Female Reform Union

Samuel Bamford, the author of Passage in the Life of a Radical, claims that women first became involved in the struggle for universal suffrage in the summer of 1818. Bamford describes a meeting at Lydgate in Saddleworth where women were allowed to vote for and against resolutions. Bamford points out that: "This was a new idea; and the women, who attended numerously on that bleak ridge, were mightily pleased with it." (1)

In June 1819 the first Female Union was formed by Alice Kitchen in Blackburn. The next one was in Stockport. "We who form and constitute the Stockport Female Union Society, having reviewed for a considerable time past the apathy, and frequent insult of our oppressed countrymen, by those sordid and all-devouring fiends, the Borough-mongering Aristocracy, and in order to accelerate the emancipation of this suffering nation, we, do declare, that we will assist the Male Union formed in this town, with all the might and energy that we possess, and that we will adhere to the principles, etc., of the Male Union…and assist our Male friends to obtain legally, the long-lost Rights and Liberties of our country." (2)

On 5 July 1819 Alice Kitchen made a speech on parliamentary reform: "Will you Sir, accept this token of our respect to these brave men who are nobly struggling for liberty and life: by placing it at the head of your banner, you will confer a lasting obligation on the Female Reformers of Blackburn. We shall esteem it as an additional favour, if the address which I deliver into your hands, be read to the Meeting: it embraces a faint description of our woes and may apologise for our interference in the politics of our country." (3)

Within a few weeks there were Female Reform Groups in Manchester, Oldham and Royton. On 20 July 1819, Mary Fildes established the Society of Female Reformers. Fildes had eight children. Being a passionate radical she named her last three sons after Thomas Paine, Henry Hunt and John Cartwright. (4)

Fields became president and in the first week after its formation over 1000 members joined. The organisation's flag had the figure of Justice on it. The Society of Female Reformers met in the Union Rooms, Manchester every Tuesday evening from six to nine o'clock. (5) It had its own flag "which showed a woman holding the scales of justice and treading the serpent of corruption underfoot." (6)

Ruth Mather has pointed out: "Female Reform Societies emerged in north-west England in the summer of 1819... and were immediately faced with the scorn and revulsion of the conservative press and caricaturists. Female Reformers were described as devoid of morals or religion, and depicted as revolutionary harridans or sexual objects, not to be taken seriously as political actors." (7)

Women reformers in 1819
John Lewis MarksMuch Wanted A Reform among Females! (1819)

In March 1819, Joseph Johnson, John Knight and James Wroe formed the Manchester Patriotic Union Society. All the leading radicals in Manchester joined the organisation. Johnson was appointed secretary and Wroe became treasurer. The main objective of this new organisation was to obtain parliamentary reform and during the summer of 1819 it was decided to invite Major John Cartwright, Henry Orator Hunt and Richard Carlile to speak at a public meeting in Manchester. The men were told that this was to be "a meeting of the county of Lancashire, than of Manchester alone. I think by good management the largest assembly may be procured that was ever seen in this country." Cartwright was unable to attend but Hunt and Carlile agreed and the meeting was arranged to take place at St. Peter's Field on 16th August. (8)

Samuel Bamford, a handloom weaver, walked from Middleton to be at the meeting that day: "Every hundred men had a leader, who was distinguished by a spring of laurel in his hat, and the whole were to obey the directions of the principal conductor, who took his place at the head of the column, with a bugleman to sound his orders. At the sound of the bugle not less than three thousand men formed a hollow square, with probably as many people around them, and I reminded them that they were going to attend the most important meeting that had ever been held for Parliamentary Reform. I also said that, in conformity with a rule of the committee, no sticks, nor weapons of any description, would be allowed to be carried. Only the oldest and most infirm amongst us were allowed to carry their walking staves. Our whole column, with the Rochdale people, would probably consist of six thousand men. At our head were a hundred or two of women, mostly young wives, and mine own was amongst them. A hundred of our handsomest girls, sweethearts to the lads who were with us, danced to the music. Thus accompanied by our friends and our dearest we went slowly towards Manchester." (9)

The local magistrates were concerned that such a substantial gathering of reformers might end in a riot. The magistrates therefore decided to arrange for a large number of soldiers to be in Manchester on the day of the meeting. This included four squadrons of cavalry of the 15th Hussars (600 men), several hundred infantrymen, the Cheshire Yeomanry Cavalry (400 men), a detachment of the Royal Horse Artillery and two six-pounder guns and the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry (120 men) and all Manchester's special constables (400 men).

