Mary Ann Walker was a Chartist lecturer who briefly became a media sensation. This is her story.
In an era just coming to terms with the idea of newspaper celebrity, Mary Ann Walker was something of a Chartist sensation.
A young, outspoken woman who held very a definite fascination for male journalists, she became well known as a Chartist lecturer, whose quick mind and turn of phrase made her a match for hecklers and opponents alike.
For just over a year, she and Susanna Inge, the leading lights of the City of London Female Charter Association, made regular appearances, not just in the Northern Star but in the leader columns of The Times, in cartoon form in Punch and in local papers throughout the land.
But virtually nothing is known of Mary Ann Walker’s life before she came to prominence in the autumn of 1842, and after the summer of 1843 she disappears back into obscurity.
The City of London Female Charter Association was already in existence by the summer, when Susanna Inge, wrote an address “to the women of England” in which she described herself as a member (Northern Star, 2 July 1842).
However, there is no record of Mary Ann Walker until the autumn of that year, when she intervened in a public meeting held at the Chartist meeting rooms at 55 Old Bailey in a most dramatic way.
Although the women’s organisation had already been in existence for some time, the Northern Star reported that meeting was “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’.” Presumably this was to be a public launch in an attempt to create interest among potential members.
As was typical of female Chartist meetings, the chair and both main speakers were men.
Perhaps surprisingly, one speaker, a Mr Cohen, declared that he “did not consider that nature intended women to partake of political rights” (Northern Star, 22 October 1842).
Rather, he argued, women were “more happy in the peacefulness and usefulness of the domestic hearth, than in coming forth in public and aspiring after political rights”. This created, in the words of the Northern Star’s reporter, a “sensation among the ladies”.
Perhaps foolishly, in view of his audience, he asked the female association’s secretary, Susanna Inge,
“to suppose herself in the House of Commons, as member for a parliamentary borough (laughter) and that a young gentleman, ‘a lover,’ in that house were to try to influence her vote through his sway over her affection, how would she act? whether in other words she could resist, and might not lose sight of the public interests?”
Though no response is recorded from Susanna Inge, Mary Ann Walker was having none of it. She was, she declared, “astonished at the question” (The Examiner, 22 October 1842).
“She would treat with womanly scorn, as a contemptible scoundrel, the man who would dare to influence her vote by any undue and unworthy means (cheers from the men); for if he were base enough to mislead her in one way, he would in another. (Hear, hear and renewed cheers).”
Miss Walker’s forthright rebuttal of the male speaker, and the remainder of her speech in which she damned the government for its treatment of Chartists in the North of England, were reported at some length in The Times, which even ran a comment article on the subject in which it held her up to ridicule. The report was repeated by local newspapers up and down the country, and helped to establish her as a lecturer on the circuit of Chartist meeting rooms.
A few days later, a second meeting was called at the National Charter Hall, where Miss Walker and Mr Cohen, were again able to debate the finer points of women’s right to vote.
“Miss Mary Anne Walker presented herself on the platform, and became at once the grand attraction of the audience, in connection with the prominent place she had filled within the last few days in the public eye, as the founder, or, at least, leading personage of the Female Chartist Association. Miss Walker was habited in deep mourning, and being tall and of prepossessing countenance and figure, with much of grace and dignity of contour in her manner and action, she looked a heroine in the cause which she had taken up with so much enthusiasm. She was received with the plaudits of some, while others, ‘from the curiosity to hear a woman speak,’ remained ‘silent and breathless,’ that they might hear.”
(The Times, 25 October 1842)
She was clearly nervous (“wan”, according to the Star), and the chairman urged the audience to remember that this was her first speech to a large audience. To the arguments she had earlier advanced in the heat of the first meeting, however, she now added a further strand drawn from the Charter’s six points.
“As soon as the anxious press toward the platform had ceased, Miss Walker observed, she had a few words to say to the meeting. (Hear, hear.) ‘Wonders,’ she continued, “would never cease.’ (Laughter.) Who would have thought that Mr Cohen, Miss Susannah Inge and herself (Miss Mary Anne Walker), would have been so far distinguished as to be made the subjects of a “leading article” in The Times? – The Times! Yes, The Times, indeed! (Laughter.) Mr Cohen had brought all this upon them by his question – ‘Suppose ladies were in the House of Commons for a Parliamentary borough, and that a young fascinating sprig of Tory aristocracy were to try to sway their votes through an influence over their affections, how could they resist?” (Laughter from the gentlemen, and tittering among the ladies.) How ridiculous that was! (A laugh.) She (Miss Walker) would tell Mr Cohen, and The Times too, that they had got a nice little point in ‘the Charter’, which would act as an antidote to that sort of ‘influence over their affections.’ They would be discharged from their situation of members at the end of twelve months, should they weakly prove ‘unworthy of their trust,’ and thrown out ‘on the wide world, out of place,’ and ‘without a character from their last masters and mistresses.’ (Laughter, and much applause from the gentlemen.)”
Mary Ann or Mary Anne Walker (The Northern Star used the first, The Times the second) went on to appear at a series of further meetings. She was on the platform alongside “Miss Miles and a large number of members of the Female Chartist Association” for a “giant meeting” at the Crown and Anchor Tavern on the Strand (Northern Star, 26 November, 1842). Speakers included Thomas Slingsby Duncombe and Feargus O’Connor.
