Susanna Watts

Self-portrait of Susanna Watts, reproduced courtesy of the Record Office for Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland [Rare Books]Susanna Watts (1768-1842) was born in Leicester’s Danetts Hall, the spacious familial home of her parents John and Joan Watts.Unfortunately, their family position and income were left in severely reduced circumstances by the death of her father in 1769, when Susanna was only 15 months old. She was the youngest of three daughters, and the only child of the family to survive to adulthood. She and her mother lived on a small annuity purchased through the sale of Danetts Hall, a patrimony left by her father and assistance from Susanna’s uncle, William Watts. William died when Susanna was aged 15, just as it was discovered the small patrimony from her father was all but exhausted.  Burdened with supporting both herself and her mother, she turned to writing to supplement their small income.

Susanna’s early writings are reflective of the high level of education she had achieved and her deep interest in other cultures. She was highly adept at languages, largely teaching herself French and Italian, and many of her published works were to be translations. Her first published piece Chinese maxims, translated from The oeconomy of human life, into heroic verse was published in 1784. She also worked for many Image of Tassoyears on a scholarly life and translation of the Italian poet Tasso, which was unfortunately never published. [The image on the left comes from her scrapbook, held by the Record Office for Leicestershire, Leicester and Rutland, which contains this translation, among many other poems, illustrations, and ephemera. Our thanks to ROLLR for allowing this image to be reprinted].

Her other literary works include The Wonderful Travels of Prince Fan-Feredin, in the Country of Arcadia (1799) and collections of hymns and poems. Susanna was also highly artistic, her scrapbook contains several elegant sketches done by her and she received a medal from a society for the encouragement of art for a remarkable landscape picture made from feathers, which was exhibited alongside the work of famous Leicester needle-artist Mary Linwood at her exhibition in London.

Susanna’s artistic and literary endeavour did cause her some pains; she suffered constantly from headaches she believed were linked to the mental strain of constant work and writing. She also feared that by overstraining her mind, she made herself susceptible to the mental illness suffered by her mother in later life.

MapHer desire for knowledge and passion for writing were to play a great part both in her place in the Leicester community and in her engagement with philanthropy and charitable activism. Her 1804 guide book, A Walk Through Leicester, the first to be written for the town in a period where it was far from fashionable to do so in provincial areas, gives a lively account of the rich history behind her contemporary surroundings, displaying a keen knowledge of the settlements development from Roman times and detailing its contemporary changes and expansion in the early decades of the 19th century. Its map, showing the limits of early nineteenth century Leicester, is reproduced on the left. She also wrote several poems celebrating local events of note. Her care for the residents of Leicester is evident in her foundation of the Society of the Relief of Indigent Old Age in the town.

In wider acts of philanthropy, Susanna again employed her pen. Alongside her close friend Elizabeth Heyrick, she was closely involved in the national campaign to abolish slavery in the British colonies. Together they founded, edited and wrote pieces for The Humming Bird (1824-25), the first anti-slavery periodical, and the only one to be edited solely by women. The Humming Bird aimed to disseminate information and arguments as to the immorality of slavery, and was distributed in both London and Edinburgh. Locally, she and Heyrick canvassed door to door in Leicester, persuading grocers and home keepers to boycott slave grown sugar, a task in which they were highly successful. The two friends were also part of a nation-wide network of female abolitionist societies, and contributed written work to the reports of the central Birmingham society whilst managing their own Leicester branch.

Rebecca Shuttleworth, 2014.

Images are reproduced by permission of the Record Office for Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland [Rare Books]

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