Reading the Collections, Week 15: Diary of Isabella Lucy Bishop’s Nile Voyage

Thursday 14 May 2015

Over the past month I have found myself travelling much more than usual. Knowing that my Reading the Collections blog post would need to be done soon after I returned, I decided to take my chosen work to read for this blog on my travels (a copy, of course!). I chose a work written by a much more prolific and adventurous traveller than myself, Isabella Lucy Bishop (née Bird) and her Diary of a Nile Voyage.

Isabella Bird photograph_1
Portrait of Isabella Lucy Bishop née Bird from her Diary of a Nile Voyage. ms36370

Isabella Bird (1831-1904) was a famous Victorian explorer, travel writer and photographer. After spending much of her childhood in poor health (which continued for the rest of her life), her Doctor prescribed her an outdoor lifestyle. It was an outdoor lifestyle Isabella Bird most certainly lived. Throughout her life, she travelled all around the world, including the Americas, Asia and Africa.

Whilst on her travels, Isabella wrote a number of very successful works which were published by the Edinburgh based John Murray ( Some of her most popular works remained in print for her whole life and can still be bought today. Her most well-known books include; The English Woman in America (1856), The Hawaiian Archipelago (1875), A Lady’s Lift in the Rocky Mountains (1879), Unbeaten Tracks in Japan (1880), Among the Tibetans (1894), Chinese Pictures: notes on photographs made in China (1900).

Many of Isabella Bishop’s publications were made up of notes and observations she took in her diary whilst on her travels. Here at Special Collections, we have one of her manuscript diaries about a voyage she took on the Nile.

ms36370 Diary of a voyage down th Nile_3_1
The first page of Isabella Bishop’s diary

Isabella Bishop set off on her journey down the Nile from Cairo on board S.S. Amenartas along with passengers, mainly from Britain and America. She describes the ship as being like a small Clyde passenger boat.

Egypt Photographs _5_1
A Clyde passenger ship on the Nile ms38662/12 c. 1895

The majority of Isabella Bishop’s diary is made up of description of the various archaeological sites they visited along the way, which continue to be popular tourist destinations in Egypt today. However, some of the practices which took place in her tour group would not occur today. In her diary, Isabella Bishop describes visiting the various tombs in the Valley of the Kings, and casually mentions;

“We had lunch in another tomb, & then visited
two or three others & found them much

Diary Entry 2_1

Shocking behaviour!

photo 0 and 3
Still the same attractions then as there are now
Egypt Photographs _4_1
Studying Egyptian hieroglyphs

It was not just the sights she visited that Isabella Bishop wrote about. She often described the people they met on the voyage including the colourful clothes she saw people wearing. She also, from time to time, complains about the people who were on the voyage with her who refused to go ashore to visit the archaeological sites.

Egypt Photographs _1_1Egypt Photographs _2_1At the end of her account on the voyage, Isabella Bishop writes;

“we must part with many apologies for the sketchy character of this paper.”

I will end by noting that the diary and the photographs are from two separate collections here in Special Collections. Both of them are undated, but both appear to be late 19th century which makes you think. A Clyde passenger boat, the same attractions, the c 1895 outfits? Maybe, just maybe, could one of these people be the famous explorer Isabella Bird?

Egypt Photographs _6_1
Could Isabella Bird be in this picture ?

-Fiona Menzies
Project Archivist

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