Elizabeth Coltman was born in Leicester on 4th December 1769. Her father, John Coltman, was a successful worsted manufacturer. Her mother, Elizabeth Cartwright (1737–1811), was a published poet and book reviewer. John Wesley visited the family home in 1785. (1)
Elizabeth, known as Bess when young, "was singular in her childhood" and it was said that when she gave her "pennies to a beggar and choosing for rescue a plain kitten in preference to a pretty one". Her talent for landscape painting gave her father "half a mind" to "make her artist" like Angelica Kauffman. (2)
On 10th March 1787 Elizabeth married John Heyrick, a Methodist lawyer. Elizabeth Heyrick was still childless when her husband died of a heart-attack eight years later. According to her biographer: "The marriage was said to have been stormy, but she mourned fervently, with lifelong observance of the anniversary of his death. They had no children." (3)
After the death of her husband Elizabeth Heyrick moved back into her parents home. Elizabeth, now a member of the Society of Friends, renounced all worldly pleasures and devoted herself to social reform. A follower of Tom Paine, she campaigned against bull-baiting and became a prison visitor. Elizabeth also wrote eighteen political pamphlets on a wide variety of subjects including, the Corn Laws. In one pamphlet she pointed out that a women was "especially qualified to plead for the oppressed." (4)
Adam Hochschild has pointed out that Elizabeth Heyrick was a committed political reformer "She (Elizabeth Heyrick) stopped a bull-baiting contest by buying the bull and hiding it in the parlor of a nearby cottage until the angry crowd went away. To experience the life of Irish migrant workers, she lived in a shepherd's cottage eating only potatoes. She visited prisons and paid fines to get poachers released... She called for laws reforming prisons and limiting the workday; she supported a strike by weavers in her hometown of Leicester, even though her own brother was an employer in the industry." (5)
Heyrick's main concern was the campaign against slavery. Her elder brother, Samuel Coltman, had been part of the original abolition movement in the 1790s. (6) It is claimed that Elizabeth was influenced by the ideas of the Unitarian movement. "Many unitarians concluded that the only significant difference between women and men was men's capacity for physical force. There appeared no 'natural' reasons why women should not use their capacities for intellectual and moral growth to bring social progress, including the removal of slavery as an institution that stunted intellectual and moral growth." (7)
In 1824 Elizabeth Heyrick published her pamphlet Immediate not Gradual Abolition. In her pamphlet Heyrick argued passionately in favour of the immediate emancipation of the slaves in the British colonies. This differed from the official policy of the Anti-Slavery Society that believed in gradual abolition. She called this "the very masterpiece of satanic policy" and called for a boycott of the sugar produced on slave plantations. (8)
In the pamphlet Heyrick attacked the "slow, cautious, accommodating measures" of the leaders. "The perpetuation of slavery in our West India colonies is not an abstract question, to be settled between the government and the planters; it is one in which we are all implicated, we are all guilty of supporting and perpetuating slavery. The West Indian planter and the people of this country stand in the same moral relation to each other as the thief and receiver of stolen goods". (9)
The leadership of the organisation attempted to suppress information about the existence of this pamphlet and William Wilberforce gave out instructions for leaders of the movement not to speak at women's anti-slavery societies. His biographer, William Hague, claims that Wilberforce was unable to adjust to the idea of women becoming involved in politics "occurring as this did nearly a century before women would be given the vote in Britain". (10)
Although women were allowed to be members they were virtually excluded from its leadership. Wilberforce disliked to militancy of the women and wrote to Thomas Babington protesting that "for ladies to meet, to publish, to go from house to house stirring up petitions - these appear to me proceedings unsuited to the female character as delineated in Scripture". (11)
However, George Stephen disagreed with Wilberforce on this issue and claimed that their energy was vital in the success of the movement: "Ladies Associations did everything... They circulated publications; they procured the money to publish; they talked, coaxed and lectured: they got up public meetings and filled our halls and platforms when the day arrived; they carried round petitions and enforced the duty of signing them... In a word they formed the cement of the whole anti-slavery building - without their aid we never should have kept standing." (12)
Thomas Clarkson, another leader of the ant-slavery movement, was much more sympathetic towards women. Unusually for a man of his day, he believed women deserved a full education and a role in public life and admired the way the Quakers allowed women to speak in their meetings. Clarkson told Elizabeth Heyrick's friend, Lucy Townsend, that he objected to the fact that "women are still weighed in a different scale from men... If homage be paid to their beauty, very little is paid to their opinions." (13)
Records show that about ten per cent of the financial supporters of the organisation were women. In some areas, such as Manchester, women made up over a quarter of all subscribers. Lucy Townsend asked Thomas Clarkson how she could contribute in the fight against slavery. He replied that it would be a good idea to establish a women's anti-slavery society. (14)
Elizabeth Heyrick was an early exponent of direct action and organised a sugar boycott in Leicester. She visited all the city's grocers to urge them to only stock goods that did not involve slavery. She pointed out: "The West Indian planter and the people of this country, stand in the same moral relation to each other, as the thief and the receiver of stolen goods... Why petition Parliament at all, to do that for us, which... we can do more speedily and more effectively for ourselves." (15)
On 8th April, 1825, Lucy Townsend held a meeting at her home to discuss the issue of the role of women in the anti-slavery movement. Townsend, Elizabeth Heyrick, Mary Lloyd, Sarah Wedgwood, Sophia Sturge and the other women at the meeting decided to form the Birmingham Ladies Society for the Relief of Negro Slaves (later the group changed its name to the Female Society for Birmingham). (16) The group "promoted the sugar boycott, targeting shops as well as shoppers, visiting thousands of homes and distributing pamphlets, calling meetings and drawing petitions." (17)
