Mary Wollstonecraft


Mary Wollstonecraft

Portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft painted by John Opie, c.1797. This portrait was painted shortly before her death in September 1797.

Mary Wollstonecraft is now understood as being one of the most influential women in the history of ideas and in the origins of feminism and the rights of women in Britain. Her link with Southwark is simple. When, in 1787, she decided to become a writer and to devote her life to writing, she came to London and contacted her friend Joseph Johnson, a publisher and leading figure in the radical movements of the time. Johnson agreed to employ her as a writer and translator, and he also found for her lodgings at 45 George Street, Southwark, now called Dolben Street. It was from here in Dolben Street that she launched her career, firstly through publishing her already written novel, Mary: A Fiction, and her works on the education of children, but mostly through meeting radical thinkers at the dinners given by Joseph Johnson, people like Thomas Paine, Willian Godwin, Henry Fuseli, and many others. This culminated in her work Vindication of the Rights of Men, published in 1790.


It was after she left Dolben Street in 1791 that she published A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, but there is no doubt that her time at Dolben Street was the furnace of her intellectual development, and was the site of her most intense creative years.



Blue Plaque

Blue Plaque at 45 Dolben Street

On Sunday 4th July 2004 a Blue Plaque was placed on 45 Dolben Street and unveiled by the author Claire Tomalin, who has written a biography of Mary Wollstonecraft called The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft. Although the house has been rebuilt, this plaque marks the spot where Mary Wollstonecraft lived during those few critical years.


Note on Putney Old Bridge and Mary Wollstonecraft


Putney Old Bridge

Putney Old Bridge, 1793, by J. Farington.

This is a wash drawing of Putney Old Bridge, drawn in 1793 by J. Farington. It was a timber bridge constructed by the master carpenter Thomas Phillips to the design of the architect Sir Jacob Ackworth. Built between 1726 and 1729, it existed up until 1886, when it was demolished and replaced by a new stone bridge. Our interest in it is that this was the bridge from which Mary Wollstonecraft jumped into the Thames in an attempt to kill herself in October 1795, just two years after the drawing was made.


She survived because some unknown person pulled her out of the water (It is stunning to think that some unknown person dragged a desperate woman out of the Thames without knowing that she was such a significant figure in history!)


The bridge also survived, right up to the age of photography. Here is a photograph of it taken in 1875 by Henry Taunt.


Putney Bridge

Photograph of Putney Bridge taken in 1875 by Henry Taunt