7th October 1904

Death of adventurer Isabella Lucy Bird

Explorer, and fellow of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society, Isabella Bird, died in Edinburgh aged 72. She is buried in the city’s Dean Cemetery.

Isabella was a most unlikely explorer, suffering illness from an early age. However, she was vigorous and outgoing, and was politically engaged from her childhood. In her early 20s, she sailed to the United States, on the back of which she wrote her first book, An Englishwoman in America (she had been born in Yorkshire). Landing at Halifax, she travelled to Boston, Chicago and Cincinnati, recording her experiences along the way.

Rave reviews

An advert in the 2 June 1856 edition of John Bull, by Bird’s publisher John Murray, quotes a review from the Examiner, which called the book “a candid and kindly account of America, by a lady who went thither with good introductions and had every possible opportunity of being well informed. Her volume is remarkable for its quiet, sensible tone, its abundance of information upon social topics, and its freedom from all tendency of over-statement. An excellent account of our Canadian colonies forms part of the account.”

Announcing her death, the 11 October 1904 edition of the Leeds Mercury ran a generous obituary which noted that “much of her travelling was done in pursuit of health, for in movement and unfamiliar scenes she found the source of renewed strength and mental interest.” Her pursuit of improved health eventually took her to the Rocky Mountains where she lived for some time among the lumberjack community, and which again became the source of a book.

World traveller

She was married, briefly, but widowed after five years, and her later writings demonstrate the impressive extent of her travelling at a time when intercontinental flights were inconceivable. ‘Unbeaten Tracks in Japan’ was followed by Golden Peninsula, which recorded her experiences in the Malay Peninsula. Between 1892 and 1892, she published first-hand works on travel in Persia, Kurdistan, Tibet, China and Korea. Increasingly, her writing was illustrated by her own photography.

The Sketch, of 20 December 1899, described her as “perhaps the most renowned of modern English and Scottish female travel writers who have, by the aid of greatly improved steamboat conveyance, better hotels, and better police, in these days far surpassed the feats of Madame Ida Pfeiffer half-a-century ago.”

The hairy men of Yesso

On 20 May 1892, Home News published a remarkable report of a talk she had delivered to the Anthropological Institute on the subject of “the hairy men of Yesso”, an island of Japan. The men, said Bird, “range from 5ft 4in to 5ft 6in in height, are strongly built and muscular, and in some instances… are thickly covered all over, except the feet, hands, and one or two other parts of the body, with short black hair. Even the children show a thick brown felt… The men have fine high foreheads, but Miss Bird wonders when they contain, for she has never met a more stupid people. The average weight of their brains is 45 odd ounces.”

Her last journey was a 1000-mile trek on horseback through Morocco, when she was 70 years old. Her continued ill health finally forced her retirement to Edinburgh, where she died aged 72. She is buried in the city’s Dean Cemetery.



Other events that occured in October

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