Quakers in the World

Quakers in the World

Elizabeth Heyrick

1769 – 1831

Elizabeth Coltman was born in Leicester into the family of John Coltman, a wealthy cloth manufacturer, who was also a dissenter. Her mother Elizabeth, a skilled craftswoman , reviewed books and wrote poetry, some of which was published. From an early age Bess, as she was known, showed a concern for social issues and a sympathetic disposition to those less fortunate than herself.

Elizabeth was a talented artist and her father considered allowing her to train for a career as a landscape painter. In due course he decided against it and in 1789 she married John Heyrick, a lawyer and joined the Methodists. The marriage started well but became somewhat stormy. John Heyrick left the legal profession and joined the 15th light dragoons where he started to live a licentious lifestyle. He and his wife lived in army barracks in England and Ireland. He died from a heart attack in 1797. Elizabeth was deeply upset and marked the anniversary of his death each year. She decided to move back home and was given an allowance by her father. In 1807 she became a Quaker.

Although she did some teaching she found time for writing and produced many books and pamphlets. Some of these were published anonymously in London and Leicester. Her first work published in 1805 opposed war. She also took an interest in, prisons, corporal punishment, the level of wages and the plight of the poor, election issues and vagrancy legislation. After becoming a prison visitor she at times paid the fines owed by poachers so that they could be freed from prison. In alliance with William Allen of Guy’s hospital she campaigned against capital punishment. But she is probably more famous as an abolitionist.

At that time the national anti-slavery movement’s leaders, all men, were cautious and were working towards gradual emancipation of enslaved people. In 1824 Elizabeth Heyrick wrote a pamphlet entitled “Immediate, not Gradual Abolition or An Inquiry Into the Shortest, Safest, and Most Effectual Means of Getting Rid of West Indian Slavery” which sold thousands of copies in Britain and the USA. She made the case that a boycott of goods produced by slave labour could help to speed up the abolition of this social evil. With Susannah Watts she canvassed large areas of Leicester and promoted a boycott of West Indian sugar. By the following June almost a quarter of the town’s population had given up sugar. She shocked her contemporaries by openly sympathising with the slave revolts in the West Indies.

The influence of this pamphlet spread to the United States of America and caused the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, an admirer of Elizabeth’s work, to support immediate rather than gradual abolition there. Lucretia Mott and others in USA found her work inspirational. Following the publication of her pamphlet more than 70 women’s anti-slavery societies sprang up. This was unusual because at that time women did not have a voice in politics. Her refusal to leave politics as an all male preserve, encouraged many feminists. William Wilberforce, an advocate of gradualism, instructed the leaders of the abolition movement not to speak at the women’s meetings as they supported Elizabeth Heyrick’s stance on anti-slavery. Heyrick, treasurer of the Female Society for Birmingham, threatened to withdraw funding for the Anti-Slavery Society from the female societies. This was a serious threat as the network of ladies’ associations supplied over a fifth of all donations to central funds. At its conference in May 1830, the Anti-Slavery Society agreed to drop gradual abolition and to support the Female Society’s plan for a new campaign to bring about immediate abolition.

Elizabeth had a solid grasp of power systems and the efficacy of pressure groups. She clearly perceived and understood the interdependence of social evils. Unfortunately Elizabeth did not live to see the passing of the Abolition of Slavery Act of 1833, which gave all slaves in the British Empire their freedom. She died in Leicester on the 18th October 1831 and is buried there. She left many unpublished manuscripts, including essays, prayers and sermons. The Brief Sketch of her life published in 1862 was probably the work of a younger relative, Alicia Cooper.


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Further Reading and Credits

Silhouette image of Elizabeth Heyrick reproduced by kind permission of The Library of the Religious Society of Friends, London.