Mary Kingsley

Mary Henrietta Kingsley

Southwark House, Main Road, Bexley, Kent


Relation to Head of Family

Condition as to Marriage

Age last birthday

Rank, profession or occupation

Where born

Mary Kingsley





London, City

Mary Henrietta Kingsley





Upper Holloway, Middlesex

Charles G. Kingsley





Highgate, Middlesex

Mary Ann Tomkyns





Welling, Kent

Mary's mother is pale, nervous, an invalid. Her father is away: his latest, long and sprawling letter from far-off parts has absorbed their attention again this morning. Out here in Bexley Heath, they do not belong; it is something less than a home. The light is carefully shuttered away, and the only tread to be heard is from the occasional, facetious footsteps of her brother Charles, who is a bloody fop. What must Mary do today? She must concentrate upon her German, perhaps, so that she may help her father with his translations - whenever she sees him again. Mary is slim, tall, with a pale pinched face, straight fair hair, and steely, light blue eyes. She feels the cold, and banks up the fire. She dresses drably; she has little interest in what passes for life beyond the confines of the garden; she has no friends; occasionally, she visits the sick. Her days are occupied with the study of the best way to mend the boiler, to take care of the broken guttering, to fix the doors. Important to deter burglars, although this house is safer than the last, in Highgate, in which her mother was required to keep a loaded gun by her bed-side. Her mother is - was - before her illness - an excellent shot. Mary readsThe English Mechanic from cover to cover, absorbing its diagrams and its convoluted explanations of the latest experiments. Nine months ago, an advance in the prospect of sending wireless images has been announced, using the operation of light upon selenium. Interesting. One day, people will be able to see as well as hear their counterparts. There is a noisy squawking and squabbling in the garden - the sound of Mary's pet fighting cocks, including her favourite, Attila - although she does not allow them to attack each other. Cats and books litter the chairs. The three dogs roam peacefully through the darkened rooms. Mary dusts the room assiduously, thinking irritably of her father, loving his sense of adventure, loathing his failure to spend any money on her education. She has not been pampered, like Charles, who is like a reptile, for all his learning. But what does he know of pirates? Of the chromosphere which surrounds the sun? Of the rites of cannibals? Or of the properties of gunpowder? Not that her own modest experiment with making it has endeared her to the family. When Mary exploded her charge, it sprayed the carelessly-drying linen sheets with manure.

Mary Henrietta Kingsley, daughter of George, niece of the novelist Charles, the author ofThe Water Babies, had something in common with her fighting cocks, other than a tendency to temper. She had been cooped up all her life, more or less since her birth on 13th October 1862. Her father had vanished within weeks of her arrival, making dilatory and bossy returns on the rare occasions he felt so inclined. For four years, from 1867 to 1871, he did not return at all. He gave his address as "Abroad". He wore an absurd brown wig. When he did come home, he found a daughter in his own splenetic image, who rallied against his rages - that damned, abominable Gladstone! Yet Mary faithfully transformed herself on these occasions from mistress of the house to dutiful servant and daughter. Mary's mother was perpetually anxious and ill, worried about her errant husband, who carelessly sent news of fortuitous escapes (only a late change of plan had enabled him to avoid travelling with Custer to the bloodbath at Little Big Horn. He also rode with "Buffalo Bill" Cody). She probably suspected her husband's careless infidelities with the native women he met - in the South Seas, in Africa, in America, on journeys about which he never stirred himself to write a single book. Mary's mother was a Cockney publican's daughter, Mary Bailey, who had worked as a cook for her father, and who had become pregnant by him in early 1862. They had married only four days before Mary's birth, although she was not to discover this until she was in her twenties. As far as she knew, they had married in 1860 - and she kept to this version of the story long after her parents had died.

At this stage of her life, dropping her aitches like her mother, and cursing like Captain Kidd, Mary's days slavishly blended one into the next. Her salvation was the library to which her father added on his brief visits, and which she plundered, untaught, her spelling and punctuation indifferent, her eyes wide with interest. Otherwise, it was a round of housework and tending to her mother's sickness. There had been another uncle, Henry, who had paid her visits, and delighted her with tales of his travels, but he had died young, and the houses she had lived in had once more swallowed her up.

