We can learn from the inspirational struggle of working-class women against a violent and corrupt Tory government 200 years ago in our fight against the Tories today, argues Katherine Connelly
The famous contemporary image of the Peterloo Massacre shows a crowd of working men, women and children being trampled and sabred by soldiers on horseback. On the platform, alongside the star speaker Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt, is a woman dressed in white. She is holding fast to a banner pole, crowned with a red Cap of Liberty, with a banner depicting Justice triumphant with Corruption underfoot. The woman’s name was Mary Fildes, she was twenty-seven years old, the president of the Manchester Female Reform Union and mother of five children. She would soon become a target of the violence. The special constables, who arrived to arrest the speakers, beat her with their truncheons. When she tried to escape from the platform her dress caught on a nail and, whilst trapped, suspended above the ground, she was slashed with a sabre by a soldier who seized her banner as a trophy.
Mary Fildes’ prominence on the platform, and the way she was targeted by the authorities, testified to the vital role that women played in this struggle for democracy.
The women organise
Six weeks before the massacre, on 5 July 1819, tens of thousands of workers gathered for an open-air meeting in Blackburn to demand political reform. The Manchester Observer, a radical newspaper, understood that the Blackburn meeting was a signal to the authorities:
“They now begin to see that the people have more weight than themselves, and if we mistake not, they will soon begin to feel the scale preponderate on the side of those, they have hitherto been treating with such insolence and contempt.”
What had been seen – that the workers were many and the wealthy elites were few – would soon be felt because workers were now experiencing the power of collective organisation. Mass working-class meetings were hardly unusual in Lancashire in the summer of 1819. But something unusual did happen at this meeting because half-way through a group of women turned up. They explained that they were the Committee of the Blackburn Female Reform Society and they wanted to be on the platform. The Chairman of the meeting asked the huge crowd to make a pathway for the women to get through – a request that was ‘instantly complied with’.
The women had come prepared. According to the Manchester Observer, they presented the Chairman with ‘a most beautiful Cap of Liberty, made of scarlet silk or satin, lined with green, with a serpentined gold lace, terminating with a rich gold tassel.’
The crowd erupted, shouting “Liberty or Death” and “God bless the women”. Then one of the women, a Mrs Alice Kitchen gave a ‘short emphatic speech’ asking for the Cap to be placed on the top of the banner. The banner was lowered, and the Cap placed on the flagpole, to the acclamation of the mass meeting. The women had also written an address which they asked the Chairman to read – and the crowd shouted “read, read! read! the women for ever!” The address bore the evidence of intense political discussions.
A whole class of people,‘the best artizans, manufacturers, and labourers of this vast community’, found themselves reduced to ‘a state of wretchedness and misery, and driven [. . .] to the very verge of beggary and ruin’. In an economic recession, with soaring levels of unemployment in the local textile industry, the Tory government introduced the Corn Laws to allow wealthy landowners to profit from the high price of bread – whilst working people starved because they couldn’t afford to buy food. As working women, they shared with ‘our fathers, our husbands, our brothers, our relatives and our friends, in the overwhelming misery of our country’ and they knew the situation was getting worse.
The solution they proposed was political reform. If we think about the political system the workers of Lancashire lived under, we can appreciate how radical their ideas were. In 1819, the parliamentary system was openly corrupt. The large, industrial city of Manchester did not have its own MP, whilst Old Sarum, a hill in Wiltshire, had two MPs and no residents! Dunwich in Suffolk had an MP – but most of the constituency itself had actually fallen into the sea. These were called ‘rotten boroughs’. On top of all this, only the richest people in society were allowed to vote. Voting took place in public, so the most powerful could control how everyone else with the privilege used their votes – resulting in ‘pocket boroughs’: boroughs that were in the pocket of the landowner.
By contrast, the women in Blackburn proposed making parliament subject to the power of the people through ‘annual parliaments, universal suffrage, and election by ballot’. Historians generally assume that ‘universal suffrage’ in this period meant universal male suffrage. Perhaps so, but this did not mean that women did not see themselves as political participants in the present. The Blackburn Female Reform Society warned that
“had it not been for the golden prize of reform held out to us, that weak and impotent as might be our strength, we should long ere thus have sallied forth to demand our rights, and in the acquirement of those rights to have obtained that food and raiment for our children, which God and nature hvae [sic] ordained for every living creature; but which our oppressors and tyrannical rulers have withheld from us.”[i]
The women activists, it seemed, saw their role as spurring on the men to fight for political reform, whilst reserving the right to take revolutionary, direct action themselves if that reform was denied. The red Cap of Liberty the Blackburn Female Reform Society presented was an indication of their political inspiration: it had been worn by the revolutionaries in France.
The Blackburn Female Reform Society was the first of many women’s clubs that sprang up in the weeks before Peterloo and appeared to adopt similarly radical politics. On 20 July 1819, Susannah Saxton, the Secretary of Manchester Female Reformers published their address which denounced England’s ‘unjust, unnecessary, and destructive war, against the liberties of France, that closed its dreadful career on the crimson plains of Waterloo’.[ii] The female reformers’ calls for liberty and attack on the tyranny of the British government was language drawn from the French Revolutionaries – the enemies of the British state.
