, and Wales—France, Spain, Italy, North America, and north Africa. She exhibited her landscape paintings steadily all her working life (1850–81), and her greatest critical successes were probably her solo exhibitions at Gambart's French Gallery in Pall Mall, London (1859, 1861, and 1864), where her oriental landscapes were extremely successful. In 1875 she bought the poorhouse in Zennor, Cornwall, as a base for painting for herself and her many artist friends. At her death this house was left to Gertrude Jekyll, the garden designer and craftswoman.

Leader of Langham Place group

Barbara's network of friends was the rock on which her feminist campaigns were built. As leader of the Langham Place group she was at the heart of feminist agitation in England and led four great campaigns: for married women to be granted legal recognition, and for women's right to work, to vote, and to have access to education. Perhaps partly as a result of her parents' unorthodox relationship Barbara was especially concerned with the legal and civil rights of women. Her earliest political act was to write and publish a pamphlet, A brief summary of the laws in England concerning women: together with a few observations thereon (1854). This was largely a précis of J. J. S. Wharton's An Exposition of the Laws Relating to the Women of England (1853), although she also took advice from a family friend, Matthew Davenport Hill, the recorder of Birmingham. The Summary was widely circulated and read, and in 1856 a second edition was published. Davenport Hill brought the Summary to the attention of the Law Amendment Society, founded by Lord Brougham in 1844, which was dedicated to reforming outdated laws. It was decided by the Law Amendment Society to introduce a Married Women's Property Bill in order to safeguard the property and earnings of married women. Barbara formed a committee to collect signatures for seventy petitions in support of the measure, and by a chain-letter system they collected 26,000 signatures altogether. A women-only petition was presented in parliament on 14 March 1856 by Lord Brougham in the Lords and by Sir Erskine Perry in the Commons. In February 1857 Lord Brougham introduced a bill in parliament which aimed to establish a married woman in the same position as an unmarried woman with respect to property. It took persistent campaigning until 1882 to achieve this significant change in the law. Property law reform was a prerequisite for a change in the suffrage to include women. Representation in parliament was dependent upon two things: a property qualification and a gender qualification. If married women could not own property, even were the gender qualification removed, they could not vote. There was also an assumption that their interests were represented by their husbands, and that therefore they could not possibly need direct representation. Marian Evans immediately recognized that Barbara's first campaign was merely 'one rung of a long ladder stretching far beyond our lives' (George Eliot Letters, 2.227).

Barbara had a sophisticated grasp of the importance of the press in influencing public opinion; her uncle, Octavius Smith, was a major shareholder in the Westminster Review. Subsequently she became the major shareholder in the English Woman's Journal (1858–64), founded primarily by herself and Bessie Rayner Parkes, for which she wrote many articles, continuing Smith family tradition by writing a series of abolitionist articles protesting against slavery in the southern states of North America, which she had visited in 1857–8. In an article published in a feminist journal called the Waverley, and subsequently reprinted as a pamphlet entitled Women and Work (1857), Barbara argued that middle-class women must not be denied meaningful work. The offices of the English Woman's Journal in Langham Place became a centre for a wide variety of feminist enterprises. These included a women's reading-room and dining club, offices for the Society for Promoting the Employment of Women, and offices for training law copiers. In conjunction with these activities Emily Faithfull set up the Victoria Press, which trained and employed female compositors. Barbara also helped Maria Rye set up the Female Emigration Society to help women (especially governesses) who could not find work in England to emigrate to the colonies. In 1863 Barbara appointed Emily Davies as temporary editor of the English Woman's Journal when Bessie needed a break. This was the start of an important partnership which continued after the close of the journal in 1864.