The house in Bexley was a temporary expedient, designed to help her mother recover. When her indolent brother Charles went to Cambridge to study law, George Kingsley shifted the family again, to be near him. For Mary, this was a revelation, and she began to meet other people (including scientists who set her straight about her grasp, for instance, of chemistry, in the theory of which she was naturally well out of date). She met women who had led interesting lives - although what life was not interesting next to her own? Her father began to lead a slightly more settled existence, allowing Mary to act as his hostess when a succession of guests came to tea - although George Kingsley was still to head round the world for a final time, in 1891. In the 1891 census, he described his lanky daughter as "a student of medicine", Kingsley being a medical man himself (indeed, it had been Kingsley who had looked after Isabella Bird's would-be lover, Rocky Mountain Jim, after the shooting which eventually led to his death). This may have been a facetious entry.

But if Mary's tongue and mind were loosened, if she was released a little into reality, where her indifference to fashion (other than to smoke), and her tendency to swear, made her seem a little peculiar, she was not really free. There had been a brief trip to Paris with a friend in 1888; but other journeys were forbidden after, in the same year, her mother's sight, and mental health, deteriorated. Mary, who had taught herself Latin, sat up all night with her mother, passing the time by attempting to pass on her skills, and a smattering of Arabic, too. She had been assisting her father by translating German accounts of sacrificial rites - the only education for which he ever paid. But now, she was effectively a live-in nurse. By 1890, her mother, paralysed, was wheeled round the garden by her devoted daughter. Her father's bustling return from Abroad in 1892 gave her two patients to contend with, but surprisingly, it was her father who went first. Having spent all night tending to her mother, she followed the daily ritual of taking him his mail. He had died in the night. Within ten weeks, her mother's life was also over.

Suddenly, Mary was released. She was nearly thirty (although about this time, she began to scythe two years from her age, as if to correct the circumstances of her parent's marriage). There was the small matter of her dilatory brother, who plainly had plans to keep Mary in the mental and physical drudgery to which she was accustomed. He had decided, he said, to be a writer. He would write a book about his father. Charles, however, was even less industrious in the literary field than his father (he never wrote anything, and was never gainfully employed). He and Mary moved back to London, to West Kensington. While Charles took off for the Far East, Mary had the astonishing luxury of a holiday. She sailed to the Canary Islands, where she met many Africa hands (with a tendency to discuss the deaths of their intrepid former companions).


A year later, from August to December 1893, Mary Kingsley travelled to West Africa, about which she had imagined so much. "I took," she admitted, "my old ideas derived from books, and thoughts based on imperfect knowledge." She also packed an old pair of her brother's trousers, books, a gun, and a phrase-book which practically beyond parody. Not enough hair-pins, though - her African trips involved a ceaseless search for ways of holding her hair up. The men who met her on the way out found her tough to fathom. Was she a missionary (wide of the mark - she was a confirmed agnostic, like her father, and an avid believer in Darwin)? Was she a naturalist? A traveller? Mary herself was confused in her purpose, except that it was a kind of homage to, and even a reaction against the memory of the father who had left her to fend for his family while he foraged abroad. She surprised her companions with the saltiness of her language. She travelled down the coast, taking brief excursions into the interior, and creating a new persona for herself. Much to her honest amazement, she admired the "palm oil ruffians", the traders, even trading paraffin oil herself; she was fascinated by the Africans she met. She ate crocodile ("musky"). On her arrival back in Liverpool, she sported a pet monkey on her shoulder. Her arrival garnered impressive press reports, a deal to write a book, and a contact at the Brirish Museum, Dr. Albert Gunther, who provided her with spirits in which to preserve specimens on the new trip she already had planned.