Women at Peterloo
Women played an important role in mobilising for the demonstration on 16 August in Manchester. A fascinating article by M.L. Bush records one woman ‘visiting north-west towns in early July in order to stress the need for political change and offer precise instructions on how to make pikes.’[iii] Other women probably played a similar role to suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst’s great grandmother, a fustian cutter in Manchester, who ‘sent her husband’ to the demonstration.[iv]
But many women attended the demonstration in person, often marching with their female reformers’ club as a group. The famous radical Samuel Bamford, who marched with the Middleton contingent to the demonstration, remembered:
“At our head were a hundred or two of women, mostly young wives, and mine own was amongst them. – A hundred or two of our handsomest girls, - sweethearts to the lads who were with us, - danced to the music, or sung snatches of popular songs.”[v]
The banners the women carried were declarations of their political commitment. ‘Annual Parliaments and Death to those in Authority who Oppose their Adoption’ read the Rochdale women’s flag; ‘Let Us Die Like Men and Not Be Sold Like Slaves’ – the women of Royton.[vi]
The ruling elites understood that the demand for political reform was a threat to their power and they were determined the movement should be crushed. Soldiers in the British army, as well as the local volunteer yeomanry forces – who had their sabres sharpened in advance, and police constables stormed the demonstration, slashing, beating and shooting at the protestors. Hundreds were injured, around 18 are thought to have been killed, of whom four were women. Bush shows that women were disproportionately targeted – at most they comprised an 8th of the crowd, but they made up a 3rd of those recorded as wounded.[vii] Their presence on the day was probably seen as an especial affront to the established ‘order’.
Bush’s work shows that immediately after the massacre women were in the forefront of the protests, attacking businesses where owners were supportive of the yeomanry.[viii]
Beyond the immediate response, women’s political activism in 1819 had an enduring legacy. In the early 1830s, there was a renewed revolutionary movement for political change. Parliamentarians, terrified once more of losing their power, began to calculate how much change they could accommodate without handing power to the masses. In the 1832 Reform Bill they agreed upon a small extension of the franchise and reform to remove the old pocket and rotten boroughs.
One of the MPs who felt this was inadequate was Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt – the star speaker at Peterloo. Now MP for Preston, he not only called for universal male suffrage but introduced the first petition for women’s civil rights into the House of Commons. Sir Frederick Trench, the Tory MP for Cambridge, mocked the proposal, saying ‘it would be rather awkward if a jury half males and half females were locked up together for a night, as now often happened with juries’ as it ‘might lead to rather queer predicaments.’ Sensing hypocrisy, Henry Hunt responded that he ‘well knew that the hon. and gallant Member was frequently in the company of ladies for whole nights, but he did not know that any mischief resulted from that circumstance.’[ix] The petition, however, was contemptuously laughed out by the MPs. The 1832 ‘Great’ Reform Act would in fact be the first to explicitly exclude women from the vote.
The demands that working men and women developed in 1819, for secret ballots, annual parliaments and universal suffrage, were central demands of the Chartist movement in the 1830s and 1840s in which women played active political roles. Some of the survivors of Peterloo are known to have followed the struggle for democratic rights throughout the nineteenth century well into their old age. In 1884, a group of 11 Peterloo veterans – 4 women and 7 men – from Failsworth attended a demonstration in support of the Third Reform Act. A reporter from the Oldham Chronicle spent time with these ‘old and sturdy Reformers’ who told their stories of Peterloo in song, one of the elderly women promising to sing a 15 verse song as long as someone would volunteer to ‘keep her pipe lit’.[x] (In the event, the song proved so engaging the volunteer let the pipe go out.)
In the militant women’s suffrage struggle in the early twentieth century, it was the socialist suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst who championed the memory of Peterloo. In the summer of 1912, she challenged the suffragette leadership, who were increasingly dismissive of working-class activists, by organising a series of mass demonstrations around the country where Caps of Liberty were added to suffragette banners – in tribute to the working-class activists who began the struggle for democratic change.[xi] When Pankhurst and her working-class supporters in East London were expelled from the campaign in 1914, they kept the Cap of Liberty as their emblem.
The struggle that working men and women began at Peterloo is unfinished. It was a struggle for democratic power for working people which could end poverty, inequality and unjust wars. Today we have a Tory government almost as contemptuous of democracy as they are of working-class people. In September the Tories will meet for their party conference in Manchester – a short walk from the site of Peterloo. At that point, we need to make them see and feel that they are few and we are many by joining the protest outside and participating in the struggle for democracy today.
[i] All quotations from Manchester Observer, 10 July 1819, p.636.
[ii]Manchester Observer, 31 July 1819, p.664.
[iii] M.L. Bush, ‘The Women at Peterloo: The Impact of Female Reform on the Manchester Meeting of 16 August 1819’, History, vol.89 (04/2004), p.222.
[iv] E. Sylvia Pankhurst, The Suffragette Movement: An Intimate Account of Persons and Ideals (London: Virago Limited, 1977), p.53.
[v] Samuel Bamford, Passages in the Life of a Radical: The Autobiography of Samuel Bamford Vol. II,edited by W.H. Chaloner (London: Frank Cass and Co. Ltd, 1967), p.200.
[vi] Bush, ‘The Women at Peterloo’, pp.220-1.
[xi] Katherine Connelly, Sylvia Pankhurst: Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire (London: Pluto Press, 2013), p.48.
Kate Connelly is a writer and historian. She led school student strikes in the British anti-war movement in 2003, co-ordinated the Emily Wilding Davison Memorial Campaign in 2013 and is a leading member of Counterfire. She wrote the acclaimed biography, 'Sylvia Pankhurst: Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire' and recently edited and introduced 'A Suffragette in America: Reflections on Prisoners, Pickets and Political Change'.
More articles from this author
- Nasty but vulnerable: why we can get rid of Boris
- Saving Essex libraries: protest works, so we'll keep campaigning
- A Walk Through Paris - book review
- General election now: why 100,000 Tories will be wrong
- Alastair Campbell isn’t a victim, he’s trying to destroy Corbyn’s leadership
- Small Island - theatre review
- No confidence in May, and no confidence in this failing government: a general election is the only option