Amelia Ann Blanford Edwards was a novelist and traveller. Known as “The Godmother of Egyptology” she paved the way for influential British Egyptologists such as her protégés Flinders Petrie and Howard Carter (discoverer of Tutankhamun’s Tomb in 1922). She also had several close lesbian relationships.
Born in Islington, London, an only child, her father was a former soldier and then banker, and she was educated at home by her mother. She showed an early talent for writing and art; also singing and music which she gave up in 1849 after a bout of typhus. In January 1851 she was engaged to a Mr Bacon but the engagement was called off in December. From then all her emotional attachments were with women. She began a career in writing and her first novel My Brother’s Wife was published in 1855. She went onto publish nine further novels and books on her travels.
At the age of 33, after the death of her parents, Amelia moved to Bristol and lived at The Larches, Eastfield, Westbury on Trym, where she lived the rest of her life (the house was destroyed by bombing in September 1940). From the early 1860s she lived with Ellen Drew Braysher (1804 – 1892), a widow 27 years her senior and they were to live together for 32 years until their deaths in the same year.
Amelia however had several other lesbian relationships, notably Ellen Byrne (1838 – 1914), a married woman with a small son, whose husband Rev John Rice Byrne (1827 – 1907) was a school inspector. From about 1864 to 1878 Ellen and her husband lived at 7 Cambridge Park, Redland, in what was essentially a ménage à trois with Amelia. John Byrne seemed happy with the situation and even conducted a “marriage” ceremony on the altar steps of a local church (1). John was not officially connected with any Bristol church but was an occasional preacher at Holy Trinity, Horfield, and this was almost certainly the location of the ceremony (2). The relationship ended when the Byrnes moved away from Bristol after John was assigned to another school district leaving Amelia deeply distraught. She told a friend it was like a death blow.
In 1870 Amelia befriended Marianne North (1830 – 1890), biologist, botanical artist and sister-in-law of Bristol poet and homosexual rights pioneer John Addington Symonds. Amelia wrote passionate letters to Marianne but her feelings were not reciprocated. In May 1871 Marianne wrote “Bless you, what love letters you do write, what a pity you waste them on a woman!”. Amelia wanted to give Marianne a ring to wear on her next journey together but she declined. They remained friends but saw little of each other in later years.
Amelia embarked on a trip through the Dolomites, Italy, in 1872, an area then little explored. She was accompanied by Lucy Renshaw (1833 – 1919), a single, freedom loving woman of independent means. The trip was described in Amelia’s book Untrodden Peaks and Unfrequented Valleys (1875). Amelia and Lucy also toured Egypt in the winter of 1873-74 which began her fascination with the country and resulted in her 1877 book A Thousand Miles Up The Nile.
In 1882 Amelia founded the Egypt Exploration Fund (later Egypt Exploration Society) and was joint Secretary until her death. She became vice-president of the Bristol West of England National Society for Women’s Suffrage and was one of the first contributors to the monthly English Woman’s Journal launched in 1858 which was an important publication in feminist history.
Amelia’s closest confidante from the late 1880s until her death was Kate Bradbury (later Griffin), 22 years her junior, who accompanied her on her last two journeys: a 120-stop lecture tour of the USA in 1889-90 and a tour of Italy in 1891.
Amelia died of influenza on April 15th 1892 at 3 Royal Crescent, Weston super Mare, a ladies lodging house where she was staying on medical advice. She had spent time in Park Place, Weston, a year before and had only returned three months before her death.
Amelia was buried in St Mary’s churchyard, Henbury, on 21st April. Floral tributes on the coffin included a mass of violets from Kate Bradbury in the shape of an ankh, the Egyptian symbol of life. Amelia’s grave is marked by an obelisk and a stone ankh added later. Her partner of 32 years, Ellen Braysher lies alongside. In 2016 Historic England designated the grave as a landmark of English LGBT history.
A memorial plaque can also be seen on the wall of the site of The Larches in Westbury on Trym. In 2016 a bronze statue of Amelia was unveiled at Amelia Lodge retirement home (named after her), Eastfield Road, Henleaze.
Described as a woman of charm and wit, Amelia Edwards had a huge range of talents and interests and was refreshingly open about her sexuality in an age when this was unusual.
Jonathan Rowe 2021
Amelia Edwards: traveller, novelist & Egyptologist. Joan Rees (1998). Rubicon Press.
Thanks to Margaret C Jones for the following references:
(1) John Addington Symonds told Havelock Ellis the story of Amelia and Ellen’s marriage, a year after Edwards died:
“Another eminent female author among my friends, Miss Amelia B. Edwards, … made no secret to me of her lesbian tendencies. The grande passion of her life was for an English lady, married to a clergyman and inspector of schools. I knew them both quite well. The three made a ménage à trois together; and Miss Edwards told me that one day the husband married her to his wife at the altar of his church – having full knowledge of the state of affairs.”
Source: ‘The Correspondence of John Addington Symonds and Havelock Ellis on the project of sexual inversion’. Sean Brady (ed.), John Addington Symonds and Homosexuality: A critical edition of sources. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012, pp. 239-41, p. 240.
(2) Amelia writes in a letter to a friend, Miss Cave (source: Brenda Moon, More Usefully Employed. EES, 2006, pp. 61-62):
“Mr Byrne preaches tomorrow morning at Horfield … and if it is fine I mean to go.”
Margaret’s book about Amelia Edwards, Lady of the Nile, has been accepted for publication by Bloomsbury.
The obelisk on the grave at St Mary, Henbury, is inscribed:
HERE LIES THE BODY OF AMELIA ANN BLANFORD EDWARDS NOVELIST AND ARCHAEOLOGIST
BORN IN LONDON ON THE 7TH JUNE 1831 DIED AT WESTON-SUPER-MARE ON THE 1ST APRIL 1892 WHO BY HER WRITINGS AND HER LABOURS ENRICHED THE THOUGHTS AND INTERESTS OF HER TIME.
The rear face is inscribed:
SACRED ALSO TO THE MEMORY OF ELLEN DREW BRAYSHER WIDOW OF JOHN BRAYSHER ESQ AND FOR MORE THAN THIRTY YEARS THE BELOVED FRIEND OF AMELIA B EDWARDS [BORN AT GREEN END] NEAR HEMEL HEMPSTEAD [9TH APRIL 1804] DIED AT THE LARCHES WESTBURY-ON-TRYM 9TH JANUARY 1892 AGED 87 YEARS SURELY GOODNESS AND MERCY SHALL FOLLOW ME ALL THE DAYS OF MY LIFE.
To the side is a further inscription:
TO THE BELOVED MEMORY OF SARAH HARRIET ONLY SURVIVING CHILD OF THE LATE JOHN BRAYSHER AND ELLEN HIS WIDOW WHO DIED AT PARIS IN THE FLOWER OF HER AGE …5….OF JU…1864 THIS MONUMENT IS ERECTED BY HER BEREAVED MOTHER IN CONSECRATION OF A GRIEF THAT KNOWS NO ENDING AND A LOVE THAT KNOWS NO CHANGE.