Margaret Brodie Herschel (1810-1884)
Alfred Edward Chalon, 1829
“Great men and great causes have always some helper of whom the outside world knows but little.” Margaret Brodie Herschel
Lady Margaret Brodie Herschel has largely remained in the shadow of her husband Sir John Frederick William Herschel. But her unfailing support, combined with an active shared interest in science and art, provided the cornerstone to family life and extraordinary photographic legacy.
Margaret Brodie Stewart was born on 16th August 1810, second daughter of Presbyterian Minister Reverend Dr Alexander Stewart and his second wife Emilia Calder Stewart in Moulin, Perthshire, Scotland. Dr Stewart died in 1821 leaving his widow to care for their eight children. At the age of eighteen Margaret was introduced to scientist, polymath and astronomer John Frederick William Herschel (1792-1871) through their mutual family friend James Grahame (1790-1842) who observed that she had acquired “a demeanour that belied her youthfulness”. 
Herschel’s “most sincere and affectionate aunt” Caroline Lucretia Herschel (1750-1848) hoped that he would meet “a ‘good-natured, handsome, and sensible young lady”. He wrote to his mother – “M.S. is a being such as I had dreamed of and loved in fancy – but never expected to have met with in this world. Such perfect sweetness of temper, and such calm good sense and innate propriety of thought I have never yet found…”
After a brief engagement Margaret married John on 3d March 1829, beginning a “union of unclouded happiness”. Their forty two year marriage was a meeting of intellectual and artistic minds, a shared journey of discovery with the addition of twelve children: Caroline Emilia Mary (1830-1909), Isabella (1831-1893), William James (1833-1917), Margaret Louisa (1835-1861), Alexander Stewart (1836-1907), John (1837-1921), Maria Sophia (1839-1929), Amelia (1841-1926), Julia (1842-1933), Matilda Rose (1844-1914), Francisca (1846-1932), Constance Anne (1855-1939). 
Constance Anne (née Herschel), Lady Lubbock; Caroline Emilia Mary (née Herschel), Lady Hamilton-Gordon; Margaret Louisa Marshall (née Herschel); Isabella Herschel; Francesca (‘Fancy’) Herschel; Matilda Rose Waterfield (née Herschel)
Unknown photographer, albumen print, circa 1860
Sir William James Herschel, 2nd Bt; Amelia (née Herschel), Lady Wade; Alexander Stewart Herschel; Julia Maclear (née Herschel)
Unknown photographer, albumen print, circa 1860
On 13th November 1833 the Herschel family travelled to the Cape of Good Hope to survey celestial objects in the Southern Hemisphere using John’s 20 foot focal length reflecting telescope. Margaret and John were accompanied by their three young children and returned in 1838 with a further two sons and a daughter, born during their four years at the Feldhausen Estate near the base of Table Mountain, approximately six miles from Cape Town. Margaret kept in regular contact with her mother, aunt Caroline Herschel and other members of the wide circle of family and friends; an extensive collection of her letters to various correspondents provide a valuable narrative of family adventures so far from their home in England.
Whilst at the Cape of Good Hope the camera lucida would become John and Margaret’s travelling companion, to capture views or preserve images of rare South African flora. Herschel had introduced Maggie to the optical aid during their honeymoon in Warwickshire, complementing her accomplished abilities as an artist.
Their collaborative art between 1834 – 1838 displayed Margaret’s mastery of delicate watercolour painting, earning recognition from leading botanist William Henry Harvey. Referring to an undescribed orchid, Harvey announced that he had “taken the liberty to name it in honour of Lady Herschel, whose beautiful drawings merit some gratitude from the Cape Flora.” Margaret completed over one hundred and twenty paintings in four years, some possibly without the aid of a camera lucida, with little prior experience in botanical illustration.
Arguably Margaret’s most remarkable achievement was reported in a letter to her mother in May 1837.Few women had climbed Table Mountain but Margaret joined her husband for the ascent, starting at 6am on 22nd May, by the light of a full moon. She describes breakfasting at 2000 feet, then she “got into the chair which was hung between two long bamboos…” and was carried “across bogs and quagmires” until reaching the summit. She continues, “By walking, riding and being carried, we gained the place where we had breakfasted…” Margaret was four months into her sixth pregnancy.
