Ann Williams: 18th century working woman, feminist poet, and scientific martyr

Ann Williams: 18th century working woman, feminist poet, and scientific martyr

Williams, A[nn] (1745? – 1779). Original Poems and Imitations. London: printed for the author, and sold by W. Harris, 1773. Octavo. Pp. [viii], 191, [2]. Collation: [A], B-Bb4. Three leaves replaced in facsimile (pp. 47/48, 131/132, and 133/134). Contemporary calf, rebacked, lightly worn. ESTC T77862.

     It is impossible to read these poems by Ann Williams and not be both dazzled by her moral strength and sharp wit, and bewildered by the fact that she is not better known. Writing two decades before Mary Wollstonecraft published A Vindication of the rights of women (1792), Ann Williams presented a powerful case for women’s equality – perhaps superiority – both explicitly through her verse and implicitly through the example of her broad achievement.

     The extreme rarity of this self-published volume is clearly one reason for Williams’ obscurity – ESTC records only two copies, one at the BL, the other at the Folger. Another is that there is so little biographical information on her. Unlike the majority of women authors before 1800, Williams was not to the manor born. She appears of have hailed from the middling classes, and worked for a living as the post mistress of Gravesend, Kent. To the extent that she is remembered today, Williams is known as an experimental biologist, who corresponded with the Society of Arts (after 1908 the Royal Society of Arts, or RSA), which awarded her twenty guineas in 1778 for her observations on the care and feeding of silkworms. She kept her “little family” of “sweet innocent reptiles” in the dead letter pigeon-hole at the post office.

     Williams’s experiments with silkworms began in 1777, four years after she published these poems. But Anton Howes, historian in residence at the RSA, has discovered a series of correspondence that testifies to Williams' earlier scientific inquires. In a letter from 1775, she alerted the Society about her success producing a dye from the berries of the plant known in Britain as the cuckoo pint and the United States as jack-in-the-pulpit (Arum maculatum), enclosing swatches of cloth as evidence.

     The poems collected in this volume include several on scientific subjects, including astronomy and biology.  and one written after gathering “saluatory herbs." This, plus her experiments with Arum maculatum, suggests that she was a student of Nicholas Culpeper's work. "Had I time equal to inclination, I should not despair of discovering every Virtue [of nature]," she writes in an unpublished letter to the Society of Arts. "The Vegetable World, in happier Times I always made my intense study."

     In addition to her studies in natural history, Williams clearly followed reports in other branches of science. There is a poem written after observing the transit of Mars "on an extream fine night" in 1766. In one witty piece, possibly written after reading of the unfortunate fate of Jean-Baptiste Chappe d'Auteroche's expedition to view the transit of Venus on 3 June 1769, she upbraids male astronomers for not being up to the task:


     Doubtless Williams would have distinguished herself further through her research, but unhappily she died young. In his 1797 history of Gravesend, Robert Pocock records that Williams perished while conducting an experiment:

She unfortunately lost her life, by accident, whist employed in a chymical Process, which set fire to her cloaths and burnt her past recovery. (Pocock, p. 16)

Pocock does not record the date of this tragedy, but the burial of an Ann Williams is recorded at St. Peter & St. Paul parish church, Milton-next-Gravesend on 14 January 1779, a date which roughly harmonizes with her last communication to the Society of Arts on 14 May 1778. She appears to have the melancholy honor of being Britain’s first female martyr to STEM -- unless of course one counts traditional herbalists executed for their efforts, as Williams did herself. As she wrote to the Society, "I suppose had I lived in times of superstition I should have been burned for a witch."

     The demands of work plus her independent researches left Williams little time for writing. She was an occasional poet, and many of her verses are presented as extemporaneous productions prompted by the news, books she read or remarks she overheard. A number are dated to the year (generally between 1770 and 1772) or even to the day. There are some patriotic pieces, riddles, and poems of praise. But what stand out in this collection are her witty and barbed poems in response to remarks by gentlemen who asked her banal questions, presented her with small gifts, or expressed misogynistic opinions. One of her salvos in the war between the sexes is titled, "Impromptu, to a gentleman who railed against the ladies, particularly the married ones." Another is:


In another poem, written in response to what must have seemed to her interlocutor an innocuous question, she suggests that at base men are seducers and rapists:


     Williams' feminism was buttressed by her wide reading. She frequently expresses her feminist critique in the context of commentary on the books she has read and the plays she has seen. There are verses written after reading Horace, Virgil, Shakespeare, Matthew Prior (Soloman), Richard Knolles (Mahomet and Irene) Dryden, Pope, Elizabeth Singer Rowe, Aphra Behn (The Rover), Aaron Hill (Zara), A Greenland Ode, and the Spectator (no. 204, to be precise). With respect to her contemporaries, there are poems that pay homage to James Macpherson’s Ossian (1760), John Landhorne’s Solyman and Almena (1762), William Falconer’s The Shipwreck (1762), Frances Brooke’s The Reapers (1768), Oliver Goldsmith’s The Deserted Village (1770), John Hoole’s Timanthes (1770), Richard Cumberland’s The West Indian (1771), and Arthur Murphy’s The Grecian Daughter (1772). Williams' readings generally comment on the sexual politics of the texts. Take, for example, her poem written in response to Samuel Johnson’s An Essay on Education (1771), in which she suggests that equal access to education will make for happier marriages:

Yes, women if they dar’d, wou’d nobly soar

And ev’ry art and science wou’d explore:

If they our free-born minds would not enslave,

No other boon of heav’n they need to crave;

But whle our minds in fetters are enchain’d,

Rely on it, your hearts will e’er be pain’d:


Be gen’rous then, and us to knowledge lead

And happiness to you will sure succeed:

Then sacred Hymen shall in triumph reign,

And all be proud to wear his pleasing chain.

