From improving animal welfare to prison reforms, we’re incredibly proud of these five Norwich women’s legacies which have impacted so much on the rest of the country. Here are their stories...
Image: an illustration by Cecil Aldin for Black Beauty, written by Norfolk's own Anna Sewell
The plaque marking the house Harriet Martineau lived in, in Norwich
Born just off Magdalen Street (in Gurney Court, the same birthplace of Elizabeth Fry) at the start of the nineteenth century, Harriet Martineau had her fair share of troubles growing up; she went deaf in her teens and needed a hearing trumpet, as well as having various other health problems throughout her life. However she always loved to read and write and had her first article published in Unitarian Monthly Repository 1821, entitled Female Writers on Practical Divinity, as well as a second article called On Female Education soon after – however both were published under a male psyedonym. This changed after the death of her father, when she started to write more, using her own name.
Harriet moved to London and wrote Illustrations of Political Economy between 1832 and 1834; its popularity helped establish her as professional writer. Her advice was sought by many, including politicians, and she went on to write subsequent volumes which discussed economics and social reform - this was incredible for someone with no formal training. The unique style of her writing meant that these complex ideas were made understandable to ordinary people but she was often seen as being ‘unfeminine’, something Harriet did not seem too bothered about, insisting she be judged in the same way as a man – making this sort of opinion public was rather forward thinking and unusual for the 19th century.
Harriet wrote many feminist works, including work about American society and the patriarchal system in America, and also European society. She felt women should be able to choose what they wanted to do and how they should act, and she advocated the use of birth control and divorce, as well as campaigning against slavery and expressing sceptical views on religion. She also wrote a novel in 1839 and a collection of children’s stories called The Playfellow in 1841.
Harriet actually wrote her own obituary in 1855, as she felt she was going to die soon, but ended up living much longer – until 1876, when she died of bronchitis. She was a truly inspirational and forward-thinking woman who should be celebrated more, especially here in the city of her birth! In fact, during the Norfolk & Norwich Festival there’s an event called Speaking Truth To Power, with two journalists who will be discussing corruption and violence in their home country of Mexico and their determination to change this, with parallels drawn between them and Harriet. It’s part of the festival’s City of Literature weekend and sounds brilliant!
The plaque which marks the area which Elizabeth Fry was born in
This famed Norwich woman is probably best known for her tireless efforts to reform the British prison system; she was born in Gurney Court – like Harriet Martineau – off Magdalen Street, to Quaker parents who thankfully believed that girls should be educated as well as boys. Her mother Catherine often visited the sick and poor in Norwich and took her daughters with her, which no doubt influenced Elizabeth’s views on welfare in later life. When Elizabeth was 12 her mother died, so she helped raise her brothers and sisters.
Years later Elizabeth met Joseph Fry, who was a wealthy tea, coffee and spice merchant, and they were married in 1800, with their first child Katherine born in August 1801. Elizabeth then gave birth to eleven more children, so it’s no wonder that she felt at times like her life was overtaken by motherhood.
Elizabeth became involved with campaigning for better conditions in prison after being contacted by a French artistocrat called Stephen Grellett. Elizabeth and her sister visited prison and saw the awful conditions there for themselves; they continued to make visits leading Elizabeth set up a committee of twelve women, made up of Quakers and a wife of a clergyman – to establish a school for the children of prisoners. In 1818 Elizabeth was the first woman to give evidence to the House of Commons on London prisons and recommended that women should look after female prisoners, not men. She also proposed various important changes to the prisoners’ treatment.
Elizabeth’s successes and respect from others were not without some criticism; some Quakers felt she was valuing other people’s opinions too much, and in 1828 when her husband’s bank failed she was wrongly accused to using the bank’s funds for her charitable work.
In 1845 Elizabeth died of a stroke. She is famous for her charitable work and piety, and made such a huge difference to the British prison system, especially during the Victorian era when women often were not able to – or may not have had the inclination – to challenge society’s assumptions and expectations of women. For Elizabeth’s brilliant work she was celebrated with her picture printed on the British five pound note – now (just) out of circulation – however if you can find one, it’s well worth keeping!
