The Chartist Movement, 1838-1848, was very much a male dominated world. Except for female associations and political unions in the larger towns (Birmingham’s Female Political Union claimed 3,000 members) women played a secondary, albeit important, role in Chartism. Custom and prejudice, including men’s head of the household, breadwinner status and women’s subservient, dependent, homemaker role, contributed to this. For the most part women assisted the cause by collecting subscriptions and donations, attending demonstrations, and making gifts for visiting Chartist speakers. In keeping with their role as homemakers, women organized events such as Chartist tea parties and soirees, and they boycotted anti-Chartist shopkeepers.
On the occasion of the possible formation of a Female Chartist Association, a male member of the audience said a woman’s proper station was in the home. He was not alone in his patriarchal thinking. Society in general was opposed to women appearing in public in their own right - although Elizabeth Pease of the Darlington Abolition of Slavery Society [letter to John Collins, 14 Dec 1840] inferred this was not wholly due to it being a male dominated society, and was partly due to the female’s view of her own place in it. The press also got in on the act. Punch published cartoons that poked fun at female Chartists and an article in the Northern Star made a point of reporting on a female speaker’s ample charms!
Consequently, there were no female Chartist leaders, and although women sat on the “hustings” at large and important Chartist demonstrations they rarely ranked among the speakers. Not that women would have had much of a chance to speak anyway. The leading men were known to make speeches that dragged on for hours, and they did not support female suffrage. In an early draft of The People’s Charter the “provision for women’s suffrage was cut out because it was said it might make the Charter a laughing stock.” [Neil Stewart, The Fight for the Charter].
Even the acknowledged leader of the Chartist Movement, Fergus O’Connor, was against the vote for women since he deemed it their job was to cook, clean, and take care of a man’s comforts. At a meeting of the Female Chartist of Aberdeen, Scotland a male guest speaker called on women to take an active part in Chartism saying if one woman (Queen Victoria) had the right to govern, another woman had the right to a voice in choosing the legislators. But then he quantified it by saying only young maids and widows, and not married women, should have the vote. Similarly, R J Richardson the Manchester Chartist and author of The Rights of Women called for the enfranchisement of spinsters and widows - just not married women "who were to be represented by their husbands" [Anna Clark, The Struggle for the Breaches].
There were, however, some Chartist leaders who fully approved of female suffrage, including William Lovett and John Collins. Collins believed that since politics had interfered with women, so women should interfere with politics, and in 1841 Lovett, Collins, Vincent and other reformers, established the National Association of the United Kingdom for Promoting the Political and Social Improvement of the People. The Association - based on the book Chartism: A New Organization of the People that Lovett and Collins co-wrote whilst immured in Warwick Gaol - called for the social and political rights of women as well as men.
Another reason few women came out in their own right during the Chartist Movement may have come down to the venue. Except for huge outdoor demonstrations attended by men and women, Chartist meetings were often held in pubs (public alehouses) frequented by working man, and as such they were unsavory places for women speakers. In spite of that, there were some unsung heroines who appeared in the public arena. Jane Smeal, who established the Glasgow Emancipation Society, helped set up the Edinburgh wing of the National Society for Women’s Suffrage.
Anne Knight of the Chelmsford Ladies Anti-Slavery Society was outspoken regarding the way women were treated by the leading men in the Chartist Movement, and campaigned to include women’s suffrage in The People’s Charter [British Library, Dreamers & Dissenters]. Nevertheless, the enfranchisement of women was never a major part of the decade long Chartist Movement. Instead, women supported universal male suffrage, rather than their own right to vote, as the way to improve the economy and working-class life.
Another group of unsung heroines were the wives of Chartist leaders. There were some husband-and-wife teams (such as the Neesons and Hansons) where the wife was as outspoken and well-known as her husband, but generally Chartist wives played a behind-the-scene supporting role. They took care of the home and family while their Chartist husbands attended meetings and conventions. Some leading Chartists, such as John Collins (1802-1852), went on lecture tours which placed a considerable burden on the wife in terms of an absentee husband and reduced family income. There was no paid leave when a man took time off work, and funding (or National Rent, as it was called) for Chartist representatives was difficult to raise [Fergus O’Connor, NS Sept 21 1839]. Additionally, Chartist wives had to live with the fear of government reprisals - from January 1839 to May 1840 over 550 men were imprisoned because of their involvement in the Chartist Movement, thus leaving their wives to fend for themselves and their children.
