Florence Nightingale, 1820–1910

The Lady with the Lamp transformed the nursing profession, making it a respectable role for women and saving countless lives by implementing simple changes. During the Crimean War (1853-6), Florence Nightingale was sent to the field hospitals in modern-day Turkey. There, amongst other things, she introduced regular handwashing and the provision of clean clothes for patients, which saw rates of infection drop, as well promoting a high level of dignity and care to the soldiers she was looking after. Nightingale’s reports on patient living conditions prompted a Royal Commission into the health of the British Army. In 1860, she opened the world’s first secular nursing school in London and the advice in her book Notes on Nursing is still used as a practical guide to hygiene and caring.

Nursing pioneer and healthcare reformer Florence Nightingale
Nursing pioneer and healthcare reformer Florence Nightingale. (Photo by London Stereoscopic Company/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Charles Darwin, 1809–82

The so-called father of evolution, Charles Darwin became interested in the natural world from a young age, but he dropped out of medical school and subsequently took up theology. In 1831, Darwin took up the position of naturalist on HMS Beagle, beginning a five-year voyage that would change his life. Exploring remote parts of the world, including the Galápagos Islands and Brazil, Darwin examined fossils, plants and animal samples, and on his return formulated his theory that evolution took place by natural selection – that the fittest of a species survives to pass on its characteristics. Darwin’s ideas, despite contradicting the teachings of the Church, were published in his 1859 book On the Origin of Species. By the time of his death, in 1882, Darwin’s theories on evolution had been widely accepted by the scientific community.

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Isambard Kingdom Brunel, 1806–59

Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
Isambard Kingdom Brunel. (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)

Engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel was the mastermind behind some of Victorian Britain’s greatest engineering feats – from Bristol’s Clifton Suspension Bridge and the SS Great Britain to an entire railway network. Brunel’s first major engineering achievement was helping his father, also an engineer, build the Thames Tunnel – the first tunnel to be built under a navigable river. In 1833, Brunel became Chief Engineer for Great Western Railway and built a network of tunnels, viaducts and bridges on the route between London and Bristol.

Sir Robert Peel, 1788–1850

Serving twice as British Prime Minister, Robert Peel brought in many reforms that changed Britain for the better. As Home Secretary he helped promote Catholic Emancipation, while as Prime Minister he improved conditions for the working classes – especially those working in mines and factories. Peel is also seen as the father of modern British policing with his introduction of a professional and full-time police force for London – a reformed style of policing that quickly spread across the country.

Sarah Forbes Bonetta, 1843–80

Born into the royal family of the West African Yoruba people, Aina (her name at birth) was captured during a slave-hunt war in which her parents were killed. At just five years old, she was taken as a slave by the king of Dahomey, in modern-day Benin. A British Navy captain – sent as an emissary to Dahomey – was given the girl as a suitable gift for Queen Victoria. Aina was baptised and given an English name, Forbes for the captain and Bonetta after his ship. Victoria was charmed by the young girl and became her protector, funding her education. Aina – now named Sarah – was a regular visitor to Windsor Castle and impressed the court with her academic abilities. At 19 she married a Yoruba businessman and philanthropist; they returned to Africa and raised a family. Sarah kept in touch with the queen and was given permission to name her first daughter Victoria – with the monarch standing as godmother. After Sarah died from tuberculosis, aged 37, Victoria continued to provide an annuity for the child.

Sara Forbes Bonetta, god-daughter of Queen Victoria, with her husband James Davies
Sara Forbes Bonetta, god-daughter of Queen Victoria, with her husband James Davies. (Photo by Camille Silvy/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Ada Lovelace, 1815–52

Daughter of the poet Lord Byron and Annabella Milbanke, Ada Lovelace is widely considered the world’s first computer programmer. Annabella, herself a highly educated woman, promoted her daughter’s interest in logic and mathematics. When she was just 17, Ada met mathematician and inventor Charles Babbage and became fascinated with his Analytical Engine – an automatic mechanical digital computer. She would later translate an article about the Analytical Engine by Italian engineer Luigi Federico Menabrea, adding her own notes (three times longer than the original text) which contain what is considered to be the first computer program or algorithm, and demonstrating her awareness of the machine’s future potential. There is still debate about how much Ada contributed to Babbage’s work and who wrote about what first, but she is remembered for her vision in an era of great restrictions for women.

Ada Lovelace
Ada Lovelace. (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)

Emily Brontë, 1818–48

One of the talented Brontë siblings, Emily lived most of her life on the remote Yorkshire Moors with her family. Her only published novel – the dark and tragic Wuthering Heights – is considered a classic of English literature. Along with sisters Charlotte and Anne, Emily was first published under a pseudonym in a book of poems. She died in 1848 of tuberculosis, less than three months after her brother Branwell.


This article first appeared in the October 2020 issue of BBC History Revealed


Emma Slattery Williams was <BBC History Revealed’s staff writer until August 2022, covering all areas of history – from Egyptian pharaohs and pirate queens to Queen Victoria and Marilyn Monroe. She also compiled HistoryExtra’s Victorian newsletter and interviewed historians on the HistoryExtra podcast.. She studied both History and English at Swansea University.