Suffrage campaigns

Barbara was an equal-rights feminist and her political endgame was always to achieve full citizenship for women. She took every opportunity to increase women's participation in social reform and persuaded Lord Brougham to invite women to participate in the Social Science Association. From its foundation in 1857 the association acted as a powerful pressure group on government policy and offered one of the very few places where women could make their contribution to social policy. In the spring of 1865 Barbara led the members of the Langham Place group in supporting the election campaign of John Stuart Mill, who had committed himself to female suffrage in his election addresses. In May 1865 Barbara was a founding member of a fifty-strong women-only discussion group called the Kensington Society. It was there that Barbara made contact with John Stuart Mill's stepdaughter, Helen Taylor (1831–1907), who provided a significant link to Mill himself. After consulting Helen Taylor, in May 1866 Barbara formed a committee to gather signatures for a petition to parliament. On 7 June 1866 Mill presented the petition of 'Barbara L. S. Bodichon and others' which protested the anomaly that 'some holders of property are allowed to use this right, while others, forming no less a constituent part of the nation, and equally qualified by law to hold property, are not able to exercise this privilege.' This petition contained the signatures of 1499 women. Her Kensington Society paper, slightly revised and entitled Reasons for the Enfranchisement of Women, was read at the Social Science Association meeting held in Manchester in October 1866, where it attracted the attention of Lydia Becker (1827–1890), who then went on to form the Manchester Women's Suffrage Committee early in 1867. The Manchester group asked for 3000 copies of Barbara's pamphlet to encourage another wave of petitioning. In response to hostile articles in the press Barbara wrote Objections to the Enfranchisement of Women Considered (1866). Ten thousand of each of Barbara's pamphlets were circulated in order to encourage further petitioning campaigns. A general petition of 3559 signatures of men and women sympathetic to female enfranchisement was presented in parliament on 28 March 1867 and another petition with the signatures of 1605 'women householders' was presented on 8 April 1867. On 20 May 1867 John Stuart Mill moved an amendment on Disraeli's Representation of the People Bill (clause 4) to leave out the word 'men' in order to insert the word 'person' instead. Although the amendment was defeated by a majority of 123, Mill gained 79 favourable votes. This was as much as Barbara had hoped for on this occasion. Helen Taylor insisted that a women-only suffrage committee should be formed. Barbara disagreed with this strategy, believing that the loss of politically experienced men from their committee might cost them ten years, and she attempted, but failed, to change Helen Taylor's mind. As a consequence Barbara resigned from the general suffrage committee (envisioned as permanent) in June 1867. However, her two articles were combined and published once again in 1869 and 1872 as Reasons for and against the Enfranchisement of Women, so she continued to influence public opinion.

Girton College and Emily Davies

Barbara inherited her father's interest in educational experiments. She founded Portman Hall School in Paddington in 1854, a secular co-educational school, which she financed until 1863. Her experience at Bedford College, which had been founded by Julia Smith's friend Elizabeth Reid, was important because it had revealed to her the inadequacies of the education provided for middle-class girls. She wrote a paper about these inadequacies for the Social Science Association entitled 'Female education in the middle classes', which was reprinted in the English Woman's Journal of June 1858. Barbara had dreamed of a university college for women since first reading Tennyson's The Princess at about the same time as her brother, Ben, went to Cambridge. In 1862 a small group of members of the Social Science Association who were committed to the higher education of women formed a committee which included Barbara and Emily Davies. In the spring of 1867 an executive committee to establish a university college for women was set up by Emily Davies which omitted Barbara's name because she was so publicly associated with ‘strong-minded’ women's rights campaigners. Nevertheless both women were involved in planning the campaign during 1867. Barbara had caught typhoid in Algeria and was convalescing at Scalands Gate, so Emily spent August with her planning. Barbara promised £1000 to build the college, although she made three conditions: one, that the college should be set up as a secular educational institution; second, that Elizabeth Blackwell should be appointed as professor of hygiene; and third, the college should be in the heart of Cambridge. Emily did not keep faith with Barbara on any of the three issues. Nevertheless, following her father's maxim (bis dat qui cito dat'he gives twice who gives early'), Barbara put down the first £1000 and chaired the building committee to raise money for permanent buildings. Barbara formally joined the executive committee in February 1869 to help organize the entrance examination for students at her Blandford Square home. Barbara was antagonistic to beginning the college in rented accommodation, which she regarded as a waste of resources; nevertheless Emily persuaded the executive committee to begin in a rented house at Hitchin. They began with only five students and Cambridge dons having to travel by train to Hitchin. In the summer term of 1872 Barbara briefly took the role of acting mistress.

