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).
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.
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.