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Amelia Ann Blanford Edwards (1831-1892) (courtesy Getty Images)

With early summer a time for festivals and celebration, Immortal Egypt has been pretty busy. After looking into ‘Paradise by the Pyramids’ at the North’s leading arts and environment festival ‘Big Ideas by the Sea’ before uncorking vintage wines with Cleopatra at Scarborough’s literary festival ‘Books by the Beach’, we’ve just held double celebrations to mark the 140th birthday of Bolton Museum in the formidable presence of the founding mother of British Egyptology, Amelia Edwards - at least in portrait form.

Amelia’s portrait in Bolton Museum with (L-R): Mayoress & Mayor Karen Holdsworth & Cllr Andy Morgan, Curator Ian Trumble, EES Director Dr Carl Graves & us (courtesy H.Lisowski) 

With Amelia’s newly conserved image on loan from the Egypt Exploration Society (EES) which she herself founded to preserve Egypt’s precious heritage, her portrait took its place on the wall on 12th June, the very day the museum itself was founded back in 1884. And with this very special event attended by the Mayor and Mayoress of Bolton, the society’s director Dr Carl Graves spoke eloquently and movingly about Amelia’s life and remarkable legacy from which so many of us continue to benefit (for more see:

Unveiling Amelia’s blue plaque with (L-R back) Dr Chris Naunton, Prof. Geoffrey Martin, Prof. Sir Christopher Frayling, (L-R front) Chris Elliott, Dr Margaret Mountford & Jo in her ‘Team Amelia’ t-shirt (courtesy C.Elliott)

Born Amelia Ann Blanford Edwards (aka ‘Amy’) in 1831, her family home on London’s Wharton Street, now marked by a blue plaque we were privileged to help unveil (above), is where she was home educated before establishing her career as a writer

Yet it wasn’t until she visited Egypt during the winter of 1873-1874 at the age of 42 that she found her true calling. Immediately captivated by the land and its history, Amelia spent much of her lengthy stay visiting, studying and sketching the ancient sites, sensibly shaded beneath her parasol (below). 

Detail of Amelia’s self-portrait with parasol during the cleaning & sketching of the half-buried Abu Simbel temple façade (courtesy EES)

But for all the many wonders she encountered, she was hugely affected by “the fate of every Egyptian monument, great or small... every day, more inscriptions are mutilated, more tombs are rifled, more paintings and sculptures are defaced”, as she wrote in her best-selling book ‘A Thousand Miles Up the Nile’ first published in 1877 (and recently republished by Carl and his colleagues in a splendid new volume to order via

Amelia’s classic 1877 work on the left featuring her own images, with the new expanded colour edition featuring a poignant cover by Deena Mohamed 

And with her words making real impact among a growing fan base of readers, many of them wealthy northerners, Amelia’s creation of the Egypt Exploration Society in 1882 changed the world of Egyptology forever. As the very first organisation dedicated purely to the excavation, recording and preservation of the sites and objects of ancient Egypt, Amelia’s new society may have been based in her birthplace London but very much relied on its ‘local secretaries’ (now ‘local ambassadors’), a network of volunteers working tirelessly around the country to raise both awareness and the funds required to excavate, conserve and publish sites across Egypt. 

As a remarkable legacy which now stands at around 150 sites in Egypt and Sudan and over 350 publications, one of the society’s most effective local secretaries was the dynamic Annie Barlow of Bolton who in one year alone brought in an astonishing 10% of the EES’ entire annual revenue. In return, Annie, like the society’s other fundraisers at the time, received a percentage of finds from the excavations they supported. And presenting her objects to Bolton’s new museum, Annie’s generosity created the core of what soon became a spectacular collection curated by William Midgley. Originally from a Barnsley family, Midgley had relocated over the border and was the first curator of Bolton Museum when it opened in 1884, his appointment very much influenced by Annie, who also encouraged his expertise in ancient textiles to the extent that Bolton now has the finest collection of Egyptian textiles outside Egypt. 

It also houses the UK’s largest Egyptian collection in any local authority museum, the vast majority of its 12,000 objects originating from EES excavations around Egypt and Bolton’s curators having always worked closely with the society created by Amelia and supported so well by Annie. As Bolton’s Cabinet Member for Culture Councillor Nadeem Ayub recently pointed out, “Bolton Museum has a 140-year history of working with international experts in Egyptology and making this world-leading research accessible to the public”.

