The two 19th-century Leicester women who fought against slavery

Elizabeth Heyrick and Susannah Watts still inspire those looking to make a difference today.

Portraits of the two women. Credit: Library of the Society of Friends
The only known image of Elizabeth Heyrick to have survived (left) and a self-portrait of Susannah Watts (right)

Close friends Elizabeth Heyrick and Susannah Watts were born in an era when women’s voices were seldom heard in debates regarding the important issues of the day. Yet these two Leicester women not only played a vital role in the early 19th-century campaign to end slavery but also pursued highly successful careers as educators and authors.

Born just a year apart towards the end of the 1760s, both women came from prominent Leicester families. Susannah Watts was born at the impressive Watts family home of Danet’s Hall. Elizabeth Heyrick was the daughter of an affluent Leicester textile manufacturer.

Whilst still a teenager, Heyrick married a Leicester solicitor. Her husband, John, subsequently abandoned the legal profession for life as a soldier in the 15th Light Dragoons, which meant that she too had to embrace the peripatetic army life and follow him to wherever he was posted. When, in 1797, her husband died suddenly of a heart attack, Heyrick did not take the well-worn route of entering into a second marriage. Instead, as a sign that she intended to lead an independent life from now on, she decided to open a girls’ boarding school at her home.

Watts was one of the people who came to teach there. By this stage, Danet’s Hall had been sold because of financial concerns, and she had to support her widowed mother. As well as earning a living from teaching, Watts was a talented author who was equally at home writing poetry or translating French and Italian literary works into English. In 1804, she published A Walk Through Leicester, now widely regarded as the first-ever guidebook to the city. Reflecting the time it was originally written, she was never officially acknowledged as the book’s author during her lifetime. Writing was still considered an unrespectable profession for women, and they often published anonymously or used a man’s name instead.

Heyrick also proved extremely handy with a pen when embracing her new independence. She began to express her views on the burning issues of the day. In the pre-magazine era, the pamphlet was the most commonly used medium for those authors who wished to write about political and social reform. Heyrick became a prolific pamphlet writer, covering many topics, including her opposition to war, capitalism and the death penalty. She and Watts also shared a common interest in animal welfare, with both women writing extensively on the subject.

Heyrick’s newly founded passion for social reform may be connected to her conversion to Quakerism in the early 1800s. Established in the mid-17th century, the Quaker movement became engaged in the campaign for social justice in many different forms from early on, stemming from the religion’s core belief that all humans are equal in God’s eyes. Considering this background, it is unsurprising to learn that the Quakers were at the forefront of the campaign to abolish slavery. Yet, despite the Quaker involvement, leadership of the campaign remained primarily dominated by men until, in the early 19th century, a new breed of independent-minded women like Heyrick and Watts came on the scene. 

Crucially, the two Leicester women supported the immediate abolition of slavery rather than the more cautious and measured approach previously favoured by many of their male counterparts. Heyrick set out her rationale for this argument in the 1824 pamphlet, ‘Immediate, not gradual abolition, or an inquiry into the shortest, safest, and most effectual means of getting rid of West Indian slavery‘. 

This groundbreaking piece of work called on each individual to play their part in bringing slavery to an immediate end, arguing: “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 a question in which we are all implicated”. 

Heyrick concluded her pamphlet by advocating a boycott of the sugar produced in the slave plantations of the West Indies. She didn’t just write about it, though. She and Watts led by example in launching a campaign in their backyard, knocking on doors to encourage their fellow Leicester residents to stop buying West Indian sugar. They often appealed directly to the woman of the house, who was usually in charge of the day-to-day running of the household, and, unusually for the time, this effectively brought women’s collective voice to the forefront of the argument.

The two enterprising Leicester women helped to take this process further by playing a pivotal role in establishing the Female Society for the Relief of British Slaves. This was a woman-only offshoot of the London Society for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery, also known as the Anti-Slavery Society, led by the prominent anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce. In contrast to the latter, the women’s society took on board the views expressed by Heyrick in her influential 1824 pamphlet and many of its members chose to support her call for immediate abolition. 

Although members of the two societies were ultimately working towards the same common goal, they inevitably clashed from time to time, not least on the thorny subject of such conspicuous women’s involvement in one of the leading issues of the day. On one occasion, Wilberforce remarked to a friend: “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”. 

When news of his comments reached Watts, she responded by publishing a poem aimed directly at him:

“On a Gentleman saying that,
Some ladies who were zealous in the
Anti-Slavery causes were brazen-faced.
Thanks for your thought – it seems to say,
When Ladies walk in Duty’s way,
They should wear arms of proof;
To blunt the shafts of manly wit…”

Matters came to a head at the 1830 National Conference of the Anti-Slavery Society. Under Heyrick’s leadership, the Female Society called for a new campaign advocating an immediate end to slavery. By this stage, the organisation had become an influential voice in the movement, not least because donations from the women’s groups, now scattered all around the country, amounted to more than one-fifth of the Anti-Slavery Society’s total funding. Amid not-so-subtle hints that this funding might be withdrawn, those at the Conference agreed to support Heyrick’s resolution and drop the words Gradual Abolition from its official title. 

Heyrick died in October 1831 and so did not live long enough to see the passing of the 1833 Abolition of Slavery Act. She played a crucial role in shifting public opinion on the issue, not only by her eloquent words in arguing for an immediate end to slavery but also by her direct actions. 

Her influence even spread far beyond these shores. The leading American abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison, once declared of her: “Who first gave the world the doctrine of immediate emancipation? It was a woman of England – Elizabeth Heyrick”.

After her friend’s death, Watts continued to campaign on a range of social issues. In 1828, she established a charity called the Society for the Relief of Indigent Old Age, which offered aid to the elderly living in abject poverty. She continued to work tirelessly for this cause until not long before her own death in 1842.

The story of these two early 19th-century Leicester female campaigners proves that by sheer determination, it is possible to make your voice heard even when the odds appear to be heavily stacked against you. 

As such, Elizabeth Heyrick and Susannah Watts still inspire those looking to make a difference today.

Great! You’ve successfully signed up.

Welcome back! You've successfully signed in.

You've successfully subscribed to Great Central Gazette.

Success! Check your email for magic link to sign-in.

Success! Your billing info has been updated.

Your billing was not updated.