The English Woman’s Journal

The English Woman’s Journal was both a mid-priced miscellaneous monthly magazine and the textual manifestation of a number of political and social organizations. It appeared from March 1858 until August 1864, spanning the period between the failed attempt to reform legislation that prevented married women holding property in 1857 and the equally unsuccessful attempt to win female suffrage in 1867. During this period the English Woman’s Journal was at the forefront of both campaigns but, rather than see them as separate movements, stressed that they were connected and part of a wider attempt to improve the position of women in society. This breadth of focus, representing diverse activities as part of the same common cause, characterized both the political contents of the English Woman’s Journal and the various other components that made up each monthly issue. With its mix of literary, political and social contents as well as its reports of its own related activities, the English Woman’s Journal both published material by women, represented women as exemplars in history and in the present, and demonstrated the potential for women to play a full part in nineteenth-century society.

Its founders, Barbara Leigh Smith (from 1857 Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon) and Bessie Rayner Parkes (from 1867 Bessie Rayner Belloc), were from from similar dissenting backgrounds and both of their families were involved in radical politics. Smith was the illegitimate daughter of the radical MP Benjamin Smith. He ensured his daughter received an education and, on reaching her majority, a portfolio of investments that secured her financial independence. Likewise, Parkes’s father was the radical Joseph Parkes and her mother, Elizabeth, was the granddaughter of Joseph Priestley (Shattock 2004). It was this shared progressive, dissenting background that permitted the two families to meet in Hastings in 1847. The girls became close friends, even embarking on an unchaparoned trip across Europe in 1850 to visit some friends who were training to be artists in Munich. Prior to launching the English Woman’s Journal in 1858, both Parkes and Smith were active in various social causes. In 1854 Parkes published Remarks on the Instruction of Girls and Bodichon A brief summary of the laws in England concerning women. Bodichon’s pamphlet was widely read and, after much lobbying (for which both Parkes and Bodichon were central figures), prompted the unsuccessful attempt to introduce the Married Women’s Property Act in 1857.

The English Woman’s Journal was conceived as part of this political activity, yet it operated more as a medium of intercommunication rather than a campaigning publication its own right. This is partly because of its disparate interests. The journal was published by the English Woman’s Journal Company, a private limited company in which Smith held (via her sister) the most shares. The company, and the journal it was set up to publish, had its roots in a previous publication, the Waverley Journal. This was a fortnightly newspaper, published in Edinburgh and written and published by women. On a visit to Edinburgh Smith and Parkes began to contribute to the Waverley Journal, ultimately taking it over (in what would be a familiar arrangement, Smith provided the money and Parkes was the editor) in May 1857. They ran the journal from London, with Hays contributing poetry. Isa Craig, who Smith and Parkes had met in Edinburgh, also became a contributor when she came to London to be assistant secretary for the National Association for the Promotion of Social Science (NAPSS). However, the Waverley was not conceived as an end in itself: rather, it was to be produced from offices that would also double as a reading room and centre for co-ordinating other activities. These were set up on Princes Street, off Cavendish Square and, when negotiations to buy the Waverley outright failed early in 1858, they decided to start again with a journal of their own (Rendall, 1987).

The company was registered on 13 February 1858 with £1000 capital in 200 shares. Parkes and Hays took five shares each, and Maria Rye – who had been secretary of the committee formed by Smith and Parkes to reform the Married Women’s Property Acts in 1855 – also took one. Three men also took shares: Samuel Curtailed and James Vaughan took four each; and William Cookson – who also served as chairman – took five. By November 1858 the Company had expanded, with more interest from various representatives of the Unitarian community (W.J. Fox, former editor and proprietor of the Monthly Repository served as auditor) and, significantly, Helena Comtesse de Noailles, who took a further sixty shares.

Officially the editors of the journal were Parkes and Hays, but Smith remained a very active presence. Once the enterprise had begun, they quickly began to attract further contributors. In November 1858 Emily Faithfull, a clergyman’s daughter, began work for the journal. The following June, Jessie Boucherett, after seeing the journal on a railway bookstall, came to London and joined as a contributor. With the poet Adelaide Proctor – a friend of Parkes – she established the Society for Promoting the Employment of Women with Faithfull acting as secretary. In the same year Emily Davies, who had met Smith in Algiers in 1858, came to London and began to contribute, eventually settling in London in 1862. The reading rooms in Princes Street acted as a focus for all these writers, providing a space to meet and read, as well as room for the various political and social enterprises they were each engaged upon. In December 1859 Theodosia Lady Monson, widow of a Tory peer and friend of Matilda Hays, took more spacious rooms on behalf of the Company at 14 Langham Place: the address from which they acquired their name, the Langham Place Group (Rendall 2005).