EES Local Secretary & philanthropist Annie Barlow & EES Local Ambassador & Bolton curator Ian Trumble (courtesy Bolton Museum)

Certainly the two women made an impact they themselves could surely never have imagined, one which continues to resonate today with so many of us, including Bolton curator Ian Trumble. Currently undertaking his PhD research into Annie’s life, he’s also following in her footsteps as an EES Local Ambassador, along with Hazel McGuinness in Wigan, Vanessa Foot in Bristol, Jen Turner in Birmingham and Glasgow, Carl himself in Peterborough and here at Immortal Egypt all across Yorkshire (and anywhere else we happen to be). 

For Egyptology is a subject like no other. Allowing us to study an ancient culture with far more equality between men and women than in many parts of the world even today (see our BBC - History - Ancient History in depth: From Warrior Women to Female Pharaohs: Careers for Women in Ancient Egypt), it is a discipline which has involved remarkable women from its very inception when women were rarely allowed to play such prominent roles in public life let alone in academia.

Indeed, Amelia herself not only made her own living but was a Vice President of the Women’s Suffrage League, perhaps inevitably drawn to Hatshepsut whose reign as female pharaoh was very much appreciated over 3,000 years later when women in our own country were campaigning simply to have the vote! And while Amelia’s work was acknowledged by many of her contemporaries - ‘she knew the whole field of Egyptology better than any man, and no one could approach her ‘word power’ to describe the field, on the side of history, art and exploration’ – she was still heavily criticised by gentlemen of the ‘establishment’, receiving attacks “from academics and from various interested parties who could not, or would not, take a female scholar seriously” (for which see: &

Amelia’s signature (courtesy EES) & her books & letters (from the Peggy Joy Library of Egyptology at

So unsurprisingly my own career path owes an immense amount to Amelia (as outlined in the semi-autobiographical ‘Search for Nefertiti’ Already passionate about ancient Egypt as a small child thanks to my parents’ ancient history books combined with the UK’s first Tutankhamun exhibition in 1972 and my own first visit to Egypt in 1981, it was nonetheless close to impossible to find out how I could actually ‘become’ an Egyptologist in the days before the internet. And with no-one answering my letters asking for advice and school careers people recommending teaching or nursing as a much better idea, I really was lost until 1982 when I saw the BBC’s docudrama ‘For the Love of Egypt’ (below).

BBC’s ‘For the Love of Egypt’ with Amelia Edwards played by Margaret Tyzack (image at

Commissioned to mark the centenary of her society’s founding, the programme was a complete revelation, not only telling Amelia’s own story but the impact she’d made with her society, her books and fundraising lectures taking her as far afield as the US. Giving over 100 lectures during her 1889-1890 American stay, these were later published in book form as ‘Pharaohs, Fellahs and Explorers’, a chapter devoted to Hatshepsut drawing on her lecture ‘The Social and Political Position of Women in Ancient Egypt’ in which she concluded “I only hope that the picture I have drawn… may not have excited a sentiment of retrospective envy in the hearts of the ladies here present. I should indeed be grieved if they went home lamenting that they had not lived and died in the days of the Pharaohs, and that they are not at this moment occupying the proud position of mummies in the British Museum” ( 

Amelia’s US lecture tour reported in the Daily Graphic & her 1873 marble bust by Percival Ball (© Nat Portrait Gallery NPG 929)

Yet this relentless schedule ultimately took its toll. Already weakened by serious health issues, Amelia died in 1892 from a combination of exhaustion and influenza, aged just 60, her grave built into the side of St Mary’s church in Henbury marked by a splendid stone ankh and obelisk within a well-tended churchyard which even has its own grove of palm trees. 

Amelia’s grave at St. Mary’s in Henbury © ImmortalEgypt

But even in death Amelia remained hugely influential, her final act the creation of the first chair of Egyptian Archaeology in Britain, the ‘Edwards Chair of Egyptology’. Having left a bequest to ensure a permanent professorship for her protégé the archaeologist William Flinders Petrie at University College London, her choice was based on the fact that this was the only university in Britain allowing women to study for a degree alongside men. And with a copy of her marble bust (below) having been presented to UCL and housed in the Petrie Museum, I knew UCL was the place for me. 

