The Author & her Town …

Susanna Watts (1768-1842)

Self-made, articulate, educated, a committed anti-slavery campaigner and gave William Wilberforce a hard time in correspondence after he made disparaging remarks about female abolitionists.

Susanna was born at Danett’s Hall, a mile to the west of the town centre, but her father died when she was young.  The property was sold and a small pension purchased with the proceeds of sale.  With financial help from her Uncle William, Susanna and her mother – both of Susanna’s sisters having died whilst children from tuberculosis – were able to live a modest life.

Susanna’s Uncle died when she was fifteen.  She taught herself French and Italian and made a living from writing and teaching to support herself and her mother.  She was an active campaigner and philanthropist.  She published pamphlets, magazines, anthologies, hymns, poems and novels for both children and adults, in particular against slavery and cruelty to animals, and founded a Society for the Relief of Indigent Old Age in 1828.

She was not just a literary campaigner, but practical, too; with Elizabeth Heyrick, a fellow abolitionist, Watts initiated a sugar boycott in Leicester in 1824, visiting greengrocer’s shops to persuade them not to stock sugar, or other goods made with slave labour.  By June 1825 almost one quarter of Leicester’s population had given up sugar.

Her scrapbook, held in the Leicester Records Office shows the breadth of her interests; notes on the Italian poet Tasso, favourite poems written by her and others, mementoes, statistics, portraits (many of women writers), information on Hindu and Arabic languages, to diagrams of the hold of a slave ship. She was buried at St Mary de Castro, by Leicester Castle.

‘A Walk Through Leicester’ was published anonymously in its first (1804) and second (1821) edition, and Susanna was not identified as its author in her lifetime (the author is asserted to be a “he”).  Although she made no claim for herself in her book, she did punctiliously credit her paternal Uncle, William Watts, with his role in the foundation of Leicester (now the ‘Royal’) Infirmary in 1771.

Watts may have fallen from a decayed and distinctly minor landed gentry family, but she into, and was able to make a modest living from, a new and, at the end of the C18th, peculiarly English institution; the urban middle class; ‘the middling, comfortable, modest and moderate, sober and satisfied, industrious and intelligent [class]’, according to the Revd Joshua Larwood.  Horace Walpole had been struck on his Grand Tour that there was ‘nowhere but in England the distinction of ‘Middling People’.

The newly emerging middle classes created a local market for culture, recreation and education, increasingly organised into associations, clubs and societies; a new ‘social location of culture’. The new provincial urban elites were firmly linked to place; not ‘citizens of nowhere’ and wanted to understand their locale and justify it with an ‘urban pedigree’ – civility, urbanity, social polish.