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Isabella Gifford (1825 - 1891)

Biographical notes

Isabella Gifford is best known as an algologist but collections of her vascular plants and mosses survive. Her life was recorded in a substantial obituary in the Journal of Botany in 1891. She is noted for having lived a "quiet life", spending most of her time in Minehead, Somerset, after settling there with her parents around 1850.

She was born in Wales around 1825, her father being the agent for John Christie, her grandfather, who had land and business interests in Breckonshire. Both the Gifford and Christie family were active Protestant dissenters and details of the family history are sparse. Her age at death, late December 1891, was given as 67 but she had reported ages suggestive of several years of birth in the previous six censuses. The age of 16 in 1841 is probably close to the truth consistent with a mid 1825 birth. Her parents had married in October of 1824.

It is generally believed that she was self-taught as a scientist, her parents being of a more literary persuasion. An interesting family link is provided by her uncle, Dr. Thomas Southwood Smith, who had married her mother's elder sister, Mary Christie, in 1819. Southwood Smith was the friend to whom Jeremey Bentham had bequeathed his body in 1832 for dissection to illustrate a course of public lectures. Although Mary and Southwood do not appear to have lived together after the 1830s, a continued link is demonstrated by the fact that their son, cousin Herman Southwood Smith, administered her (and her mother's) estate in 1892. Another of her mother's sisters, Ann, married the noted attorney Edgar Taylor in 1823. This provided a family link with this celebrated clan of Unitarian Norfolk polymaths. Her uncle Edgar's siblings included the geologist Richard Cowling Taylor and the children's author Emily Taylor.

Her major publication is The marine botanist which was published, in various guises, from 1842 to 1853. Probably still living in Melcombe Regis when it first appeared, she had previously lived in Wales, France and Jersey.


1825 Davynock, Breckonshire
1841 June Census - Thomas-street, Melcombe Regis, Dorset
1844 September Falmouth, Cornwall (death of brother)
1851 Census - The Parks, Minehead, Somerset
1861 Census - The Parks, Minehead
1871 Census - The Parks, Minehead
1881 Census - The Parks, Minehead
1891 Census - The Parks, Minehead



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1825: Birth Isabella was the eldest child of Isabella Christie and Captain George St. John Gifford who had married in October of the previous year. She was born at Davynock, Breckonshire, Wales.
1842: Publication
The marine botanist
1st Edition?
Although 1840 is generally regarded as the date of publication of the first edition of the work, she would only have been 15 years of age at the time. This is rather young for a self-taught scientist to produce a scholarly work. It seems more likely that the "1st edition" refers to the booklet "The little marine botanist" produced under the name of Rev T Wilson - generally considered to be the pseudonym of Samuel Clark. It formed part of a series for children, usually bound together, which included "The little geologist" and "The little conchologist". It can hardly be a coincidence that the publisher was Darton & Clark of London, a house responsible for the publication of Emily Taylor's work and, as Darton & Co. the 2nd & 3rd Editions of "The marine botanist". It is difficult to judge what contribution Isabella may have made to this first volume.
1848: Publication
The marine botanist
2nd edition
¹Staffordshire Advertiser - 1848 April 22
Gifford's (J.) Marine Botanist, coloured plates, 12mo. 5s. cl.

This is an early reference to the new second edition which appeared in June 1848. A more complete description (with a correct initial) can be found the following year,

¹Illustrated London News - 1849 May 26
Second Edition.
THE MARINE BOTANIST ; an Introduction to the Study of Algology : containing Descriptions of the commonest British Sea-Weeds, and the best method of preserving them. By ISABELLA GIFFORD. With several accurate Drawings of the most remarkable species of Sea-Weeds, and SOME OF THE MOST BEAUTIFUL IN COLOURS. Ornamental cloth, price 5s. 'The whole book is got up in very elegant manner.' Dr. Harvey, Author of Manual of British Algæ
Bath: Binns and Goodwin; London: Darton and Co., Whittaker and Co., Simpkin and Co.; Dublin: John Robertson and Co.
1850 June 27:
C C Babington
The journal of Charles Cardale Babington shows that he spent the evening at Minehead with Isabella and her parents. [Google Books]. link
1853: Paper Observations on the marine flora of Somerset. Proceedings of the Somerset Archaeological and Natural History Society. 4 116 - 123.
[Biodiversity Heritage Library]
1853: Publication
The marine botanist
3rd edition - "Greatly improved, with illustrations printed in oil colours by W Dickes"

[Biodiversity Heritage Library]
1855 August: Paper ¹Wells Journal - 1855 August 25
… Miss Gifford's paper on the rarer and more interesting plants in the neighbourhood of Dunster and Minehead, was read by the Rev. W. A. Jones.
1891 December 26: Death The cause of death is given as influenza. Her mother, with whom she had lived all her life, had died the day before - Christmas Day.
An extensive appreciation of her life appeared in The Journal of Botany 30, 81-83 the following year. [Biodiversity Heritage Library]

¹Cheltenham Chronicle - 1892 January 16
"MISS GIFFORD, the author of 'The Marine Botanist,' died at Minehead, after a short illness on the 26th of last month, was the only daughter of Major John Gifford, and her early years lived in France, in Jersey, and for time at Falmouth, finally settling at Minehead about forty years ago. Miss Gifford's scientific knowledge had a wide range, and her study of the forms of vegetable life was most thorough. Her 'Marine Botanist,' when it first appeared, was quite sui generis, and, had she lived, would probably have been republished. Miss Gifford was in correspondence with botanists all over the world, and her kindly aid was always most gladly given to beginners in the pursuit The writer of this notice was among the many botanical students who had the benefit of her assistance while studying the marine and freshwater Alga of British lsles."
1892: Collections ¹Taunton Courier and Western Advertiser - 1892 August 17
44th Annual Meeting
… During the past year your museum has been enriched by two valuable gifts - a large collection of botanical specimens, gathered by Miss Isabella Gifford, late of Minehead. These were prepared by Miss Gifford herself, the author of a work on Marine Botany, and an acknowledged authority. For all this your society is indebted to her executor (Mr H Southwood Smith).

1 Transcription reproduced with kind permission of The British Newspaper Archive

Managed by Richard Middleton: last updated 2023 December 16