At about 11.00 a.m. on 16th August, 1819 William Hulton, the chairman, and nine other magistrates met at Mr. Buxton's house in Mount Street that overlooked St. Peter's Field. Although there was no trouble the magistrates became concerned by the growing size of the crowd. Estimations concerning the size of the crowd vary but Hulton came to the conclusion that there were at least 50,000 people in St. Peter's Field at midday. Hulton therefore took the decision to send Edward Clayton, the Boroughreeve and the special constables to clear a path through the crowd. The 400 special constables were therefore ordered to form two continuous lines between the hustings where the speeches were to take place, and Mr. Buxton's house where the magistrates were staying. (10)

The main speakers at the meeting arrived at 1.20 p.m. Mary Fildes sat beside Henry 'Orator' Hunt in his carriage. Two other female activists, Elizabeth Gaunt and Sarah Hargreaves remained in the carriage while Fildes and Hunt climbed onto the constructed platform. (11) It was arranged that Fildes was to present male leaders with the symbolic "cap of liberty", an emblem with Saxon as well as French connotations. Fildes also gave Hunt the "colours" of the Manchester Female Reform Society. It has been pointed out that William Cobbett patronisingly equated this action with the role of queens at jousts in blessing the participants. (12)

Print of the Peterloo Massacre published by Richard Carlile
A print of the Peterloo Massacre published by Richard Carlile. The woman in the white
dress is Mary Fildes and she is holding the flag of the Society of Female Reformers. (1819)

The people on the platform included Henry 'Orator' Hunt, Richard Carlile, John Knight, Joseph Johnson and Mary Fildes. Several of the newspaper reporters, including John Tyas of The Times, Edward Baines of the Leeds Mercury, John Smith of the Liverpool Mercury and John Saxton of the Manchester Observer, joined the speakers on the hustings.

At 1.30 p.m. the magistrates came to the conclusion that "the town was in great danger". William Hulton therefore decided to instruct Joseph Nadin, Deputy Constable of Manchester, to arrest Henry Hunt and the other leaders of the demonstration. Nadin replied that this could not be done without the help of the military. Hulton then wrote two letters and sent them to Lieutenant Colonel L'Estrange, the commander of the military forces in Manchester and Major Thomas Trafford, the commander of the Manchester & Salford Yeomanry. (13)

Major Trafford, who was positioned only a few yards away at Pickford's Yard, was the first to receive the order to arrest the men. Major Trafford chose Captain Hugh Birley, his second-in-command, to carry out the order. Local eyewitnesses claimed that most of the sixty men who Birley led into St. Peter's Field were drunk. Birley later insisted that the troop's erratic behaviour was caused by the horses being afraid of the crowd. (14)

The Manchester & Salford Yeomanry entered St. Peter's Field along the path cleared by the special constables. As the yeomanry moved closer to the hustings, members of the crowd began to link arms to stop them arresting Henry Hunt and the other leaders. Others attempted to close the pathway that had been created by the special constables. Some of the yeomanry now began to use their sabres to cut their way through the crowd.