Margaret assumed many roles within the Herschel home, tutoring her daughters until reluctantly surrendering their education to a governess. “I love too much to give up one day sooner than I am obliged” she wrote about her education of Carrie and Bella whilst in Cape Town. Her days were filled with activity, leaving late evening for reading or writing.
But Margaret grew homesick by 1836, despite their deep attachment to the Cape. Their homecoming to England in 1838 was rewarded with the investiture of a Baronetcy for Sir John and a Royal Society Copley Medal in 1847 for his published astronomical observations. Margaret continued her interest in watercolour art, taking lessons in oil, “content to be left beside the warm stove at my painting”. 
In January 1839 Margaret was contacted by their admiralty colleague Sir Francis Beaufort with news of a curious paper in the Compte Rendus. A further letter from Beaufort to Sir John referred to his letter to Lady Herschel. The Compte Rendus contained the first announcement of Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre’s discovery of fixing images formed in the camera obscura.
Within a few days, William Henry Fox Talbot announced his invention of Photogenic Drawing at the Royal Society, igniting Herschel’s interest and later contributions including introduction of the word “Photography”. The family home at Slough was outgrown by the expanding Herschel family, so a new home was purchased at Collingwood House near Hawkhurst in Kent. It became the focal point for extended family and frequent consultations from scientific colleagues eager to liaise with Herschel.England’s first census in 1841 shows a household of twenty five, including a retinue of fifteen, with Margaret as its manager. Family friend Mary Somerville described her 1848 visit to the Herschel family home – “Collingwood is a house by itself in the world, there is certainly nothing like it for all that is great and good.”
January 1861 brought simultaneous joy and tragedy to the Herschel family. John and Margaret’s daughter, Margaret Louisa gave birth to a daughter, Margaret Alice Edith Marshall, but the young mother died five days later, aged 26. 
Sir John Herschel supported women of talent in an era of exclusion and discrimination. Herschel corresponded with Mary Somerville, joined by Margaret in 1832. Anna Atkins adopted Herschel’s Cyanotype photographic process and Herschel became God father to Julia Margaret Cameron’s first child.
Margaret wrote to congratulate Mary Somerville in gaining Royal Society recognition of her scientific achievements, later assuring her of their continued attachment despite the separation at the Cape.  In 1869 they were still corresponding, discussing the “Women’s Rights question”.
Sir John Herschel died on 11th May 1871 and was buried in Westminster Abbey next to Sir Isaac Newton.   Two months later, family friend Anna Atkins died, bequeathing an extraordinary volume of 455 cyanotype plates and text pages to Margaret Herschel. In 1880 Margaret’s youngest son Colonel John Herschel (1837-1921) collected the loose plates into a bound volume, now owned by the Université de Montréal.
Caroline Herschel’s biography was undertaken by Margaret, ensuring the publication of an accurate and respectful memoir of Caroline’s fascinating life in 1876.The memoir prefaced with a note indicating her influence in Margaret’s life – “…my guiding star and example,…”
Margaret died on 3rd August 1884 and was buried at St Laurence Church, Hawkhurst, Kent, united in a shared memorial with her husband within the nave of the church.
Margaret Brodie Herschel’s life and legacy is remembered and celebrated in her former temporary home of Cape Town, by alumni of the Herschel Girl’s School. The Lady Herschel Alumni Club encourages successive generations to be inspired by her “educated and enquiring mind”.
Grateful thanks to Will Herschel-Shorland for his encouragement, Daphne Beames of Lady Herschel Alumni Club and Sarah French for her continued support
Chambers Patterson, Elizabeth. Mary Somerville and the Cultivation of Science 1815-1840. Boston : Martinus Nijhoff, 1983.
Schaaf, Larry J. Out of the shadows : Herschel, Talbot & the invention of photography. Yale University Press, 1992.
