Elizabeth Heyrick

Elizabeth Heyrick (1769-1831) was born to John and Elizabeth Coltman, members of a dissenting hosiery manufacturing family based in Leicester. They were an intellectual family with close links to radical dissenting circles, counting controversial scientist and preacher Dr Joseph Priestley among their family friends. Elizabeth was an intelligent and wilful child who showed great aptitude in painting. She also showed her natural inclination towards philanthropic endeavours at an early age; family anecdotes include her giving money meant for gingerbread to a beggar, and demanding an ugly kitten be saved from being drowned.

She grew to become a beautiful and headstrong teenager, who after a brief courtship was married to a town clerk, John Heyrick, in 1789 when she was aged just 18. Although the young couple were very much in love, John Heyrick’s jealousy and violent temperament caused many difficulties for Elizabeth. He isolated Elizabeth from her family and instead of continuing as a clerk, enlisted in the army and took his wife to live with him in various barracks across the country. Their Leicester home was a spacious house by Bow Bridge, it was here that John Heyrick died in June 1797, leaving Elizabeth a widow at 28.

Following the death of her husband, Elizabeth returned to her parents’ home and entered a period of deep mourning and spiritual reflection. It was during this time that she began to consider seriously what direction her life should now take. Although her parents wished her to remain at home, she felt she had the capacity for a more active and self-sufficient occupation. She spent much of her time involved in philanthropic pursuits, particularly visiting prison inmates, arguing for less brutal treatment for them and paying the gaol fees of those unable to pay them to secure their freedom. Her charitable works were joined by deep religious introspection that led Elizabeth to an interest in Quakerism. She attended many meetings and talks by visiting preachers before she requested to be formally admitted to the Society of Friends.

Against her parents’ wishes, Elizabeth began making plans to open a school for girls in her old marital home, Bow Bridge House. Despite her family’s objections she successfully founded her own school, becoming self-sufficient. She also began writing for publication around this time, addressing public and political topics of debate, from war to workers’ rights. She wrote several pamphlets condemning the practise of bull-baiting, and went to great lengths to save bulls that were to be baited by in the village of Bonsall, Derbyshire.

The cause for which she was to become most celebrated, and devoted much to her life to, was the abolition of slavery. In 1824, she wrote her first anti-slavery pamphlet, ‘Immediate, Not Gradual Abolition’, which changed the landscape of abolitionist debate by attacking the preferred abolitionist stance of a gradual emancipation, and recommending nationwide boycotts of slave grown sugar to make the practise unprofitable. Together with her close friend and fellow campaigner Susanna Watts, Elizabeth founded The Humming Bird in 1824 – the first anti-slavery journal and only one of its kind to be written by women. In Leicester, the two friends canvassed door to door, persuading residents to boycott slave grown sugar. Elizabeth also acted as the representative of the Leicester branch of the Female Society for the Abolition of Slavery. This society was to form an extensive network across the UK, with the majority of branches rapidly adopting Elizabeth’s call for immediate abolition ahead of their male counter parts.

Sadly, Elizabeth died in 1831, two years before the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833. She continued to write and campaign for this cause and many others up until the time of her death, and was remembered with fondness and respect in her community for her work and unwavering spirit.

Rebecca Shuttleworth, 2014

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