Born in Bristol to John and Anne Cromartie (described as a milkwoman), Ann married John Yearsley, a yeoman, in 1774. Robert Southey wrote a biography of Ann Yearsley in the year 1831. He called his biography an “introductory essay on the lives and works of our uneducated poets.” Southey describes the first encounter between Hannah More, who became Ann Yearsley’s patron, with the poet. Hannah stated that Ann’s writing “excited [her] attention” because it “breathed the genuine spirit of poetry, and [was] rendered still more interesting by a certain natural and strong expression of misery that seemed to fill the head and mind of the author.”
Hannah More found Ann Yearsley living in poverty with six young children born in the space of seven years, while caring for her aged mother. Hannah was impressed by Ann’s ability to interpret the leading literature of the age with such accuracy “without having ever conversed with any body above her own level.” Hannah describes Ann as not having seen a dictionary or knowing anything of grammatical rules, bound to “ignorant and vulgar” syntax, yet using language full of metaphor, imagery, and personification. Hannah describes herself as striving to save Ann from the vanity of fame and being more concerned about providing food for Ann than providing fame.
More organized subscriptions for Ann Yearsley to publish Poems, on Several Occasions (1785). The success of the volume led to a quarrel between Hannah and Ann over access to the trust in which profits from the undertaking were held. Ann included her account of this quarrel in an Autobiographical Narrative appended to a fourth edition of the poems, which appeared in 1786.
Now supported by Frederick Hervey, 4th Earl of Bristol, Ann Yearsley published Poems, on Various Subjects in 1787. A Poem on the Inhumanity of the Slave-Trade appeared in 1788. Her poem was considered by many critics to rival a similar poem written by Hannah More entitled Slavery: A Poem. Ann Yearsley was one of many prominent Bristol women who campaigned against the Bristol slave trade.
Ann Yearsley turned to drama with Earl Goodwin: an Historical Play (performed in 1789 ; printed in 1791) and to novel-writing with The Royal Captives: a Fragment of Secret History, Copied from an Old Manuscript (1795). Her final collection of poetry, The Rural Lyre, appeared in 1796.
Ann Yearsley, 1753-1806. The Collected Works of Ann Yearsley. Edited by Kerri Andrews. Pickering and Chatto, 2014.