This is the story of the City of London Female Charter Association and of its treatment at the hands of an enthralled but horrified press.
The City of London Female Charter Association was neither the first nor the largest of the Chartist women’s organisations. But for the best part of its short existence, it was undoubtedly the most infamous.
The combination of outspoken women leaders and proximity to the Fleet Street haunts of reporters working for the emerging national newspapers meant that, for a short while at least, the City of London female Chartists were seldom out a generally shocked or disapproving press.
As one appalled newspaper put it:
“If it were possible to get rid of the disgust occasioned by seeing Englishwomen, the daughters, sisters, or wives of somebody, exhibiting themselves in this fashion, before a set of ragged, reeking fellows in a dirty corner of the Old Bailey, there would be something exceedingly amusing in the mock gravity of the proceedings.”
West Kent Guardian – Saturday 05 November 1842
The first mention of a City of London Female Charter Association comes, not surprisingly, in the columns of the Northern Star, which reported in its issue of 31 July 1841 that “a female Chartist Association was formed here on Monday evening”.
It went on: “Its meetings are holden for the present on Thursday evenings, in the hall of the Political and Scientific Institute, 55 Old Bailey, the gratuitous use of which has been granted by the shareholders for one month.”
Little more was heard of the organisation beyond the occasional brief mention in the Northern Star that the female Chartists had met “as usual”. Then one such report noted that “it was resolved that an address be written, calling upon our sisters in the metropolis to come forward and assist in the glorious struggle for freedom” (Northern Star, 23 April 1842).
The result appeared some weeks later when Susanna Inge’s address “to the women of England”, in which she signs herself a “Member of the Female Charter Association of the City of London” was published in the Northern Star (2 July 1842). Whether or not she was secretary at this stage was not made clear.
This literate and well written address argues that,
“as civilisation advances man becomes more inclined to place women on an equality with himself, and though excluded from everything connected with public life, her condition is considerably improved”.
She goes on to say, however, that this is not sufficient, and that women should
“assist those men who will, nay, who do, place women in an equality with themselves in gaining their rights, and ours will be gained also”.
Such sentiments were not particularly unusual, stopping short of an explicit call for the right to vote to be extended to women, but they went some way beyond the usual role allotted to women Chartists of simply supporting the men’s fight for the franchise.
Two months later, Susanna Inge urged “Sister Chartists of the Metropolis” to come to a meeting of the “Females’ Association” which would be discussing “some rules and regulations which will be brought forward for the better regulation of the Association (Northern Star, 10 September 1842).
It would not be until October 1842 that any more was heard of the organisation – and in a way which raised the City of London Chartists to a level of notoriety.
That month a meeting was called at the National Charter Association Hall at 55 Old Bailey
“for the purpose of forming a ‘Female Chartist Association’, to co-operate with the Male Association and for other objects connected with the ‘People’s Charter’.”
As was typical of female Chartist meetings, the chair and both main speakers were men. One of them a Mr Cohen, somewhat surprisingly decided to declare that he “did not consider that nature intended women to partake of political rights”.
The response from one member, Mary Ann Walker, was immediate and forthright. So much so that the spat was picked up in the press, becoming the subject of a vituperative leader article in The Times and provoking the cartoonist John Leech to caricature Mary Ann Walker in Punch.
A second meeting followed a few days later at which Mr Cohen and Miss Walker were able to argue their cases in a more considered way. Cohen attempted to backtrack, telling the meeting that the newspaper reports were untrue – he was not at all opposed to “the admission of women to the rights of the elective franchise”. In other words, he was not against women having the vote. But…
“What he said was, that he did not consider women to hold responsible situations under government.”
(Wolverhampton Chronicle and Staffordshire Advertiser, 2 November 1842)
This partial retreat gained him little credit with the “she-chartists” or “hen-chartists” as the papers now dismissively began to refer to the women Chartists. But the high profile dispute helped to launch Mary Ann Walker on a short-lived career as a travelling lecturer.
The focus of attention for much of the press was on Mary Ann Walker and Susanna Inge. But it is clear that the City of London Female Charter Association was a larger body.
Other members named in newspaper reports of the time included Miss Elizabeth Pickup and Mrs Frances Wyatt, who moved and second votes of thanks to Susanna Inge.
A more substantial speech was delivered by Miss Emma Miles, described by the Morning Advertiser (3 November 1842) as “an interesting-looking young woman apparently about 22 or 23 years of age, and who it was rumoured was ‘sweetheart’ of the Chartist named Shell, who it will be remembered was shot in the Chartist riots at Newport”.
In fact it seems highly unlikely that Emma Miles had any connection with George Shell, a Pontypool carpenter who had been killed in the Newport rising some three years earlier at the age of just 15.
In its reports, the London Evening Standard offered different versions of the women’s names, including Emma Matilda Miles, Elizabeth Eliza Pickup, Juliana Wyatt and Clara Cleopatra Inge. The last was presumably a joke of some sort, though a rather indecipherable one.
Throughout the winter, reports of Mary Ann Walker and Susanna Inge’s speeches – or “lectures”, as they were billed – continued to appear in newspapers the length and breadth of the country, typically copied from London newspapers which presumably had reporters closer to hand.
The City of London Female Charter Association itself, however, was little mentioned until February 1843, by which time it appears that interest may have been waning and friendships fraying.
One report in the Hereford Journal suggests that Mary Ann Walker was enjoying her fame, offering photographs of herself for sale and holding forth at length. Susanna Inge, however, had had enough and announced her resignation as secretary (8 February 1843).
It appears that Emma Miles was nominated but not elected to the post, while Mrs Wyatt, “who was proposed as more matronly” (presumably older), declined on the grounds that she had recently given up a secretaryship “at another place”.
Even so, the organisation continued. A short while later, a notice appeared, as usual in the Northern Star (11 February 1843), stating: “The City of London Female Chartists met here on Tuesday evening, at seven o’clock, for the purpose of electing a secretary.”
No name was given, and it appears that Susanna Inge may have continued in the role. But it was clear that the organisation was falling apart. Susanna Inge made one last chance to save it.
Two months later, the Northern Star noted that it had received “a long letter… in reference to some matters which seem to be in dispute among them about the character of some member to whose admission Susanna Inge objected” (1 April 1843).
The final part of the letter, all that the Star felt able to carry, read:
“It is a long time since we all met; and it is wished that we should meet and come to some conclusion. It is, therefore, agreed that we meet at the Political and Scientific Institute, Turnagain-lane, on Tuesday the 11th of April, at eight o’clock in the evening; and I do particularly request that not only those who are members will be present, but any who may have left the society within the last few months will come forward and state why they have done so; and if I am the obstacle I can withdraw; and if I am not, they will, by so doing, remove the stigma from me. There are also some money matters to settle, at which I wish all to be present; and other business to transact. Let me then entreat you not to be so backward as you have been, but let us begin our new year in harmony and union; for I have not the slightest hesitation in saying that all will be settled to our satisfaction when we have exchanged our thoughts and opinions. With these remarks I take my leave of you, hoping that you will respond to my call.
‘And I remain, my Sisters,
‘To the Chartist cause and our own
‘Little Army a true Devotee,
But nothing more is heard of the City of London Female Charter Association.