The sign for Opie Street, so named because it is the street in which Amelia Opie lived
Described as ‘the most respected woman fiction writer of the 1800s and 1810s’, Amelia Opie (née Alderson) is a Norwich literary hero who was born, in 1769, here in Norwich. In 1970 - at only 21 years old - she wrote her first book, The Dangers of Coquetry (1790), but published it anonymously.
She then wrote The Father and Daughter a few years later, but this time under her own name.
Amelia had strong political interests, in part no doubt influenced by her father’s interest in the Norwich reform movement and the French Revolution which was taking place at the time. She wrote 15 poems to a Norwich reformer periodical called The Cabinet in 1794, and in 1798 married artist John Opie. They moved to London and John really encouraged Amelia’s literary career, but sadly the marriage was cut short when John caught a fever and died in April 1807. Opie returned to Norwich to live at her father’s house and she continued to write.
This work had critical acclaim and was considerably successful, and by 1818 her writing was circulated abroad as well as in England, meaning she was writing for 8-10 hours a day (so she told a friend). She went on to write more novels and stories, and also some poetry. She also became involved in the Norwich Quakers, attending meetings at the Friends Meeting House in Upper Goat Lane and undertaking a lot of philanthropic work in the city including visiting and trying to better the conditions of poor people and those in workhouses, prisons, hospitals. She also published an anti-slavery poem, The Black Man's Lament in 1826, and set up and ran the Norwich Ladies Anti-Slavery Society.
Amelia Opie spent her last days in a house on Castle Meadow, on a street which has now been named Opie Street, and there’s also a small statue there which you see today.
The plaque to mark the house Elizabeth Bentley lived in
Born in 1767 in Norwich, Elizabeth Bentley was the daughter of Mary Lawrence and Daniel Bentley. Her father suffered a stroke which left him paralysed down one side when Elizabeth was 10 years old, but he still taught her to read and write. He died in 1783 when Elizabeth was 15, and soon after she started writing poetry, being influenced by some key poets including Goldsmith, Thomson, Milton and Shakespeare. She lived in St Stephens Square, in Norwich, which is close to the Old Hospital.
Elizabeth Bentley was sponsored to publish Genuine Poetical Compositions, on Various Subjects in 1791and further collections, though after her first collection she mainly spent her time running a small boarding school. Her poetry touched on some incredibly important contextual subjects including abolitionism, animal welfare, and pastoral work, and also included snippets into her own life. Bentley died in 1839 in an almshouse, which was a form of charitable housing which was provided for poor people or those unable to work.
Over the years she has been praised by many critics for her work on key issues, and is a very worthy addition to our list of Norwich literary heroes.
Black Beauty illustration by Cecil Aldin
The author of well-known novel Black Beauty, Anna Sewell is another of our Norfolk literary heroes. Born in Great Yarmouth in 1820, Anna and her family moved to London when she and her brother were young, moving then to Norwich when she was older. Whilst in London however, they still made plenty of visits back to Norfolk, particularly to visit their grandparents who lived on Dudwick Farm in Buxton, when Anna first learned to ride. It’s thought this inspired Birtwick Park in Black Beauty.
Black Beauty was never intended as the children’s novel that it is often seen as today, but instead seems to have been meant as a text to highlight the cruel treatment of horses – the creatures Anna loved so much. The book dealt with the mistreatment of Beauty and highlighted some cruel practices, such as using the ‘bearing reign’ to keep the horse’s head upright. As a result of this, the bearing reign went out of fashion and Anna’s work led to horse welfare reforms in England and in the US. The book has sold 50 million copies worldwide to date and was first published by Jarrold & Sons in Norwich in 1877. Anna sadly died in 1878, shortly after Black Beauty was published, so she never witnessed the popularity and effects of the novel.
Although Jarrolds no longer publish books, they have a city-centre department store which has an amazing book department, where there will be a series of in-store events during the summer to celebrate the 140th anniversary of Black Beauty’s publication, as well as an exhibition at The Museum of Norwich at the Bridewell showcasing the watercolours of Cecil Aldin, who illustrated the 1912 issue of Black Beauty. A special hardback edition of Black Beauty, which includes the exhibited illustrations by Cecil Aldin, is available to buy from Jarrold book department priced at £20.
Many thanks to Norwich HEART for compiling a great deal of this information.
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