The second trip to West Africa lasted from the two days before Christmas, 1894 to the end of the following November. This time, Mary was more ambitious, more daring. She had the colossal advantage of having no formal position, no official papers. Gleefully and meticulously collecting specimens of fish, insect and plant life - or more probably, bartering for them - she arrived at villages with an indomitable announcement: "It's only me!" She was canoed up the Ogooue River; she climbed Mount Cameroon. She met and enjoyed the company of Mary Slessor, a Dundee-born missionary who worked unstintingly in Nigeria, living in the local communities, and making private war on local superstitions. Mary Kingsley kept a detailed notebook, written in a meticulous and often ungrammatical prose (her lack of formal education meant that her spelling was sometimes shaky, too). These journeys were eventful - although rather less eventful than Mary made them sound. It's to be doubted that she came face to face with a leopard, for instance, or that she took the helm in the way she describes in Travels In West Africa. Nor are her accounts of cannibalism convincing. She took conscious liberties with truth, drawing deeply on the adventurous accounts she had devoured in the long hours of seclusion. Her account is carefree, exciting, and, above all, funny in a perfectly self-deprecating way. When it was published in January 1897, it was a critical hit with a broad audience. The old Africa hands were quietly inclined to question some of her more remarkable tales. The public lapped at it all up.

And yet, for all this, Mary Kingsley did, unabashed and full of energy, travel in a world where white women had rarely gone. She was not a knowledgeable botanist, really, but she did indeed find creatures previously unknown to the western world. She returned to the all-male world of geographers and explorers, not to fight her corner as a woman (at her lectures, men delivered her words whilst she sat on the platform), nor to strike out against imperialism (she was a believer in its benevolent possibilities). And she was certainly no radical for change in the woman's movement, repeatedly insisting that men were potentially greater than women. At the same time, she was soon caught up, passionately, in arguments about whether Africans were innately barbaric (she had a good spat with the editor of The Spectator). She argued strenuously that, just as men and women were different, so too were the races of Africa and Europe. She struck out against the missionaries who sought to anglicise the people of Africa, or the English politicians and merchants who, ignoring the drunkenness on their doorsteps, argued that African tribesmen were in some kind of alcoholic thrall. She argued - unsuccessfully, in the end - against the imposition of a "hut tax" on the people of Sierra Leone. It was a triumph that her arguments carried so much weight.

Mary Kingsley was too tireless for her own good. In 1896, she began to suffer from headaches; in 1898, she had a breakdown, and had to accept the willing ministrations of friends. In 1899, Mary, the apparently incorrigible spinster, fell in love with Major Matthew Nathan, shortly to be acting governor of Sierra Leone. Her feelings were not reciprocated in the slightest (there was something of her father in Nathan, in his self-absorption), although she continued to send him colossal letters. Two further books (neither as successful as her first) on West Africa was published; so too was a memoir of her father (the one her brother had never started, let alone completed). By now it was 1900, and the principal spotlight in Africa was on the Boer War. By March of that year, Mary was nursing wounded Boer prisoners in the Cape. Typhoid hit the hospital in Simonstwon where she was working. Knowing that she was dying, Mary Kingsley insisted on being allowed to die alone. After three gruelling weeks, she succumbed on June 3rd 1900.

Her posthumous reputation was considerable. Her brother Charles, the last of this Kingsley branch, and posing as something of a philosopher, undertook to write the story of her life. Within eight years, Charles had drunk away his parents' inheritance, and Mary's, and completed the job by drinking himself into an early grave. It was 1908. But by this time, he had long since lost all of Mary's papers.

Mary Kingsley was buried at sea, as she had wished; but the coffin, wrongly weighted, bobbed indomitably on the surface. A party of men had to row out, and complete the funeral. It was a touch of cussedness she might have enjoyed.


Mary Kingsley, Imperial Adventuress, by Dea Birkett, Macmillan, 1992

Mary Kingsley, by Cecil Howard, Hutchinson, 1957

Mary Kingsley, by Olwen Campbell, Butler and Tanner, 1957

Travels in West Africa, by Mary Kingsley, Macmillan, 1897, reprinted with an introduction by Elizabeth Claridge, Virago, 1982