Schaaf, Larry J. Tracings of light : Sir John Herschel & the camera lucida : drawings from the Graham Nash collection. San Francisco : The Friends of Photography, 1989.
Warner, Brian (ed) Lady Herschel : letters from the Cape, 1834-1838. Cape Town : Friends of the South African Library, 1991.
Warner, Brian. Cape landscapes : Sir John Herschel’s sketches, 1834-1838. Cape Town : University of Cape Town Press, 2006.
Warner, Brian, Rourke, John. Flora Herscheliana : Sir John and Lady Herschel at the Cape, 1834 to 1838. Houghton, South Africa : Brenthurst Press, 1998.
Summer pleasures: ‘A Flower of Heath’ for Sir John Herschel https://talbot.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/2015/08/21/a-flower-of-heath-for-sir-john-herschel/
 Herschel, Margaret Brodie. Memoir and correspondence of Caroline Herschel. London : John Murray, 1876. Introduction p.v.
 Stewart, Alexander. Memoirs of the late Rev. Alexander Stewart, D.D. : one of the ministers of Canongate, Edinburgh 1764-1821 https://archive.org/details/melaterev00stew/page/20
 Warner, Brian (ed) Lady Herschel : letters from the Cape, 1934-1938. Cape Town : Friends of the South African Library, 1991. P.9
 Quoted in – Warner, Brian, Rourke, John. Flora Herscheliana : Sir John and Lady Herschel at the Cape, 1834 to 1838. Houghton, South Africa : Brenthurst Press, 1998. p.20
 Feb. 1, 1826. Letter from Miss Herschel to J. F. W. Herschel. Quoted in Herschel, Margaret Brodie. Memoir and correspondence of Caroline Herschel. London : John Murray, 1876. Chapter VI “Life in Hanover”.
 Quoted in – Warner, Brian, Rourke, John. Flora Herscheliana : Sir John and Lady Herschel at the Cape, 1834 to 1838. Houghton, South Africa : Brenthurst Press, 1998. p.19
 Dictionary of National Biography Volume 26, Agnes M Clerke, Herschel, John Frederick William, para.7 “The union was of unclouded happiness.”
 Further details documented here: http://www.postcards-from-slough.co.uk/home/sir-william-herschel/sir-john-herschel-s-family/
 The Herschel Family: An Inventory of Their Papers at the Harry Ransom Center https://norman.hrc.utexas.edu/fasearch/findingAid.cfm?eadid=00568 Accessed 26/07/2019
 Herschel, John F. W. Results of astronomical observations made during the years 1834, 5, 6, 7, 8, at the Cape of Good Hope; being the completion of a telescopic survey of the whole surface of the visible heavens, commenced in 1825. London: Smith, Elder and Co. 1847, p.vi
 Warner, Brian (ed) Lady Herschel : letters from the Cape, 1834-1838. Cape Town : Friends of the South African Library, 1991.
 Schaaf, Larry J. Tracings of light : Sir John Herschel & the camera lucida : drawings from the Graham Nash collection. San Francisco : The Friends of Photography, 1989. p.23
 Also in: Warner, Brian. Cape landscapes : Sir John Herschel’s sketches, 1834-1838. Cape Town : University of Cape Town Press, 2006. “Margaret: The Constant Companion” P.32
 In November 1838 this orchid was named Satyrium papillosum by John Lindley. Quoted in – Warner, Brian, Rourke, John. Flora Herscheliana : Sir John and Lady Herschel at the Cape, 1834 to 1838. Houghton, South Africa : Brenthurst Press, 1998. p.230
 Warner, Brian, Rourke, John. Flora Herscheliana : Sir John and Lady Herschel at the Cape, 1834 to 1838. Houghton, South Africa : Brenthurst Press, 1998. p.3-4 & 88
 Warner, Brian (ed) Lady Herschel : letters from the Cape, 1934-1938. Cape Town : Friends of the South African Library, 1991. p.133-142
 Warner, Brian. Cape landscapes : Sir John Herschel’s sketches, 1834-1838. Cape Town : University of Cape Town Press, 2006. “Margaret: The Constant Companion” P.32
 Royal Society Copley Medal recipients: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1dsunM9ukGLgaW3HdG9cvJ_QKd7pWjGI0qi_fCb1ROD4/pubhtml?gid=1336391689&single=true
 Warner, Brian, Rourke, John. Flora Herscheliana : Sir John and Lady Herschel at the Cape, 1834 to 1838. Houghton, South Africa : Brenthurst Press, 1998. p.263
 Letter ID: Royal Society RS:HS 3.362 Jan 23 / 39 – Final paragraph – “I mentioned yesterday to Lady Herschel a curious paper in the Compte Rendu – If you have it not I will send you one with great pleasure.”
