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Priscilla Wakefield (nee Bell) was born in Tottenham on the 31st January 1751 and was the eldest daughter of Daniel and Catherine Bell of Stamford Hill. Catherine Bell was the daughter of David Barclay of London who was a prominent member of the Quaker movement and one of the founders of Barclays bank. They had 10 children in all, eight daughters and two sons although one or two of the children had died in their infancy.

Priscilla was married in January 1771 to Edward Wakefield (1750-1826) who was a prominent London merchant. They were to have two sons Edward and Daniel and a daughter Isabella.



Priscilla Wakefield was a very successful business woman who also became prominent for her philanthropic undertakings. She was one of the earliest promotors of savings banks which she referred to as ‘Frugality Banks’ and almost the first savings bank in existence was opened by her in what was then Ship Inn yard in Tottenham. It had commenced operations under the auspices of a friendly society established by her in Tottenham in Oct 1798. Another of her undertakings was to form a charity for lying-in woman which was established in 1791.
It was however as writer of children’s books that she became most widely known. Her first publication was entitled ‘Juvenile Anecdotes, Founded on Facts’ which appeared in two volumes between 1795 and 1798. Encouraged by her success she produced many other books of the same nature and some more advanced dealing with science and travel. The best known of her works is ‘The Juvenile Travellers’ that was first published in 1801 of which there were to be a further eighteen editions published until 1850,

Priscilla Wakefield also had a considerable knowledge of botany and natural history and published many books between 1796 until her death in 1832. One of her more famous books was ‘An Introduction to the Natural History and Classifications of Insects’ which was published in 1816.

She was also a devout Quaker but, although she was a member of the Society of Friends and conformed to their religious practice, she did not observe their restrictions regarding dress and abstinence from amusements


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It would appear that the topics of her many publications had few bounds and she wrote about many subjects other than children’s books and nature for which she was most noted. Here are just a few surprising titles from her other works:

‘Reflections on the Present Condition of the Female Sex, with Suggestions for its Improvement’ -London 1798

‘A Family Tour through the British Empire’ -Philadelphia 1804

‘Perambulations in London and its Environs’ London 1810

It has been suggested that being a Quaker was an important part of her life and clearly this influenced many of her stories relating to children’s education, the female sex and the introduction to natural history.




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Oil Painting by
Wheatley, Francis (1747-1801)

Edward and Priscilla Wakefield and
Mrs Wakefield’s sister
Katherine Bell (later Gurney) c1774

Purchased 1985 by Norfolk Museum Service,

Castle Museum, Norwich

The above illustration shows Priscilla Wakefield along with her husband Edward and Priscilla’s younger sister Catherine. Catherine Bell was later to marry John Gurney whose family owned ‘Gurneys Bank’ in Norwich, Norfolk. They were to have six children but their daughter Elizabeth Gurney (Born Norwich 1780) later married Joseph Fry in Norwich on the 19th August 1800. Joseph Fry was also from a banking background and following their marriage they first moved to the City of London and later to East Ham. They had eleven children, five sons and six daughters.

However, Elizabeth Fry (nee Gurney) and the niece of Priscilla Wakefield, became best known as a prison reformer and many will realise that her portrait appears on the reverse side of the 5 note. Prompted by a family friend, Elizabeth Fry visited Newgate Prison. The conditions she saw there horrified her. The women's section was overcrowded with women and children, some of whom had not even received a trial. The prisoners did their own cooking and washing in the small cells in which they slept on straw. This experience established her lifelong dedication to humanitarian work.

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ELIZABETH FRY (nee GURNEY) 1780-1845

In 1840 Elizabeth Fry opened a training school for nurses. Her programme inspired Florence Nightingale who took a team of Fry's nurses to assist wounded soldiers in the Crimean war.

One admirer of Elizabeth Fry was Queen Victoria , who granted her an audience a few times and contributed money to her cause. Another admirer was Robert Peel who passed several acts to further her cause including the Gaols Act 1823.



