Saturday, 7 September 2013

Abolition, Faith and Education: Hannah More

Hannah More (Fishponds, Bristol, England, 2nd February 1745 – Clifton, Bristol, England, 7th September 1833)


Hannah More by Henry William Pickersgill, 1821

It must be something in the air because this seems to be a time for tales of ground-breaking women. Yesterday we met a scandalous, radical lady and today we're staying in female company, this time to meet a passionate advocate of education who found time to be a celebrated author on the side!

Hannah was one of five daughters born to Mary and schoolmaster Jacob More, a man who believed unequivocally that education was not only the right of boys and men. He home-schooled his children until 1758 when he established two school, one for boys and one for girls, which he passed to the keeping of his eldest daughters. It was here than Hannah completed her education; she was a passionate and dedicated student and as a young lady took up the position of teacher there. Teaching was Hannah's passion and she searched for a play that might be suitable for her students to perform as part of their studies. When nothing suitable presented itself, she wrote her own and in 1762, completed The Search After Happiness. The play captured the public imagination and copies of it were sold throughout England.

Hannah More, 1882


Continuing to write, Hannah left her teaching career behind when she became engaged to a landowner, William Turner. Turner's initial enthusiasm seemed to cool and after six years without marriage, the engagement was ended. Hannah was devastated and suffered a breakdown; perhaps feeling a sense of responsibility for her predicament, William provided his heartbroken former-bethrothed with a £200 annuity and she left her home behind to travel to London. A meeting with David Garrick proved pivotal for Hannah and before long her plays were being performed on the London stage, the playwright herself forming friendships with the likes of Horace Walpole, Elizabeth Montagu and Samuel Johnson. Her pivotal involvement with the Blue Stockings Society inspired her to write her 1782 poem, The Bas Bleu, or, Conversation, and Hannah became an intimate member of the most elite intellectual circles in London.

With Montagu, Hannah championed the efforts of Ann Yearsley, a Bristol poet who found herself in financial straits. In order to protect Yearsley's earnings from her husband, Hannah kept her royalties in trust but Yearsley came to resent this arrangement and the women fell out spectacularly. Upset by this turn of events, Hannah withdrew somewhat from her social life and concentrated instead on her work.


Portraits in the Characters of the Muses in the Temple of Apollo by Richard Samuel, 1778
Portraits in the Characters of the Muses in the Temple of Apollo by Richard Samuel, 1778 (Hannah More is standing, second from right)

Although Hannah had always had a strong religious faith, her faith deepened throughout the 1780s and she left behind her literary circle to move among prominent abolitionists including William Wilberforce. She produced articles and books on the subjects of religion and emancipation, as well as works that dealt with female education and a number of poems and stories. By now settled permanently in Somerset, Hannah wrote at an extraordinary rate, collaborating with Beilby Porteus, Bishop of London, on the multi-million selling series, Cheap Repository Tracts.

By 1800 Hannah and her sister, Martha, had followed their father's lead and established 12 schools for the children of farmers and local workers. Here they were educated in religion and taught how to read. However, Hannah drew the line at teaching the poor how to write; as far as she was concerned, being able to read was education enough.


Hannah's cottage in Cheddar
Hannah's cottage in Cheddar

In her dotage Hannah moved to Clifton, where she received dozens of visitors and well-wishers who wanted to meet this remarkable lady. From the most famous to the most humble, all were made welcome and she talked of her work, her faith and the philanthropic acts which she continued to fund. Hannah lived just long enough to see the successful passage of the Slavery Abolition Act and died in 1833, leaving behind not only a fortune in excess of £30,000 but also a legacy of literature, education and philanthropy that is remembered to this day.

8 comments:

  1. She really is a remarkable lady! It's so amazing to see that her father was forward thinking enough to provide for women's education as far back as 1758. What strikes me too is the contrast between two great women and how they achieved great things despite setbacks: Mary Shelley, who was beset with depression, and Hannah More who was beset with institutional rejection of quite another kind. Interesting that she became such an activist in later life.

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    1. A very interesting point; Hannah is certainly not as well known as Mary which is a shame but in her time she was quite the reluctant celebrity!

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  2. I believe it was Hannahs very public spat in the press with the playwrite Hannah Cowley that turned her away from the stage and made her think more of her religious and social duties. I often look at an original of her portrait at Killerton,here in Devon where she was friends with the Aclands and persuaded them to start a school.

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    1. A most unseemly spat was witnessed between the ladies...

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  3. I suspect that not teaching the girls at her schools to write, had more to do with their lowly status than their gender. Hannah More,after all, was privileged to learn and later was famed for her writings.

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  4. Hannah believe firmly in maintaining the social class system. She was certainly NOT to be confused with those women who lit the first flames of equality and the rights of women.

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