Women's Writing in the Midlands, 1750-1850

About the Women's Writing in the Midlands project

‘Give the slave his liberty,—in the sacred name of justice, give it him at once.’ Elizabeth Heyrick, Immediate, Not Gradual, Abolition (1824)

The voice of Leicester writer and campaigner Elizabeth Heyrick (1769-1831) rings out bold and clear from her 1824 pamphlet Immediate, Not Gradual, Abolition. Although it had been seventeen years since the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act, slavery still continued, and Heyrick, unlike leading male abolitionists, called for its immediate end – ‘it is utterly astonishing,’ she wrote, ‘that our compassion and sympathy should be so timid and calculating—so slow and cautious’. Direct action was needed – and Heyrick was in the lead. Her pamphlet, first published in Leicester, was widely read in England and America, discussed in the House of Commons, and reprinted in Boston and Philadelphia. Moreover, Heyrick, with her friend Susanna Watts (c.1768-1842), followed it up with door-to-door campaigning, organising a boycott of slave-grown sugar in Leicester in 1824, and collaborating on a female-authored anti-slavery periodical, The Humming Bird.

This was typical of the activities of these two remarkable writers and friends. Heyrick and Watts contributed to many of the major debates concerning human (and animal) rights in the late 18th and early 19th centuries: composing bold feminist poetry, speaking out on a range of social and political topics including workers’ wages and prison reform, and campaigning against cruelty to animals. Indeed, Heyrick would actively intervene to save bulls which were destined to be baited in Bonsall, Derbyshire. Watts’s long poem The Insects in Council suggests that even lowlier creatures deserve the right to freedom: its narrators include a dragon-fly, a bee and a moth, who plead for tenderness and understanding, not ‘the dread boiling water or poisonous pin’.

As well as their campaigning work, the women were skilled in a range of genres. Watts was also the author of the first guide-book to Leicester (1809) and her scrapbook, which still survives in the Record Office for Leicestershire, Leicester and Rutland, is a wonderful embodiment of her creative interests and relationships, including pieces as diverse as her translation of Tasso, anagrams and rhymes of friendship, abolitionist material, family reminiscences and hymns. They were connected with a network of other Midlands writers including the letter-writer, wit and poet Elizabeth Coltman (1761-1838), forgotten needlework artist Mary Linwood (1755-1845), novelists Catherine Hutton (1756-1846) and Eleanor Sleath (1770-1847), and letter-writer Mary Frewen (1753-1811).

The abolitionist work of the women has already been celebrated in an exhibition at the The Record Office for Leicestershire, Leicester and Rutland and in two books by local historian Shirley Aucott, Elizabeth Heyrick 1769 to 1831: The Leicester Quaker Who Demanded the Immediate Emancipation of Slaves in the British Colonies (Leicester, 2007) and Susanna Watts 1768 - 1842. Author Of Leicester's First Guide, Abolitionist And Bluestocking (Leicester, 2004). More details about the women and their work may be found on our project pages.

We commissioned a creative response to the range of writing produced by the women, based on their primary texts and on the rich resources held by the Records Office for Leicestershire, Leicester and Rutland at Wigston Magna. These include Heyrick’s vigorous pamphlets and anti-slavery hymns, Watts’ literary translations, material on the women’s context and lives, and a range of letters and family material. Many of the women’s works are also available on The Internet Archive, but we hoped that the commission would reflect local archival resources too.

About the commission

The Centre for New Writing awarded one creative writing commission as a means of exploring and responding to the theme of Women's Writing in the Midlands, 1750-1850. The commission could focus on either or both of the women's work and/or lives. The commission was performed at the Literary Leicester Fringe.