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Norwich Heart, Heritage Economic & Regeneration Trust

Amelia Opie

Amelia Opie 1769 -1853

Described as 'the most respected woman fiction writer of the 1800s and 1810s', Amelia Opie was perhaps the most prominent woman amongst the group of dissident Anglican families, particularly the Aldersons, Taylors and Martineaus, linked to the Octagon Unitarian Chapel in Norwich.  Their intellectual and political influence and that of the Quaker Gurney family during the later eighteenth century contributed to the polarisation of politics in the city and made central government nervous of the consequences - particularly after the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789.

'High spirited and impetuous'

Born into the Colegate home of James and Amelia Alderson she was reportedly a 'high spirited and impetuous' girl despite the efforts of her mother who was 'somewhat of a disciplinarian'.  Her father was a doctor who attended the nearby Octagon Chapel where Amelia in turn joined the congregation and was no doubt encouraged to show compassion for the less fortunate. As a child she was reportedly so moved by the plight for the inmates of 'Bedlam' (the Bethel Hospital) that she bought flowers and threw them over the wall.

The Aldersons were friends with the Gurney family - Quakers who lived in nearby Gurney Court in Magdalen Street and Amelia, rather a lonely child, enjoyed the company of all the Gurney children. When she was sixteen they moved from Magdalen Street to Earlham Hall, where she was always a welcome visitor.

Writing and performing

By the age of 22 Amelia was writing and performing her own plays and had published her first book. She also contributed poems to published anthologies and in 1790 a first novel under her own name 'The Father and Daughter' - a  moral tale of seduction, abandonment and reconciliation -had considerable success and critical acclaim. Opie continued writing fiction and produced a stream of books which attained a wide circulation both in England and abroad and by 1818 she was told a friend she was 'writing eight or ten hours a day'.

Another of her talents was music - both singing and writing. She took singing lessons and appears to have had some talent, being described as having a style of her own and 'that power which she appears so pre-eminently to possess of wakening the tender sympathies, and pathetic feelings of the mind.' Over a thirty year period she had a number of songs published - set to the music of several composers.


In May 1798 Amelia Alderson married John Opie, a self-taught artist, in London where the newly married couple set up home. Sadly the marriage was short lived as John caught a fever, probably exacerbated by overwork, and died in April 1807. Amelia returned to Norwich to live in her father's house from where she continued her writing and enjoyed the benefits of Norwich society. She attracted many admirers, drawn by her talent and beauty, but was not to remarry.

The Society of Friends

At this time she was moving away from the Unitarianism of her father and began attending services at the Friends Meeting House in Upper Goat Lane; where her long standing friends the Gurneys worshipped - and in particular Joseph John Gurney who had a been a good friend to her. At the age of 56 in the August of 1825 she made the break and was accepted into the Society of Friends, relinquishing some aspects of her former privileged existence and 'plunged into the kind of philanthropic work promoted by the Quakers... [visiting] workhouse, hospitals, prisons and the poor'

Being a Quaker did not stifle her literary output. She continued writing what she saw as 'moral tales' for the betterment of all. Her wealth allowed her to travel and she spent much time in London and visited France, Belgium and Switzerland.

Opie Street

The last years of her life were spent in a house on Castle Meadow on the corner of a small alley. This alley has since been widened and is now known as Opie Street where she is commemorated by a small statue at first floor level. She died at the age of 84 in December 1853 after a period of ill health and was buried by the side of her father in the Friends cemetery at Gildencroft in Norwich.

Sources/Further Reading:

  • Gary Kelly, Amelia Opie(1769 - 1853), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2004-8
  • Sue Debbage, Notes of Amelia Opie, Society of Friends Norwich, 2007
  • Clyde Binfield, 'Church and Chapel' Norwich Since 1550, 2004

Nick Williams

July 2008