In the 1820s there was an active group of Republican women,, followers of Richard Carlile who together with his wife and sister spent five years in prison for his political writings and challenge to the political and clerical establishment.
Carlile was born in Devon, the son of a shoemaker who died in 1794, leaving Richard’s mother struggling to support her three children on the income from running a small shop. At the age of six he was sent for free education to the local Church of England school: at the age of twelve he left school for a seven-year apprenticeship to a tinsmith in Plymouth. In 1813 he got married to Jane, and shortly afterwards the couple moved to Holborn Hill in London where he found work as a tinsmith. Jane Carlile gave birth to five children, three of whom survived, probably an average for this period.
Carlile became interested in radical politics during the economic slump that followed the end of the Napoleonic war and heard Henry Hunt speak. He himself was put on short-time working. He says “I shared the general distress of 1816 and it was this that opened my eyes.” In 1817 he went into partnership with William Sherwin, setting up a printing business and opening a shop in Fleet Street where he sold the works of Thomas Paine, split into pamphlets so that the working people could afford them. He also sold the Black Dwarf when many feared to do so because of the government crackdown on radical ideas and prosecution of booksellers. Carlile then began publishing his own radical paper, Sherwin’s Weekly Political Register.
Carlile was present at the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester on 16th August 1819 and wrote the first published account of the murderous attack on the peaceful crowd.
In the wake of Peterloo the government cracked down radical publishers, shutting down Sherwin’s Political Register and seizing the newspapers and pamphlets.
Undaunted, Carlile immediately started publishing a new journal, The Republican, which survived until 1826. He says “The Habeas Corpus Act being suspended … all was terror and alarm, but I take credit to myself in defeating the effect of these two Acts upon the Press… Of imprisonment I made sure, but I felt inclined to court it than to shrink from it”.
The government prosecuted Carlile for blasphemy and for selling seditious writings such as the writings of Thomas Paine. He was jailed for three years in October 1819, being sent to Dorchester gaol, but because he failed to pay a fine of £1500 Carlile actually served 6 years in total. He was not finally released until November 1825. In March 1820 a letter from “a few friends” in Leeds arrived with a subscription of 8 shillings. In July he received £20 from a group of journeyman flaxspinners in Leeds
When Jane visited her husband in prison in December 1819 she could scarcely speak for exhaustion, yet within a matter weeks she re-opened the shop and starting publishing the newspaper again, although under constant monitoring by the authorities Jane was t was charged with publishing a libel in The Republican on 16 June 1820 and tried on 19 January 1821. In court the Solicitor General said he regretted that a female should be the object of prosecution “but should not complain, after continuing to give to the world the mischevious work in question, after the warnings which she had received from previous prosecutions.”
Jane was found guilty and on 3rd February she appeared in court for sentencing. She said
I have acted entirely from a sense of conjugal duty without consulting my own interest, or my own ideas, of right and wrong…I must be content to share his suffering, as I have shared his prosperity. For better or worse is the motto of the altar and I am happy in giving my husband this instance of my regard and affection. I have already suffered that can befall of wife and mother and I have to entreat your Lordships will not further agonize my mind by separating me from both husband and children,
She was sentenced to two years in Dorchester Gaol, joining Richard in a cell.
Carlile’s sister Mary now took over the publishing business until she too was jailed in July 1821 on charges of blasphemy for having published an Appendix to the Theological Works of Thomas Paine and also on charges of seditious libel for selling an essay by Carlile on the British constitution which he compared unfavourably with that of Spain..
Carlile, his wife and sister shared a prison cell. Carlile gave some details of their life in prison in the course a very long letter written to Henry Hunt on 20th February 1822. (Hunt also in prison in Ilchester, by the way.)
Here we are self, wife, and sister locked up in one room in which we have no alternative but to attend to every call of nature in the presence of each other, or by drawing a curtain across our little water-closet, and at dusk in the evening my sister is removed to a distant part of the Prison, where she is locked up in a small cell with an iron-bedstead to lie on, that is a fixture, and there is no room for another, and there she remains until nine o’clock the next morning, not being allowed to walk in the female felons’ yard for fear of corrupting them; such is the alleged precaution, and during this absence of hers from my apartment, the water-closet is closed up and unlocked when she returns.
Republican Women’s Support for Jane and Mary-Ann
Groups of women Republicans rallied to the cause of the imprisoned women.
