Malcolm Rigby investigates the life of Hannah More, probably Somerset's most influential woman

Malcolm Rigby investigates the life of Hannah More, probably Somerset's most influential woman, who has curiously been buried by history.

Malcolm Rigby investigates the life of Hannah More, probably Somerset's most influential woman, who has curiously been buried by history.

The world is this year commemorating the anniversary of Charles Darwin, but while he was on his exploits aboard the Beagle exploring the Galapagos and elsewhere, a woman died who had almost inadvertently sparked the creation of the feminist movement, played a part in the abolition of slavery and perhaps prevented a revolution. Darwin was big but so was Hannah More, yet you probably wouldn't know.

She was a star of her era, a female icon of her period - the Posh Spice, the Margaret Thatcher, the Fanny Craddock, maybe even the Germaine Greer of her day - yet few people know about her now. Through time she has been considered by historians as both reactionary and revolutionary, but is probably just reformist. Bottom line? She changed stuff.

One loyal fan of More is local historian Hazel Hudson, who says: "She was the most amazing woman. There are a few people that know of her but many more just look blank when you say 'Hannah More', and yet she changed the lives of thousands and thousands of people here in the late 1700s."

So what did she do, this 18th-century superstar? Hannah More was a poet, a playwright and a novelist. Although based in Somerset she was part of the London literati, a friend of Samuel Johnson, Edmund Burke, David Garrick and William Wilberforce, as well as being a member of the 'blue stocking' brigade. But she was also a social reformer, a philanthropist and an educational pioneer.

It is probably in the latter role that she is best known in Somerset, establishing schools for the destitute poor at Cheddar, Shipham, Rowberrow, Sandford, Banwell, Congresbury, Yatton, Nailsea, Axbridge, Blagdon and Wedmore. The schools were only active on Sundays, the pupils were taught to read but not write, the girls instructed on rough skills like sewing so that they could be good housemaids. Nothing was done to push them above their station in life, yet she faced strong negative reaction from the local landowners.

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As Hazel says: "In the age she was living, she was considered outrageous by some people for wanting to teach the poor to read. That's why she got a lot of opposition. They thought once the poor learnt to read then they would understand their rights."

The backdrop to the educational programme was the revolution on the other side of the English Channel, so there was a certain nervousness in the upper classes. In hindsight it has been thought that the outreach work of the Methodists and the evangelical social reform by people like More could have been the determining factor in preventing revolution here.

Hannah More was born in Bristol in February 1745, the fourth of five daughters. She could read by the age of three and was discouraged by her over-devout father from studying Maths in case it damaged her fragile female brain. Her first writings were published in the 1760s when she was still a teenager. Her first play, The Inflexible Captive, was staged in Bath during 1775.

For six years she was engaged to a local wealthy landowner, William Turner, a man 20 years her senior, who postponed the wedding three times. The exact details of the affair have never been clear but it must have been a harrowing and humiliating episode for Hannah, so that when Turner granted her a �200 annuity in compensation, she determined to embark on a full-time literary career and to forsake marriage.

Much of her time now was spent up in London sparkling the great and the good of high society with her wit and intelligence. In 1777 her moral play Percy was produced by David Garrick at Covent Garden, running for much longer than was the norm. Eventually, though, she grew weary of the immorality that was endemic to theatrical life and returned to the Westcountry.

Although always religious, the move to Wrington marked a shift in Hannah's writing to the more serious and ethical. She was to be accused of being a Methodist but was in fact just an evangelical Christian. An example of her writing was the Cheap Repository Tracts, a series of moral tales with recipes. She produced scores of these and millions were published worldwide.

At this time she also became a key figure in the abolition of slavery movement; she and William Wilberforce were good friends. Two years ago, when postage stamps were issued to celebrate the anniversary of the abolition, both Hannah and Wilberforce were featured on the stamps. In fact Wilberforce was instrumental in her foray into education. The campaigner visited Cheddar to see the gorge but was so dismayed by the squalor and depravity he witnessed that on his return he declared, 'Miss Hannah More, something must be done for Cheddar... If you will be at the trouble, I will be at the expense'. The Cheddar school was the outcome.

Hannah spent the last few years of her life in Clifton and died in 1833, leaving the modern-day equivalent of millions to charity. On the day of her funeral the shops were shut, the children dressed up, and a huge procession took her body to be buried at All Saints' Church in Wrington.

Of Hannah's temperament, Hazel says, "I think she was a very strong personality, because you had to be as a woman in a man's world. But she obviously had a wonderful personality, and I think people were just swept away by this very clever woman.

"It would be lovely to have a statue of her, in Bristol or maybe in Cheddar. We know exactly what she looked like, and she did change the lives of many many thousands of people in the Mendip area."

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