 Schaaf, Larry J. Out of the shadows : Herschel, Talbot & the invention of photography. Yale University Press, 1992. p.174, Note 14 – 23rd January 1839 reminder from Beaufort to Herschel, citing the previous note to Margaret. HS3:362, RSL. Referring to “Fixation des images qui se forment au foyer d’une chambre obscure”, Comptes Rendus hebdomadaires des séances de l’ de l’Académie des Sciences, v. 8 no. 1, 7 January 1839, pp. 4-7.
To begin with, had you considered what it took to run an affluent, sprawling and semi-rural household in the 1850s? I hadn’t, but Herschel, in 1848 made the calculation of residents at Collingwood House in Kent, giving a children-and-servant headcount of thirty-two. Hats off to Margaret Brodie Herschel, therefore, who must have been running the whole show; allowing Sir John to make his observations, run off to London on business, and convert his raw data into serviceable publications.
 Somerville, Mary Fairfax. Personal Recollections from Early Life to Old Age of Mary Somerville. Boston, Roberts brothers, 1874. p.291
 According to www.ancestry.co.uk records Accessed 19/06/2019
 Yorkshire Gazette – Saturday 12 January 1861, p.5 c.5 – Death of Mrs Reginald Dykes Marshall.
 Cox, Julian, Ford, Colin. Julia Margaret Cameron : the complete photographs. London : Thames & Hudson, 2003. p.15 – Julia’s closeness to the Herschels, who had returned to London by then ,is shown by the fact that John Herschel became godfather to the Camerons’ first child and only girl, also named Julia, born in December 1838.
 Chambers Patterson, Elizabeth. Mary Somerville and the Cultivation of Science 1815-1840. Boston : Martinus Nijhoff, 1983. p.130
 Margaret B Herschel to Mary Somerville, 14th April 1869. Bodleian Library Somerville MS. Dep c. 370 Folder MSH – 3 .34: file 42
 Schaaf, Larry J. Sun Gardens Cyanotypes by Anna Atkins. New York: Prestel, 2018. “2. Margaret Herschel’s Legacy, Université de Montréal”, p.177
 Mrs. John Herschel (ed) Memoir and Correspondence of Caroline Herschel. By Caroline Lucretia Herschel, 1750-1848. London: John Murray, Albemarle Street, 1876. https://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/herschel/memoir/memoir.html
 Ibid. Full note quotation dated August 9th 1841 – “Now, my dearest aunt, you must let me make an earnest petition to you, and that is, that you will go on with your memoir until you leave England and take up your residence in Hanover. How can I tell you how much my heart is set upon the accomplishment of this work?…. You know you cannot be idle while you live. But indeed, if I could tell you the influence which a short account by a stranger of your labours with your dear Brother had upon me when a child, and of my choosing you (then so unknown to me) as my guiding star and example, you would understand how the possession of such a record by your own hand would make me almost believe in auguries and presentiments, and perhaps inspire some future generations more worthily, as the record would be more genuine.”
 Date of death documented in probate record, proved at the Principal Registry 12th December 1884.
© Rose Teanby 2021. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. The author disclaims all liability and responsibility arising from any reliance placed on any content or information appearing on this website which may become out of date. The author disclaims all liability and responsibility arising from information supplied by third parties.