World Press Freedom Day: The pregnant woman jailed for publishing ‘blasphemous’ books

3 May is World Press Freedom Day and what better way to highlight the importance of this than through the incredible story of Susannah Wright – one of the few women to be sent to jail for selling ‘salacious literature’ in the early nineteenth century.

Originally from Nottingham, Susannah Wright (née Godber) moved to London in 1815 at the age of 23, and in the ten years she was there got married and met radical bookshop owners and campaigners Jane and Richard Carlile.  When Richard Carlile, and subsequently his wife Jane and sister Mary Ann, were imprisoned for blasphemy, Susannah Wright offered to run the print shop where she reprinted some writings by Richard Carlisle.

In July 1821 Wright was arrested and would be tried for publishing two blasphemous libels: pamphlets by the Carlile that were deemed to blaspheme Christianity after she sold them to an 'agent' of the Society for the Suppression of Vice. However, the trial was postponed by a year due to her pregnancy and she would later give birth in the poor conditions while in remand.

This trial came two years after the Peterloo Massacre, the violent crushing of a public meeting in Manchester to demand Parliamentary reform, as new laws were introduced to crackdown on reform movements including restricting seditious meetings and increasing the punishment for blasphemous and seditious libels.

Freedom of print and speech

Susannah Wright played an important role in providing access to books for newly-educated working classes; a very brave act when many were being sent to jail for either printing, publishing or distributing ‘blasphemous or salacious’ books and all during her pregnancy.

In Senate House Library we have the original ‘Report of the trial of Mrs. Susannah Wright : for publishing in his shop, the writings and correspondences of R. Carlile, before Chief Justice Abbott, and a special jury, in the Court of King's Bench, Guildhall, London, on Monday, July 8, 1822’ written and published by Richard Carlile. The report shows that Susannah Wright chose to defend herself, cementing her dedication to freedom of speech.

The courage of one’s convictions

Wright’s passionate defence of herself in court condemned the basis of religion and the attacks on its critics while defending the work of Carlile. Summing up her defence, after requesting a break to feed her child, Wright decried the situation in the country, the persecution dissenting voices and the futility of such campaigns:

‘But I am bold to tell to these persecutors, they never can, they never will, put down these publications; prosecutions give life to them, and those which have occurred within these last four or five years, have indeed been the seed of free discussion.  Our enemies act as madmen, they hasten their own downfall; for if there were anything really objectionable in those publications, public opinion would have put them down long since, but so powerful do we feel public opinion on our side, that, we feel assured we can combat every obstacle our enemies can throw in our way.’

The jury were not swayed and took just two minutes to find Wright guilty.  She was sentenced to 18 months in jail at Cold Bath Prison in Clerkenwell - one of the many women and men imprisoned for their work with Carlile. After Susannah Wright was released from prison, she returned to Nottingham a few years later setting up her Freethought bookshop in 1826.

Tracing radical campaigners

The account of the trial was published by Richard Carlile in 1822 which contains a dedication dated 19 July 22 from Dorchester Gaol addressed to the ‘Women of The Island of Great Britain’.  It is just one example of the many publications by radical campaigners from this period in the Goldsmith Library at Senate House Library. 

Also in the collection is an account of Mary-Anne Carlile’s trial , Richard Carlile’s Address to Men of Science, the radical journal The Black Dwarf , which Carlile distributed after it was banned, and Sherwin's political register, which was closed after it published Carlile’s account of the Peterloo Massacre. Find out more about the collection here.

Tansy Barton, Research Librarian

Blog post details