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Thursday, 29 September 2016

Invisible Women?

Mary Wollstonecraft

Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–97) was one of the few women who spoke out during the turbulent era of Regency Spies to demand greater rights, and better education, for the female sex. Mary’s Vindication of the Rights of Man (1790) was a fiery reply to Edmund Burke’s reactionary response to the French Revolution’s ideals, Reflexions on the Revolution in France. Two years later, her Vindication of the Rights of Woman made her famous at home and abroad. But her untimely death following the birth of her daughter Mary, followed by husband William Godwin’s no-holds-barred biography, led to her ideas disappearing from view for many years.
But what did ordinary women think? Did they dream of a better society – or even of revolution? Sadly I did not have the space (or time) to explore this topic in Regency Spies, as noticed by Emma Jolly in her insightful review earlier this year.   
We know from newspaper reports that women like Hannah Smith (hanged at Lancaster Castle in 1812 for a Manchester food riot) sometimes took direct action during times of hardship. And female reformers from Oldham and Manchester were part of the vast crowd at Peterloo. (There’s more information on ‘Radical Women’, including Chartists, in my recent article in the September issue of Your Family History).
Peterloo Massacre
While researching Regency Spies, I found that women were only rarely mentioned as spies in the Home Office papers I studied (although as noted in my book, some evidence from this period is missing).  
One instance of a female spy is ‘Mary Brown’, listed in a ‘Key to Agents’ Names in Hampden Clubs’ in 1817. Women were seemingly more likely to act as informants; landladies sometimes had useful information for the authorities, as Radical meetings were often held in their pubs. (If any readers know of the exploits of any female spies, I would love to hear from you!).
Women were only occasionally mentioned by spies like William Oliver in their reports to the Home Office on rebel/revolutionary meetings. Oliver took great care to list all the men present, but this does not necessarily mean that women were absent; it could just mean that he thought that men were more of a threat to law and order.  
However, Henry Sampson, the Nottingham spy who was providing local reports on the Pentrich rebels, does say that Jeremiah Brandreth’s wife Ann was present while they were discussing ‘the Job’ (the rebellion) – although Sampson does not give her name. After the ill-fated rising, Ann (then pregnant with her fourth child) walked all the way from their home in Sutton-in-Ashfield to Derby to see Jeremiah while he was awaiting execution.
Mary Lee HO42/168

Also amongst the Home Office papers is a statement made by Mary Lee of Holmfirth (HO42/168, 5 July 1817). She had to give evidence regarding the planned uprising in the Huddersfield area that year; her husband Richard was knee-deep in the preparations. She told the authorities that the first time’ she ‘heard anything of a Revolution’ was on 19 May, when a man called and told Richard that ‘the Revolution was put off’. But Richard claimed that he ‘did not know there was to be a Revolution’. 
It must have been very difficult for women like Mary to give evidence on oath, knowing that their evidence could have dire consequences for their menfolk.

Mary Wollstonecraft.
Dr Syntax in an inn listening to reformers’ talk. Courtesy Library of Congress LC-USZC4-3647.  
The Peterloo massacre. The Yeomanry slash men, women and children with their sabres at a meeting to demand parliamentary reform at St Peter’s Field, Manchester as the Riot Act is read from a window. J. L. Marks, No. 2 Sandy's Row Bishopsgate St., 1819. Courtesy Library of Congress. LC-USZ62-138639  
Deposition of Mary Lee at the National Archives, Kew. HO42/168.

Monday, 5 September 2016

Lancashire's Heritage Crisis

Weaving shed, Queen St Mill.
On Saturday we visited Queen Street Mill at Harle Syke, Briarcliffe, near Burnley. This amazing site is Lancashire's last surviving steam-powered weaving mill.

The mill, a Grade I listed building, is home to a nationally important collection of textile machinery, along with its sister site, Helmshore Mills at Rossendale (another fantastic museum, which I visited while researching my book Narrow Windows, Narrow Lives).
The mill chimney.

Queen Street Mill originally housed 1,000 powerlooms; it was built in 1894 for the Queen St Mill Manufacturing Company.

You can see 'Peace', the 500hp engine which powers the weaving shed, and the boiler house is still home to the original Lancashire boiler. It was stiflingly hot in the boiler house (2 newer Lancashire boilers, made at Hyde in 1901, heat the water for the engine). Water is supplied from the mill pond.
When the engine is 'in steam', you can see several looms at work; the weaving shed houses about 300 looms. The noise was absolutely deafening, so it must have been unbelievably loud when all the looms were in use. The warehouse has several examples of different looms, including a Jacquard loom capable of weaving a tapestry. I was also very interested to see a demonstration of terry-towelling weaving, which I haven't seen before. You can buy towels, aprons and fabric woven at the mill in the gift shop.

Lancashire boilers need a lot of coal for fuel.
Peace, the 500hp mill engine.
I am sorry to say that Queen St and Helmshore both face imminent closure, along with three other Lancashire heritage sites  - victims of council cuts necessitated by Tory austerity policies which have disproportionately targeted the north and inner-city regions. The other Lancashire museums now at risk are the Judges' Lodgings, Lancaster; the Maritime Museum, Fleetwood; and the Museum of Lancashire, Preston
The closure of these five museums - now in a last-ditch fight to save their collections - will save the council just £64.2million, according to the Museums Association.
It seems a relatively small price to pay to keep these irreplaceable heritage sites open to the public, so if you happen to be a multi-millionaire or billionaire philanthropist with some spare cash, please contact the museums if you would like to help.
Queen St Mill and many other sites nationwide are open free of charge next weekend as part of the Heritage Open Days event, so do take this opportunity to visit.

Terry-towelling loom at Queen St mill.
Jacquard loom at Queen St Mill.
I am desperately saddened by the prospect of these museums' closure, and I sincerely hope that a way can be found to preserve them for future generations, so that tomorrow's children can see how their Lancashire ancestors lived and worked.
All photos © Sue Wilkes.