Jessie Fergus (1794-1863) was the last of seven women to join the new Photographic Society in its inaugural year 1853.[1]  Though her membership extended over four years, no image of Jessie or created by her has been traced to date.

Janet (Jessie) Fergus was born on 18th July 1794, second daughter of Walter Fergus Esq. and Charlotte Brice Whyt(-1833).  She was baptised on 1st August 1794 [2]and lived in Kirkaldy, Fife, Scotland with her sisters Elizabeth (1792-1862), Charlotte (1795-1888), Isabella (1798-1887), Jane (1804-1882) and younger brother John (1797-1865).[3] 

1839 heralded the announcement of the invention of photography, but also the controversial marriage of Jessie’s sister to exiled Italian Count Carlo Pepoli.[4]This event and others relating to the Fergus family are mentioned in the correspondence of family friends Jane Carlyle and her philosopher husband Thomas Carlyle.[5] [6]

The 1851 English census shows Jessie (Janet) Fergus and her brother living at 11 Hereford Street, Westminster, London.[7] John had become M.P. for Fife[8], attended by eight members of household staff.  John Fergus was described as “..a Liberal, in favour of Free-trade, reform, the ballot, extended suffrage and secular education.”[9]

Whilst resident in London John Fergus took advantage of society memberships based in the capital, including Royal Institution (1851, 1852, 1853)[10]and Royal Society of Arts (1853)[11], whose membership listings also included Count de Montizon.

Jessie’s 1853 Photographic Society membership was proposed by Count de Montizon,[12] an early exponent of photography and founder of the Photographic Society, perhaps due to his acquaintance with John Fergus.  Royal Photographic Society archives document Jessie’s address as Kirkaldy, joining the society on 27th October 1853, but the address quoted by John Fergus in his 1853 membership of the Royal Institution was 86, Eaton Place (London). 

Sharing her time between England and Scotland, Jessie appears to be committed to the new art of photography, joining both societies in their founding year. She completed the female trailblazers of the first Photographic Society in the world, Elizabeth Vignoles, Amelia Elizabeth Guppy, Mary Anne Boulton, Catherine Verschoyle, Lady Emily Payne-Gallwey and Lady Caroline Kerrison.

The Photographic Society of Scotland was established in 1856 and Jessie joined a stellar cast of talent including David Octavius Hill, Sir David Brewster, Thomas Keith, John Thomson and Sir Hugh Lyon Playfair. In 1856 women were represented by “Miss Fergus of Whythouse, Kirkcaldy, Fife”, with Lady Macdonald, Lady Matheson, Miss Nelson and Miss Catherine Sinclair.[13]

Jessie resigned her Photographic Society membership on 16th February 1858 but her participation in the Photographic Society of Scotland Exhibitions in 1858 and 1859 demonstrate a continuing interest in photography.[14]Miss Fergus may have been the photographer of a collodion Portrait of Burns, from Nasmyth’s Picture, exhibited by John Dunlop in 1858; the photographer remaining enigmatic, described as “A Lady”.[15]

By 1861 Jessie was living in South Kensington, London.[16]  She visited Italy, Sorrento near Naples being the new home of John Fergus. She died on 27th March 1863 in Rome,[17] the close bond with brother John enduring to the end of her life.


My grateful thanks to Roddy Simpson for his guidance

Also Rachel Nordstrom, Photographic Collection Manager, University of St Andrews for her generous assistance


[1]  Accessed 12/11/2018

[2] Scotland’s People Janet Fergus Page 49 of 268, National Records of Scotland  Accessed 31/10/2017

[3]  Accessed 12/11/2018

[4] Margaret C. W Wicks, The Italian Exiles in London, 1816-1848, Manchester : Manchester University Press, 1937.p. 177

[5]  Accessed 12/11/2018

[6] Thomas Carlyle to Jane Welsh Carlyle, 26 August 1838 Accessed 18/11/2018

[7] Entry 75, Parish of St Georges Hanover Square

[8] 1855 Dunfermline Register p.4, Members of Parliament – John Fergus, Esq. of Strathore, for the County.

[9] Illustrated London News, May 23 1857, p.503 The New Parliament. List of places represented and the names of the members of the new House of Commons – Scotland.

[10] List of Members of the Royal Institution of Great Britain, May 1851

[11] List of Members of the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, September 1854, 101st session 1854-5, page V, “1853 John Fergus, M.P., Kirkaldy”

[12]  Accessed 12/11/2018

[13] The Photographic Society of Scotland, List of Members 1856  also  Accessed 18/11/2018

[14]  Accessed 03/12/2018

[15]  Accessed 03/12/2018

[16] Census 1861, 1 Queens Gate Gardens, Fergus, Jessie aged 66

[17] Probate p.199, Fergus, Janet otherwise Jessie, 20th July 1863, John Fergus of Sorrento was sole executor.


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