Turbulent Londoners: Mary Prince, 1788-?

Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who contributed to the city’s contentious past, with a particular focus of women, whose contribution to history is often overlooked. My definition of ‘Londoner’ is quite loose, anyone who has played a role in protest in the city can be included. Any suggestions for future Turbulent Londoners posts are very welcome. This post is about Mary Prince, a woman who escaped slavery to become a key figure in the campaign to abolish slavery.

Mary Prince Plaque

There are no surviving images of Mary Prince, but this plaque, on Senate House in Bloomsbury, commemorates her (Source: sgwarnog2010).

In 1807, the Abolition Act abolished the slave trade, marking a great victory for abolitionists. They had won a significant battle, but had not yet won the war; the slave trade was gone, but slavery itself was not. Slaves, and any children they had, remained indentured. Women were over a century away from winning the vote in Britain, but they found other ways to influence politics and were key to the success of the abolition movement. As the main food purchasers, they were ideally placed to organise boycotts of slave-grown sugar in the 1790s, 1820s, and 1830s. Mary Prince was both a slave and a woman, significant disadvantages in the early nineteenth century. However it was these characteristics that made her such a powerful tool for the abolition movement.

Prince was born to an enslaved family in Bermuda in 1788. She was passed between owners and suffered from awful treatment. In 1815 she was bought by the Wood family, her last owners, for $300. In December 1826, Prince was in Antigua when she married Daniel James, a former slave who had bought his freedom. She did not seek permission from the Wood family, and they badly beat her as punishment.

Despite a deteriorating relationship with the Woods, they took Prince with them when they travelled to England in 1828. She ran away, but was legally only free in England. The Woods refused to emancipate or sell her, so if she returned to her husband in Antigua the Woods would have been able to claim her as their property once again. She petitioned Parliament to grant her freedom, but this too failed.

History of Mary Prince Title Page

The title page of Mary’s biography (Source: Yale Center for British Art).

Prince got a job with Thomas Pringle, an abolitionist writer and Secretary of the Anti-slavery Society. With the help of the Society, she published an autobiography entitled The History of Mary Prince: A West Indian Slave (1831). It was the first account of a black woman’s life published in Great Britain. The book went through three printings in its first year; Mary’s personal story helped to raise awareness of how bad conditions still were for those in slavery.

Nobody knows what happened to Prince after her book was published. In 1833, the Slavery Abolition Act was passed, which banned slavery in the British Empire. Colonies were given time to allow their economies to adapt, so slavery was abolished in Bermuda in 1834 and the West Indies in 1838. If she was still alive, Prince could have gone back to her place of birth or to her husband.

Mary Prince was not seen as a campaigner in her own right, not even by her supporters; as a black, working class woman her social status was about as low as it could get. Nevertheless, her powerful and shocking narrative played an important role in maintaining the momentum of the abolition movement. Sarah Salih, who edited a recent edition of Prince’s book, argues that Mary was a defiant woman; her illicit marriage, and her tendency to defend herself and others both verbally and physically, hinted at a rebellious streak that culminated with the publication of her History. Mary may not have been respected in her lifetime, but she certainly deserves our respect now.

Sources and Further Reading

100 Great Black Britons. “Mary Prince.” No date, accessed 25th May 2016. Available at  http://www.100greatblackbritons.com/bios/mary_prince.html

Abolition Project, The. “Mary Prince (1788-c.1833): The First Woman to Present a Petition to Parliament.” No date, accessed 25th May 2016. Available at  http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2007/oct/19/race.historybooks

Hochschild, Adam. “The Unsung Heroes of Abolition: Mary Prince.” BBC History. Last modified 17th February 2011, accessed 25th May 2016. Available at  http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/abolition/abolitionists_gallery_04.shtml

Simkin, John. “Mary Prince.” Sparacus Educational. Last modified August 2014, accessed 25th May 2016. Available at http://spartacus-educational.com/SprinceM.htm

Wajid, Sara. “‘They Bought Me as a Butcher Would a Calf or Lamb.'” The Guardian. Last modified 19th October 2007, accessed 25th May 2016. Available at   http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2007/oct/19/race.historybooks

Wikipedia. “Mary Prince.” Last modified 11th May 2016, accessed 25th May 2016. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Prince


Turbulent Londoners: Elisabeth Jesser Reid, 1789-1866

Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who contributed to the city’s contentious past, with a particular focus of women, whose contribution to history is often overlooked. My definition of ‘Londoner’ is quite loose, anyone who has played a role in protest in the city can be included. Any suggestions for future Turbulent Londoners posts are very welcome. The twelth Turbulent Londoner is Elisabeth Jesser Reid. She was the founder of Bedford College, which is now part of Royal Holloway and Bedford New College, my university.


Elisabeth Jesser Reid was a formidable woman (Source: Royal Holloway, University of London).

