by Charlotte MacKenzie
In eighteenth century Cornwall most women worked – including some who were independent traders. Some women organised to help each other financially by forming local friendly societies. By 1801 bookshops in eight Cornish towns were Lane’s circulating libraries with popular titles marketed to women readers. There were also local ladies’ book clubs. Women writers sometimes expressed opinions on political and social matters. Female dissenters were among the women trading, organising, and writing in Cornwall, where women comprised a majority of methodist society members.
Elizabeth Elliot was one of these women traders. Born Elizabeth Dale in St Agnes in the early 1730s, her occupation before marrying aged 41 is not known. Elizabeth’s husband, Philip Elliot, was a widower who had completed a printer’s apprenticeship in the Falmouth business he later owned and ran for nine years. Elizabeth was associated with, and then successfully continued the Falmouth shop and printing press after being widowed in 1787. Elizabeth was one of several women trading in Falmouth: from the ship’s chandlers Jane Falck, Anna Fox, and Elizabeth Fox, to Elizabeth’s sister-in-law Mary Elliot who was a victualler in the 1790s.
Elizabeth Elliot was the first woman printer in Cornwall. By 1787 she had acquired sufficient technical knowledge as a printer to train a new apprentice: Robert Rowling. ‘E. Elliot’ of Falmouth appeared as an imprint on publications from 1787 to 1799. She tailored her stock to local customers and the shop’s location.
Elizabeth responded to changing educational and educated demand. At a time when some knowledge of other European languages and musicianship were regarded as desirable accomplishments, she sold books in languages other than English as well as sheet music and musical instruments. ‘E. Elliot’ printed or reprinted hymnals and other religious books for which there was a local readership, as well as some educational books such as an English grammar for ‘young beginners’. Elliot may have calculated correctly that she would be able to sell multiple copies of the pocket guide, hymnals, and schoolbooks. And by 1801 her shop was also a Lane’s circulating library.
Falmouth was a provincial port which had the lion’s share of Cornwall’s shipping, including the Lisbon and West Indies packet boats. Elizabeth continued to print a well-established pocket guide to English and Portuguese money and commercial exchange. In the late eighteenth century, historians estimate that three per cent of mariners on British ships were of African descent. When spring tides delayed the Falmouth packet to Lisbon in 1787, the novelist William Beckford wrote to his mother from the town describing the Cornish port as frequented by ‘Barbadoes creoles and packet-boat captains’. Beckford’s family wealth derived partly from plantations in the West Indies worked by enslaved Africans.
Elizabeth Elliot traded at a time when there were vociferous political controversies about trade. Despite, or because of, its shipping to the West Indies, Falmouth was one of the first Cornish towns to support the petition to Parliament in 1788 to abolish the slave trade. Unlike some Quaker women, including several Falmouth shopkeepers, Elizabeth was not a subscriber to the Society for the Abolition of Slavery. In December 1791, Elizabeth printed A Satirical Poem on Slavery written by a Cornish abolitionist and methodist mine captain Richard Williams of Gwennap. In the following year newspapers reported that 12,000 people in Cornwall were supporting the abolitionist boycott of sugar from the West Indies.
In March 1791 Elizabeth advertised her ‘printing, bookbinding, and stationary business’ for sale ‘on account of her ill state of health’. Elizabeth continued to trade and later the same year she printed A Satirical Poem on Slavery. In 1793 Elizabeth was listed in the Universal British Directory as a printer, bookseller, and stationer. She later traded with her niece Sarah Cornish as ‘Elliot & Cornish,’ who were listed as stationers at Falmouth in Holden’s Directory of 1811.
Elizabeth Elliot lived until 1827, when she died aged 93. She is buried in the dissenters’ burial ground at Ponsharden near Falmouth. Her success and commercial longevity may have inspired other women to establish similar businesses at Falmouth, including the booksellers and stationers Martha Ester (1793) and Jane Russel (1793), stationers Elizabeth Doherty (1811) and Mary Lander (1811), and the printer Jane Trathan who was initially in partnership with William Penaluna (1811) and later traded as ‘Jane Trathan and Son’ (1845).
Charlotte MacKenzie ‘Two Cornish Poets Writing Against Slavery and the Slave Trade’ Royal Institution of Cornwall Journal (2020)
About the Author:
Charlotte MacKenzie lives in Cornwall where she is an historical researcher and writer. Her current research is on women writers and eighteenth century Cornwall. Charlotte won the 2016 Cardew Rendle prize awarded by the Royal Cornwall Museum for an article on ‘Cruel Coppinger: the women’s stories’ including the eighteenth century written application for legal separation of Mary Copinger. In addition to publishing books she has recently contributed articles for the National Maritime Museum Cornwall journal Troze, the Royal Institution of Cornwall journal, and Cornish Studies. She was previously a senior lecturer in history at Bath Spa University.