Bristol Women – Hannah More

I was asked by the group producing the Bristol Pound, the new local currency to provide some information on the person who was voted to be on their first note. I had a notion of this woman as a rather miserable evangelical, but of course she was a far more complicated character than some of the records show. Also, because she was a single woman, opposing the system, they were bound to paint her in a negative light.  And of course there was still the notion that a woman without a man was nothing.

After posting the article on another local woman the pioneering physician Elizabeth Blackwell, I realised how many seriously radical women had come from Bristol. And if you add on the many who were associated with the city at various times, such as Amelia B. Edwards, the world’s first female Egyptologist who is buried to the north of the city, and Sarah Guppy, whose family were close friends and supporters of Brunel, who took out a number of patents on inventions from a steel bridge to an improved tea kettle,  with loads of reformers and educators, and of course the finest – and loudest – early 20th century soprano, Clara Butt.

 In describing the lives of women in history a number of factors should be considered, firstly, that they rarely appear in the historic record, due to many factors, not least that men ran the world and women until recent times had very little power or independence. That means that when a woman does loom out of the darkness, she or her circumstances, must have been truly exceptional.

18th and 19th century British history is much about trade and empire but seldom is there any mention of the human cost. During this period, many men went abroad – to found colonies, as merchants, or to fight in the many wars. In addition, there were many trades at home that were dangerous. This means that there were far more women than men: some estimates suggest some 2 or 3 women for every man. Which makes their relative invisibility even more marked. At the same time as this surge in unmarriable women, the country was recovering from the long ravages of the civil war and trade was bringing wealth into the country, so the level of affluence and education for many of them was growing, so they needed to find ways to spend their childbearing years. Many turned to the arts or to good works.

Hannah More (1745-1833)

She is probably the most famous woman ever associated with Bristol. She was a school teacher, playwright, socialite, reformer, supporter of the abolition of the slave trade and for the rights of the poor, but also as she grew older, increasingly conservative evangelists, an opposer of womens’s emancipation. She was depicted in Richard Samuel’s painting ‘The Nine Living Muses of Great Britain‘ which is now in the National Portrait Gallery. She was called by David Garrick ‘Nine’ as she was seen by many as the most significant female of the group. But was later mocked by radical journalist Cobbett as ‘an old bishop in petticoats’.

She was the daughter of a schoolmaster at Fishponds, on the road from Bristol to Bath,  who provided a high level of education for her and her 4 sisters, of whom she was seen as the genius. The five sisters became school teachers, and moved to a purpose built school on Park Street in 1767. She was well connected so her students often became prominent members of society.

She began writing when a teenager, and her first play was published in 1762, ‘The Search After Happiness’ which was published in London in 1772 and sold 10,000. She became part of the theatre scene, becoming friends with David Garrick, Joshua Reynolds, Dr Johnson and Edmund Burke, whose political campaign in Bristol she contributed to. She discovered the poet milkmaid Anne Yearsley whose work she promoted for a time but they later fell out over her allegedly paternalistic dealing with her earnings. She was one of the most prominent members of the group known as the bluestockings, the most famous female intellectuals of the 18th century.

Her evangelical beliefs brought her into contact with the Abolition of the Slave Trade movement, and the Clapham Sect that met in London; she wrote a poem to support her friend William Wilberforce’s bill though parliament in 1788. John Wesley and others encouraged her to exploit her prominent social standing to promote the campaign.

But she was very conservative, promoting education for women, not by imitating men, but concentrating on their natural feminine attributes. She opposed both Rousseau’s ideas of education with women as muses, and the liberating ideas of Mary Woollstonecroft. Her evangelism earnt her a reputation as a killjoy and she grew tired of fashionable London society so returned to education, especially establishing schools for the poor in the Mendips. This was at a time when education for the poor was seen as inciting the French Revolution, so her activity, and links with other social improvers was potentially dangerous. But she was opposed to the poor learning to write as she claimed this would lead them to be dissatisfied with their lowly status. In the 1790s she published cheap books for the poor, largely of an ‘improving‘ nature.

Hannah had a long and varied life, but her later years were marked by disillusion and many years nursing her sisters in their final illnesses before she suffered prolonged ill health. Her strict evangelical beliefs and her opposition to women’s rights make her seem like a rather joyless woman, opposed to fun and progress, but her importance to the history of this country is immense. In her long life, she was a hugely popular and widely published author who did much to raise awareness of important social issues, both locally and internationally, and she was held in high esteem by many important men. When she died she left £30,000 to be used mostly for charitable purposes, so she deserves to be remembered with respect, if not awe.

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