Her first lecturer as the main speaker was at a “crowded and most respectably composed meeting” on Monday 5 December at the National or Complete Suffrage Association in High Holborn on “the social evils which afflict the state, and on the People’s Charter as the remedy” (Northern Star, 10 December, 1842).
She recalled then how her “excited state of mind and sympathy with her poor, suffering fellow creatures” had encouraged her to intervene against Mr Cohen, and added that “if she were satisfied that her coming out had the effect of alleviating the trouble of even one poor fellow creature, she would feel herself for life repaid, and would go on in that virtuous course, let the obloquy and the consequences that would attach to her be what they might.” Emma Miles then moved and Mrs Watts seconded a vote of thanks.
She is next seen at a meeting in Bristol where she “opened with a violent tirade against the press” before moving on to the low rates of pay for women, constitutional issues, workhouses and the Six Points, concluding that “she was very tired, and hoped to give them a better lecture on Thursday” (Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 14 January 1843).
Early the following month, she was back in London at the Old Bailey meeting rooms. The following account from the Hereford Journal (8 February, 1843) was most likely lifted from a London paper. It is extraordinarily snide, but offers some interesting details. Clearly Mary Ann Walker was enjoying her fame. The report is worth reproducing in full:
“A meeting of Chartists took place on Tuesday night at their hall in the Old Bailey. Miss Mary Anne Walker was engaged from eight till nine o’clock in exhibiting a bundle of her lithographed portraits, recently taken, and offering them for sale at 6d each. She sold two. This young lady for full and hour, and for want of any business to transact, kept the Chartists, both male and female, incessantly laughing by her jokes and anecdotes, and playfully remarked, when she found herself so badly seconded in her efforts to keep up their spirits, that were it not for her own individual exertions it would be ‘quite a Quaker’s meeting’. Miss Susannah Inge, jealous of the superior attraction of her rival, sat at the table biting her nails with vexation, and now and then darting withering glances at the fair democrat who monopolised all the attention. A chairman having been appointed, the minutes were read, and then the members passed a resolution to the effect that a committee be appointed to raise money to pay the delegates for their trouble at the recent conference in Birmingham. Miss M.A.Walker was so particularly talkative during the discussion that a chartist begged her, if she possibly could, to hold her tongue until the adjournment of the meeting. Miss Susannah Inge, who had hitherto remained silent, now rose and tendered her resignation as secretary of the Female Chartist Association, saying with disdain, that she was quite sick of the business. Miss Walker: “That won’t matter for I dare say we shall easily get another.” Miss E.M.Miles was nominated, but for some reasons was not elected; and Mrs Wyatt, who was proposed as more matronly, declined, on the ground that she had just given up a secretaryship at another place, and did not wish to enter into public life again. The election was postponed. Miss Walker then deplored the fact that, notwithstanding all she had done for the cause of Chartism as connected with women, they had go no new proselytes; while many members whom they had before she became notorious, had left them. The meeting then broke up.”
The Northern Star records two further meetings, at which Mary Ann Walker spoke alongside Feargus O’Connor on the land issue in the Hall of Science, Blackfriars Road (Northern Star, 18 February 1843), and at the Political and Scientific Institute, Turnagain Lane (Northern Star, 13 May 1843). There may have been others, but after that date, with the exception of a single curious instance, there appears to be no further sighting of Mary Ann Walker.
According to The Times of 17 August 1843, the Rotunda Theatre at Blackfriars Road was crowded out after placards declared that the part of the queen in Shakespeare’s Hamlet was to be taken by “Miss Mary Ann Walker of Chartist celebrity”. When the queen appeared on stage and was clearly not the person expected, a cry went up of “No, no! That ain’t Miss Walker.” Despite an apology and explanation from the stage manager that the placards had been a hoax, the crowd howled and laughed for the rest of the play.
And in one final newspaper mention some years later, the Northern Star (6 January 1849) records donations to the Victim and Defence Fund. Among the numerous books, paintings and more random items (two pairs of buckskin braces, a boy’s cap, three pairs of men’s hose) is listed a contribution from Mrs Cuffay which includes a “portrait of Mary Ann Walker”.
Frustratingly, almost nothing more is known of Mary Ann Walker. From The Times there is a description of her as “tall and of prepossessing countenance and figure, with much of grace and dignity of contour in her manner and action”.
A somewhat different description was given by the Exeter and Plymouth Gazette (14 January 1843):
“Mary Ann is in figure of middle height and size, with oval visage, aquiline nose, and very long ringlets. She was in an evening dress of black, made very low in the neck; and upon the whole, reckoning liberally for rouge, she appeared to be a belle un peu passee, and from her dialect, manners, and knowledge, to have been of the order ‘ladies’ maid’.”
And there is a rather overheated description of her given by a clearly smitten reporter from the Northern Star (10 December, 1842):
“She was dressed in mourning, a habit which it is her calamity to wear for the death of her father, of whom she has not been very many months bereaved. The body of her dress was partially and becomingly low, displaying a very graceful bust, and tending to set off to greater interest a figure and form of interesting proportions. She appeared more than usually wan in countenance, the effect, doubtless, of her anxiety to do justice to her subject, and convey instruction and satisfaction to her audience. She wore a light sort of crepe scarf, or negligee, attached gracefully to, and hanging from her arms, the effect tending to set off her costume, enlivening and contrasting with the black material. A jet necklace, suspending a cross ‘which Jews might kiss and Infidels adore’ adorned her bosom, giving a finish to her contour.”
But of her life outside Chartism, there is nothing.