Mary Kingsley

(notes edited by John McGivering and John Radcliffe)



ORG Volume 5, page 2609 records the first appearance of this memoir (Uncollected No. 263) in The Journal of the African Society for October 1932, together with a review of Stephen Gwynn’s The Life of Mary Kingsley. [This was Stephen Lucius Gwynn, 1864-1950, journalist, biographer and MP, not to be confused with Howell Arthur Gwynne, 1865-1950, Reuter’s correspondent in South Africa during the Second South African War, and for a few weeks in 1900 with Kipling on the editorial staff of The Friend of Bloemfontein newspaper].

“Mary Kingsley” is collected in the Sussex Edition Vol. XXX, and the Burwash Edition Vol. XXIII.

The memoir

This is a brief but heartfelt tribute to Mary Henrietta Kingsley (1862-1900), the indomitable Victorian writer, naturalist, and West African explorer, whom Kipling and his wife met on several occasions in England and South Africa. and whom he greatly admired.


There are thirty-odd biographies of Mary Kingsley, including Gwynn’s mentioned above. A selection of further reading about her is listed in Wikipedia. There is a recent (2020) and particularly vivid account by Sarah LeFanu of her life and work. There is also an article about her by John Shearman in KJ 244/12 for December 1987.

John Shearman points out that the date of her first meeting with Kipling is open to question. In Something of Myself page 77, written in 1936, he seems to place it in the time soon after his return to England from India:

… in the autumn of ’89, I stepped into a sort of waking dream when I took, as a matter of course, the fantastic cards that fate was pleased to deal me. Yhe ancient landmarks of my boyhood still stood. There were the beloved Aunt and Uncle , the little house of the Three Old Ladies, and in one corner of it the quiet figure by the fireplace composedly writing her next novel on her knee. It was at the quietest of tea-parties, in this circle, that I first met Mary Kingsley, the bravest woman of all my knowledge.

He goes on to describe walking and talking with Miss Kingsley through the streets of West London, and absent-mindedly asking her to ‘ Come up to my rooms, and we’ll talk it out there’. They could not do so, on Kipling’s account, since in the 1890s it would have been a social impossibility for a single woman thus to visit a man. However, as Shearman points out, Kipling vacated his rooms in Villiers Street in August 1891 at the latest, while Mary Kingsley’s first West African journey was two years later, in 1893. So, writing some forty years later, Kipling must have misremembered. Shearman suggests that the meeting may have been between April and 5 August 1894, or even after her second journey, which ended in November 1895.

Shearman’s article is well worth reading, together with further valuable contributions by Lisa Lewis (KJ 249/30) and Norah Crook (KJ 246/45).

Though Mary Kingsley observed Victorian social conventions while in England, she was anything but conventional in Africa. In Imperial Adventuress by Dea Birkett (Macmillan Academic and Professional 1992), Miss Kingsley is quoted as saying: ‘I wish those who know a little English wouldn’t call me“Sir”. I never went in for being anything but a most respectable old maid in my life.’ But Dea Birkett comments:

Soon Kingsley began to believe in her own male power. Even in her private journals, when talking about her travel adventures, she would refer to herself in the masculine. Later, trekking the pavements of Kensington lost in conversation with Rudyard Kipling over West African cannibals, this male identity would rise unconsciously.

Notes on the Text

Some years before the Boer War the Second South African War broke out in October 1899.

three delightful old ladies They were the sisters Mary and Georgiana Craik, and their friend Miss Winnard, of 26 Warwick Gardens, Kensington. The Miss Craiks were the daughters of the literary scholar George Lillie Craik. Georgiana, later Mrs. May, was a prolific writer of novels. Between Alice Kipling’s departure for India and Rudyard’s first attenbance at USC, he and his sister stayed with the Misses Craik. (See Lisa Lewis in KJ 249/30).

disinterested impartial – not biased by self-seeking.

Victorian Queen Victoria reigned from 1837 to 1901, an era in which quiet behaviour and good manners were greatly valued socially.

crocodiles large amphibious carnivorous reptiles up to 20 ft. (6m.) long, found in many rivers in Africa and India. Kipling wrote of them with relish in “The Undertakers” (The Second Jungle Book) and “The Elephant’s Child” (Just So Stories).

some forlorn West African detachment the Royal West African Frontier Force was formed in 1900, so this is probably a contingent from a British regiment serving in West Africa – not a very popular station, hence ‘forlorn’.

Addison Road to Knightsbridge Andrew Lycett (page 268) describes how Kipling travelled up from Tisbury to London for formal dinners:

On these occasions he stayed, as on his honeymoon, in Brown’s Hotel, slipping out once to tea with his ‘dear ladies’ in Warwick Gardens where he met the explorer Mary Kingsley, just back from her first West African epxdition….

Simon’s Town British naval base, and the site of a prison camp during the Second South Afrucan War. See “Judson and the Empire” (Many Inventions), and “The Captive and “Mrs. Bathurst” (Traffics and Discoveries).

Wynberg a district near Capetown, at one time with a hospital and garrison. Kipling and his family lived in a boarding-house in the winter of 1897 (Something of Myself, p. 148). He also visited hospitals there during the war (p. 151).

stoep (Afrikaans) the verandah around a traditional Dutch Colonial house.

malaria see Dr. Gillian Sheehan’s notes.

Quartermaster a senior rating who steers the vessel under the direction of the officer-of-the watch, and carries out other duties in harbour.

this was how we buried Mary There is a conflict of evidence over the vessel from which Mary Kingsley was committed to the sea. Gwynn’s biography, confirming the account of Kipling’s quartermaster, says (p. 250):

A party of West Yorkshires, with band before them, drew the coffin from the hospital on a gun-carriage to the pier at Simonstown, where a launch took it to Torpedo-Boat No. 29 which put to sea and, rounding Cape Point, committed her to the element in which she had chosen to be laid.

However, The Times of 17 August 1900 reported:

Miss Kingsley’s remains were accorded the rare if not unique honour of a woman’s (sic) of both a military and naval funeral. The military service having been performed on shore the coffin was placed on board Her Majesty’s ship Thrush and committed to the deep with naval honours some 20 miles from the shore.

[J. H. McG./J.R.]

©John McGivering and John Radcliffe 2009 All rights reserved