One of Priscilla’s sons, Edward Wakefield (1774-1854) married Susanna Crash on the 3rd Oct 1791 in Felstead Essex. They had ten children in total but five of their sons were later to become prominent in the colonisation of Australia and New Zealand.

Edward Gibbon Wakefield - Daniel Bell Wakefield – William Hayward Wakefield –Arthur Wakefield - Felix Wakefield

Perhaps the most prominent of these brothers was Edward Gibbon Wakefield (1796-1862) born in London 20th March 1796, and was educated at Mr. Haigh’s school in Tottenham and later in Edinburgh.

He served as a King's Messenger, carrying diplomatic mail all about Europe during the later stages of the Napoleonic Wars, both before and after the decisive battle of Waterloo. In the year 1816 he ran off with a Miss Eliza Pattle and they were subsequently married in Edinburgh.

The driving force in Edward Gibbon Wakefield's life was his appetite for power and influence. His father had been so wrapped up in his intellectual and philanthropic concerns, that he threw the burden of raising a young family on his wife. Stricken with chronic ill health to the point of semi-invalidism, she was not able to cope domestically, or control little Edward. To help out, the undisciplined child's grandmother, Priscilla Wakefield, took him and his elder sister into her London house for lengthy periods.

In 1831 Edward Gibbons Wakefield became involved in various schemes to promote the colonisation of South Australia. He believed that many of the social problems in Britain were caused by overcrowding and overpopulation and he saw emigration to the colonies as a useful safety valve. Following his initial involvement with the colonisation of South Australia, he then turned his attention to Canada. He was asked to join Lord Durham to help suppress the 1837 Rebellion in Lower Canada.

By 1838 however he was drawn to New Zealand where he helped form The New Zealand Company. At a meeting in March 1839, Wakefield was invited to become the director of the New Zealand Company. He was later joined by his son, Edward ‘Jerningham’ Wakefield (1820-1879) and his younger brother William Hayward Wakefield (1801-1848). His other brother Arthur Wakefield (1799-1843) was also to join them and help in founding the new settlement at Nelson New Zealand.

These members of the Wakefield family were to become very prominent in early New Zealand politics and became known as the ‘Wakefieldites’. In the very first New Zealand Parliament established in 1854 there were two if not three members of the Wakefield family elected. The third person was named Dillon Bell and, since Priscilla Wakefield was a member of the ‘Bell’ family, it is just possible to speculate that there could be a family connection.



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The 1st New Zealand Parliament – Wakefield Family Members Listed:
Edward Gibbon Wakefield Hutt Wellington 18th August
Jerningham Wakefield Christchurch County Canterbury 27th August
Dillon Bell Short Term Member - Could he be related to Wakefield family?




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Mrs. Priscilla Wakefield died at the house of her daughter, Isabella Head, (nee Wakefield) on Albion Hill, Ipswich, on 12 September 1832, and was buried on 20 December in the Friends' burial-ground at the New Meeting House, Ipswich.

There is a plaque dedicated to the life and works of Priscilla Wakefield that is located at High Cross Tottenham close to the place where she was born.


FOOTNOTE: The Missionary John Williams was also born in Tottenham in 1796 and his family would have been neighbours of the Wakefield family on Tottenham Green. He was of an identical age to Edward Gibbon Wakefield and it is interesting to speculate whether these childhood friends may have been known to each other during their time in the south seas. John Williams was killed by cannibals on the island of Erromanga in the South West Pacific in1839. His story is also featured on this website.





It is somewhat fitting that there is today a care home in Tottenham that has been named after Priscilla Wakefield and no doubt her name reflects the care she extended towards socially dependent people during her lifetime and also her pioneering work in nursing.

   Article prepared by Alan Swain – December 2015

   Background Image- Fly Sheet - An intoduction to Botamy by Priscilla Wakefield

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