Wednesday, February 13, 2019

‘A Reformer’s Wife ought to be a heroine’: Women in the London Corresponding Society

In The Butcher’s Block, the second Dan Foster Mystery, Bow Street Runner Dan Foster infiltrates a fictitious, extremist branch of the London Corresponding Society (LCS) in Southwark, London. The LCS was a radical eighteenth-century society dedicated to the reform of Parliament and the attaining of universal male suffrage. The group in The Butcher’s Block receives a letter from the Female Patriots, a women’s society based at 3 New Lane, Gainsford Street, Horsleydown. The women ask their “brothers and friends in liberty” if they might be allowed to join their society. Their request is scornfully rejected and the men swiftly move on to discuss their own business. 

The scene was very much based on my own and other women’s experience of “first the revolution, then the women” – the way in which women involved in reforming organisations often find their concerns placed second to men’s. This is typically manifested in expectations about the division of labour. Suffrage campaigner and Labour activist Harriet Mitchell (1871-1956) summed it up when she recorded in her autobiography that after her marriage she “soon found out that a lot of the Socialist talk about freedom was only talk and these Socialist young men expected Sunday dinners and huge teas with home-made cakes, potted meat and pies, exactly like their reactionary fellows”.[1]   

Thomas Rowlandson: Reform Advised, Reform Begun, Reform Complete (1793)
In reality, the official LCS’s attitude towards women was not as hostile as that of the branch Dan Foster encounters. In August 1793, the Society’s General Committee approved a motion presented by Division 12 calling for the formation of a female Society of Patriots.[2] By September, a government spy reported that there was a Society of Women meeting in Southwark at 3 New Lane, Gainsford Street, Horsley Down, which was also the meeting place of Division 14. (I used the Female Patriots’ address rather than a fictitious address intending it as a sort of tribute – albeit a small one – to their existence.) The LCS arranged to send two of its delegates to instruct them.[3] In addition, the LCS counted amongst its members men like Dr William Hodgson who advocated political rights for women.

Clearly, the LCS’s willingness to send delegates to instruct the women is a vast improvement on the response given by my fictitious ultra-radicals. But I’m not sure that means we can altogether believe that the LCS took the question of women’s political rights as seriously as it took that of the men’s. Female patriots were never admitted as members to the LCS, and women are largely absent from the LCS’s proceedings so far as I have been able to consult them. I have for example, found very few references to women in Mary Thale’s Selections from the Papers of the London Corresponding Society 1792-1799.

Yet the women were there. Thomas Hardy, the founder of the LCS, had a wife and five children; Mrs Hardy died in childbed and their sixth child was stillborn following an attack upon their home by a royalist mob while he was in prison. Francis Place married Elizabeth Chadd; only eight of the fifteen children she bore him survived into adulthood. John Thelwall, who was on trial for his life in 1794, married Susan Vellum. Thelwall counted many women amongst his supporters; it was the author Amelia Alderson (later Amelia Opie) who invited him to speak at Norwich. Alderson was a contributor to the radical Norwich magazine, the Cabinet, and attended her radical friend’s Horne Tooke’s treason trial in 1794. Maurice Margarot’s wife, whose name I haven’t yet found in any of my books, joined him in Australia when he was transported there.

However, the two references to a Female Society of Patriots in the LCS records suggest that the women were not only there as wives, sisters and daughters of the courageous men they supported through grim days of harassment, imprisonment, and transportation. In September 1795 the LCS General Committee read a letter from “a female Citizen highly republican…[which] by innuendo advised the people to rise”.[4] In March 1796 imprisoned LCS speakers Jones and Binns were visited in their Birmingham prison cells by women as well as men. One woman’s name rises briefly out of obscurity: Mrs Mary Goodyear at Mr Jefferson Taylor’s, Old North Street, Red Lion Square who is a recipient of letters for the LCS. Whether she really existed as a clandestine post-mistress is impossible to say; the name may have been a false one.[5] Women turned out for major LCS demonstrations, such as the gathering held at Copenhagen House in London in 1795.  