Amelia’s replica bust at the Petrie Museum (©

Lucky enough to be accepted as one of three (!) students on the Ancient History and Egyptology degree course in 1984 at a time very few places taught Egyptology, we had access to both the Edwards Library originating with Amelia’s own books and the adjoining Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology formed around her own modest collection of antiquities, greatly augmented by artefacts later discovered by Petrie himself (see: The Edwards Museum | UCL UCL Culture Blog & with recent redisplay at: And not only allowed to handle these objects, we were privileged to be taught by two successive Edwards Professors and in particular Dr. David Dixon, who himself had studied under Petrie’s right-hand woman and the UK’s first professional female Egyptologist Dr. Margaret Murray (so in a way my ‘Egyptological grandmother’!).

And as a student obviously having joined the EES myself, its premises just down the road housed Amelia’s portrait. Painted by Florence Blakiston Attwood-Mathews sometime between 1882-1892, the society had presented the picture to Amelia’s friend Emily Paterson who had taken over as society secretary at Amelia’s death. On her retirement in 1919 moving to Cornwall, there the portrait remained too until 1967, when it was returned to the EES, placed above the society’s spiral staircase and adding much to their premises which were certainly atmospheric but not entirely fit for purpose, given the leaky roof and serious structural issues. 

Newly cleaned & conserved portrait of Amelia now revealing the details of her antiquities (courtesy EES)

So as part of the society’s new ‘Building the Future’ Campaign aiming to create a safe and accessible building in which it can share its archive of irreplaceable documents, photographs and pictures, among those now temporarily rehomed is Amelia’s portrait. Recently cleaned to reveal details of the shabti she holds and the smaller figurines, scarabs and mummy bead net on the table beside her, she’s now made her way north to Bolton where she’s been warmly received, Bolton’s Councillor Nadeem Ayub commenting that “in this year, both the 140th Anniversary of Bolton Museums and Bolton’s year as Greater Manchester Town of Culture, we wanted to do something special. Having the painting of Amelia Edwards, who founded the Egypt Exploration Society in 1882, travel to the museum is an honour, and we can’t wait to share and mark this special event with the public.”

Dr Carl Graves with Amelia’s portrait in Bolton Museum (courtesy H.Lisowski)

So now she holds court in the museum’s Chadwick Room gallery, a most appropriate location. For as EES Director Carl himself said, “to see Amelia Edwards displayed opposite Annie Barlow in the gallery reunites these two pioneering women across time and space so that their legacies can be unpacked together in a public venue.” And alongside further images of William Midgley and his son and successor Thomas, the new gallery displays also feature six women who similarly played a role in the development of the Bolton collection – the aforementioned Margaret Murray, pioneering archaeologist Gertrude Caton-Thompson, Irene Burton who donated the mummified body of the Ramesside royal (as featured at, the museum’s first female curator Pauline Beswick and its longest serving curator Angela Thomas, whose kindness and support was so valuable back in 1988 when I first visited the collection during postgraduate research after my time at UCL.

Yet most unexpectedly, the final image in the display is some red-haired woman from Barnsley, although this wasn’t the only surprise during the portrait unveiling, the Mayor announcing the creation of the Lotus Chalice Award “for outstanding contributions to Bolton’s Egyptology collection”. Inevitably shedding more than a few tears to be given such an immense honour which means the world, the resplendent trophy, created by Bolton’s Archaeology & Egyptology Society, is temporarily here at Immortal Egypt HQ before taking its place next month in its own display case close to Amelia, Annie and all those whose joint efforts created a world-class museum with such enduring links to a remarkable society and its pioneering founder.  

Amelia and her watercolour of ‘Arab tombs near Siout (Eastern bank of the Nile) Middle Egypt’, 1877 (courtesy EES)

Watch Carl’s talk ‘Would the Real Amelia Edwards Please Stand Up’ at: with more of the EES and its work at: The portrait’s recent arrival in Bolton is at: and the Lotus Chalice Award at:


William Joy
William Joy
Jun 27

Very pleased to see this blog... thank you for writing it; we too are great admirers of Amelia Edwards! William Joy


Alyssa Williams
Alyssa Williams
Jun 27

What a fascinating read & congratulations on a great honor! I really loved this blog post- getting to know a personage I knew virtually nothing about, plus a bit of your journey-so inspiring!

Jo at Abu Simbel_edited.jpg

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