This International Women’s Day we’re celebrating the life of Stoke Newington legend Anna Laetitia Barbauld, a poet and children’s author who attacked the international slave trade.
Though it’s a neighbouring street that bears her name, Barbauld lived at 113 Stoke Newington Church Street from 1802. Born in 1743 in Leicestershire, her father was a headteacher and her home was a boys’ school. She pestered him to teach her the classics and he relented and went on to teach her Latin, Greek, French and Italian.
Though it was unusual for women of her time, she carved out a career as a radical writer. Her first book of poems was published in 1773 and was an instant success.
Famed for making reasoned arguments, she challenged traditional 18th century assumptions about femininity and was unafraid of controversy, supporting religious freedom and the abolition of slavery. In her poem ‘Epistle to William Wilberforce’ she wrote about the slave trade:
Cease, Wilberforce, to urge thy generous aim!
Thy Country knows the sin, and stands the shame!
Barbauld also took a bold anti-war position in ‘Sins of Government, Sins of the Nation.’ Poets including William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge looked to her poetry for inspiration in their early days but, when they’d forged their own careers, they turned against her and dismissed her work.
She married Rochemont Barbauld in 1774 and together they taught at Palgrave Academy in Suffolk and later at a school in Hampstead.
The couple moved to Stoke Newington in 1802 when Rochemont became minister of Newington Green Chapel. But all was not well – he suffered from mental illness and was prone to violent rages. She once resorted to jumping out the window to escape him as he chased her around the kitchen with a knife.
When Rochemont drowned himself in the New River in 1808, Barbauld suffered a terrible depression and wrote Eighteen Hundred and Eleven, a poem about the war between England and Napoleonic France in which she depicted England as a ruin. It was slammed by the critics but has more recently been hailed by academics as her greatest poetic achievement.
Anna Barbauld died in 1825 and is buried in the family vault beside The Old Church on Church St (just to the left of the path as you walk towards the church). She is commemorated at the New Unity Meeting House with a marble plaque which reads: ‘With wit, genius, poetic talent, and a vigorous understanding, she promot(ed) the cause of humanity, peace, and justice, of civil and religious liberty.’