Emily and Barbara continued to argue over the issue of the location of the permanent college. At length a compromise was reached and 50 acres of land was purchased at Girton, 2 miles from the centre of Cambridge. The architect Alfred Waterhouse was commissioned to design dignified but relatively inexpensive buildings. Barbara was involved in all the details of building the college, and sent up furniture and books to help furnish it. She was a frequent and enthusiastic visitor and gave holidays to the early students at Scalands Gate. She remained on the executive committee of Girton College until 1877, when she suffered a stroke which reduced her to semi-invalidism. In 1884 Barbara gave Girton College another £5000 to help it expand. In 1891 she donated all of her pictures that she had lent over the years and in her will she left another £10,000, thus helping to secure the college's establishment without debt in its early years.

Last years

After her stroke in 1877, when Barbara could no longer travel to Algeria, she asked Gertrude Jekyll to design a reading-room as an addition to her Sussex home. This served as a night school for local young men who could not read and write. Her old friend William Ransom, erstwhile editor of the Hastings and St Leonards News, taught in it during the winter months. During the six summer months Barbara's husband joined her in England until he himself became too ill to travel.

Barbara was disappointed not to have children of her own, but one happy result of her involvement with Girton College was that she met a young Jewish woman called Hertha Marks (1854–1923) [see Ayrton, (Phoebe) Sarah], who virtually became a daughter to her. Barbara encouraged Hertha to apply for a scholarship at Girton, and when she did not succeed organized what amounted to a personal scholarship fund so Hertha could go up to Girton in 1876. Barbara died at Scalands Gate on 11 June 1891 and was buried four days later in Brightling church at a funeral attended by family and friends and a long line of her night-school ‘boys’. There is a memorial plaque at her Hastings home. In her will Barbara left enough money for Hertha to resume her studies in electrical engineering. Hertha named her daughter Barbara Bodichon after her benefactress. This ‘granddaughter’, Barbara Bodichon Gould (1886–1950), entered parliament as a Labour member in 1945, thereby embodying and fulfilling Barbara Bodichon's dream of women taking up their full roles as citizens.


  • P. Hirsch, Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon, 1827–1891: feminist, artist and rebel (1998)
  • S. Herstein, A mid-Victorian feminist, Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon (1985)
  • H. Burton, Barbara Bodichon, 1827–1891 (1949)
  • The George Eliot letters, ed. G. S. Haight, 9 vols. (1954–78)
  • A. M. Howitt, An art student in Munich, 2 vols. (1853)
  • N. G. Annan, ‘The intellectual aristocracy’, Studies in social history: a tribute to G. M. Trevelyan, ed. J. H. Plumb (1955), 241–87
  • private information (2004)
  • m. cert.


  • Girton Cam., corresp. and papers
  • Women's Library, London, letters
  • BLPES, Mill-Taylor corresp.
  • Claydon House, Buckinghamshire, Nightingale MSS
  • CUL, William Smith family MSS
  • Girton Cam., Blackburn collection
  • Girton Cam., Emily Davies MSS
  • Girton Cam., Moore family MSS
  • Girton Cam., corresp. with Bessie Rayner Parkes and others
  • Hants. RO, Bonham Carter MSS
  • NRA, priv. coll., corresp. with Sir Norman and Amy (Leigh Smith) Moore


  • photograph, 1853, priv. coll.
  • Holmes of New York, photograph, 1858, NPG
  • S. Laurence, crayon drawing, 1861, Girton Cam.
  • S. Laurence, oils, 1861, Girton Cam.
  • E. M. Osborn, ink on thin board, 1884, Girton Cam.
  • E. M. Osborn, oils, 1884, Girton Cam.
  • G. Jekyll, photograph, 1885, U. Cal.
  • A. A. E. Disderi, photograph, Girton Cam. [see illus.]
  • E. M. Osborn, oils, Girton Cam.
  • lithograph (after oil painting by S. Laurence, 1861), NPG
  • photograph, NPG

Wealth at Death

£28,603 18s. 7d.: resworn probate, June 1892, CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1891)