The society which was, from its foundation, independent of both the national Anti-Slavery Society and of the local men's anti-slavery society. As Clare Midgley has pointed out: "It acted as the hub of a developing national network of female anti-slavery societies, rather than as a local auxiliary. It also had important international connections, and publicity on its activities in Benjamin Lundy's abolitionist periodical The Genius of Universal Emancipation influenced the formation of the first female anti-slavery societies in America". (18)
The formation of other independent women's groups soon followed the setting up of the Female Society for Birmingham. This included groups in Nottingham (Ann Taylor Gilbert), Sheffield (Mary Anne Rawson, Mary Roberts), Leicester (Elizabeth Heyrick, Susanna Watts), Glasgow (Jane Smeal), Norwich (Amelia Opie, Anna Gurney), London (Mary Anne Schimmelpenninck, Mary Foster), Darlington (Elizabeth Pease) and Chelmsford (Anne Knight). Eventually there were seventy-three of these women's organisations campaigning against slavery. (19)
Although virtually all the prominent male opponents of slavery were still talking about the freeing of the slaves over a thirty year period, Elizabeth Heyrick, severely criticised these men and demanded a different strategy. In the 1826 General Election she called for people to vote only for candidates who supported the freeing the slaves now. She quoted a letter that she had received from a woman in Wiltshire: "Men may propose only gradually to abolish the worst of crimes... but why should we countenance such enormities? We must not talk of gradually abolishing murder, licentiousness, cruelty, tyranny." (20)
The Anti-Slavery society realised the importance of Elizabeth Heyrick's as a propagandist for the cause. Her writing had the ability to arouse public opinion. In 1828 they printed copies of her pamphlet, Appeal to the Hearts and Consciences of British Women. The main method of distribution was house-to-house canvassing, where publications were sold to the better-off or lent to the poor. (21)
In 1830, the Female Society for Birmingham submitted a resolution to the National Conference of the Anti-Slavery Society calling for the organisation to campaign for an immediate end to slavery in the British colonies. Elizabeth Heyrick, who was treasurer of the organisation suggested a new strategy to persuade the male leadership to change its mind on this issue. In April 1830 they decided that the group would only give their annual £50 donation to the national anti-slavery society only "when they are willing to give up the word 'gradual' in their title." At the national conference the following month, the Anti-Slavery Society agreed to drop the words "gradual abolition" from its title. It also agreed to support Female Society's plan for a new campaign to bring about immediate abolition. (22)
In her final years Elizabeth Heyrick grew very depressed about her lack of success to get slavery abolished. She wrote to Lucy Townsend: "Nothing human can dispel that despairing torpor into which I have been plunging deeper and deeper for many months past." (23)
Elizabeth Heyrick died on 18th October 1831 and therefore did not live to see the passing of the 1833 Abolition of Slavery Act.
In the great question of emancipation, the interests of two parties are said to be involved, the interest of the slave and that of the planter. But it cannot for a moment be imagined that these two interests have an equal right to be consulted, without confounding all moral distinctions, all difference between real and pretended, between substantial and assumed claims. With the interest of the planters, the question of emancipation has (properly speaking) nothing to do. The right of the slave, and the interest of the planter, are distinct questions; they belong to separate departments, to different provinces of consideration. If the liberty of the slave can be secured not only without injury, but with advantage to the planter, so much the better, certainly; but still the liberation of the slave ought ever to be regarded as an independent object; and if it be deferred till the planter is sufficiently alive to his own interest to co-operate in the measure, we may for ever despair of its accomplishment. The cause of emancipation has been long and ably advocated. Reason and eloquence, persuasion and argument have been powerfully exerted; experiments have been fairly made, facts broadly stated in proof of the impolicy as well as iniquity of slavery, to little purpose; even the hope of its extinction, with the concurrence of the planter, or by any enactment of the colonial, or British legislature, is still seen in very remote perspective, so remote that the heart sickens at the cheerless prospect. All that zeal and talent could display in the way of argument, has been exerted in vain. All that an accumulated mass of indubitable evidence could effect in the way of conviction, has been brought to no effect.
It is high time, then, to resort to other measures, to ways and means more summary and effectual. Too much time has already been lost in declamation and argument, in petitions and remonstrances against British slavery. The cause of emancipation calls for something more decisive, more efficient than words. It calls upon the real friends of the poor degraded and oppressed African to bind themselves by a solemn engagement, an irrevocable vow, to participate no longer in the crime of keeping him in bondage...
The perpetuation of slavery in our West India colonies is not an abstract question, to be settled between the government and the planters; it is one in which we are all implicated, we are all guilty of supporting and perpetuating slavery. The West Indian planter and the people of this country stand in the same moral relation to each other as the thief and receiver of stolen goods.
The West Indian planters have occupied much too prominent a place in the discussion of this great question....The abolitionists have shown a great deal too much politeness and accommodation towards these gentlemen.... Why petition Parliament at all, to do that for us, which... we can do more speedily and effectually for ourselves?
Elizabeth Heyrick's philanthropy has been better recognized than her executive acumen, her grasp of power systems and of pressure-group politics, and her forceful analysis of the interdependence of social evils... Her twenty or more books and pamphlets also address war, prisons, corporal punishment, the level of wages and the plight of the industrial poor, election issues, and vagrancy legislation. In 1809 she stopped a bull-baiting at Bonsall in Derbyshire by purchasing the bull.
She (Elizabeth Heyrick) stopped a bull-baiting contest by buying the bull and hiding it in the parlor of a nearby cottage until the angry crowd went away. To experience the life of Irish migrant workers, she lived in a shepherd's cottage eating only potatoes. She visited prisons and paid fines to get poachers released... She called for laws reforming prisons and limiting the workday; she supported a strike by weavers in her hometown of Leicester, even though her own brother was an employer in the industry.