Decades before female emancipation, Elizabeth Fry, Amelia Opie and Harriet Martineau – all born into a city with a long history of dissent – managed to bring their ideas to national attention.
Between the early C12th and the early C15th a succession of charters gave Norwich an uncommon degree of self-government, allowing the city to appoint its own mayor and for civic matters to be conducted in a general assembly . In a fine example of Norfolk’s resentment of external interference (county motto ‘Do different’), Robert Kett led 16,000 men in a rebellion against the enclosure of land and laid siege to royalist forces in the city . Later, during the Civil War, the city was far from loyal to the monarchy, famously contributing the ‘Maiden Troop’ of Ironsides to Cromwell’s New Model Army . In the centuries that followed, this sense of independence and political radicalism was accompanied by a rise in dissent against the established church. Indeed, by the early C18th 20% of the population were Protestant dissenters . It was into this free-thinking climate that Fry, Opie and Martineau emerged.
Elizabeth Fry (1780-1845) was born in Gurney’s Court off Magadalen Street.
Elizabeth’s childhood home was not, however, in Norwich-over-the-water but a few miles outside the city in Earlham Hall, which currently houses the University of East Anglia’s School of Law.
Elizabeth came from banking stock . Her mother Catherine was a Barclay, from the family who established Barclay’s Bank on Bank Plain (now OPEN Youth Trust). Her father, John, became a partner in Gurneys Bank, founded by a cousin – Barclays and Gurneys banks eventually merging in 1896. For generations the Gurneys had been financial middle-men in Norwich’s cloth trade  and by the C19th they were sufficiently wealthy that one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s characters in the opera Trial by Jury could be described, “as rich as the Gurneys” [see 7].
In 1800 Elizabeth married John Fry at the Friends Meeting House in Goat Lane (replaced by the ‘new’ meeting house in 1826).
Elizabeth was greatly influenced by the writing of American Quaker William Savery, leading her to take on the cause of prisoners, the sick and the poor. After moving to London she began to visit women and their children in Newgate Prison where she was appalled by what she saw. This led to her forming the first national women’s association in the country – the British Ladies’ Society for Promoting the Reformation of Women Prisoners. She gave evidence to parliament on prison reform; she also instigated a training school for nurses that is said to have been the inspiration for Florence Nightingale’s mission in the Crimea [5, 6]. In rejecting the external authority and mystery of the Anglican church in favour of a personal examination of moral and religious matters, Quakers – like other Dissenters – incurred the displeasure of the establishment. In consequence, Quakers were disbarred from holding certain civil offices and from attending university. The identifiable otherness of non-conformists during this period was brought home to me by an advertisement in The Norwich Mercury (Sat December 2nd 1837) that offered insurance specifically for ‘Protestant Dissenters’. It is therefore remarkable that a dissenting woman …
(a) portly matron with ten children … gatecrashed into public life, into an exclusively male preserve, when the very idea was unthinkable .
Amelia Opie (1769-1853) was also born into a Dissenting family, at a house in Colegate (demolished) . Her father James was a physician and her mother (also Amelia) was known locally as a leading proponent of the abolition of slavery. Out of this union emerged a spirited young girl who became a prolific writer, writing novels, poems and plays; by the age of 18 she had already published (anonymously) a novel entitled The Dangers of Coquetry. In her early years Amelia attended the Octagon Chapel along the road from her house. Completed in 1756 by architect Thomas Ivory, this elegantly simple building was the first of its kind in England and one of the first Methodist chapels in the world .
In London, Amelia met the fashionable painter John Opie and they married in 1798 – the year he painted her portrait.
In London, Amelia was part of a literary circle that included Sir Walter Scott, Wordsworth and Sheridan. During this period she wrote her best known book, the romantic novel Adeline Mowbray (1804), which she was encouraged to write by her friend Mary Wollstonecraft  – another of John Opie’s sitters. Wollstonecraft was famous for having written A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) in which she argued that women were not inferior to men, just less well educated . After John Opie’s early death in 1807 Amelia returned to live with her father in Norwich where she was encouraged to join the Quakers by Elizabeth Fry and her brother Joseph John Gurney. On becoming a Friend Amelia stopped writing and in 1825 adopted the clothing of the ‘Plain’ Quakers. This meant that she shunned the fine clothes that had attracted her as a girl  and wore instead drab gowns and plain bonnets; it is in this form of dress that she is depicted on her statue in Opie Street . Currently, this artificial stone statue is uniformly coated in a matt-cream stone-paint. This may seem brutal to those who can remember the purple-painted cloak from over 20 years ago although it does seem more appropriate to Quaker ideals.Amelia Opie may have lived further up Opie Street, at the junction with Castle Meadow.
