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How Ipswich go-getter Elizabeth Cobbold broke into a ‘man’s world’

PUBLISHED: 12:05 20 January 2020 | UPDATED: 14:34 23 January 2020

Elizabeth Cobbold, painted by Daniel Gardiner or George Frost. This features on the cover of Adele Mallen’s book   Picture: The Cobbold Family History Trust

Elizabeth Cobbold, painted by Daniel Gardiner or George Frost. This features on the cover of Adele Mallen’s book Picture: The Cobbold Family History Trust

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Her achievements in science, literature and the arts ‘defied the established view of women, who were expected to suppress their own interests’

A pen and ink illustration of Holywells, Ipswich, taken from Elizabeth Cobbold’s scrapbook, 1820   Picture: The Cobbold Family History TrustA pen and ink illustration of Holywells, Ipswich, taken from Elizabeth Cobbold’s scrapbook, 1820 Picture: The Cobbold Family History Trust

It was memorable, that spring day in 1810, but it should have been even more special for brewer's wife Elizabeth Cobbold. A scientific paper she had prepared was being presented to a learned society concerned with biology. The subject: "Remarks concerning the Fasciola Hepatica." That, to you and me, is a parasite that makes sheep livers rot.

Two problems. Convention meant this "lady of Ipswich", as she was called, could not read out her own work... because she was a woman. She couldn't even attend that April gathering of The Linnean Society - to hear her paper being delivered by a male substitute - because she was a woman.

The quest for gender equality had a long journey ahead of it. But it had begun its trip.

As biographer Adele Mallen says: "By her actions, her speeches and her self-confident attitude to life, Elizabeth Cobbold, like many similar females of her class, was perhaps unwittingly pushing the boundaries of female participation, which would allow those who came after her to build on her achievements." Elizabeth's "outstanding knowledge" of zoology and mineral conchology (the study of mollusc shells) was recognised by academics "and was at a level well above that expected of a woman. She was also politically engaged, unusually for a woman of that time".

Elizabeth wasn't blindsided by matters intellectual, though. She also helped those in need - running, for instance, an organisation called Charity for the Clothing of the Infant Poor.

And she threw a good party.

Her St Valentine's Day gatherings were held initially at a Cobbold house called The Cliff, by the River Orwell. (In our time, that building became The Brewery Tap pub and restaurant.) Later parties were further out of town, at the family's Holywells mansion in Ipswich.

They were the social event of the year, and their hostess a leading light in the social and intellectual life of the borough.

A young Elizabeth Cobbold, captured by an artist unknown  Picture: The Cobbold Family History TrustA young Elizabeth Cobbold, captured by an artist unknown Picture: The Cobbold Family History Trust

"For these occasions, Elizabeth designed and executed a delicate paper-cut valentine for each of her unmarried guests." Surviving examples are coveted by collectors, particularly in America.

Elizabeth even came to the attention of Charles Dickens, and inspired Pickwick Papers character Mrs Leo Hunter.

Trapped in domesticity

Elizabeth Knipe was born in Watling Street, London, in 1765. Father Robert was a merchant. Elizabeth grew up mainly in Manchester and Liverpool. She was largely self-taught, though received a basic education thanks to mother Alice.

Even so, young Eliza (as she was known) was in effect "trapped in a woman's world of domesticity", suggests Adele Mallen.

Her life "demonstrates the difficulties experienced by women in trying to break free from the limits imposed upon them by a male-dominated society. Through her own considerable intellect and boundless self-confidence, she managed to make inroads into areas previously inhabited only by men".

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Elizabeth was 18 when she published her first work. Four years later came half a dozen poems dedicated to artist Sir Joshua Reynolds.

During a tour of the Peak District she met wealthy William Clarke, comptroller (effectively manager) of customs in Ipswich. He'd been joint mayor five times and a chief magistrate. He also traded in salt.

They married in 1790. The bride was 25, her groom in his early 60s. Sadly, he was in poor health and died less than four months later.

Elizabeth found herself a widow in a town, Ipswich, she hardly knew. She was, though, very wealthy, inheriting his property, including houses, shops and warehouses.

It wasn't long before she was courted by also-rich widower John Cobbold - brewer, businessman and father of 15 children. They married in 1791.

The couple had seven children together; and Holywells became a place of literature, theatre, music, art and science. Elizabeth even had a fossil shell named in her honour: Nucula Cobboldiae.

She published poems over a couple of decades. Ode to the Victory of Waterloo was dedicated to the Prince Regent, with proceeds helping good causes.

A shining example

John Cobbold was "content to allow her to follow her own interests to a very large degree".

Adele writes: "Elizabeth was able to indulge her tastes for letter-writing to friends, keeping up with the latest scientific researches, attending social gatherings, learning about the latest botanical discoveries, all in addition to bringing up her new, large, and subsequently-increasing family."

She explains: "The pursuit of her interest in science, literature and the arts, at a level where she was able to communicate with some of the eminent personages of the day, defied the established view of women, who were expected to suppress their own interests and spend their time supporting their husbands and rearing their children."

Elizabeth - who had earlier pushed the "boundaries of femininity when she had two books of romantic poetry published boldly under her own name" - was "a shining example of that kind of women across the country in the latter part of the eighteenth century and beginning of the nineteenth century who by their position in society challenged prevailing views of the place of women in the home..."

Female polymath

Elizabeth was taken ill in the summer of 1824 and died in the October. She had packed a lot into less than 60 years.

Adele laments the fact Elizabeth's achievements in science, literature and the arts have been obscured by the passage of time, but says she "can most rightly be regarded as an eighteenth-century female polymath".

Elizabeth Cobbold - Georgian Polymath is published by The Cobbold Family History Trust at £10 (plus postage). www.cobboldfht.com. It is also due to be stocked by Ipswich Tourist Information Centre in St Stephen's Church, opposite the Buttermarket Shopping Centre


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