Born in Leicester, her father John Coltman had been a manufacturer of worsted 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, the prominent leaders of the anti-slavery movement, William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson, believed that when the slave trade was abolished in 1808, slavery itself would gradually die out. So slavery itself was allowed to continue in the British West Indies and elsewhere in the British Empire after the abolition of the slave trade. Campaigners such as Heyrick wanted complete and immediate abolition of the institution of slavery. A decade after the abolition of the trade, it was obvious that slavery itself would not gradually die out, and that Heyrick's view was the more accurate one. A strong supporter of complete emancipation, notably for enslaved Africans, she decided to take on the leaders of the abolitionist movement. In 1823 or 1824, Heyrick published a pamphlet entitled "Immediate, not Gradual Abolition", where she criticised leading anti-slavery campaigners, such as Wilberforce, for their "gradualist" approach, and for focusing too much of their energy on the slave trade itself. In her pamphlet, Heyrick said: "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." As a result, "this pamphlet changed their view", and "they now attacked slavery as a sin to be forsaken immediately".
Aiming to promote public awareness of the issues of the slave trade and hit the profits of the planters and importers of slave-produced goods, Heyrick encouraged a social movement to boycott sugar from the West Indies, visiting grocers' shops in Leicester to persuade them not to stock it. 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
- Slavery and abolition. Oxford University Press.
- Elizabeth Heyrick, Immediate, not Gradual Abolition, 2nd edition (Boston: Isaac Knapp, 1838).
- 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