The Female Reformers of Ashton wrote to Jane Carlile in September 1821, the letter being signed by Elizabeth Higson from the Flash Hall area of the town. She had hosted in her home a celebration of Hunt’s birthday in November 1820, Paine’s in January 1821 and Hunt’s again in November 1821. In her letter she expressed sympathy for Jane as “the first female victim of superstition and despotism” andnoted how the women “were forced to put our infant children to the drudgery and unhealthy employment of the cotton manufactory” in order to make ends meet, and even then they were left with “little more than necessaries”. She enclosed a £1 contributed by a number of fellow Republican
On 20th April 1822 the Female Republicans of Manchester wrote to Jane and Mary-Ann Carlile:
We the undersigned Females, possessing liberal principles and hearts of humanity towards our fellow females in the cause of liberty, now suffering confinement in Dorchester Gaol for advocating truth and reason, beg you to accept both our condolence and congratulations: to Mrs Carlile for doing what every honest and virtuous considers to be he duty, namely, to obey the voice of her husband, according with what every married women promises in her marriage ceremony, we offer our thanks for her good example…
It is the wish of the undersigned females, by subscribing their mites together, as far as their situation in a land of oppression and taxation will permit, first to shew a token of humanity and respect towards you; and in the second place, to convince our enemies that we approve of your conduct, and glory in your spirit, we are not ashamed to come forward and prove to the people of England that there are yet women possessed of common sense of reason. We abhor with detestation and protest that is injustice to persecute, imprison and rob under pretence of fine, any person for publishing his or her principles on any subject. We believe that free discussion on all subjects, both political and religious, is the right of every creature living; and every effort to destroy free discussion is oppressive and tyrannical.
The small trifle of £2 2s enclosed, we wish you to accept it as token of our regard to you for your past conduct; and also with our sincere wishes that Mrs Carlile may be brought through her approaching natural pain and sorrow with safety; and that you may rise triumphant over all your enemies, is the sincere wish of your Friends, signed on behalf of subscribers, Mary Ann Walker 9 Back-Piccadily Manchester
PS The Female Committee of Manchester received from the Friends of Bolton the following articles to forward to Mrs Carlile.The Republican,
The items included frocks and silk. Mary Walker was the leading light in this Manchester group and worked as a boot-closer along with her husband, William.
Jane and Mary-Ann Carlile replied to the women on 4th May:
Your comforting address, with the very pleasing presents that accompanied it, have been duly and thankfully received, and have added much to the satisfaction we previously felt in knowing that though imprisoned, we had done nothing to disgrace ourselves as females.
Mrs Carlile felt an expressible delight at the provision which you, in conjunction with her friends, the Republican Weavers of Bolton, have made for her yet unborn infant and pledges herself that each article of dress shall always have the preference to any she has provided herself, and shall be first worn…
Would you believe that if either of us walk out alone, during the hour we are allowed to walk, a man is appointed to watch us and dog us until we are locked up again. We are not only denied the satisfaction of sympathising with or relieving any poor female in this place, but we are forbidden to speak or give a compassionate look to any of them, and to effect this object we are always, when unlocked, under the watching of a sentinel.
The two women said that they wished the prison chaplain would attempt to convert them:
…as a matter of amusement for everything is a dull, and often painful sameness here. We find nothing to relieve that powerful curiousity which is not unjustly attributed to our sex….Were we to say we like imprisonment we should not speak the truth ; and being incessantly locked up with Mr Carlile, whose affairs and duties often require a sort of silence that is not most agreable to us, makes us feel it more than we otherewise would.
Elizabeth Gaunt from Manchester wrote to Jane on 29th April 1822. (Elizabeth had been arrested at Peterloo and imprisoned for a time.) In her letter Elizabeth explained that she was :
…one of those who witnessed the blood-stained field of Peterloo and suffered eleven days incarceration in one of the Boroughmongers’ Bastiles because I was exposed to the sabres of a ferocious Yeomanry Cavalry, whilst I was performing what then conceived and now conceive to have been my duty; and even after this, I anticipate the day that will free you from the trammels of our tyrants….
I beg your acceptance of this small present enclosed, being the work of my own hands, which I flatter myself will be more acceptable to you than if they were diamonds from a tyrant.
Jane replied to Elizabeth on 4th May:
My warmest thanks accept for the very handsome little Pair of Shoes you have been so kind to send me, of your own manufacture, and be assured that they shall be the first on the feet of my daily-expected infant, whose birth shall be announced to tye Female Republicans of Manchester as early as possible, if everything passes off as well as i hope.
My spirits and constitutional strength are good, or I should have everything to dread in such a place as this where humanity is marketable commodity, and where, what is worse, I am one of those excluded from the market place at any price.
My very close confinement has greatly augmented the sufferings of pregnancy, by my humane and very Reverend keepers have nothing but inveterate prejudices for my accommodation. Up this moment we are locked in one room and such seems likely to be the case at the momnet of my labour.
For the small presents of Cotton and Needles, which accompanied the Shoes, my thanks are offered wherever they came from.
The pleasure which is derived from such acts of kindness and affection from Females to whom I can only be known by name, is a complete balance to the mind from the pain of imprisonment… I was neither a politician nor theologian before my imprisonment, but a sentence for two years has roused feelings in me that I might never have otherwise possessed. I have been made to feel the neccessity of reforming the abuses of government; as ia am sure , that under a Representative System of Government no Woman would have been sent to Prison for Two Years, for publishing an assertion that tyrants ought to be treated as dangerous and destructive beasts of prey. I have been made to think it, as well as to publish it.
