Mary Ann Boulton RHS 1973 (532x640)

Mary Ann Robb née Boulton

Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society, 1973, Vol. 98 / RHS Lindley Collections


Mary Ann Boulton was an early photographer and the third woman member of the Photographic Society which she joined in 1853, its founding year.  She was from distinguished industrial heritage as grand daughter of Matthew Boulton (1728-1809), a pioneering manufacturer and leading figure of the 18th century enlightenment.

Boulton created The Soho Manufactory, harnessing development of the steam engine in partnership with James Watt.[1]

Matthew Boulton married Ann Robinson in 1760 (d.1783), and had a daughter Ann (1769-1829) followed by son Matthew Robinson Boulton (1770-1842).  Matthew Robinson Boulton married Mary Ann Wilkinson (1795-1829), the couple had seven children, but in 1829 Mary Ann died at the age of thirty four.

The Boulton’s youngest child, also called Mary Ann, was born on 23rd May 1829 and baptised on 10th June 1829, three days after her mother’s death.

Her maternal aunt Elizabeth Stockdale Wilkinson then took over the primary care of the children.[2]  Miss Wilkinson also became known as a very early photographer.  Some records indicate Mary Ann’s  maternal aunt to have produced Daguerrotype photographs in the early 1840s. [3]   Mary Ann was immersed in photography from its invention, through the influence of her aunt.

On its founding the Photographic Society enshrined into their constitution that ladies were welcome to become full members.  This was a rare concession in mid Victorian England with many professional or social societies still the exclusive preserve of men.  Mary Ann took up the opportunity of Photographic Society membership, was proposed and elected on 31st March 1853, joining Mrs Elizabeth Vignoles and Mrs Amelia Elizabeth Guppy. [4]

The following year saw the first Photographic Society exhibition, open to members and non members.  Mary Ann exhibited one collodion positive photograph entitled A Country House, Oxon. The photograph may have been of Tew Park at Great Tew in Oxfordshire, an estate purchased by her father Matthew Robinson Boulton.[5]  This remains her only recorded exhibit in two years of Photographic Society membership. It nevertheless reflected her love of garden landscape, a passion which was to dominate the latter part of her life.

Mary Ann Boulton lived at Haseley Court, Tetsworth until her marriage to Captain John Robb, RN, in 1856.  Their first son John Montagu Ceasar, was born in Portugal in 1857, their second Frederick Spencer Wilson, was born in London in October 1858.  But tragedy was to strike the young family. Captain Robb died in 1859 leaving Mary Ann a widow with two children at the age of thirty.[6]

In later years Mary Ann cultivated her passion for horticulture and travelled extensively on the Continent in search of plants for the 150 acre garden at her home in Liphook, Hampshire.  She introduced Euphorbia Robbiae to British gardens in 1891, assuming the eponym Mrs Robb’s Bonnet in reference to her famous headgear.[7]

Liphook remained Mary Ann’s home until her death at the age of 83 on 5th February 1912.  Mary Anne Robb was buried in St Michael and All Angels Churchyard, Great Tew, West Oxfordshire.[8]  

She will be remembered by the characteristics of Euphorbia Robbiae, a  perennial evergreen.

My grateful thanks to Graham Harrison, Dr Michael Pritchard, Pete James and Sarah McDonald for their support and assistance.


[1] accessed 11/02/2018

[2] Mason, Shena. The Hardware Man’s Daughter: Matthew Boulton and His ‘Dear Girl’. Stroud: Phillimore & Co, 2005

[3]Boulton, Matthew Piers Watt.  Remarks concerning certain pictures supposed to be photographs of early date. London: Bradbury & Evans, 1865, p.11-15

[4] Members of the Royal Photographic Society, 1853–1901 accessed 11/02/2018

[5]  Photographs Exhibited in Britain 1839 – 1865, Records from Victorian Exhibition Catalogues accessed 11/02/2018

[6] Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society, Mrs Robb and “Mrs Robb’s Bonnet” (Euphorbia robbiae)  July 1793 Vol XCVIII Part 7.

[7] ibid

[8] accessed 11/02/2018

Efforts have been made to establish the owner of the portrait displayed, but without success.  Any information is welcomed.

Note:  The 1829 Baptismal record states Mary Ann Boulton but the Photographic Society records her name as Miss Mary Anne Boulton.  The reference to Anne continues with her married name of Robb in the 1861 census, probate in 1912 and her grave where she is referred to as Mary Anne Robb.