Priscilla Wakefield: On Economy, Education and Women’s Place in Society

Surfing 18th-century databases, library catalogues, taking notes and indulging in sessions of brainstorming has been my main occupation during this summer. Searching for a PhD project has proven an activity as frustrating as interesting. Granted, I have not found that one perfect original idea yet, but I have learnt a lot about other things in the process. Among many others, I have discovered the author and thinker Priscilla Wakefield. The following is a brief account of her life and works.

A hard working, creative, perseverant, strong minded, nice old lady.

Priscilla Wakefield, née Bell (1751 Tottenham-1832) is known nowadays for her work on economics, botany and children’s literature. Wakefield is considered by most scholars a feminist, given that her work on economics is concerned with women’s economic survival.
She was the author of Reflections on the Present Condition of the Female Sex, With Suggestions for Its Improvement (1798), published by Joseph Johnson, the London bookseller who also published authors such as Mary Wollstonecraft or Anna Laetitia Barbauld. She also authored very successful publications for children on a variety of subjects: from natural history to travel. Her most popular work was The Juvenile Travellers: Containing the Remarks of a Family During a Tour Through the Principal States and Kingdoms of Europe (1801).

Priscilla Wakefield, the feminist economist

Wakefield founded several charities, especially devoted to the care of women and children. One of these developed into the first savings bank of England. These saving banks, which she called “frugality banks” were founded with the objective to encourage the habit of moderation into the poor. Wakefield considered that : “it is not sufficient to stimulate the poor to industry, unless they can be persuaded to adopt habits of frugality” [i]. She sought to substitute the Friendly Society banks, because in the society’s meetings it was customary to purchase a drink, which goes against the whole idea of economising.

Her publication, Reflections on the Present Condition of the Female Sex, With Suggestions for Its Improvement (1798),examines the ways in which women negotiate their role as productive elements of society and advocates women’s access to traditionally male professions, as well as a reform in education so women can become productive and autonomous citizens, the first step towards an equal society.

Oil Painting by wheatley francis, edwrd and priscilla wakefield and her sister katherine bell 1774
Oil Painting by Francis Wheatley. The Wakefields with Priscilla’s sister Katherine Bell, circa 1774.

Priscilla Wakefield, the author

In her preface to An Introduction to Botany, in a Series of Familiar Letters (1796), Wakefield claims that: “Botany is a branch of Natural History that possesses many advantages; it contributes to health of body and cheerfulness of disposition” [ii]. She also denounces that science “has been confined to the circle of the learned […] a difficulty that deterred many, particularly the female sex” [idem], making allusion to the use of Latin in science. In the book, it is precisely a young woman, Felicia, who writes to her sister Constance. Using this pretext, Wakefield introduces her young readers to botany in a very accessible and understandable manner. Wakefield understood that in order to become a member of society, able to stand by themselves, -intellectually, if not politically or socially,- women needed to be educated,-because knowledge is power.  This book was extremely successful: it was translated into French and re-edited eleven times. Another of her reflections on the natural world is An Introduction to the Natural History and Classification of Insects, in a Series of Letters (1816).

The most successful of her books was The Juvenile Travellers: Containing the Remarks of A Family During a Tour Through the Principal States and Kingdoms of Europe (1801), which includes a chapter on Catalonia, with a trip to Barcelona and Montserrat. It follows the voyages of Mr Seymour and his companions through Europe, with descriptions of every interesting detail, with a wide focus, from architecture to the landscape and plenty of anecdotes. It is really fascinating.

Included in An Introduction to Botany, in a Series of Familiar Letters (1796)

Wakefield’s niece, Elizabeth Fry, became a prison reformer. She is the face on the £5 note. She also opened a school for nurses, a team of whom travelled with Florence Nightingale to Crimea to assist wounded soldiers.


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[i] The Reports of the Society for Bettering the Conditions and Increasing the Comforts of the Poor. 
[ii] An Introduction to Botany in a Series of Familiar Letters, with Illustrative Engravings. 



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