Spartacus Blog

100 Greatest Britons Candidate: Elizabeth Heyrick

John Simkin

In 2002 BBC television carried out a poll to discover whom the United Kingdom public considered the 100 Greatest Britons in history. William Wilberforce was voted into 28th place. He was the only person in the top 100 who was involved in the campaign against slavery. What is more, he played no role in bringing freedom to slaves. In fact, he did not think that slavery was that bad as it gave an opportunity to convert them to Christianity. As Michael Jordan points out Wilberforce acted as "a Christian evangelist seeking to bring light and grace into the heathen darkness". (1)

Wilberforce argued in the House of Commons that although he agreed that "the negroes are creatures like ourselves" but, he added, "their minds are uninformed and their moral characters are debased. In general their state of civilisation is very imperfect, their notions of morality extremely rude and the powers of their governments ill-defined". It was therefore "dangerous to the man himself and to all around him" to give him his immediate freedom. His concern was with the slave-trade and that he would not rest until we have "wiped away this scandal from the Christian name, released ourselves from the load of guilt under which we at present labour, and extinguished every trace of this bloody traffic." (2)

Granville Sharp and Thomas Clarkson established the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade in 1787. Nine out of the twelve members on the committee, were Quakers. Other Non-conformist groups such as the Unitarians were also strongly involved in the movement. These people were also campaigning for parliamentary reform, gender equality, religious toleration, and an end of child labour in factories. They had very different political views to those like Wilberforce. He complained to Hannah More that "the increase of dissenters... is highly injurious to the interests of religion in the long run." (3)

It was William Pitt, the prime minister, who asked Wilberforce to lead the campaign against the slave-trade. This was not because he considered the trade immoral but because it was not in the economic interests of Britain. Pitt was concerned that in 1787, of 21,023 slaves imported into the West Indies from Africa, 5,366 were exported to foreign colonies. "The trade, it seemed, though profitable to British merchants was, in the long run, detrimental to Britain's interests, and its abolition would mean a slowing down of the French colonial sugar production and consequently a blow to the economy of France." (4)

William Wilberforce did not approve of women being involved in the anti-slavery movement. 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". (5)

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". (6)

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. (7)

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". (8)

Elizabeth Heyrick was a member of the Society of Friends, who 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."

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." (9)

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. (10) 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." (11)

On 8th April, 1825, Elizabeth Heyrick, joined forces with Lucy Townsend, Mary Lloyd, Sarah Wedgwood, Sophia Sturge 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." (12)

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". (13)

Elizabeth Heyrick also established a woman's group in Leicester. Heyrick's work inspired other women to form groups in their area. This included groups in Nottingham (Ann Taylor Gilbert), Sheffield (Mary Anne Rawson, Mary Roberts), 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. (14)

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." (15)

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. (16)

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. (17)

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." (18) She died on 18th October 1831 and therefore did not live to see the passing of the 1833 Abolition of Slavery Act. (19) All school textbooks mention William Wilberforce in the fight against the slave-trade but Elizabeth Heyrick, like so many other women who were involved in the struggle, do not appear. It is therefore not surprising that when the BBC hold polls that the public do not vote for them.


(1) Michael Jordan, The Great Abolition Sham (2005) page 128

(2) William Wilberforce, speech in the House of Commons (12th May, 1789)

(3) William Wilberforce, letter to Hannah More (1789)

(4) Jack Gratus, The Great White Lie (1973) page 60

(5) William Hague, William Wilberforce: The Life of the Great Anti-Slave Trade Campaigner (2008) page 487

(6) William Wilberforce, letter to Thomas Babington (31st January, 1826)

(7) Stephen Tomkins, William Wilberforce (2007) page 206

(8) Elizabeth Heyrick, Immediate not Gradual Abolition (1824)

(9) Adam Hochschild, Bury the Chains: The British Struggle to Abolish Slavery (2005) page 325

(10) Richard Reddie, Abolition! The Struggle to Abolish Slavery in the British Colonies (2007) page 213

(11) Elizabeth J. Clapp, Women, Dissent and Anti-Slavery in Britain and America, 1790-1865 (2015) page 38

(12) Stephen Tomkins, William Wilberforce (2007) page 208

(13) Clare Midgley, Lucy Townsend : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(14) Richard Reddie, Abolition! The Struggle to Abolish Slavery in the British Colonies (2007) page 214

(15) Adam Hochschild, Bury the Chains: The British Struggle to Abolish Slavery (2005) page 326

(16) Clare Midgley, Women Against Slavery (1995) page 59

(17) Female Society for Birmingham, resolution passed at National Conference (8th April, 1830)

(18) Elizabeth Heyrick, letter to Lucy Townsend (28th December, 1826)

(19) Isobel Grundy, Elizabeth Heyrick : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

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