Bessie Rayner Parkes 1829 – 1925

Bessie Rayner Parkes 1829 – 1925  was the daughter of the solicitor, Joseph Parkes, was born in 1829. Her grandfather was Joseph Priestley, the scientist and political reformer who was forced to leave the country in 1774.

Bessie’s father was also a Unitarian with radical political views and was a close friend of reformers such as Henry Peter Brougham 1st Baron Brougham and Vaux and John Stuart Mill.

Bessie Rayner Parkes was the mother of Hilaire Belloc and Marie Belloc Lowndes, who wrote of her grandmother in I too have lived in Arcadia that she spent ‘… grandmother, herself, had been, for almost the whole of her life, a homeopath. The doctor thought her much more feeble than when he had last seen her some months before, and when Lily asked if she ought to send for our mother…(Marie Belloc Lowndes, “I, too, have lived in Arcadia”, Volume 1, (Dodd, Mead & company, 1942). Page 387)’. Bessie Rayner Parkes was the cousin (http://www.wrighrp.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk/GD/BLACKWELLA.htm) of Elizabeth Blackwell (1821-1910) whose sister Anna Blackwell (1816-1900) was a friend of James John Garth Wilkinson ‘… We met Anna Blackwell just now… [in Paris]… ‘ Swedenborg Archive K124 [a] Letter from Garth Wilkinson to Emma Wilkinson dated 11.9.1860.

‘… With difficulty they at last succeeded in persuading the obstinate girl [Lizzie Siddal] to visit Dr. Garth Wilkinson [James John Garth Wilkinson], … It was, in fact, Anna Mary [Howitt – the daughter of William and Mary Howitt] and her friends Bessie Parkes and Barbara Leigh Smith [Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon] who had pushed the lovers into active pursuit of remedies…’ (Oswald Doughty, A Victorian romantic: Dante Gabriel Rossetti, (Oxford University Press, 1960). Page 143).

Bessie Rayner Parkes was a friend of John Chapman who was her publisher at the Westminster Review.

Among her circle of friends and acquaintances were Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell, Anna Jameson, George Eliot, Matilda Hays, Adelaide Procter, Isa Craig, William Makepeace Thackeray, Anthony Trollope and Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

In 1846 Parkes met Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon, who was running a progressive school in London. The two women became close friends and over the next few years wrote several pamphlets on women’s rights, including Remarks on the Education of Girls (1856).

Parkes and Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon felt that there was a need for a journal for educated women and in 1858 they founded The Englishwoman’s Review. Parkes became editor and over the next few years she made the journal available to writers campaigning for women doctors and the extension of opportunities for women in higher education.

Parkes continued to publish pamphlets and in Essays on Women’s Work (1866) she argued that the laws of the country were based on the assumption that women were supported by their husbands or fathers, but with a shortage of men in the country, this was becoming less likely to happen. Parkes therefore suggested that it was necessary to improve the standard of education for girls.

In 1866 Parkes joined with Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon to form the first ever Women’s Suffrage Committee. This group organised the women’s suffrage petition, which John Stuart Mill presented to the House of Commons on their behalf.

On a visit to France in 1867, Parkes met Louis Belloc. The couple fell in love and decided to marry. Both families objected to the couple getting married. Belloc was younger than Parkes and had been an invalid for thirteen years. Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon also advised against the relationship but the marriage went ahead.

After Louis Belloc died of sunstroke in 1872, Bessie returned to London with her two children. Belloc had abandoned her Unitarian beliefs and was now a member of the Roman Catholic Church. She was also no longer interested in women’s rights. Her daughter, the successful novelist, Marie Belloc Lowndes, showed little interest in the suffrage movement, and her son, Hilaire Belloc, was one of Britain’s leading anti-feminists, being opposed to both women having the vote or experiencing higher education. Bessie Rayner Belloc died in 1925.

Bessie Rayner Parkes letters regarding John Chapman are held by Janus.

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