When Captain Hugh Birley and his men reached the hustings they arrested Henry Hunt, John Knight, Joseph Johnson, George Swift, John Saxton, John Tyas, John Moorhouse and Robert Wild. As well as the speakers and the organisers of the meeting, Birley also arrested the newspaper reporters on the hustings. John Edward Taylor reported: "A comparatively undisciplined body, led on by officers who had never had any experience in military affairs, and probably all under the influence both of personal fear and considerable political feeling of hostility, could not be expected to act either with coolness or discrimination; and accordingly, men, women, and children, constables, and Reformers, were equally exposed to their attacks." (15)

Samuel Bamford was another one in the crowd who witnessed the attack on the crowd: "The cavalry were in confusion; they evidently could not, with the weight of man and horse, penetrate that compact mass of human beings; and their sabres were plied to cut a way through naked held-up hands and defenceless heads... On the breaking of the crowd the yeomanry wheeled, and, dashing whenever there was an opening, they followed, pressing and wounding. Women and tender youths were indiscriminately sabred or trampled... A young married woman of our party, with her face all bloody, her hair streaming about her, her bonnet hanging by the string, and her apron weighed with stones, kept her assailant at bay until she fell backwards and was near being taken; but she got away covered with severe bruises. In ten minutes from the commencement of the havoc the field was an open and almost deserted space. The hustings remained, with a few broken and hewed flag-staves erect, and a torn and gashed banner or two dropping; whilst over the whole field were strewed caps, bonnets, hats, shawls, and shoes, and other parts of male and female dress, trampled, torn, and bloody. Several mounds of human flesh still remained where they had fallen, crushed down and smothered. Some of these still groaning, others with staring eyes, were gasping for breath, and others would never breathe again." (16)

Lieutenant Colonel L'Estrange reported to William Hulton at 1.50 p.m. When he asked Hulton what was happening he replied: "Good God, Sir, don't you see they are attacking the Yeomanry? Disperse them." L'Estrange now ordered Lieutenant Jolliffe and the 15th Hussars to rescue the Manchester & Salford Yeomanry. By 2.00 p.m. the soldiers had cleared most of the crowd from St. Peter's Field. In the process, 18 people were killed and about 500, including 100 women, were wounded. (17)

It was claimed that the Manchester & Salford Yeomanry attempted to murder Mary Fildes while arresting the leaders of the demonstration. One eyewitness described how "Mrs. Fildes, hanging suspended by a nail which had caught her white dress, was slashed across her exposed body by one of the brave cavalry." The heavily pregnant woman, Elizabeth Gaunt was badly beaten and later thrown into the New Bailey Prison, where she was kept in solitary confinement and physically abused. (18)

Mary Fildes survived but at least 18 people were killed, of whom four were women. These were named as: Margaret Downes (sabred), Mary Heys (trampled by cavalry), Sarah Jones (truncheoned) and Martha Partington (crushed in a cellar). (19)

George Cruikshank, The Female Reformers of Blackburn (1819)
George Cruikshank, The Female Reformers of Blackburn (1819)

Susanna Saxton, was the secretary of the Manchester Female Reformers and wrote several pamphlets on the need for parliamentary reform. The most popular was The Manchester Female Reformers Address to the Wives, Mothers, Sisters and Daughters of the Higher and Middling Classes of Society which was published on 20 July, 1819. It was later published in the Manchester Observer. Saxon argued that women's main role was to support their husbands in their struggle for universal male suffrage. They were also urged "to install into the minds of our children, a deep and rooted hatred of our corrupt and tyrannical rulers." (20)

However, as Sarah Irving has pointed out: "In these addresses the women, whilst expressing solidarity with men and asserting their right to comment publicly on political questions, made no claim for political rights for themselves, at least publicly. Their private thoughts are more difficult to discern as, unlike the men, none of the women later published political memoirs." (21)

Primary Sources

(1) Manchester Observer (10th July, 1819)

We who form and constitute the Stockport Female Union Society, having reviewed for a considerable time past the apathy, and frequent insult of our oppressed countrymen, by those sordid and all-devouring fiends, the Borough-mongering Aristocracy, and in order to accelerate the emancipation of this suffering nation, we, do declare, that we will assist the Male Union formed in this town, with all the might and energy that we possess, and that we will adhere to the principles, etc., of the Male Union…and assist our Male friends to obtain legally, the long-lost Rights and Liberties of our country.

