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Remembering female reformers and the women of Peterloo

a satirical drawing of the Georgian period showing unflattering depictions of revolutionary women on a hustings surrounded by a crowd of grotesque people

The Belle-alliance or the Female Reformers of Blackburn!!! print, 1819 © People’s History Museum

The People’s History Museum highlights women’s stories of Peterloo ahead of their major exhibition opening in March

Numbering around one in eight, many of them accompanied by their children, women were present not only on the ground amongst the 60,000 protestors at the Peterloo Massacre of August 16 1819, but they were also represented on the hustings at the heart of the gathering.

And in stark contrast to the George Cruikshank cartoon, The Belle-alliance or the Female Reformers of Blackburn!!!, the women at Peterloo who were active in the different reform movements were dressed distinctly in white cotton as a symbol of their virtue.

Cruickshank went on to publish one of the most famous cartoons of the massacre – Massacre at St. Peter’s or “Britons strike home”!!! – depicting the cruelty of the Yeomanry who ploughed into the crowd with sabres causing the death of 18 people. But his anti-revolutionary sentiments were explicitly displayed just four days before the Manchester gathering, when he published this most callous caricature of reforming women.

a photo of a plain brown Georgian style dress on a mannequin

Mrs Mabbott’s dress © Manchester Art Gallery-Bridgeman Images

As Jenny Mabbott, Head of Collections & Engagement at the People’s History Museum explains, the women of Peterloo paid a higher price than the caricaturist’s satirical eye for their protest.

“That women made up a disproportionately high number of the casualties, around one in four, yet represented only a relatively small percentage of protestors, says much of the struggles that women would have to endure to seek representation for many, many years to come, ” she says ahead of the Museum’s new exhibition Disrupt? Peterloo and Protest, which opens on March 23 2019.

The new exhibition gives the public the chance to explore Peterloo through a series of rare objects and artefacts including a rare survivor from the time – a dress worn by Mrs Mabbott, a woman present in Manchester on the day of the massacre.

Mrs Mabbott’s own story reflects the chaos that ensued in the city when the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry and local government forces charged the crowds with such force that, as well as the 18 people who would lose their lives, 700 suffered injury.

Research suggests that Mrs Mabbott, a confectionary shop owner who resided on Bridge Street in the city centre, got caught up in the violence of the day, rather than being an active participant in the protest. Her dress, made from fawn corded silk with a white linen lined bodice and sleeves, was donated to Manchester Art Gallery in 1948 and in the exhibition it will offer a tangible link to the clothes worn by ordinary women at the time.

a glass painted panel showing a crowd falling under the blows of mounted horsemen as people with flags gesticulate from a hustings

Commemorative glass marking Peterloo. © PHM

Museum Historian Helen Antrobus adds, “The dresses of the women at Peterloo were both emotionally and physically restricting; not only did they delay escape, but they marked out political women, the usurpers of society, for attack.”

Margaret Downes, Mary Heyes and Martha Partington are all included in the list of those who lost their lives at Peterloo.

“Indeed, eye witness reports suggest that women were explicitly targeted during the attacks by the yeomanry, a fact that is supported by the statistics,” adds Antrobus. “To be a political woman took courage, and the women of Peterloo would go on to champion Chartism, the abolition of slavery, and eventually, women’s suffrage.”

One of the most high profile women at Peterloo was Mary Fildes, President of the Manchester Female Reform Society, who stood with the speakers at the hustings holding a banner with the liberty cap on the pole. Reports of what happened to Fields on the day vary, but most agree that she was badly injured by a yeomanry sword, yet survived to lead a long and active political life that embraced Chartism and the early manifestations of the Women’s Suffrage movement.

Most of the women that she led at Peterloo were not there to demand the vote for themselves (even though Fildes was said to be one of the few women of the time who thought women should be allowed to vote) but rather to seek representation for their household whether through their husbands or fathers.

It would be a number of years before women began to campaign for the right to vote for themselves.

More pictures from the People’s History Museum collection relating to women reformers:

a black and white photo of young female Victorian workers standing next to a young male match seller

Workers at Bryant & May Factory London photograph, July 1888 The London matchgirls’ strike of 1888 was a famous industrial action by the women and teenage girls working at the Bryant and May Factory in Bow. © People’s History Museum

a black and white photo of a group of women standing and seated in a factory

Strike Committee of the Matchmakers’ Union, 1888 © People’s History Museum

a poster with a man standing in a destitute home with two bereft children

A Suffragette’s Home poster, 1912. Part of the anti-Suffragette propaganda that proliferated in the Edwardian period. © People’s History Museum

a photo of an old faded green banner with tassels

Women’s Social and Political Union, Ilford Branch banner, 1903 © People’s History Museum

a poster with a man and woman in 20s dress with two toffs in top hats doffing their hats in the background

The New Voter poster, 1929 © People’s History Museum

Helen Antrobus has written a blog for People’s History Museum on the women of Peterloo to mark International Women’s Day, read it at https://phm.org.uk/blogposts/the-women-of-peterloo/

An International Women’s Day guided tour takes place at 11.30am on Friday 8 March exploring the lives of women reformists, Chartists, suffragists, suffragettes, MPs, radicals and revolutionaries. Tickets are £5 and can be booked via Eventbrite.


People's History Museum

Manchester, Greater Manchester

There have always been ideas worth fighting for. Join a march through time at the People's History Museum following Britain’s struggle for democracy over two centuries. Meet the revolutionaries, reformers, workers, voters and citizens who fought our battle for the ballot. Gather amongst their magnificent banners and discover how time…

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