But the reality seems to be that while it was happy to call on women’s support, the LCS showed little interest in women’s rights. The focus of the radical movement was overwhelmingly on political rights for men. The spaces in which it met – taverns and coffee houses – were predominantly male spaces. E P Thompson in his magnificent The Making of the English Working Class, notes that women’s rights were “championed within a small intellectual coterie – Mary Wollstonecraft, Godwin, Blake (and later, Shelley).” Spence, he adds, was rare in addressing his writing to working women.[6] And the French Revolution from which the eighteenth century radicals drew much of their inspiration was hardly ground-breaking in its attitude towards women’s political equality. Olympe de Gouge was executed during the Reign of Terror in 1793-4 after she rewrote the Declaration of the Rights of Man to include women.  
The Coffee House: a male space?

Later history books have tended to reiterate the invisibility of women in the radical movement. The index of Albert Goodwin’s The Friends of Liberty: The English Democratic Movement in the age of the French Revolution lists only five women. One of them is Amelia Alderson, described as a “hostess and novelist”. Seven lines are devoted to Mary Wollstonecraft; we learn that Godwin married her in spite of her “pioneering and systematic exposition” of feminism, a topic for which Godwin had little sympathy. The marriage came about, explains Goodwin, after she “became his pregnant mistress”, and she died giving birth to “the daughter who later became Shelley’s wife”.[7] Even E P Thompson doesn’t go into the question of women’s rights in any great depth: out of 944 pages, seventeen are dedicated to women’s rights – though perhaps if Thompson had tackled the subject in more detail the book might have been another 900 pages long.    

So I can’t help wondering exactly what the delegates who went to instruct the Female Patriots at Horsleydown taught them. Was it a message of equality? Or was it made clear to women that any freedoms they achieved were to be kept within bounds defined by patriarchy? After all, it’s not unknown for an organisation to trumpet equal rights in theory but behave very differently in practice.

What I want to know is: where were the women and what were they doing? Where can I find their voices? So here I go off on another historical (or herstorical) quest. I’m busily adding books and articles to my teetering “to be read” piles. Now all I have to do is find time to read them…


Goodwin, Albert The Friends of Liberty: The English Democratic Movement in the age of the French Revolution (Hutchinson, 1979)

Mitchell, Hannah, The Hard Way Up: The Autobiography of Hannah Mitchell, Suffragette and Rebel (First published by Faber and Faber, 1968; Virago History, 1977)

Thale, Mary, Selections from the Papers of the London Corresponding Society 1792-1799 (Cambridge University Press, 2009)

Thompson, E P, The Making of the English Working Class (First published by Victor Gollancz 1963; Penguin Classics, 2013)

‘A Reformer’s Wife ought to be a heroine’: Samuel Bamford in a letter to his wife from prison in 1819, quoted in Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, p. 785.

[1] Hannah Mitchell, The Hard Way Up, p. 96
[2] Mary Thale, Selections from the Papers of the London Corresponding Society 1792-1799, p. 80.
[3] Thale, p. 83.
[4] Thale, p. 306.
[5] Thale, p. 356, n. 61.
[6] E P Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, p. 178.
[7] Albert Goodwin, The Friends of Liberty: The English Democratic Movement in the age of the French Revolution, p. 477.


Thomas Rowlandson, Reform Advised, Reform Begun, Reform Complete, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Public Domain. 

The Coffee Room, British Library on Flickr, No Known Copyright Restrictions 

Sunday, December 2, 2018


A Blue Plaque to the Bristol and West of England Women's Suffrage Society will be unveiled on 15 December 2018. Although I've written about the militant suffragettes, why was it so important to me to arrange for a Blue Plaque commemorating the non-militant suffragists? 

It’s one hundred years since British women voted in Parliamentary elections for the first time following the enactment of the 1918 Representation of the People Act. The Act gave the vote to some women over thirty, but enfranchised all men over twenty one. It was to be another ten years before women got the vote on equal terms with men. Nevertheless, it was a milestone in British history, and in Bristol and around the country we have been commemorating and celebrating this tremendous step forward in the continuing struggle for gender equality.

So you’d think that with all the talks, exhibitions, television and radio programmes, newspaper and magazine articles, there has been plenty of scope to tell some of the many stories of how women won the vote.  
Unfortunately, it seems it's not so. Overwhelmingly, there has been one main narrative running through the commemorations, and it is that it was the militant suffragettes led by Mrs Pankhurst who got the vote for women. True, a statue to Millicent Garrett Fawcett, leader of the non-militants, has been put up in Parliament Square. But if you look at events and coverage around the country you will discover that most of them have focussed on the militant suffragettes.