     Indeed, many of Williams' poems present arguments for equal access to the prerogatives men enjoy:


She expressed a similar sentiment in one of her unpublished letters to the Society of Arts. Suggesting that they promulgate news of her experiments with dying cloth for the benefit of manufacturers, she wrote, "I am extreamly anxious for the result." Then, remembering her audience, she added:

A True Woman, you will say. Alas! Sir, Curiosity is inherent to all the Daughters of Eve.

     Evidently graced with beauty as well as brains, Williams occasionally expresses frustration that men focused on her superficial qualities rather than her intellectual attainments. In several poems she confounds suitors by giving unexpected answers to their flirtatious queries. For example, in this brief verse she asks not for baubles or a fine estate, but for "solid sense":


     While the secondary literature is silent on the particulars of Williams’s life, her poems suggest paths for inquiry into local records. A poem to Williams by a Miss Ounsham printed here (p. 166), suggests that Williams was young (“daughter of wisdom, lovely charming maid”) and appears to have been nicknamed “Nancy.” There are poems on the death of her father, her brother, and her child. In an unpublished letter to the Society of Arts, Williams indicates that her father collected the botanical specimens that awakened her interest, presenting them to his "Noble Friends." She continues: "I must say, with poor Ophelia, all the Violets withered, when my poor Father dyed. Then, and not before, was I plunged into this trouble[d] Vale of misery ... then was the Time for researches, now all is hurry and confusion. I have scarce time to."

     It is unclear whether or not she was ever married, but if so she appears to have relied on no husband for her livelihood but worked herself to exhaustion. One poem collected here is titled “Written when I was extremely sleepy, yet obliged to attend business.” In her unpublished letters to the Society of Arts she remarks frequently on both her straitened circumstances and her demanding work schedule. "I have not a moment to myself, for a Post Office at this time of year, in a Market Town, cannot be compared to anything but an Egyptian slavery, no rest night or day."


John Calcraft (National Portrait Gallery)

     Given her modest cirumstance, it is clear that Williams could not have published this book -- printed, as the title page suggests, at her own expense -- without support. Her poems offer many clues to identifying her patrons. Locally, and likely most importantly, there was John Calcraft the elder (1726-1772), whom she calls “my second father.” (If he was the age of her father, then this suggests she may have born in the mid- to late 1740s.) In addition to an eulogy on Calcraft, there is a poem on Ingress Abbey, his estate in Kent. Calcraft served in the War Office during the Seven Years War, and it may be through him that Williams came to revere General Wolfe, “the hero of Quebec,” to whom no less than five poems here are dedicated. He may also have been the source of her appreciation for the offerings of Drury Lane – Calcraft, celebrated as a rake, enjoyed romantic liaisons with several actresses.

     Another encomium singles out the William Posonby, 2nd Earl of Bessborough (1704-1793), who "did kindly condescend / To patronize me, and become my friend." Another is addressed to Anthony Todd (1718-1798), who served as secretary to the General Post Office and who was a correspondent of Benjamin Franklin. Intriguing but inconclusive is the book's dedication to Francis Dashwood, Baron le Despencer (1708-1781) and Henry Frederick Thynne (1735-1826), made Baron Carteret in 1776. Remembered chiefly today as a member of the Society of Dilettanti and the libertine founder of the notorious Hellfire Club, Dashwood served also as Postmaster-General, a position he shared with Thynne, who did not marry his long-time mistress until 1810. Did Williams consort with these rakehells, or was the book's dedication intended only to attract their patronage? Investigations into the papers of Calcraft, Bessborough, and these other men of position may prove revelatory.

     Ann Williams wore a cap in which was pinned an intellectual's prayer: "May the wit of Apollo and Sappho conjoin'd / Adorn the bright fair for the wearer design'd." It is our hope that this rare volume will awaken academic interest in this intriguing Renaissance woman of the eighteenth century whose work combined "Sappho's bright wit and the fire of Apollo."


Selected References

  • Hannan, Leonie. “Experience and experiment: the domestic cultivation of silkworms in eighteenth-century Britain and Ireland,” Cultural and social history 15 (2018), 509-530.
  • Howes, Anton. Arts & minds: how the Royal Society of Arts changed a nation. Princeton University Press, 2020.
  • Pocock, Robert. The history of the incorporated town and parishes of Gravesend and Milton, in the county of Kent; selected with accuracy from topographical writers, and enriched from manuscripts hitherto un-noticed. Recording every event that has occurred in the aforesaid town and parishes from the Norman conquest to the present time. Gravesend: Pocock, 1797.
  • Tobin, William “Transits of Venus and Mercury as muses,” Journal of astronomical history and heritage, 16 (2013): 224-249.
  • Williams, Ann. “Letters in manufactures,” Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society, 1784, 2: 153-71.

We are grateful to Anton Howes, historian in residence at the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, for sharing Ann Williams's unpublished letters in the Society's archives.

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    Ann Williams: 18th century working woman, feminist poet, and scientific martyr