I have always loved books from the way they feel to how easily they can transport you to another world. This interest naturally led me to one of my favourite objects in the Museum collection, A Thousand Miles up the Nile (1877) by Amelia B. Edwards.
I began working at the Museum in 2003, and during the early stages of this time the book was laid open in the Egyptian Gallery. I always wondered what the other pages might contain, which only added to the appeal of the book. So, I set about dispelling the air of mystery that surrounds this handsome looking woman.
Amelia Ann Blandford Edwards was born in London on the 7th June 1831. She was the daughter of a middle-aged couple; Alicia, an energetic and intellectual mother and Thomas, a retired army officer serving under Wellington in the Peninsular War, whom upon leaving the army became a banker. Alicia educated Amelia at home and encouraged her to be expressive and daring from an early age. She excelled in writing and showed signs of being very talented in many disciplines such as drawing, music and singing.
Her mother realised this and set about encouraging her daughter to write. She had her first poem published when she was just seven-years-old and her first story when she was twelve. Amelia wrote many successful books, many of which were ghost stories, including The Phantom Coach (1864). Her novels however, as popular as they were, would never be re-printed as often as her travel books. After her parents’ death Amelia was left enough money to do as she pleased and the idea of travel really inspired her. Her first book Untrodden Peaks and Unfrequented Valleys (1873) told of her travels through the Dolomites.
Travelling alone as a woman was unheard at this time and instead, Amelia was accompanied by a female companion. This would not have been a trip that men thought women could or should have attempted to handle. However, the pair braved flies, mud, cold, poor – and often no roads – hostile environments and many other difficulties. In spite of this they seemed to thoroughly enjoy themselves; it is clear that for Edwards the joy and excitement of travelling, the challenge of reaching areas that were almost entirely untouched and inaccessible, and overcoming obstacles that others would not face was a thrill.
After the cold mountain air of the Dolomites Amelia and her female companion chose to head to the warmth of Egypt. Her book A Thousand Miles up the Nile provides details of her travels around Egypt in great detail; a trip that was to become life-changing, as on her return she dedicated her life to the study of Egyptology. Amelia became a committed advocate, and it was around this time that Egyptology was beginning to become professionalised. She used her skills as a writer to help promote the subject and commenced a strenuous lecture tour around England and America.
It is curious how a book written by this formidable woman should bring about one of the founding collections in our Museum; A Thousand Miles up the Nile would be the instrument that would connect Manchester Museum’s Egyptian collection, which was donated by the wealthy cotton merchant Jesse Haworth and William Flinders Petrie – the man who was known as the godfather of modern archaeological techniques and Amelia Edwards.
It was Amelia’s book that inspired Jesse Haworth and his wife to visit Egypt, recreating Amelia’s journey in 1882. Soon after their return they began supporting Egyptology in Manchester with great enthusiasm. It was around this time that Jesse must have met Amelia whom at this point was supporting Flinders Petrie in his pioneering work in archaeology; she would later introduce Jesse to Flinders Petrie. This would lead to the Haworths helping to fund his excavations in Egypt at Kahun and Gurob, where a lot of the Museum’s Egyptian collection came from. Amelia would reassure Petrie that Jesse Haworth did not want to plunder the sites but to preserve them for the future and that he would not interfere with his work.
Later, Amelia and British historian Reginald Poole began planning and promoting the founding of an Egyptological Society. It would meet for the first time in June 1880 at the British Museum, and in 1882 became formally recognised as the Egypt Exploration Fund. However, as the field of Egyptology became increasingly male dominated Amelia found herself excluded from the British Museum; no longer consulted in decision-making or being asked to attend meetings. Despite this however, Amelia continued dedicating her life to the Egyptian Exploration Fund.
Amelia’s health began to decline while on tour in America (1889-1890), and in January 1892 she suffered a personal loss; the woman she travelled with and shared her home for thirty years passed away. Then on April 15th of that year, Amelia also died from influenza. In her will she left her Egyptology library and her collection of antiquities to University College London. She left £2,500 to set up the first Chair of Egyptology, which became the Edwards Chair of Egyptology. It was stipulated that the professorship must go to someone under the age of forty, but that no one at the British Museum must be considered for it; securing the chair for Flinders Petrie.
Amelia herself later signed her book A Thousand Miles up the Nile to Jesse Haworth, which he owned and loved. Along with Curator of Egyptology and Sudan Dr Campbell Price, it was possible to access the book which is currently on display in the Museum’s Manchester Gallery. We did not expect to see Amelia’s signature, but it was there along with her own skilful drawings. In conducting this research I found myself wanting to know more about Amelia and I would now really like to read the book from cover to cover, which may take some time as there are many, many pages!