Wednesday, 13 February 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 

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