Born Elizabeth Heyrick in Leicester, her father John Coltman had been a manufacturer of worstead cloth and a Unitarian, her mother Elizabeth Cartwright a poet and writer. As a young woman, Elizabeth was exposed to radical politics and the writings of Thomas Paine, and showed a natural ability for painting landscapes. She met John Wesley when he visited the family house and soon after became a practising Methodist. She became a schoolteacher and, in 1787 married John Heyrick, a lawyer and a descendant of Robert Herrick the poet. After his death in 1795, when she was only 25, she became a Quaker, soon after devoting her life to social reform. She became one of the most prominent radical women activists of the 1820s.
In 1823, the Anti-Slavery Society was founded. Members included Heyrick, Mary Lloyd, Jane Smeal, Elizabeth Pease, Joseph Sturge, Thomas Clarkson, William Wilberforce, Henry Brougham, Thomas Fowell Buxton and Anne Knight.
In the early 19th century, campaigners who wished to see an end to slavery in the British West Indies had two approaches to the problem. Some wished to push for an end only to the slave trade, on the understanding that eventually the existing slaves would die and with them, slavery itself; whereas others wanted a complete and immediate abolition of the institution of slavery. Elizabeth Heyrick was a strong supporter of complete emancipation for enslaved Africans; in 1824 she published a pamphlet entitled Immediate, not Gradual Abolition, which was influential in encouraging public opinion to support the cause. In this, she criticised the principal anti-slavery campaigners, such as William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson, for what she regarded as the overly slow and cautious way in which they had led the campaign in parliament up until that point, stating: "The West Indian planters, have occupied much too prominent a place in the discussion of this great question. The abolitionists have shown a great deal too much politeness and accommodation towards these gentlemen." The pamphlet was widely distributed and caused much discussion in public meetings in various parts of England.
In order to help promote public awareness of the issues of the slave trade, and in an attempt to hit the profits of the planters and importers of slave-produced goods, she encouraged an important social movement, the boycott of sugar from the West Indies, visiting grocers' shops in Leicester to persuade them that it should not be stocked. Heyrick believed that women should be involved in these issues as they are particularly qualified to 'not only to sympathise with suffering, but also to plead for the oppressed'.
Deeply concerned for the welfare of the long-term imprisoned, Elizabeth Heyrick was a prison visitor; in 1809 she prevented a bull-baiting contest by purchasing the bull. Elizabeth was the author of more than twenty pamphlets and other works on subjects as diverse as bull-baiting, prison reform, war, the plight of the poor, vagrancy, wages, corporal punishment and electoral reform. Towards the end of her life she became involved in the campaign against capital punishment. It was said that she fell in love with a slave.
Elizabeth Heyrick never lived to see the passing of the Slavery Abolition Act 1833. She died on 18 October 1831 and is buried in Leicester where she was born.
- Abolitionism in the United Kingdom
- Slave Trade Act, 1807
- Slavery Abolition Act 1833
- History of Slavery
- William Lloyd Garrison, who advocated immediate, not gradual, abolition
- Anti-Slavery Society
- Slavery and abolition. Oxford University Press
- Heyrick, Elizabeth, Appeal to the Hearts and Consciences of British Women (Leicester: A. Cockshaw, 1828), [British Library], p. 4.
- Grundy, Isobel. "Elizabeth Heyrick", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, (Oxford: University Press, 2004), doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/37541. Retrieved 2008-06-01.
- Hochschild, Adam (2005), Bury the Chains, The British Struggle to Abolish Slavery, London: Macmillan, ISBN 978-0-330-48581-4, OCLC 60458010