As a Quaker, Amelia began to campaign against the slave trade and, together with Anna Gurney, set up the Norwich branch of a national network of female anti-slavery societies. A few years after the Slavery Abolition Act was passed (1833) Amelia attended the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London (1840). Shamefully, Haydon’s painting of the event does not depict leading female activists like Lucy Townsend  but it does at least acknowledge the key role of female campaigners by including some, such as Amelia Opie seen on the right in her high, black Quaker bonnet.
The distinctive Quaker bonnet can be seen again, in Norwich Castle Museum, in a fascinating exhibition case containing artefacts about the Anti-Slavery Movement.
Amelia Opie died aged 84 and is buried by the side of her father in the Quaker Burial Ground in Gildencroft, off St Augustine’s Street. The Gurneys congregate in the far corner.
Harriet Martineau (1802-1876) was born into a family of Norwich Unitarians. Unitarians were Dissenters who rejected the concept of god as a trinity in favour of a less dogmatic religion in which individual conscience plays an important part. The family – of French Huguenot descent – is commemorated by Martineau Lane near County Hall. However, this is named for Harriet’s uncle Dr Philip Meadows Martineau who owned nearby Bracondale Hall and Carrow Abbey . The name is also displayed on the Martineau Memorial Hall and Sunday School in Colegate but refers to Harriet’s younger brother James (1805-1900) who established the school, next door to the Unitarian Octagon Chapel. Harriet, however, eventually came to renounce religion; she espoused Darwin’s ideas and called herself a secularist.
Harriet’s own name can just be glimpsed though the bars of the gated alleyway to Gurney House in Magdalen Street where, earlier, Elizabeth Fry had been born.
At home, Harriet and her three sisters were educated to the same level as their four brothers except the young men then went out into the world while the young women were expected to stay at home – an injustice that Harriet addressed in an article ‘On Female Education‘ in the Unitarian Monthly Repository [5, 15]. She had been a sensitive and sickly child; she was deaf from age twelve and used an ear trumpet throughout her life. In her twenties – after her father died – Harriet was forced to earn a living, which she eventually achieved through her writing. In 1832 she moved to London where she was lionised by the city’s intellectual circles, meeting economist Malthus, geologist Lyell, philosopher JS Mill, mathematician Charles Babbage, Charles Darwin’s brother Erasmus, and novelists Elizabeth Barrett Browning and George Eliot. In the capital she published enormously popular economic parables in Illustrations of Political Economy, which ran to 25 volumes and outsold several of Dickens’ novels . This was followed by Poor Laws and Paupers Illustrated and Illustrations of Taxation [15,16].
Perhaps surprisingly for someone who had been a sensitive child, Harriet Martineau spent two years travelling in the 1830s. Furthermore, instead of enjoying the civilised amenities of Europe she decided to ‘rough it’ by observing the new democracy of the United States . Her experiences in the new world were published in Society in America (1837) in which she was outspoken in her call for racial equality and – concerned about the lack of education for American women – female rights. Harriet Martineau was a radical whose relentless activism led Charles Dickens to say of her that she was,”grimly bent upon the enlightenment of mankind”[see 17]. This burning concern for social reform ranged widely over what have become separate disciplines. Nowadays she is recognised as the first female sociologist and a pioneer of that field of study [see 15]. She is also considered to be one of the first women journalists, having earned her living by her pen since her twenties and joining the staff of The Daily News in 1852 . In later life, after an argument with her brother, she moved to Ambleside in the Lake District. She died in 1876 and was buried in the Martineau family grave in Birmingham .
Isn’t it time that the dissenting city recognised one of its heroines by commemorating Harriet Martineau’s name in her own right? If Thetford can have a Harriet Martineau Close …
© Reggie Unthank 2017
- Wilson, Kathleen (1995). The sense of the people: politics, culture and imperialism in England, 17-15-1785. Pub: Cambridge University Press.
- Chandler, Michael (2016). Historical Women of Norfolk. Pub: Amberley Publishing, Stroud.
- Rose, June (2007). Elizabeth Fry. Pub: Tempus Pub Ltd.
Thanks to Lisa Little and Samantha Johns of the Norfolk Museums Service for their kind assistance.