The first issue of the English Woman’s Journal appeared in March 1858 and it established many of the consistent features of the title. Each monthly issue of the English Woman’s Journal consisted of 72 pages that contained about eight articles. The first article tended to engage with contemporary political or social issues, and was usually written by Parkes. There were three regular departments that could be found in each issue: ‘Open Council’, ‘Notices of Books’, and ‘Passing Events’. ‘Open Council’, which appeared from the second issue, was a department of correspondence. Its title is the same as the correspondence column of the Leader, and it was – like the Leader – ostensibly free from editorial interference. Unlike some titles, the English Woman’s Journal did not insist upon signature in its correspondence department and the descriptive pseudonyms (for instance ‘A Polite Letter Writer’, ‘A West End House Keeper’, ‘An Old Fashioned Country Reader’) signalled a diverse and predominantly feminine readership. ‘Notices of Books’ was a department of reviews and is similar in format to reviews in other titles such as the Leader. They were often unsigned, with the first review being much more thorough than those that followed it. The reviews made great use of quotation, providing readers with lengthy extracts from which they too could judge the works under discussion. A broad range of publications were noticed, from Coventry Patmore’s The Angel of the House in the first issue to novels, scientific treaties, lives, travel writing, and political pamphlets. Occasionally the department was broken up with sub-headings. In 1858 ‘Foreign Literature’ appears intermittently, but foreign works were usually reviewed alongside those published in Britain. From October 1861 until October 1863 a ‘Books of the Month’ section appears that surveyed recent publications and allowed readers to keep abreast of what was being published. ‘Passing Events’ was a similar section as the ‘Books of the Month’, but focused instead on public affairs. This department was the last to appear in each issue, and was only a few pages long. Its brevity meant that it largely summarized events in note form, and did not provide readers with much analysis. However, it does indicate the importance that the journal placed on what might otherwise appear to be masculine affairs and provided the means for its readers to find out more about them.

Another regular department, although not named as such, was the poetry that was published in each issue. These occurred in the middle of each issue, usually the fourth or fifth article, and tended to by lyrics of about thirty lines that covered a range of subjects including social issues, but were most frequently on religious themes. The most frequent contributors of verse were Adelaide Proctor and Isa Craig, but Parkes also published extensively in the journal. Poetry was accorded a high status, appearing consistently in the same place and frequently under review in ‘Notices of Books’. Unlike poetry, fiction appeared infrequently. When it did appear, it tended to be as short stories or short serials over a couple of issues that described acts of oppression or charity in a largely sentimental mode. However, there are other genres of writing within the English Woman’s Journal that are explicitly literary. The frequent pieces of travel writing, even when apparently concerned with social conditions abroad, are often presented in a compelling narrative style; and the same is true of many of the biographical portraits of notable women.

Despite the presence of these regular features, all the articles within the English Woman’s Journal are represented in the same typographical format. There is no distinction between an essay that only appears in that particular issue, a serial article that stretches across two issues, or a department that appears within all the issues. All articles are numbered with roman numerals in a sequence that runs throughout the volume, locating them within a series that transcends the boundaries of the single issue. This sequence is reproduced in the front matter that was issued to be bound at the front of each volume. Whereas this presents the articles as an unbroken run throughout the volume, the front matter also notes where each issue begins by displaying the month in which it was published. The front matter is thus a hybrid document: the numerals set out the content as an unbroken unit that corresponds to the volume as a whole; but the recurrence of certain departments and the insertion of the month retain its identity as a set of individual issues.

The English Woman’s Journal was not a mass circulation periodical. In January 1859, mid-way through volume two, it had 400 annual subscribers but received a further 57. It was also selling 250 copies monthly. This circulation of around 700 was sustained throughout 1859 but, by January 1860, the Company was printing 1250 copies a month (250 to be kept as back issues). This increase was partly due to the activities of the National Association for the Promotion of Social Science, an organization closely connected to the Company through its secretary, Isa Craig, and a significant overlap of interests. The English Woman’s Journal became the official organ of the Association, and Parkes used its Annual Conventions as a means of gaining subscribers (Rendall 1987). By April 1862 circulation was still around a thousand copies a month but there are signs that it was running into financial trouble. Early in 1862 Anne Leigh Smith, who represented her sister, Barbara, on the board, had to lend £200 to the journal in order to pay its contributors. When Emily Davies took over the editorship in September 1862 she predicted that subscriptions would fall to 624 by the following September. Based on this figure, there would only be £48 with which to pay contributors. Even if the better contributors were only offered 10s a page, and the weaker contributors 4s, Davies estimated she would still need to find unpaid contributions to fill between 30-40 pages a month (Rendall 1987). When Parkes resumed the editorship in May 1863, there was discussion as to whether it should be permitted to continue. After only 376 of 1200 shares were taken up after a reissue of the Company's stock in May 1864, the management of the Journal was passed to Parkes. It survived until August 1864 with Elizabeth Elioart as editor, but was merged with the Alexandra Magazine in September to become the Alexandra Magazine and Englishwoman’s Journal. In 1865 Jessie Boucherett acquired the title and, as the Englishwoman’s Review, it lasted until 1910 (Rendall 1987).