Hannah Collins was one such wife. Unfortunately, like many Chartist wives, we know very little about her. She was born on June 4, 1803 to working class Protestant Dissenters, Ann & Philip West, a tape weaver from Providence in Staffordshire, England. Hannah married John Collins on 5 August 1821 in St Martins Church in the Bull Ring, Birmingham, England, and they raised three surviving children. Hannah was not a radical in her own right, but she clearly supported her husband’s involvement in Chartism. Even before the “birth of the Chartist Movement” at the Great Midland Demonstration in August 1838, John Collins was a leading spokesman for the Birmingham Political Union. As a well-known radical speaker and agitator, he was largely responsible for bringing together the English reformers and the Scottish radicals at the Great Glasgow Demonstration, which in turn helped kickstart the Chartist Movement. Collins was Chartist Delegate for Birmingham and helped organize the massive 1839 National Petition in support of the demands laid out in The People’s Charter. He could not have accomplished any of that without the support of his wife.
In 1839, in the government’s attempt to silence the leaders of the Chartist Movement, John Collins and his friend William Lovett (who drafted The People’s Charter) were arrested and found guilty of libel and sedition. Subsequently imprisoned for 12 months, their wives were left bereft of their husbands’ companionship and financial support. They were allowed visitation just once a quarter, and even then, under the watchful eye of a Turnkey. Lovett found this so humiliating, he forbade his wife, Mary, from visiting him. When Collins’ wife applied for permission to visit her husband, the prison governor delayed her from visiting. [Mr Warburton Member of Parliament, Hansard HC Debate-14 April 1840].
Fortunately, both William Lovett and John Collins were of sufficient stature and popularity that their families were able to avoid financial ruin whilst the two men were in prison. Following arrest, friends raised the £1,000 bail for each man which was an extortionate amount for working men. Collins also received money toward his defense, and Lovett conducted his own defense. During Collins' incarceration the people of Birmingham and across the nation rallied with donations for his family. Working Men’s Associations set up Relief Funds in Birmingham, London and Glasgow to handle the money. The female chapter of the Birmingham Political Union collected donations at their weekly Monday meetings.
Nor was sympathy for Hannah Collins and her children limited to political associations and unions. The working men at the Barker manufactory, had a collection for the family.
Even as late as July 1840, just before Collins' release from prison, funds were still coming in from such diverse sources as the Silver Platers' Society (who donated £1.7s.6d) and Birmingham Town Councilor W H Smith (who contributed ten shillings).
Mary Lovett and Hannah Collins also benefitted from their husband’s political and social connections. Francis Place helped Mary draft letters of appeal to the government. The Mayor of Birmingham and various ‘respectables’ petitioned the government to improve Collins’ deplorable prison conditions. Sympathetic Members of Parliament raised the subject of the prisoners’ ill treatment causing much government debate and publicity. After six months the prisoners’ diet was improved. It quite likely saved their health – if not saved their wives from becoming widows.
Not all the wives of imprisoned Chartists were quite so fortunate. They paid a lonely price for their husband's political convictions, suffering from separation, poverty and humiliation. Sophia O’Brien, wife of “Bronterre” was thrown out of her home. Women whose Chartist husbands were transported for life were left in dire straits without any end in sight. William Cuffey’s wife entered the workhouse. In the case of the Chartist prisoner Samuel Holberry his wife, Mary, did indeed become widow.
After John Collins’ release from prison in July 1840, he resumed his activities and began fanning the flames of Chartism laid low by the government’s purge on Chartism. Heralded the returning hero, Collins spent many months touring the country attending meetings, dinners and processions – sometimes entering large towns through crowd lined streets of thousands. There were a few occasions where his wife, Hannah, accompanied him and consequently received some recognition, and on one occasion Collins told an audience that the one thing that caused him the most grief during imprisonment was not knowing the fate of his wife and children.
In 1918 the Representation of the People Act granted women over 30 the right to vote with certain property restriction. By the same Act, all men over 21 received the vote, and property restrictions were abolished for men. It took another ten years before the 1928 Equal Franchise Act granted all women over 21 years of age the same voting rights as men.
Welcome to the John Collins Chartist website. My name is Margaret Chase, and this blogspot is a place for me to share snippets of information and anything else relevant to the life and times of John Collins and the Chartist Era. Many thanks for stopping by.