Mary Kingsley (1862-1900), traveller and writer

  • Kingsley, Mary Henrietta, 1862-1900.
  • Archives and manuscripts

About this work


Letters to and from Kingsley, and associated documentation.

1-3: letters by Kingsley to her cousin Rose Kingsley. Nos.1-2 are written from the Calabar area of West Africa. No.3 includes, pasted to it, a cutting from the Standard containing a letter to the editor from Rose Kingsley regarding Mary's travels. 1895.

4-5: letters by Kingsley to other recipients. No.4 is endorsed in faint pencil as being to C.H. Allen. 1897-1898.

6: letter from the Secretary of the Chester Society of Natural Science and Literature to Rose Kingsley, referring to a letter in the Standard (presumably the one attached to no.3) and asking if she could induce Mary Kingsley to come and lecture. 1895.

7: printed leaflet announcing the formation of the African Society in memory of Mary Kingsley. 1901.



Physical description

1 file (7 items)

Acquisition note

Purchased from: Stevens, London, September 1930 (acc.56357); Sotheby's, London, April 1933 (acc.67463) and November 1933 (acc.67479); Glendining, London, September 1933 (acc.67763). Provenance details of no.5 not recorded (acc.67430).

Biographical note

Mary Henrietta Kingsley was born on 13 October 1862,the daughter of the physician and writer George Henry Kingsley and thus the niece of the cleric and writer Charles Kingsley. Her father earned his living as a private physician to aristocratic travellers, which made it possible for him to indulge his own desire for travel: he was often away and his family led a reclusive existence in his absence. Mary was educated at home and read widely. She acquired wider intellectual contacts after 1886, when the family moved to Cambridge to be near her younger brother as he studied at Christ's College. The period 1888 to 1892 was largely spent caring for her sick parents: both died in early 1892 and left Mary for the first time without responsibilities and with the freedom to carve out her own course in life. She travelled to the Canary Isles that year and returned fascinated by Africa; moving to a flat in West London with her brother, she began to plan an ethnographic expedition.

In August 1893 she set off for West Africa, landing first in Sierra Leone. Her journey took her down the coast to Luanda and then back up to Cabinda, before returning to England in December. She was encouraged about the value of her collections by the scientific community and began to plan a return. In December 1894 she sailed again for West Africa, spending some time at Calabar nursing the European residents through a smallpox outbreak before travelling in the areas that form the modern states of Nigeria, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea and Gabon. She returned to England in late 1895, bringing a large collection of ethnographic and scientific specimens.

She lectured extensively on her experiences, advocating (inter alia) leaving African societies to run themselves by traditional values rather than imposing Christianity upon them, and that the United Kingdom should instead operate an indirect rule based upon economic influence. Her affiliation with trading interests and dislike of missionary activity was such that she was able variously to defend liquor trade and slave-trafficking, and accordingly her controversial views led her into various polemic exchanges. These were often with other women, with whom her relationship tended to be competitive: she refused to show any female solidarity and resisted labelling as a "new woman". Her social conservatism contrasted with her refusal to accept limits on what she herself might do and means that she resisted stereotyping and continues to do so.

In 1900 she sailed for South Africa to nurse during the Boer War and died of typhoid later that year; she was buried at sea.

Related material

At Wellcome Collection:

Kingsley's letters to Dame Mary Scharlieb (1845-1930) can be found in the latter's papers, as GC/190/1/8.

A biographical sketch of Kingsley is held in the Royal Army Medical Corps muniment collection, as RAMC/801/6/6.

A letter by Mary Kingsley's father George Henry Kingsley (1827-1892), physician and author, in which he describes the literary circles to which his brother Charles has introduced him, is held as MS.7838.

Letters by Charles Kingsley are held as MS.8488 and MS.5420; MS.3108 comprises the Morning sermon on the Day of Humiliation for Cholera Oct. 5. 1849 preached by Kingsley at Eversley, Hampshire; and Charles Kingsley also occurs as a correspondent in papers of Sir Richard Owen (MS.5786), George Rolleston (MS.6119) and Charles Lyell (MS.7878).

Ownership note

Letters formerly held in the Western Manuscripts collection's Autograph Letters Sequence.

Where to find it

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Accession number

  • 56357
  • 67430
  • 67463
  • 67479
  • 67763