(2) Susanna Saxton, Manchester Observer (31st July, 1819)

Dear Sisters of the Earth. It is with a spirit of peaceful consideration and due respect that we are induced to address you, upon the causes that have compelled us to associate together in aid of our suffering children, our dying parents, and the miserable partners of our woes. Bereft, not only of that support, the calls of nature require for existence; but the balm of sweet repose hath long been a stranger to us. Our minds are filled with horror and despair, fearful, on each returning morn, the light of heaven should present to us the corpse of some of our famished offspring, or nearest kindred, which the more kind hand of death had released from the grasp of the oppressor. The Sabbath, which is set apart by the all-wise Creator for a day of rest, we are compelled to employ in repairing the tattered garments, to cover the nakedness of our forlorn and destitute families. Every succeeding night brings with it new terrors, so that we are sick of life, and weary of a world where poverty, wretchedness, tyranny, and injustice, have so long been permitted to reign amongst men.

Dear Sisters, we feel justified in stating, that under the oppressive system of Government that we now live, the same fate that hath overtaken us, must speedily be the lot of many of you; for it is said in the word of God, ‘Where the carcase is, there will the eagles be also'; and this we have proved to demonstration, that the lazy Borough mongering Eagles of destruction have nearly picked bare the bones of those who labour. You may then fairly anticipate, that when we are mixed with the silent dust, you will become the next victims of the voracious Borough Tyrants, who will chase you, in your turn, to misery and death, till at length, the middle and useful class of society, is swept, by their relentless hands, from the face of the creation.

From very mature and deliberate consideration, we are thoroughly convinced, that under the present system, the day is near at hand, when nothing will be found in our unhappy country but luxury, idleness, dissipation, and tyranny, on the one hand; and abject poverty, slavery, wretchedness, misery, and death, on the other. To avert these dreaded evils, it is your duty therefore to unite with us as speedily as possible; and to exert your influence with your fathers, your husbands, your sons, your relatives, and your friends, to join the Male Union for constitutionally demanding a Reform in their own House, viz. The Commons' House of Parliament; for we are now thoroughly convinced that for want of such timely Reform, the useful class of society has been reduced to its present degraded state – and that with such a reform, the English nation would not have been stamped with the indelible disgrace, of having been engaged in the late unjust, unnecessary, and destructive war, against the liberties of France, that closed its dreadful career on the crimson plains of Waterloo; where the blood of our fellow-creatures flowed in such mighty profusion, that the fertile earth seemed to blush at the outrage offered to the choicest works of heaven; and for a space of time was glutted with the polluted draught, till the Almighty, with a frown upon the aggressors, drew a veil over the dismal scene!

Let us now ask the cause of this dreadful carnage? Was it to gain immortal happiness for all mankind? Or, if possible, ‘was it for a nobler purpose?' Alas, no! The simple story is this, that all this dreadful slaughter was, in cold blood, committed for the purpose of placing upon the Throne of France, contrary to the people's interest and inclination, the present contemptible Louis, a man who had been living for years in this country in idleness, and wandering from one corner of the island to the other in cowardly and vagabond slothfulness and contempt. Let it be remembered at the same time, that this war, to reinstate this man, has tended to raise landed property threefold above its value, and to load our beloved country with such an insurmountable burden of Taxation, that is too intolerable to endure longer; it has nearly annihilated our once flourishing trade and commerce, and is now driving our merchants and manufacturers to poverty and degradation.

We call upon you therefore to join us with heart and hand, to exterminate tyranny and foul oppression from the face of our native country. It affords us pleasure to inform you, that numbers of your ranks have voluntarily mixed with us, who are fully determined, in defiance of the threats of the Borough mongers, to aid us in our just and constitutional career. Our enemies are resolved upon destroying the last vestige of the natural Rights of Man, and we are determined to establish it; for as well might they attempt to arrest the sun in the region of space, or stop the diurnal motion of the earth, as to impede the rapid progress of the enlightened friends to Liberty and Truth. The beam of angelic light that hath gone forth through the globe hath at length reached unto Man, and we are proud to say that the Female Reformers of Manchester have also caught its benign and heavenly influence; it is not possible therefore for us to submit to bear the ponderous weight of our chains any longer, but to use our endeavour to tear them asunder, and dash them in the face of our remorseless oppressors.

