A Quaker Education Part 2: Priscilla Wakefield's Introduction to Botany

June 30, 2015

A Quaker Education Part 2: Priscilla Wakefield's Introduction to Botany

Last week I wrote about a fascinating mathematics textbook "for the use of young ladies" by a Quaker education reformer, and how members of that religious community played an outsized role in the push for women's education and civil rights. Today I catalogued another book written, with young women in mind, by a Quaker activist: An Introduction to Botany in a Series of Familiar Letters, by Priscilla Wakefield.

Wakefield was born in 1751 into a north London Quaker family of long standing, being the great-granddaughter of the Quaker leader Robert Barclay, among whose descendants were “many strong women with force of character” (ODNB). Wakefield certainly lived up to this heritage, and was active in numerous Quaker causes including women’s rights, the anti-slavery movement, practical help for the poor, universal education, and the prevention of animal cruelty. She is even considered the founder of the first English savings banks, having organised a “penny bank” for children and an interest-paying “frugality bank” for the working poor.

In the 1790s Wakefield’s husband encountered business difficulties. She became an author out of financial necessity, but enjoyed the work and continued writing once the immediate crisis was over. Over the next two decades she published seventeen books, “principally moral tales, introductory works of natural history, and travelogues” for children, as well as Reflections on the Present Condition of the Female Sex (1798), which called for improved educational and employment options for women.

Wakefield’s books were successful because their educational content and uplifting tone appealed to middle class parents. “Characteristically they have a family setting and promote a new-style progressive pedagogy based in domestic conversations; mothers often teach their own children, and girls receive attention as much as boys…. Domestic Recreation, or, Dialogues Illustrative of Natural and Scientific Subjects (1805) features a mother and her daughters talking about such topics as the human eye, rainbows, and sea anemones” (ODNB).

“Wakefield also wrote expository natural history books that are part of the Enlightenment history of disseminating science to new audiences.” This book, An Introduction to Botany (1796), “is an account of Linnaean botany in the form of letters between sisters; in print until 1841 it was adapted for the American market and translated into French” (ODNB).

Throughout the text the young protagonists, Constance and Felicia, exchange information about scientific botany, describing how plants are organised into groups based on the close examination and comparison of their different parts, and exhorting each other to collect and examine wild plants. “Whenever you set out on a botanical excursion, remember to put your magnifying glass and dissecting instruments into your pocket, that you may not be obliged to neglect those flowers that are small, for want of this precaution. Always gather several flowers of the same kind, if possible, some just opening, and others with the seed-vessels almost ripe; and as I intend to select our examples from plants of British growth, you must seek for them growing wild in their native fields; nor confine your walks within the limits of a garden wall” (pp. 59-60). The book is also attractively engraved, with twelve plates illustrating the different parts of a variety of plants discussed in the text.

Overall this is a very attractive volume combining the histories of science, women's education, and the Quaker Reform movement.