Wolverhampton BTW

Hannah Kilham

Kilham, Hannah née Spurr, 1774—1832

by Benjamin Colbert

Hannah Spurr was born in 1774 at Sheffield, the daughter of Peter Spurr, a master cutler, and Hannah Spurr, née Brittlebank. Drawn early to religious life, she was a member of the established church as enjoined by her father but was permitted by her mother to attend Wesleyan services as well. When she was still very young, her mother died, and she assumed household responsibilities above her years. Sent to boarding school in Chesterfield at 14, she distinguished herself in the study of grammar but was censured by her headmaster for her ‘unfeminine’ application to that subject. The foundations for her later life and interests so laid, Spurr embraced Wesleyan Methodism and by 1797 took the extra step of joining the Methodist New Connexion partly founded by Alexander Kilham (1762-98; ODNB), whom she married on 12 April 1798.

When her husband died hardly nine months later in December 1798 Hannah Kilham was left in charge of a step-daughter from Alexander Kilham’s previous marriage and she was pregnant with their own daughter (d. 1802). Hannah Kilham supported them by opening a girls boarding and day school in Sheffield where pupils included Quakers and other dissenters. Kilham herself joined the Society of Friends in September 1803 and became a minister in July 1821. In the intervening years she continued in her Sheffield school and was active in Friends philanthropic initiatives including the Sheffield Society for Bettering the Condition of the Poor (which she co-founded in 1803), the Society for Superseding the Necessity for Climbing Boys (establ. 1807), and the Sheffield Bible Society (1810). In 1813 she published her first tract for distribution among the poor, Scripture Selections . . . for the Instruction of Young Persons, followed by Family Maxims (1818), priced a penny.

Kilham is best known for her later missionary work attempting to propagate religious education in Sierre Leone using vernacular languages instead of, as was the usual practice, English. Kilham first began her project of ‘reducing to letters’ oral West African languages in 1817 and then pursed her conviction that she should herself supervise the education of African children on the spot. She proposed a mission to the Society of Friends and subsequent to their agreement studied Wolof with two Africans in London, who were themselves being trained to take part in the mission.

Kilham visited Ireland in 1823 to analyse the plight of the poor there and later that year embarked for the Gambia where her first African mission was to be established. The mission failed within a year after the deaths of her companions, by which time Kilham had turned her sights to Sierra Leone as a better prospect for vernacular instruction. After three years in London regrouping, she visited Africa a second time, collecting the materials for her Specimens of African Languages, Spoken in the Colony of Sierra Leone, published upon her return in 1828 along with her Report on a Recent Visit to the Colony of Sierra Leone. Determined to put into practice the methods she had developed for instructing in the vernacular, Kilham voyaged to Sierra Leone one last time in 1830, setting up a school near Freetown which enjoyed the success that had hitherto eluded her. A visit to Liberia in 1832 to investigate the progress of schools there, however, proved fatal. On 31 March 1832 during the return voyage, Kilham fell ill and died as the ship attempted to beat back to Liberia after a storm. Her Present State of the Colony of Sierra Leone (1832) was thus published posthumously, ostensibly a second editions of her 1828 Report, but containing mostly new material pertaining to her last visit to the region.


Balfour, Clara Lucas. ‘Hannah Kilham’. Working Women of the Last Half Century: The Lesson of Their Lives. London: W. & F. G. Cash, 1854. 329-84. Print.

Beckeridge, Oliver A. ‘Kilham, Alexander (1762-1798), a founder of the Methodist New Connexion’. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 23 Sept. 2004. Web. 17 June 2022. https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/15525

Biller, Sarah. Memoir of the Late Hannah Kilham; Chiefly Compiled from Her Journal, and Edited by Her Daughter-in-Law, Sarah Biller, of St. Petersburg. London: Darton and Harvey, 1837. Print.

Fyfe, Christopher. ‘Kilham [née Spurr]. Hannah (1774-1832), missionary and student of African languages’. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 23 Sept. 2004. Web. 17 June 2022. https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/15526

‘General Observations respecting African Instruction under the Care of Friends: Character and Labours of Hannah Kilham’. The Yorkshireman, a Religious and Literary Journal 13 (Mar. 1833): 273-80. Print.

Twells, Alison. ‘”Let us begin well at home”: Class, Ethnicity and Christian Motherhood in the Writing of Hannah Kilham, 1774-1832’. Radical Femininity: Women’s Self-Representation in the Public Sphere. Ed. Eileen Janes Yeo. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1998. 1-51. Print.


Title Published
Report on a Recent Visit to the Colony of Sierra Leone 1828
Present State of the Colony of Sierra Leone 1832

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