We can no longer bear to see numbers of our parents immured in workshops – our fathers separated from our mothers, in direct contradiction to the laws of God and the laws of man; our sons degraded below human nature, our husbands and little ones clothed in rags, and pining on the face of the earth! Dear Sisters, how could you bear to see the infant at the breast, drawing from you the remnant of your last blood, instead of the nourishment which nature requires; the only subsistence for yourselves being a draught of cold water? It would be criminal in us to disguise any longer the dreadful truth; for, in the midst of all these privations, if we were to hold our peace, the very trees of the forest, and stones of the valley, would justly cry out!

These are a few of the consequences resulting from the mad career of the Borough mongers' war, to say nothing of the thousands and tens of thousands that have been slain! The widows and orphans that have been left destitute and unprotected. The hyprocrital [sic] hireling will blasphemously tell you that these things are of divine ordinance; but in vain does he publish this to reason and common sense – the great Author of nature makes no distinction of persons – the rich and the poor are all alike to him; and surely the forked lightning, the awful thunder, the terrible earthquakes, and the howling and flaming volcanoes, are sufficient to chastise the most obdurate, without man becoming the oppressor of man. We close the disgusting scene; for language would infinitely fall short in painting the portrait of our woes in all their horrible deformities.

In conclusion, we earnestly entreat you to come forward – posterity will bless the names they see enrolled under the banners of Reform. Remember, that all good men were reformers in every age of the world. Noah was a reformer; he warned the people of their danger, but they paid no attention to him; Lot did in like manner, but the deluded people laughed him to scorn; the consequence was they were destroyed; all the Prophets were Reformers, and also the Apostles; so was the great Founder Christianity, he was the greatest reformer of all; and if Jesus Christ himself were to come upon the earth again, and to preach against the Church and the State in the same manner he did against the Jewish and heathen nations, his life would assuredly be sacrificed by the relentless hand of the Borough-Judases; for corruption, tyranny, and injustice, have reached their summit; and the bitter cup of oppression is now full to the brim.

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(1) Samuel Bamford, Passage in the Life of a Radical (1843) page 162

(2) Sarah Irving, Women at the Peterloo Massacre (2 March, 2010)

(3) Michael Herbert, The Guardian (15 August, 2012)

(4) David Simkin, Family History Research (27th September, 2020)

(5) Susanna Saxton, Manchester Observer (31st July, 1819)

(6) Sarah Irving, Women at the Peterloo Massacre (2 March, 2010)

(7) Ruth Mather, History Workshop (1 April, 2019)

(8) Edward Royle and James Walvin, English Radicals and Reformers 1760-1848 (1982) page 119

(9) Samuel Bamford, Passage in the Life of a Radical (1843) page 162

(10) J. F. C. Harrison, The Common People (1984) page 256

(11) Robert Poole. Peterloo: the English Uprising (2019) pages 285–90

(12) Michael L. Bush, The Women at Peterloo: The Impact of Female Reform on the Manchester meeting of August 16 1819, History Volume 94 (2006)

(13) Edward Vallance, A Radical History of Britain (2009) page 330

(14) Archibald Prentice, Historical Sketches and Personal Recollections of Manchester (1851) pages 159-161

(15) John Edward Taylor, The Times (18th August, 1819)

(16) Samuel Bamford, Passage in the Life of a Radical (1843) page 163

(17) Martin Wainwright, The Guardian (13th August, 2007)

(18) Edward Vallance, A Radical History of Britain (2009) page 330

(19) Sarah Irving, Women at the Peterloo Massacre (2 March, 2010)

(20) Susanna Saxton, Manchester Observer (31st July, 1819)

(21) Sarah Irving, Women at the Peterloo Massacre (2 March, 2010)