Out of Time: Susannah Wright

Words: Lizzy O'Riordan
Illustrations: Ciaran Burrows
Wednesday 26 April 2023
reading time: min, words

Freedom of press is an ever important issue. What are people allowed to say? What’s being censored? What are the repercussions of it all? But did you know that an important figure when it comes to the freedom of publishing comes from Nottingham? We learn more about Susannah Wright, the Nottingham woman who went to jail for her beliefs…


Publishing has always been political. It’s through political pamphlets and passed-around papers that movements often begin, and it’s through the suppression of that material that movements often die off. Therefore, there is perhaps no action more radical than fighting for freedom of press, and there’s no better example of this than Susannah Wright. Born in Nottingham in 1792, and arrested for charges of ‘blasphemous libel’, she spent her life dedicated to radical publishing - paving the way for the freedom of the future. 

Initially making her living as a lace worker, Wright (then Godber) lived in Nottingham for all of her early life before moving to London in her twenties to marry William Wright on 25 December 1815. It was here that they became involved in politics together, publishing a series of inflammatory works under his name and spending their time with a circle of radicals. Though, Wright maintained that her radical flare wasn’t born in the city of London, but rather in her hometown of Nottingham - which, according to academic Christina Parolin, “she attributed the formation of her principles to” because of the “distinguished spirit of local reformers”. Nonetheless, Susannah and William settled into their home in London and continued their somewhat dangerous life of radical publishing together. Notably fighting for freedom of press, freedom of religion and universal suffrage.

Yet, it wasn’t until 1819 that Susannah began on the journey that would soon result in her imprisonment. Friends with fellow agitator Richard Carlile, Wright agreed to take on the management of his local (and high-profile) shop, which he had recently been arrested for running. The shop, based on Fleet Street, had become infamous for printing and selling texts like Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man and The Age of Reason, alongside a parody of the Book of Common Prayer, and the banned radical weekly magazine The Black Dwarf - all of which were considered a form of blasphemy. So, Susannah Wright was also quickly arrested for her involvement, appearing in court in 1822. 

The local conservative press also began to publish highly critical stories of Wright, with one describing her as wretched and shameless while others aligned her with prostitution

A bad time to be arrested, the Government had recently reacted to a growing sense of public discontent by introducing a ‘raft of repressive legislation’ which criminalised heretical and religious expression. Therefore, despite Wright famously making a lengthy defence for religious freedom, she was thrown into Newgate Prison alongside a bevy of other political prisoners and her infant child. The local conservative press also began to publish highly critical stories of Wright, with one describing her as “wretched and shameless” while others aligned her with prostitution, noting that women who supported her would put their moral standing at risk. Dark and cold, Wright painted a picture of her prison cell in a letter to Richard Carlile, in which she describes being forced to sleep (with her baby) on an old blanket on the damp stone floor. 

Thankfully, Wright wasn’t forced to sleep here for long, and she began to negotiate with the prison to upgrade her accommodation in exchange for a promise - not to radicalise the other prisoners with whom she was living. In the end, she stayed in Newgate for only ten weeks, but by no means did this mark the end of her punishment. The judge sentenced her to a further eighteen months at Coldbath Fields Prison in Clerkenwell. By this time, and despite the warnings of the press, Susannah had gained something of a celebrity status among women in particular. Though this support was uplifting, the next year-and-a-half proved some of the most difficult of Wright’s life, and when she was eventually released in 1824, it’s believed she vanished from the radical scene for a short time to deal with a series of nervous disorders she had developed while at Coldbath. 

Wright responded by drawing a pistol from the counter and calmly asking the threatening yobs if they should like it fired at them

Back on the scene by 1825, Susannah was then met by another personal tragedy: the death of her husband, William Wright, who passed away just a year-and-a-half after her release, and only ten years into their marriage. At such an event, Susannah, who was still struggling with her emotional health and a blindness in one eye, decided to relocate back to Nottingham. Moving in with her mother, it was in our county that she spent the rest of her life. By no means was her move back to Nottingham a sign of defeat, though, and once here she continued to fight for radical press by opening a shop on Goosegate, Hockley, despite the protests of the community. 

Particularly offensive to some local church members, Wright caused a lot of upset among some religious folk by opening her shop. However, an atheist herself who believed in religious freedom, she held her own - most strikingly, according to local historian John Baird, when a mob smashed their way into her bookshop. Wright responded by drawing a pistol from the counter and “calmly asking the threatening yobs if they should like it fired at them”. Likewise, Wright also defeated opposition from St Mary’s Church, then promptly moved her bookshop to a larger location to adapt to its now thriving trade. 

All in all, a really important figure in this country’s fight for freedom of religious expression and freedom of press, Susannah Wright has often been wrongly remembered in the shadow of her contemporary Richard Carlile. However, as Christina Parolin notes, this does Wright’s story a grave misjustice. We should be seeing her not through the ‘radical male narrative’, but as an independent story. A Nottingham-born woman who was fighting for freedom a hundred years before women gained the right to vote in the UK. A truly extraordinary example of “how a woman negotiated various spaces of political activity”, Wright is someone to be remembered, not only for her radicalism, but also for challenging the idea that the nineteenth century radical space was an arena only for men.

For more information about notable women in Nottingham we suggest you visit the Nottingham Women's History website. 

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