Susanna(h) Watts

Colin Hyde’s presentation for Hoskins Day 2024 features Susanna(h) Watts (1768–1842) who was a noted English abolitionist, author, translator and artist.

Born in Leicester in 1768, she was the youngest of three sisters and the only child of John and Joan Watts to survive childhood. Her family was left impoverished after her uncle (who had supported the family after Watts’ father died when she was 15 months old), died when she was 15. She began writing from her teenage years to augment the family income and later to support herself. She taught herself French and Italian and among her early works are translations, she was also involved with a Leicester periodical, The Selector, which ran from 28 August 1783 to 29 January 1784

By the time Watts published Original Poems, and Translations (1802), she had earned a substantial reputation, attracting the notice of Mary Pilkington in her Memoirs of Celebrated Female Characters (1804)

In 1804 she also published A Walk through Leicester, which is amongst the earliest guidebooks ever written about a large industrial town in England.

for the traveller who may wish to visit whatever is deemed most worthy of notice in the town of Leicester, the following sketch is devoted. And as the highly cultivated state of topographical knowledge renders superficial remark unpardonable in local description, we shall endeavor to produce, at the various objects of our visit, such information and reflections as a conductor, not wholly uninformed, may be expected to offer to the curious and intelligent, while he guides him through a large, commercial, and, we trust, a respectable town; the capital of a province which can honestly boast, that by its rich pasturage, its flocks and herds, it supplies England with the blessings of agricultural fertility; and by the industry of its frame-work-knitters, affords an article that quickens and extends the operations of commerce.

The following years were not easy for her as her mother became mentally ill from around 1806. On 19 March 1807 Watts’s friend, Elizabeth Coltman, wrote to the publisher Richard Phillips on Watts’s behalf, urging intervention from the Literary Fund for one whose ‘character and talents’ would have been ‘among the most distinguished of her sex, had they been nurtured by genial circumstances’.

Among her accomplishments, Coltman mentions Watts’s receipt of ‘a medal’ from the Society for the Encouragement of the Arts. Manufactures, and Commerce for ‘some extremely fine landscapes entirely composed of feathers’. The Literary Fund awarded Watts £20.

Despite publishing a poem directed at William Wilberforce criticising his views on women working in the abolitionist movement Watts and her friend Elizabeth Heyrick continued campaigning against slavery, including founding The Humming Bird, the first anti-slavery periodical. Heyrick and Watts would visit greengrocers and other businesses to encourage the owners to not purchase Caribbean sugar and other products produced by slave labour.

Watts also founded the philanthropical organisation, The Society of the Relief of Indigent Old Age, as well as publishing books on the treatment of animals.

Her scrapbook, now held by the Leicestershire Records Office, is a large black ledger, heavily worn, of a type which might have been used by some hosiery manufacturer or Leicester shopkeeper but is bursting with letters, drawings, poems and ephemera: it is a record not of business transactions but of female connection, creativity and activism in Leicester in the early nineteenth century.

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