You only have to Google something like “votes for women anniversary events” to see what I mean. In example after example, the focus is on suffragettes. The government logo for their Votes for Women projects is in the colours of the main militant organisation, the Women’s Social and Political Union. And in nearly every news report I’ve seen, when women have marched to commemorate women’s suffrage, they’ve sported the purple, white and green of the militant WSPU.

On 31 January 2018, The Guardian’s ‘pick of the best’ votes for women events runs with the headline “Suffragette cities” and under the details of every event selected – including the one I was involved in organising at Bristol M Shed – apart from one or two exceptions, only suffragettes are mentioned. In fact, on the M Shed day we included coverage of the non-militants’ peaceful, law-abiding campaign, as well as the equal adult suffrage movement, and our logo was designed to incorporate the colours of the militant Women’s Social and Political Union – purple, white and green – and the non-militant National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies headed by Millicent Garrett Fawcett – red, white and green.

The Bristol Votes for Women 100 logo
Perhaps it’s hardly surprising that we went to so much trouble not to give the impression that it was just the suffragettes, as a number of women historians and researchers were involved in that event. Some of them, like me, have published work on suffragettes, and some of them have published work on the non-militant suffragists. But none of us would claim that the stories we’ve focussed on, whether about militants or non-militants, are the only ones that need to be told.

And quite honestly we’re getting a bit fed up with having to repeat over and over again “it’s not just the suffragettes”! But it seems that when women try to make the point that there’s more than one story to tell when it comes to women’s history, no one is listening.  

And that’s why I have been so keen to remember the work of the non-militant women as well as that of the militant suffragettes by arranging for the installation of a Blue Plaque to commemorate the Bristol and West of England Women’s Suffrage Society.

I believe that, important as the suffragettes’ stories are – and I’ve told many of them myself – there are other stories. Thousands of them, in fact, because the NUWSS was always much bigger than the WSPU, it campaigned for longer – right up until all women got the vote – and involved many more women and men in its campaign.

The NUWSS organised events on both a local and national scale. In 1913 they organised the Suffrage Pilgrimage which mobilised women from all around the country. Starting in June 1913, women marched to London following six main routes which converged in a mass meeting in Hyde Park on 26 July.

The women walked, rode, cycled or caravanned their way across the land. Some travelled the whole route, others joined for part of it. And when it came to violence against women asking for the right to vote, it didn’t matter whether they were militant or non-militant. Just like the suffragettes, the Pilgrims were subjected to violence and harassment. When they stood up to speak in halls and market places, they were hooted down, stoned, beaten, and mobbed. But still they spoke out, with just as much courage, just as much passion, just as much devotion to the cause as the militants.

The debate about whether it was the militant or the non-militant campaign that did more to win votes for women is still very much alive. But whatever their respective merits, it’s a gross distortion of women’s history to focus on one at the expense of another, to silence so many women’s voices, and ignore so many women’s experiences. And it’s impossible to even have the debate if the contribution of the non-militants is overlooked.

So that’s why I’m delighted that there is going to be a Blue Plaque for Bristol’s non-militant suffrage campaigners to sit alongside the existing Blue Plaques which commemorate Bristol’s militant suffragettes: Annie Kenney, Emmeline Pethick Lawrence and Jessie Stephen.

A Blue Plaque commemorating the Bristol and West of England Women’s Suffrage Society will be installed at 3 West Mall, Clifton, Bristol BS8 4BH, with Thangam Debbonaire MP as guest of honour, at 11.30 am on Saturday 15 December 2018. There’s no charge, and it will be a fairly short ceremony. Everyone is welcome to come.

I’ve set up a crowd funding page in case you’d like to make a donation towards the cost of the Blue Plaque which is at Just Giving

This is an edited version of a talk I did at the Strong Women event for Bristol Literature Festival on 26 October 2018.

Picture Credits
NUWSS Badge Women's Libary on Flickr; No Known Copyright Restrictions
Bristol Votes for Women 100 image design 

Votes for Women 100 was organised by a partnership of the West of England and SouthWales Women’s History Network, Bristol M Shed, University of Bristol, University of the West of England (UWE Bristol), Bristol Libraries and the Diversity Trust. With the generous support of the Regional History Centre at UWE Bristol, the Barry Amiel and Norman Melburn Trust, and Government Equalities Office funding secured in a bid led by Bristol Women’s Voice.