Born: 1773 in London
Died: 1852 in Hereford
Known as: Quaker and co-founder of the
first independent school in Hay
Special Skills: Setting up schools, not emigrating to America,
non-conforming, supporting her family as a widow.
Women’s names don’t often survive through history but Susannah Swetman’s has been
remembered for her part in the establishment of an independent school in Hay in the early 19 th century. Unusually for the time her name is more well-known than that of her husband.
She was born Susannah Howells in London and her parents moved to Hay when she was a
toddler in about 1775 to set up a watch and clockmakers shop. The Howells family soon
transferred their attention to the woolen industry and established a mill by the river and a spinning factory in Castle street. It was apparently the largest in Wales at the time, was very successful and employed up to 80 people. The mill has long gone but the five storey spinning and carding factory survives today as apartments.
Susannah was the only child in the Howells family who did not emigrate to the United States
despite the pressures of her father who traveled to America in 1789 and wrote to President
Washington about his plan to introduce wool manufacture to Virginia. One of Susannah’s brothers,Joseph, emigrated to Ohio and his grandson, William Dean Howells was a famous literary critic and writer. Her great, great, grand-nephew was John Mead Howells, an architect who designed theTribune Tower in Chicago.
Susannah and her family were Quakers, who, like other non-conformists such as Methodists and Baptists were dissenters against the Anglican doctrine of the Church of England. Dissent was widespread in the 19 th century as industry developed and the population grew, resulting in poor working and living conditions and a growing class divide. Religious dissenters rallied against the class based order of the Church of England, the dependency on birth rights and land ownership and the lack of pastoral and spiritual care of the people. Education also became an important part of being a Quaker as they realised the need to provide schools so that ordinary people could learn to read and write and take their part in an evolving society.
Susannah married John Swetman in Almely Wooton at a Quaker Meeting House. Their first
daughter, Deborah was born at the Pales, the oldest Quaker meeting house and burial ground in Wales about 25 miles north of Hay. Records show that the Swetman family were good friends of Edward Goff, a wealthy merchant and renowned non-conformist who had made his money in coal in London and returned to the area to establish a school in his home village of Huntington. This school was built in 1791 and was the first of thirteen Goff schools to be built, all to enable children of poor families to receive an education as Edward Goff always regretted the lack of education he received as the child of a poor labourer. In 1814, while visiting Hay, Edward Goff died of pleurisy. Records indicate that he was at the house of Mr Swetman, but Susannah’s husband died in 1807 so it was probably widowed Mrs Swetman that he was visiting, maybe this would not have been appropriate at the time?
Goff left a £300 endowment for the establishment of a school in Hay with Susannah and her
daughter as trustees. It is this legal document along with Susannah’s will of 1852 which allow us an insight into Susannah’s life, her beliefs and her commitment to education. Her husband died young but Susannah never remarried, instead remaining in Hay with her daughters and overseeing the independent school and ensuring the right to education that she so strongly believed in.