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Heyrick [née Coltman], Elizabethfree

  • Isobel Grundy

Heyrick [née Coltman], Elizabeth (1769–1831), slavery abolitionist and philanthropist, was born in St Nicholas Street, Leicester, on 4 December 1769, the elder daughter and second child in a family of two girls and three boys (one of whom died young). Her parents were dissenters. Her father, John Coltman (d. 1808), a pupil of John Aikin (1713–1780), was a scholarly worsted manufacturer; her mother, Elizabeth Cartwright (1737–1811), was a skilled craftswoman, a published poet and book reviewer, and a friend of Robert Dodsley (1703–1764) and William Shenstone (1714–1763). John Wesley visited their house, which in the riots of 1785 was plundered by a machine-breaking mob. Elizabeth, known as Bess when young, 'was singular in her childhood' (Hutton, 61): anecdotes depict her giving scarce 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 an Angelica Kauffman of her' (Hutton, 61). Instead, on 10 March 1789, aged nineteen, she married John Heyrick, eldest son of John Heyrick, Leicester town clerk, and descendant of the poet Robert Herrick. He soon exchanged a legal career for a cornetcy in the 15th light dragoons, and he and his wife lived thereafter in English and Irish barracks. He died of angina on 18 June 1797 (while Elizabeth was out at church), in the act of proof-reading a sheet of his own poems. 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.

Elizabeth rejoined her family, left the Methodists to become a member of the Society of Friends, and 'stepped boldly forward the champion of black men and tortured beasts' (Hutton, 63). 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. With her friend Susannah Watts (1768–1842) she canvassed large areas of Leicester in 1824, promoting the boycott of West Indian sugar; by the following June almost one quarter of the town's population had given up sugar. Heyrick also visited prisons and liberated long-incarcerated poachers by paying their gaol fees. Late in life she campaigned against capital punishment, in alliance with William Allen of Guy's Hospital.

Elizabeth Heyrick published anonymously at Leicester and London. Her first work, The Warning (1805), opposed war: 'multitudes, equally unacquainted with the origins and the object, are always eager to rush to the standard of blood' (p. 18). She imitated Hannah More in Bull-Baiting: a Village Dialogue between John Brown and John Simms (1809), and treated public as well as private morality in Familiar Letters Addressed to Children and Young Persons of the Middle Ranks (1811), written for a sister-in-law's children. Her anti-slavery works included appeals directed to British women and 'not to the Government, but to the People of England'. The best known is Immediate, not gradual abolition, or, An inquiry into the shortest, safest, and most effectual means of getting rid of West Indian slavery (1824), a pamphlet which broached the idea of speedy abolition while William Wilberforce and other male leaders were still gradualist. It sold hundreds of thousands of copies in Britain and the USA. In the mid-1830s the American abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison praised Heyrick and her work in a public speech in Glasgow.

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. She left 'a mass of unpublished manuscripts, chiefly consisting of essays, sermons, prayers, etc.' (Beale, 215). Of a manuscript list of eighteen titles she published, thirteen are untraced (though three other known works are omitted from the list). She died in Leicester on 18 October 1831, and was buried there. The Brief Sketch of her life (1862) was probably the work of Alicia Cooper, a younger relation.


  • C. H. Beale, ed., Catherine Hutton and her friends (1895)
  • C. Hutton, ‘A sketch of a family of originals, by an original’, Ainsworth's Magazine, 5 (1844), 56–63
  • [A. Cooper?], A brief sketch of the life and labours of Mrs Elizabeth Heyrick (1862)
  • family papers, Leics. RO
  • K. Corfield, ‘Elizabeth Heyrick: radical Quaker’, Religion in the lives of English women, 1760–1930, ed. G. Malmgreen (1986), 41–67
  • C. Midgley, Women against slavery: the British campaigns, 1780–1870 (1992)
  • S. Aucott, Elizabeth Heyrick, 1769 to 1831: the Leicester Quaker who demanded the immediate emancipation of slaves in the British colonies (2007)


  • Leics. RO
Leicestershire, Leicester, and Rutland Record Office, Leicester