One of Darlington’s great unsung heroines takes centre stage in an exhibition which formally opened in the town’s library last night.

From Massachusetts to Edinburgh, the name of Elizabeth Pease Nichol is revered, but in her hometown she is rather overlooked.

Perhaps this is not surprising as just days after commemorating her greatest contribution to Darlington life – founding the Mechanics Institute – she was “disowned” by the town for “marrying out” and she spent the rest of her life in Scotland.

Now Stockton artist Phil Gatenby is bringing her home, and, using works by 12 other artists, placing her among other brave and campaigning women through time who also don’t get the credit they deserve.

Darlington and Stockton Times: A watercolour of Elizabeth Pease Nichol from the Darlington Borough Art Collection is on display in the exhibition

“Her achievements are substantial and transformational in the way we live our lives today more than we know,” said Phil, who lectured at the Cleveland College of Art for 38 years, standing beneath a silhouette of Elizabeth that he discovered in a collection in Massachusetts. “What I’ve got to like about her is that while all her brothers and uncles were working terribly hard at the forefront of industry, she had that Quaker value of it not being about her – it is about how you assist the burden on others.

“She had the ability and the connections to make a difference to the burden on others.”

Elizabeth was born in 1807 in Feethams, the grandest mansion in Darlington which stood where the Town Hall is today. She was a cousin of the railway Peases, and she was fired by unfairness. She believed that all people were equal, irrespective of the colour of their skin or their gender, and, in 1836 she formed the Darlington Ladies Anti Slavery Society – it was one of the first political organisations for women in the country.

Darlington and Stockton Times: A poster advertising the laying of the foundation stone for the Mechanics Institute with "Miss Pease" given huge billing, even thoughs days later she was "disowned" for "marrying out"

She went to America to see the horrors of slavery herself, and in 1838 wrote a pamphlet entitled Address to the Women of Great Britain, urging all women to speak up against it.

In June 1840, she attended the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London and was horrified to discover that because she was a woman she was not only forbidden from speaking but also had to be fenced off behind a bar and curtains.

This unfairness fired her further, and she returned to Darlington determined to make life fairer for women, as well as slaves. She invited the Chartists, radical political reformers who also wanted equality for women, to Feethams and distributed their literature even though many of her class regarded them as dangerous revolutionaries.

In 1853, she gave the largest donation – £400 (about £50,000 in today’s values) – for the building of the £2,300 Mechanics’ Institute in Skinnergate. She saw wealthy families, like her own, send their children for expensive education which the working classes could not afford – so the institute was her way of providing equal educational opportunities for all.

Darlington and Stockton Times: Skinnergate, Darlington, archive

On May 12, 1853, she laid the foundation stone for the institute using a “silver trowel which was judiciously contrived to serve as a fish slice and was presented to the lady”.

Three weeks later, Elizabeth, 46, married Dr John Pringle Nichol in an independent chapel off Northgate. Dr Nichol was the professor of astronomy at Glasgow University and was considered to be the greatest astronomer of his day with an ability to fire the interest of the ordinary person in the heavens – he was the Brian Cox of his day.

But he was a Presbyterian, and it was forbidden for a Quaker to marry outside her faith. Edward “Father of the Railways” Pease wrote that this was “a union very much advised against and disapproved by all her friends”.

And so because of love, Elizabeth was “disowned” by the Darlington Quakers and lived out the rest of her days in Scotland.

In fact, her last visit to her hometown seems to have been on September 1, 1854, when she returned with Dr Nichol to perform the official opening of the Mechanics Institute. Her cousin, Henry Pease, chaired an elaborate tea for 500 people and her husband gave the well received inaugural lecture, entitled The Immensity and Endurance of Creation.

Darlington and Stockton Times: Exhibition curator Phil Gatenby with a silhouette of Elizabeth Pease Nichol from a collection in Massachusetts

Elizabeth, as a woman, was not invited to speak, although she may have got the consolation of usefully wielding her fish slice.

Her husband lived just five years after their marriage – “Alas! Alas! Widow and desolate,” she wrote in her diary – and in widowhood she threw herself into numerous causes in her adopted city of Edinburgh: peace, temperance, education, anti-racism, anti-vivisection and women’s suffrage.

She was a founder of the Edinburgh Women’s Suffrage Society in 1867 and dedicated her last decades to getting women the vote and also to ending cruelty against animals. In 2013, historians in Edinburgh labelled her one of the city’s four forgotten female heroines and called for a statue in her honour.

Now at least in her hometown, she is centre stage in an exhibition.