Gateway to the Classics: Great Englishwomen by M. B. Synge
Great Englishwomen by  M. B. Synge

Hannah More


H annah More was one of the first women who devoted her life to the poor. She had been in London society; she knew most of the leading men of the day; she could have lived a comfortable life in the midst of great people; but she chose rather to build herself a little house in the country, and there to work with her sister Patty among the rough miners of Somersetshire.

She was one of the younger daughters of Jacob More, a schoolmaster, near Gloucester. Her grandmother was a vigorous old woman, who even at the age of eighty used to get up at four in the morning with great energy.

Hannah learnt to read at the age of three. While still small enough to sit on her father's knee, she learnt Greek and Roman history; he used to repeat the speeches of the great men of old in the Greek or Latin tongue, which delighted the child, and then translate them till the eager little eyes sparkled "like diamonds." Her nurse had lived in the family of Dryden, and little Hannah heard many a story of the poet from her nurse's lips.

When quite small, it was her delight to get a scrap of paper, scribble a little poem or essay, and hide it in a dark corner, where the servant kept her brush or duster. Sometimes the little sister who slept with her, probably Patty, would creep downstairs in the dark to get her a piece of paper and a candle to write by. To possess a whole quire of paper was the child's greatest ambition.

One of her elder sisters went to a school in Bristol from Mondays till Saturdays, and from Saturday to Monday little Hannah set herself diligently to learn French from her sister. When she was sixteen, she also went to Bristol, and there she met many clever people, who were charmed with her, and looked on her bright conversation and manner as proofs of dawning genius.

Once, when she was ill, a well-known doctor was called in to attend her. He had paid her many visits, when one day she began to talk to him on many interesting subjects. At last he went; but when he was half way downstairs, he cried out, "Bless me! I quite forgot to ask the girl how she was!" and returning to the room he inquired tenderly, "And how are you to-day my poor child? "

The following year she wrote a drama called "The Search after Happiness." "The public have taken ten thousand copies," she says, "but I  have not the patience to read it!"

When she went to London she was introduced to Garrick the actor, Sir Joshua Reynolds the artist, and many other clever people. Sir Joshua Reynolds one day took her to see Dr. Johnson, or "Dictionary Johnson," as she called him. She was very nervous, as no one knew how the great doctor would receive her, or what temper he would be in. But it was all right. He came to meet her "with good humour on his countenance," and with royal grace greeted her with a verse out of her own "Morning Hymn."

When she went to see him one day alone, he was out. So Hannah More went into his parlour, and seated herself in his great chair, hoping to feel inspired by so doing. When Dr. Johnson entered, she explained to him why she was sitting there; at which he went into fits of laughing, and cried out that it was a chair he never sat in.

After this he became a frequent visitor at the house of the five sisters.

"I have spent a happy evening," he cried one night. "I love you all five; I am glad I came. I will come and see you again."

In 1777, Hannah More wrote a play called "Percy." Hidden in the corner of a box at the theatre, she anxiously watched the performance of her play; she heard her hero speak through the voice of her friend Garrick; she saw her audience—even the men—shedding tears, and she knew it was a success. So much did her writings apply to the feelings of her audience, that after the performance of one of her plays called the "Fatal Falsehood," when a lady said to her servant girl, who had been to the play, that her eyes looked red, as if she had been crying, the girl answered:

"Well, ma'am, if I did, it was no harm; a great many respectable people cried too!"

The death of David Garrick affected Hannah More deeply. Mrs. Garrick sent for her at once in her trouble, and, though ill in bed at the time, Hannah More came to comfort her friend. After this she spent much time with Mrs. Garrick, often in the depths of the country giving up her time to reading and writing, and taking long walks to the pretty villages round.

Then she built herself a little house near Bristol, where she went to live with her sister Patty. They made long expeditions together to villages round, and they soon discovered what a bad state the country people were in.

In a village near, she set to work to establish a school for the little children, and was soon rewarded by finding that three hundred were ready and longing to be taught. Difficulties lay at every turn; the rich farmers objected to the children being taught, and religion brought into the country.

"It makes the people so lazy and useless," they said.

"It will make the people better and more industrious," urged Hannah More; "they will work from higher and nobler motives, instead of merely for money and drink!"

At last they consented to have a school, and the children came by hundreds to be taught.

Then she went on to two mining villages high up on the Mendip Hills. In these villages the people were even more ignorant than those at Cheddar; they thought the ladies came to carry off their children as slaves. For at this time the selling of little children as slaves had reached a terrible height, and many great men, Pitt, Fox, and others, were doing what they could to have it abolished by an Act of Parliament.

It was into districts where no policemen dared to go that Hannah More and her sister ventured. There was no clergyman for miles round; one village had a curate living twelve miles away; another village had a clergyman who himself drank to excess, and was never sober enough to preach. There was one Bible in the village, but that was used to prop up a flower-pot. Such was the state of affairs when Hannah More first went among them.

Soon a school was established, and again the children were ready and willing to be taught. Before long they had six schools and as many as twelve hundred children were being taught. Very soon their work bore fruit.

"Several day-labourers coming home late from harvest, so tired that they could hardly stand, will not go to rest till they have been into the school for a chapter and a prayer," wrote Hannah More.

In 1792 she wrote "Village Politics," at the request of friends, to try and give a more healthy turn to politics in England. She did not put her own name to it, but called herself "Will Chip." One of her friends discovered who had written it, and sitting down he began a letter, "My dear Mrs. Chip," thanking her for giving to the world such a popular and wholesome tract.

Hannah More still kept up with the world outside; she watched with the keenest interest the struggle against slavery; her heart ached for the victims of the French Revolution across the Channel, and she wrote pamphlets on both subjects. Then came an attack on her writings; people said she wished for the success of France; some said she was an enemy to liberty, and many other false things.

This made Hannah More very unhappy. She liked to be loved, she could not bear to be hated; she who was ready to see good in all, could not bear to be forced to see evil. Then her poor people upheld her, and school-teachers and church-workers came forward to bear witness to the world-wide good her writings had done. Sympathy flowed in from all sides, and she found heart to go on again.

At last the happy home was broken up—the bright home where the poor people had never failed to find warmth and shelter and a welcome from the five sisters.

The three eldest died first. Still, through all the sad partings, Hannah More bravely worked on, while she had strength for it, writing when she could, and keeping bright those who still remained around her.

A few years later Patty died; she was the nearest of all to Hannah's heart, and the "aching void" she felt after her sister's death affected her health. Long and dangerous illnesses constantly left her unable to work for many months. Her work had been taken up by others now, and the "tide she had helped to turn had already swept past her."

"I learns geography and the harts and senses," boasted a little girl in a county parish, meaning the arts and sciences.

"I am learning syntax," a little servant said to Hannah More when questioned about her school.

Hannah More died at the age of eighty-eight, after years of intense suffering. She had lived to see how education was helping the poorer classes, and stamping out crime; how a little love and kindness had helped even the rough miners in their work, and how the children, taught in the village schools, were already growing up better and happier men and women, and it pleased her, long after her health and memory had failed, to hear that they still remembered the name of Hannah More.

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