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Durham, (Mary) Edithlocked

  • Harry Hodgkinson
  • , revised

Durham, (Mary) Edith (1863–1944), traveller and anthropologist, was born in London on 8 December 1863, the eldest of nine children (six girls and three boys) of Arthur Edward Durham (1834–1895), senior consulting surgeon of Guy's Hospital, and his wife, Mary, daughter of William Ellis, an economist colleague of John Stuart Mill. A brother, Herbert Edward Durham (1866–1945), worked with Ronald Ross on malaria research, and a sister, Frances Hermia Durham, was the first woman assistant secretary in the civil service.

After attending Bedford College (1878–82) Edith Durham decided to become an artist, and trained at the Royal Academy Schools. She illustrated the reptiles volume of the Cambridge Natural History, and one of her London scenes is in the Guildhall Gallery.

Following an illness, and dismayed at the prospect of remaining a home-bound spinster, Edith Durham began, when already nearly forty, to travel rough in the then hardly visited Balkans, and she described her experiences in a series of vivid and forthright books. While doing relief work after the Macedonian insurrection of 1903, she found that cash in transit was entrusted to Albanians. Intrigued, she made a series of forays on horseback into the trackless tribal areas of northern Albania, and quickly became the champion of the mountaineers, whose lands were coveted by neighbouring nations. As a woman she evoked in her hosts a protective courtesy, mingled with astonishment. Unable to imagine anyone travelling for pleasure, or out of curiosity, they assumed that the king of England must have sent her to discover and redress their grievances. Overarching local events was the terminal collapse of the Ottoman empire. Almost alone, she rightly interpreted the situation as a conflict less of religious faiths than of nationalities, with overlapping claims based on transitory periods of medieval greatness. The Albanians, as a predominantly Muslim people, were at a disadvantage compared with their Christian neighbours, despite their keen sense of nationality and their ethnic links with the indigenous Illyrians of pre-classical times.

Edith Durham sought to redress the balance in dispatches for The Times and the Manchester Guardian and through indefatigable lobbying in Whitehall and elsewhere. Aubrey Herbert, with whom she founded an Anglo-Albanian association, said that 'she restored Albania to the memory of Europe'. In Albania she was known as the queen of the mountaineers, and streets there have remained named after her through all changes of regime.

Edith Durham's studies of Balkan ethnography led to gifts of artefacts to the British Museum, the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, and elsewhere, and she wrote a pioneering book on the subject Some Tribal Origins, Laws and Customs of the Balkans (1928). She gave her collection of folk costume to the Bankfield Museum, Halifax, and her photographs and sketches to the Royal Anthropological Institute, of which she was a council member and the first woman vice-president. She died in London on 15 November 1944. She was unmarried.


  • M. E. Durham, Through the lands of the Serb (1904)
  • M. E. Durham, The burden of the Balkans (1905)
  • M. E. Durham, The struggle for Scutari (1914)
  • M. E. Durham, The Serajevo crime (1925)
  • Man, 44 (1944), 47–8
  • M. FitzHerbert, The man who was Greenmantle: a biography of Aubrey Herbert (1983)
  • personal knowledge (1993)


  • Calderdale Museum and Arts, Halifax, diaries
  • Royal Anthropological Institute, London, sketches, corresp., papers, photos, journals, and notebooks

Wealth at Death

£14,494 13s. 8d.: probate, 29 Jan 1945, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

University of Leeds, Brotherton Library
British Library of Political and Economic Science
Bodleian Library, Oxford