Free learning resources from arts, cultural and heritage organisations.

Previous section

Elizabeth (Betty) Beecroft

Elizabeth or ‘Betty’ Beecroft made her mark as that rare thing, an eighteenth-century woman in sole charge of an industrial enterprise.

Betty was born in 1748 as Elizabeth Skirrow. Following the death of her father, she went into business with her brother at the age of eighteen, selling pots, glasses and china. She also produced and sold butter at local markets. She married late for the times, at the age of 27. Her husband was George Beecroft, a tenant farmer, and they lived in Bramley, near Leeds. They had two children.

Betty was an astute businesswoman. In 1778 she learned from a hammerman who was buying butter from her, that Kirkstall forge, where he worked, was up for lease. This iron forge was four and a half miles out of Leeds, and had been established by Cistercian monks in the early thirteenth century, but over the years had fallen into disrepair. Beecroft overcame the doubts of her husband, and his family, and convinced them to lease the forge, which they did in 1779. The endeavour was not without risk. The Beecrofts would need to sink all their money into the forge, which required investment of more than £1,000, a huge sum at the time. They managed to raise £800 and developed a partnership with Thomas and John Butler, the latter being George Beecroft’s brother-in-law.

In the early years, Elizabeth Beecroft had almost sole charge of the investment and established the running of the forge. In her diary she wrote:

‘Now we fully applied ourselves to our business. My husband undertook the care of the farm and works, and I undertook the care of the trade, the books, the buying and selling and also the engagements of the men ‘till March 31st, 1786’.

Black and white photograph of a large metal wheel, that drives a hammer
Archive Image of Kirkstall Forge, Leeds

With financial support from the Butlers, Betty established a successful business. The forge was restored, and parts rebuilt. Iron was imported from Russia, the Netherlands and Scandinavia. Profits soared from £172 in 1780 to £952 in 1784. The forge became an important supplier of raw materials to Leeds growing industries supplying the iron for boiler, engine and machine making.

Black and white photograph of a large metal water wheel
Archive Image of Kirkstall Forge, Leeds

After six years, Betty stepped down from managing the forge. She continued to do the accounts until 1805, seven years before her death in 1812. Her foresight and hard work paved the way for a further two hundred years of production at Kirkstall Forge.

When looking at Betty’s life story, there are two documented events that particularly stand out. In 1793 she put an advertisement in the Leeds Mercury. She offered ten guineas to anyone who could identify the person who had started the ‘vile and malicious’ rumours that she had exported bacon and butter to revolutionary France. We do not know if the culprit was found. The second event was Betty meeting John Wesley, the leader of the Methodist movement. Having converted at the age of nineteen, she was an ardent Methodist, and her correspondence shows she met Wesley in London in 1791, an event of great significance for her. There is a local story that Wesley took refuge in Kirkstall Forge, having been chased out of Horsforth by an angry mob. However, we cannot be certain that this event took place, or whether Betty was there at the time,

Methodism and a hard-working industriousness were the two driving forces in Betty’s life.

The Wesleyan minister at her funeral noted that she was well known for her ‘industry, economy, integrity, firmness of mind and inviolable attachment to the scripture’.

In her own words, quoted in the Methodist magazine after her death, Betty said ‘The Lord gave me a determination always to be honest, upright and industrious’. (Methodist magazine June 1813, vol 36).


Industrial enterprise – The act of making goods and services for sale.

Astute – Clever and sharp sighted.

Burgeoning – Growing.

Ardent – Enthusiastic or passionate

Methodist – A Protestant religious group that started in Britain in the eighteenth century, founded by John Wesley.

Industriousness – Ability to work hard

Inviolable - Incapable of being harmed or broken

Activity Ideas

  • Look at the relevant images from this story, or other sources, and use them to create a collage portrait of Betty.
  • Write a story or newspaper report about an episode of Betty’s life.
    • You might choose her early life, the time in which she leased and managed the forge, an account of her meeting John Wesley or any other event of your choosing.
  • Make a stop motion animation or comic strip of Betty's story.