life storieswomen chartists

May Paris 1807 – 1849

The death of the Greenwich Chartist May Paris from Asiatic Cholera at the age of 42 in the summer of 1849 merited just a single paragraph in the Northern Star. But as the paper freely acknowledged, she had been “one of those few noble women who exerted themselves in this borough for the enactment of the People’s Charter” (NS, 1 September 1849, p.8).

Paying tribute to her political work, the paper proclaimed: “Whenever a petition was to be presented, she was one of the foremost in obtaining signatures. In 1842, at the presentation of the monster petition, she obtained by her own exertions, several hundreds of signatures, and was present and joined in the procession which accompanied it to the House of Commons.”

The tone of the obituary suggests that the writer had known May Paris. “She was universally respected, and her loss is deeply lamented by all who knew her.” She was “an affectionate wife” to Thomas Paris, himself a “veteran Chartist”, and “kind mother” to their children.

A search in the 1841 census reveals that Thomas and May had been among the millions who flocked to London in the nineteenth century. By 1841, she and Thomas, a blacksmith, were living at number 2 Cold Bath Row, a long terrace of houses on the south side of Blackheath Road, with their four children, Thomas (aged 12), John (7), Mary (5) and James (2). Both May and Thomas and all but their youngest child had been born in Scotland, indicating that the move south had taken place some time between 1836 and 1839 – just as Chartism was emerging as a political movement. There would later be two more daughters, Frances (born in 1843) and Christiana (born 1845).

May Archer, as she then was, had been born in the small coastal town of Anstruther Wester, in Fife, to Thomas Archer and Mary Raiker on 25 January 1807. She grew up to marry Thomas Paris, from the neighbouring fishing village of Crail, on 14 May 1830; but by then the couple already had a son, named after his father, who had been born and baptised (as Thomas Archer) on 3 August the previous year.

In life, May Paris’s efforts on behalf of the Charter were never acknowledged in the Northern Star – and even the notice of her death appeared as the very final item in that week’s paper, at the bottom of the last column on the back page. Her husband, however, appears more regularly in its pages – as a leading light in the Greenwich branch of the National Charter Association, a member of the Democratic Committee for Poland’s Regeneration (a popular Chartist cause that met in the Chartist Assembly Rooms in Dean Street, Soho), and as an active local member of the Chartist Land Company. Since land company meetings were routinely held at the Paris family home for two years from the summer of 1846, it seems likely that May was also there.

May Paris died on 12 August 1849 – one of 52,000 victims of cholera in London alone that year. In the same year the London-based physician John Snow began to develop his theory that the disease was spread by contaminated water and not through a miasma in the air, but it was not until long after May Paris’s death that action was taken to tackle the problem.

She was buried on 19 August 1849, at in the churchyard at St. Alphege in Greenwich.