Born at Boston, Lincolnshire, she was the daughter of William Ingelow, a banker. As a girl she contributed verses and tales to magazines under the pseudonym of Orris, but her first (anonymous) volume, A Rhyming Chronicle of Incidents and Feelings, did not appear until her thirtieth year. This was called charming by Alfred Tennyson, 1st Baron Tennyson who declared he should like to know the author; they later became friends.
Jean Ingelow followed this book of verse in 1851 with a story, Allerton and Dreux, but it was the publication of her Poems in 1863 which suddenly made her a popular writer. They ran rapidly through numerous editions, were set to music, and sung in every drawing-room, and in the United States obtained even greater public acclaim. In 1867 she published The Story of Doom and other Poems, and then gave up verse for a while and became industrious as a novelist. Off the Skelligs appeared in 1872, Fated to be Free in 1873, Sarah de Berenger in 1880, and John Jerome in 1886. She also wrote Studies for Stories (1864), Stories told to a Child (1865), Mopsa the Fairy (1869), and other excellent stories for children. Her third series of Poems was published in 1885. The last years of her life were spent in Kensington, and she outlived her popularity as a poet.
Her poems, collected in one volume in 1898, have often the genuine ballad note, and her songs were exceedingly successful. "Sailing beyond Seas" and "When Sparrows build in Supper at the Mill" were deservedly among the most popular songs of the day; but they share, with the rest of her work, the faults of affectation and stilted phraseology. Her best-known poem was the "High Tide on the Coast of Lincolnshire". The blemishes of her style were cleverly indicated in a well-known parody by Charles Stuart Calverley; a false archaism and a deliberate assumption of unfamiliar and unnecessary synonyms for simple objects were among the worst of her mannerisms.
She wrote, however, with a sweetness of sentiment, and in prose she displayed feeling for character and the gift of narrative; a delicate underlying tenderness is never wanting in either medium. She was a woman of frank and hospitable manners, with a look of the Lady Bountiful of a country parish. She had nothing of the professional authoress or the literary lady about her, and, as with characteristic simplicity she was accustomed to say, was no great reader. Her temperament was rather that of the improvisatore than of the professional author or artist.