The English Woman’s Journal was interested in the position of all women in society, but was largely concerned with the practical fate of women of its own class. The opening article, ‘The Profession of the Teacher’, articulates the politics of the journal while also demonstrating how it was connected to the wider activities of the Langham Place Group. The article identifies teaching as of interest to the journal’s readers as it is the only profession open to ‘an educated woman of average ability.’ The 1851 census had revealed that there were half a million more women than men in Britain; for contemporary feminists this pointed to the absurdity of assuming marriage was an adequate profession for women; as Parkes put it in an article in the English Woman’s Journal in March 1860, there was little point educating women in the profession of marriage when there were not enough positions for them to fill. This shortfall, which could be established statistically, meant that there was an economic imperative to train women to support themselves. Smith had written on this subject for the Waverley and republished her essays as Women and Work in 1857. The article laments the condition many governesses found themselves in but, after detailing what the Governess’s Benevolent Fund (an organization connected to the Langham Place group that advertised through the journal) and other related organizations did to ease their suffering, pointed out that the poor conditions arose because the profession was over-populated. Rather than become governesses, the article pleads that ‘sensible’ women undertake some other form of paid employment. In order to counter the suggestion that seeking work is somehow demeaning for women, the case was made with a combination of dispassionate statistics and emotive anecdotes. The possibility of sending middle class women out to work was presented as a rational necessity and then the conditions in which some governesses found themselves was advanced as a reason for following other forms of labour. Most crucially was the way the article exhorted married women – ‘those who are technically called “ladies”’ – to shield single women workers from the slander and gossip they might encounter as a result of having to go to work. By appealing to married women here, the journal argued that alternative professions are more respectable than governessing because, if too many women become governesses, there was a real risk that they would become destitute and, ultimately, resort to prostitution. The article, in other words, played upon middle class propriety in order to advocate an otherwise radical solution.

A crucial component of the way the English Woman’s Journal argued its politics was through the way it complemented its essays with examples of action drawn from the activities of the Langham Place group. For instance, ‘The Profession of Teacher’ was buttressed by the Group’s employment agency, administered by Proctor and Boucherett’s Society for Promoting the Employment of Women. This agency was run from the offices of the English Woman’s Journal and used its wrappers to advertise vacancies and those looking for work. The Society also organized three other ventures: a book-keeping school; a telegraph school; and a Law Engrossing Office at Lincoln’s Inn (see here for further details). The most successful, however, was Emily Faithfull’s Victoria Press, established in Feb 1860. Initiated at Coram’s Fields with £50 from the English Woman’s Journal Company, the press employed 16 female compositors, around half of whom were apprenticed by the Society after hearing about the scheme via its register. The Victoria Press became the printer of the English Woman’s Journal from its foundation in 1860 until 1863. The Langham Place Group – who were necessarily vigilant about remaining free from scandal – distanced themselves from Faithfull after she was named in a notorious, queer divorce scandal (Vicinus, 2004, 69–79). From volume 12 it was printed by Jarrold and Sons, who also joined the Company as publishers. The Victoria Press was taken over in 1865 by William Wilfred Head, who continued to run it as an employment opportunity for women until 1881.

Although the English Woman’s Journal did not reach a large audience, it remains an important publication in social and feminist history. It combined detailed analysis of issues of concern to women in a distinctly feminine discourse that combined liberal politics, non-demonational religious sentiment, affecting anecdote, and engagement with high culture. As part of a wider set of activities from the Langham Place group, the journal complemented its textual representations of notable figures with coverage of the actual activities of politically-engaged women. Although articulated from a particular class perspective, the explicitly gendered text of the journal offers a contrast to the predominantly masculinist print culture of the nineteenth century.

The English Woman’s Journal in ncse

The run of the English Woman’s Journal in the edition is derived from the hard copies held at the Women’s Library at London Metropolitan University. The British Library run lacks volumes 4-13, which were destroyed in the Second World War. There is a run at the Bodleian that is marked as being Barbara Leigh Smith’s own: however, aside from one pencil annotation, it is otherwise unremarkable. The English Woman’s Journal was published with an advertising wrapper. Although we have not been able to recover any issues with this intact, the Women’s Library run contains an ‘English Woman’s Journal Advertiser’. As this run was therefore the most complete, we approached the Women’s Library to ask if we could produce new film from their hard copy. We are grateful to both the Women’s Library and the British Library for their cooperation in producing these images.

Works Cited

  • Dredge, Sarah (2005), ‘Opportunism and Accommodation: The English Woman's Journal and the British Mid-Nineteenth-Century Women's Movement’, Women's Studies, 34,  133-157.
  • Hirsch, Pam (2004), ‘Bodichon, Barbara Leigh Smith (1827–1891)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press); online edn, May 2007 [, accessed 6 May 2008]
  • Rendall, Jane (1987), "'A Moral Engine': Feminism, Liberalism and The Englishwoman's Journal", in Equal or Different: Women's Politics 1800-1914, ed. by Jane Rendall (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987), pp. 112-38.
  • Rendall, Jane (2005), ‘Langham Place group (act. 1857–1866)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press); online edn, Jan 2008 [, accessed 6 May 2008]
  • Shattock, Joanne, 2004, ‘Parkes [Belloc], Elizabeth Rayner [Bessie] (1829–1925)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press); [, accessed 9 May 2008]
  • Vicinus, Martha (2004), Intimate Friends: Women Who Loved Women 1778-1928 (Chicago).

Jim Mussell