Elizabeth Heyrick (1869-1831)

Elizabeth Heyrick (1769-1831), social reformer and abolitionist, is little known today.  She receives only the briefest mention in Charlotte Sussman’s Consuming Anxieties: Consumer Protest, Gender, and British Slavery, 1713-1833, Stanford University Press, 2000. She was hardly mentioned in the media during the 2007 celebrations of the bicentenary of the British abolition of slavery. Only in her native Leicester was there an exhibition about her life and works, Shirley Aucott published a brief biography of her.
        Yet Heyrick, a Quaker convert and a campaigner on a whole range of social issues, published Immediate, Not Gradual, Abolition: or an Inquiry into the Shortest, Safest, and most Effectual Means of Getting Rid of West Indian Slavery in 1824, a date when William Wilberforce and all the now more famous male abolitionists were arguing for gradual abolition. Whereas the best-selling Wedgwood medallion of a slave shows him humbly kneeling, the frontispiece of Immediate, Not Gradual, Abolition features a slave standing in defiance. The well-known question from the medallion, “Am I not a man and a brother?” is replaced by an assertion: “I am a man, your brother.”
         Orlando says: “EH’s boldness of thought and vigour of style made readers suspect that this pamphlet was the work of a man; it was quoted as such in the House of Commons.” In it Heyrick began by pointing out that although the slave trade had been abolished in Britain and its possessions for seventeen years, the trade continued in practice, as did slavery itself. This text clearly shows her break with the mainstream of the abolition movement: it rejects the parliamentary strategy preferred by Wilberforce and pursued in the House of Commons by him and other well-known campaigners. To Heyrick the call for gradualism issued by these men is “the very master-piece of satanic policy”. Direct action is the way forward: abstinence from sugar by only 10% of the population, she argues, would defeat the interest and machinations of the “West Indian gentlemen.” It is therefore a grave error to disdain simple individual action through abstinence and to prefer “the ‘pomp and circumstance’ of legislative enactment.”
        The Anti-Slavery Committee bought up twelve copies of this pamphlet for the use of its members. But those who knew that the author was a woman in some cases disapproved of her stance as masculine, or unwomanly ­ just the same grounds on which the vigorous involvement of women in general in the abolition movement was disapproved. Typically gendered attitudes were used to denigrate EH’s contribution. The Anti-Slavery Reporter mentioned her name only once, in January 1828, and carried no notice of her death. She shared the fate of the ladies’ anti-slavery societies in general, which were ignored rather than argued with as they pressed for more immediate, more grass-roots action.
        EH published several more anti-slavery pamphlets, sometimes addressing women specifically. And locally in the Midlands, and among women, and in the still fairly new nation of the United States, she was warmly admired. In Leicester (where she lived for most of her life, and where she and her friend Susanna Watts went door-to-door organising one of the most effective of all the local sugar boycotts), she was posthumously celebrated, with Watts, when the Abolition Act came into force on 1 August 1834. Her admirers in the USA included Benjamin Lundy, William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, and Lucretia Mott. For Mott her work became an argument for women’s participation in public life and social reform. Garrison praised her on his visit to Britain in 1840, for instance in a public speech given at Glasgow. A Brief Sketch of Heyrick’s life, published anonymously in 1862  and probably by her niece Alicia Cooper, called her “one of the noblest pioneers of social liberty, not only for her own sex, but for mankind at large.”

This information is provided by Dr Isobel Grundy, University of Alberta, and comes from Orlando: Women’s Writing in the British Isles from the Beginnings to the Present, Cambridge University Press, by subscription: see http://orlando.cambridge.org.