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Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon (8 April 1827 – 11 June 1891) was an English educationalist and artist, and a leading mid-19th-century feminist and women's rights activist. She published her influential Brief Summary of the Laws of England concerning Women in 1854. She co-founded the English Woman's Journal in 1858. Serious reform of marriage laws began when Barbara Leigh Smith submitted a petition to Parliament in 1856, requesting a change to the laws governing married women’s property, which belonged entirely to husbands unless protected by the law of equity. Eager to collect signatures from women who were not married to men and were therefore considered disinterested supporters of reform, Smith ended up soliciting signatures from several women who at some point in their lives were in female couples, including Isa Blagden, Geraldine Jewsbury, Amelia Edwards, Charlotte Cushman, and Matilda Hays.
Barbara Bodichon was the extra-marital child of Anne Longden, a milliner from Alfreton, and the Whig politician Benjamin (Ben) Leigh Smith (1783–1860), the only son of the Radical abolitionist William Smith. Benjamin had four sisters. One, Frances (Fanny) Smith, married William Nightingale (né Shore) and produced a daughter, Florence, the nurse and statistician; another, Joanna Maria, married John Bonham-Carter (1788–1838) MP and founded the Bonham Carter family. Ben's father wanted him to marry Mary Shore, the sister of William Nightingale, now a relative by marriage.
Ben Smith's home was in Marylebone, London, but from 1816 he inherited and purchased property near Hastings: Brown's Farm near Robertsbridge, with an extant house built about 1700, 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.
On a visit to his sister in Derbyshire in 1826, Smith met Anne Longden. She became pregnant by Smith and he took her to the south of England, establishing her in a rented lodge at Whatlington, a small village near Battle, East Sussex. There she lived as "Mrs Leigh", the surname of Ben Smith's relations on the nearby Isle of Wight. Barbara's birth created a scandal because the couple did not marry; illegitimacy carried a heavy social stigma. Smith rode from Brown's Farm to visit them daily, and within eight weeks Anne was pregnant again. When their son 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 and had two more children. After their last child was born in 1833, Anne became ill with tuberculosis and Smith leased 9 Pelham Crescent, Hastings, which faced the sea; 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, and so Smith took her to Ryde, Isle of Wight, where she died in 1834. Smith, unusually for that time, sent all his children to the local school to learn alongside working-class children, rather than sending the older males to boarding or an elite day school. He later shared financial endowments equally with all the children, both male and female, giving each an income of £300 per annum from the age of majority (21).
Early on in her life, Barbara showed a force of character and breadth of sympathies that would win her a prominent place among philanthropists and social workers. Independent income gave her freedom not normal for many women and Bodichon and a group of London friends began to meet regularly in the 1850s to discuss women's rights, and became known as "The Ladies of Langham Place". This became one of the first organised women's movements in Britain. They pursued many causes vigorously, including their Married Women's Property Committee. In 1854, she published Brief Summary of the Laws of England concerning Women, which was useful in promoting the passage of the Married Women's Property Act 1882. During this period Bodichon became close friends with the artist Anna Mary Howitt, for whom she sat on several occasions.
Bodichon's first relationship was with John Chapman, editor of the Westminster Review, but she refused to marry him and lose her legal rights. In 1857, she married an eminent French physician, Dr Eugène Bodichon, incidentally in the year that the Matrimonial Causes Act 1857, for which Bodichon had campaigned, allowed women access to divorce courts. Although wintering for many years in Algiers, Bodichon continued to lead the movements she had initiated on behalf of Englishwomen.
In 1858 Bodichon set up the English Women's Journal, an organ for discussing employment and equality issues directly concerning women, in particular manual or intellectual industrial employment, expansion of employment opportunities, and reform of laws pertaining to the sexes.
In 1866, cooperating with Emily Davies, Bodichon came up with a scheme to extend university education to women. The first small experiment in this at Hitchin developed into Girton College, Cambridge, to which Bodichon gave liberally of her time and money.
Bodichon was a Unitarian, who wrote of Theodore Parker: He prayed to the Creator, the infinite Mother of us all (always using Mother instead of Father in this prayer). It was the prayer of all I ever heard in my life which was the truest to my individual soul.
On 21 November 1865 Barbara Bodichon, with the help of Jessie Boucherett and Helen Taylor, brought up the idea of a parliamentary reform aimed at achieving the right to vote for women.
Despite all her public interests, Bodichon found time for society and her favourite art of painting. Bodichon studied under William Holman Hunt. Her water colours, exhibited at the Salon, the Royal Academy, and elsewhere, showed great originality and talent, and were admired by Corot and Daubigny. Bodichon's London salon included many of the literary and artistic celebrities of her day. She was an early member of the Society of Female Artists (SFA) and exhibited 59 art works with them between 1858 and 1886. She was George Eliot's most intimate friend and the first to recognise the authorship of Adam Bede. Her personal appearance is said to be described in that of "the tall, red-haired heroine of Eliot's Romola with her 'expression of proud tenacity and latent impetuousness'".
Bodichon died at Robertsbridge, Sussex, on 11 June 1891. In 2007 Irene Baker and Lesley Abdela helped to restore Barbara Bodichon's grave in the churchyard of Brightling, East Sussex, about 50 miles (80 km) from London. It was in a state of disrepair, with railings rusted and breaking away and the tomb inscription scarcely legible. The historian Dr Judith Rowbotham at Nottingham Trent University issued an appeal for funds to restore the grave and its surroundings, which raised about £1,000. The railings were sand-blasted and repainted and the granite tomb was cleaned.
On 30 June 2019, a Blue Plaque jointly commemorating the founders, Barbara Bodichon and Emily Davies, was unveiled at Girton College by Baroness Hale, President of the Supreme Court, as part of the college's 150th anniversary celebrations. The plaque is sited on the main tower at the entrance to Girton, off Huntingdon Road.
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