Elisabeth Jesser Reid was a social reformer, abolitionist, and advocate of women’s education. Known as single-minded and tactless, she used her relatively privileged status as an independent widow to further the causes she believed in. This included founding Bedford College, one of the first venues of higher education for women in Britain.

The second daughter of wealthy Unitarian ironmonger William Sturch and his wife Elisabeth, Elisabeth Jesser Sturch was born to a life of relative privilege on the 25th of December 1789. In 1821 she married John Reid, a physician. Dr. Reid owned land on the River Clyde in Glasgow, which became valuable as the port expanded. When John died only 13 months after their marriage, Elisabeth was left with a large, independent income. Historically, widows with an independent income have enjoyed more freedom than other women, being beyond the control of both father and husband. Elisabeth used her freedom to fight for the causes she supported.

Elisabeth was a social reformer. She used her money to support benevolent schemes set up by women, such as Harriet Martineau’s project to enable the poor in the Lake District to buy their own homes. She also sponsored the studies of pupils who couldn’t otherwise afford it. Another of Elisabeth’s passions was abolitionism. She attended the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London in 1840, where she met female American delegates who had not been permitted to speak, such as Lucretia Mott. She was a member of the Garrisonian London Emancipation Committee, the British branch of an anti-slavery group that held progressive views on gender and racial equality.

Bedford foundation plaqur

A plaque in Bedford Square in Bloomsbury, commemorating the foundation of Bedford College (Source: Plaques of London).

Elisabeth Jesser Reid is best known for her role in the development of female education. In 1849 she founded Bedford College, with a loan of £1500, which she converted to a gift in 1856 when the college was experiencing financial difficulties. The college was first located at 47 Bedford Square in Bloomsbury, moving to Regent’s Park in 1874. Although not the first college for the higher education of women in Britain, it was the first that believed in education for purposes other than vocational training. Bedford College aimed to enable women to improve themselves as they wanted to, not just gain the skills to become a governess.

This philosophy was radical, and Elisabeth was frustrated by the lack of support she received, particularly from prominent men. She expected hundreds of applications when the college opened, and was bitterly disappointed to receive only around a dozen. Nevertheless, she persevered, insisting that 3 Lady Visitors were included in the governing body, which was the first  time women officially shared in controlling the direction of a British institution. She used her social connections to get respected scholars to teach at the college, and eventually the college became successful. Notable early students include  novelist George Eliot, feminist and artist Barbara Bodichon, and Sarah Parker Redmond, the first black woman to do a lecture tour in the UK on the topic of slavery. Bedford College became part of the University of London in 1900, and merged with Royal Holloway in 1985, to become Royal Holloway and Bedford new College. In this form it is still going strong today, with over 8000 students (and a wonderful geography department!)

Graduation Photo of Marian Sherrett

The graduation photo of Marian Sherrett, who graduated from Bedford College with a first class German BA Honours degree in 1886. This photo is held by the archives at Royal Holloway, which holds archival sources about Elisabeth Jesser Reid and Bedford College (Source: Royal Holloway Archives).

I feel a personal connection to Elisabeth Jesser Reid because of the happy and fulfilling times I have spent at Royal Holloway and Bedford New College, but even without that I would admire her as a headstrong and opinionated woman who did not let her relative freedom go to waste. She used her wealth and independence to make the world a better place, and she fought hard for what she believed in, significantly advancing women’s education.

Sources and Further Reading

Anon. “Black History Month: Garrisonian Abolitionists.” Oxford University Press Blog. Last modified 27 February 2007, accessed 25 February 2016. Available at  http://blog.oup.com/2007/02/black_history_m4/ 

Anon. “Elisabeth Jesser Reid: Pioneering Education for Women.” Royal Holloway, University of London. No date, accessed 27 February 2016. Available at  https://www.royalholloway.ac.uk/aboutus/ourhistory/elisabethjesserreid.aspx

Anon. “Elizabeth Jesser Reid.” Wikipedia. Last modified 13 January 2016, accessed 25 February 2016. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elizabeth_Jesser_Reid

Anon. “History of Elizabeth Jesser Reid.” Reflex Managed Offices. Last modified 9 September 2015, accessed 25 February 2016. Available at http://www.reflex.london/history-of-elizabeth-jesser-reid/

Colville, Deborah. “Bloomsbury People.” UCL Bloomsbury Project. Last modified 7 April 2011, accessed 25 February 2016. Available at http://www.ucl.ac.uk/bloomsbury-project/articles/individuals/reid_elisabeth_jesser.htm

Oldfield, Sybil. “Reid [nee Sturch], Elisabeth Jesser.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Last modified May 2011, accessed 25 February 2016. Available at  http://www.oxforddnb.com.ezproxy01.rhul.ac.uk/view/article/37888 (This website is behind a paywall, I had to use my Royal Holloway login to access it).

Pakenham-Walsh, M. ‘Bedford College, 1849-1985’ in Crook J (ed.) Bedford College University of London- Memories of 150 Years. Royal Holloway and Bedford New College: Egham, Surrey (2001): 13-46