Jane gave birth on 4th June 1822 to a daughter, whom she named Hypatia after the Greek philosopher murdered by Christians in Alexandria in 415AD. Carlile later wrote “The season was particularly hot and with the addition of a nurse, and a constant fire, though we had two rooms by this time, made our situation very painful. We had no current of air and the rooms faced the sun.”
Jane was released in February 1823 and went to her father’s cottage near Southampton to collect her children.
On 17th February 1823 the Female Republicans in Manchester wrote again to Jane on her release:
Much esteemed sister
WE the undersigned Female Republicans of Manchester; in behalf of the whole, congratulate you on the expiration of the vindictive sentrenc eof imprisonment; and your liberation from the Christian Bastile of Dorchester after the lapse of 3 years imprisonment to your imprisonment to your brave husband, 2 years to yourself and 1 year to your sister; and after the blessings of Christianity which have since been bestowed on Rhodes, Boyle, Holmes, Tunbridge, and lastly our brave Mrs Wright, who has made such noble stand against the friends of kingcraft, priestcraft, superstition and delusion. After the comforts which you have received from the supporters of the humble Jesus; the members of those little Holy Alliances the Bridge Street Gang and the virtuous Vice Society, with the Bishop of Clogher at its head; after they had entered your house, seized upon everything that was calculated to male life comfortable, and left you and your new-born infant to languish and perish, for what they cared; after your frequent arrests, long imprisonment, and the inevitable dispersion of your infant family, to support what is blasphemously called the will of God; where is the person of common sense who will say, that Christianity is calculated to make people honest and happy ? …
The Female Republicans of Manchester have viewed, with an irrepressible delight and joyful sensation, the bold and heroic part which you have performed in encountering the band of Christian man-tigers and they hope as soon as you have settled your domestic affairs and can make it convenient, that you will bestow upon them the greatest honour you have in their power, viz. to visit Manchester where you will be welcome to the best that their humble situation in life will admit, luxuries are withheld from us for the consumption and gratification of our Tyrants, but if you will oblige us we hope to partake of something better than luxuries, a mental enjoyment, such as is preferred by every honest and considerate mind, and at all times agreeable to the virtuous female.
Mary Barlow, Rachel Thomson, Mary Walker, Ellen Bottomley, Martha Naseby, Mary Ann Telford, Nancy Wheeler, Ann Bottomley, Jane Gratrex, Abigail Longbottom, Mary Marshall, Ann Betty, Mary Williams, Mary Ann Rhodes
Jane replied from London on 24th February
I have read your address with pleasure and with grateful feelings, and respond to all its sentiments with approbation. I have returned to London from my family prison and am not ashamed to look any one of my persecutors in the face; conscious that the cause of my imprisonment was disreputable to none but those who enforced it.
I thank you for the invitation you have given me to visit Manchester, being fond of travelling, I should cheerfully accept it, did not my little family form an obstacle to my wishes. However, should I find it possible, in the course of the approaching spring or summer, to make arrangements for that purpose, I will not fail to apprise you of my capability and intention. I should feel it a pleasure to put my infant, Hypatia, into the hands of those who were so kind as to anticipate her birth by so many useful presents, and to return them thanks in person. At no period of my life did I ever fell so much delight as in unfolding the parcel which contained them, and I feel satisfied, that it could only be again equalled by the welcome I should find in stepping into each of your houses.
I think but little of luxuries, and much less of formalities and ceremonies; if I can come into the North of England, I shall not come as a stranger, but with the familiarity of a friend, a neighbour and an every day acquaintance.
A few months after her release, Jane Carlile set off for the north, accompanied by her four children, Richard, aged 12, Alfred, aged 11, Thomas Paine, aged 2, and baby Hypatia, aged 11 months.. She arrived in Manchester on 1th b9 May. A week later she went on to Leeds, then to Huddersfield and Liverpool. She had to return to Manchester after two of her children caught measles and ended up spending a month there.
She also went to Bolton where on 2nd September she was given 4 guineas by local Republicans “to assist in the herculean undertaking of cleaning the more than augean stables of Priestcraft and Statecraft” as wrote John Cameron to Carlile, adding:
I cannot conclude without expressing satisfaction at the pleasure we enjoyed from the company and conversation of Mrs. Carlile. We are extremely sorry that she could not stop longer with us, for in fact, Sir, she gained the affection and esteem of all parties who had the opportunity of being in her company – and to be plain with you, Sir, I think you have never done Mrs. Carlile that justice which she is intitled to, by her merit, for, from what we have seen, instead of a passive, she must have been a very active agent.
Jane finished her northern tour in Salford in early September where she met with the Salford Reading Group who gave her a sovereign raised from subscriptions which were listed in a letter published in The Republican on 30th September. Joseph Lawton wrote that they had given her the money as “ a small tribute of esteem for your having been as Mr Carlile observed a greater sufferer in your mind than himself for the cause of liberty and free discussion and who still bears with great fortitude the heart rending idea of being so far separated from your husband...”