Mary Pritchard, the daughter of John Pritchard of Stockport, bookkeeper, and his wife, Ann Price Prichard, was born in about 1792. As her biographer Robert Poole pointed out: "Her birthplace was later given as Cork, although there are no known family connections to explain this. Her age in 1819 was given as twenty-seven, indicating a birth date of about 1792, though later statements of her age suggest a birth date of 1789." (1) At the age of 19 Mary married William Fildes (1789-1840), a reedmaker in Stockport, Lancashire, on 17th March, 1808. A reedmaker made weaving reeds - a reed is a comb-like device for 'beating' the weft thread into place as it is passed by the shuttle. (2)
William and Mary lived in the Manchester cotton quarter of Ancoats. They had eight children James (1808), Samuel (1809), George (1810), Robert (1815), Sarah (1816), Thomas (1818), Henry (1819) and John (1821). Being a passionate radical she named her last three sons after Thomas Paine, Henry Hunt and John Cartwright. (3)
In June 1819 the first Female Union was formed by Alice Kitchen in Blackburn. The next one was in Stockport. "We who form and constitute the Stockport Female Union Society, having reviewed for a considerable time past the apathy, and frequent insult of our oppressed countrymen, by those sordid and all-devouring fiends, the Borough-mongering Aristocracy, and in order to accelerate the emancipation of this suffering nation, we, do declare, that we will assist the Male Union formed in this town, with all the might and energy that we possess, and that we will adhere to the principles, etc., of the Male Union…and assist our Male friends to obtain legally, the long-lost Rights and Liberties of our country." (4)
On 20 July 1819, Mary Fildes established the Society of Female Reformers. She became president and in the first week after its formation over 1000 members joined. The organisation's flag had the figure of Justice on it. The Society of Female Reformers met in the Union Rooms, Manchester every Tuesday evening from six to nine o'clock. (5) It had its own flag "which showed a woman holding the scales of justice and treading the serpent of corruption underfoot." (6)
Ruth Mather has pointed out: "Female Reform Societies emerged in north-west England in the summer of 1819... and were immediately faced with the scorn and revulsion of the conservative press and caricaturists. Female Reformers were described as devoid of morals or religion, and depicted as revolutionary harridans or sexual objects, not to be taken seriously as political actors." (7)
Susanna Saxton, was the secretary of the Manchester Female Reformers and wrote several pamphlets on the need for parliamentary reform. The most popular was The Manchester Female Reformers Address to the Wives, Mothers, Sisters and Daughters of the Higher and Middling Classes of Society which was published on 20 July, 1819. It was later published in the Manchester Observer. Saxon argued that women's main role was to support their husbands in their struggle for universal male suffrage. They were also urged "to install into the minds of our children, a deep and rooted hatred of our corrupt and tyrannical rulers." (8)
However, as Sarah Irving has pointed out: "In these addresses the women, whilst expressing solidarity with men and asserting their right to comment publicly on political questions, made no claim for political rights for themselves, at least publicly. Their private thoughts are more difficult to discern as, unlike the men, none of the women later published political memoirs." (9)
In March 1819, Joseph Johnson, John Knight and James Wroe formed the Manchester Patriotic Union Society. All the leading radicals in Manchester joined the organisation. Johnson was appointed secretary and Wroe became treasurer. The main objective of this new organisation was to obtain parliamentary reform and during the summer of 1819 it was decided to invite Mary Fildes, Major John Cartwright, Henry Orator Hunt and Richard Carlile to speak at a public meeting in Manchester. The men were told that this was to be "a meeting of the county of Lancashire, than of Manchester alone. I think by good management the largest assembly may be procured that was ever seen in this country." Cartwright was unable to attend but Hunt and Carlile agreed and the meeting was arranged to take place at St. Peter's Field on 16th August. (10)
The local magistrates were concerned that such a substantial gathering of reformers might end in a riot. The magistrates therefore decided to arrange for a large number of soldiers to be in Manchester on the day of the meeting. This included four squadrons of cavalry of the 15th Hussars (600 men), several hundred infantrymen, the Cheshire Yeomanry Cavalry (400 men), a detachment of the Royal Horse Artillery and two six-pounder guns and the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry (120 men) and all Manchester's special constables (400 men).
At about 11.00 a.m. on 16th August, 1819 William Hulton, the chairman, and nine other magistrates met at Mr. Buxton's house in Mount Street that overlooked St. Peter's Field. Although there was no trouble the magistrates became concerned by the growing size of the crowd. Estimations concerning the size of the crowd vary but Hulton came to the conclusion that there were at least 50,000 people in St. Peter's Field by midday. Hulton therefore took the decision to send Edward Clayton, the Boroughreeve and the special constables to clear a path through the crowd. The 400 special constables were therefore ordered to form two continuous lines between the hustings where the speeches were to take place, and Mr. Buxton's house where the magistrates were staying. (11)
The main speakers at the meeting arrived at 1.20 p.m. Mary Fildes arrived with Henry 'Orator' Hunt. She sat next to the coachman, waving a handkerchief embroidered as a flag. Two other female activists, Elizabeth Gaunt and Sarah Hargreaves remained in the carriage while Fildes and Hunt climbed onto the constructed platform. (12) The plan was for her to read out an address "as wives, mothers, daughters" declaring their support for a radical reform of parliament, ending: "may our flag never be unfurled but in the cause of peace and reform, and then may a female's curse pursue the coward who deserts the standard". (13)
It was arranged that Fildes was to present male leaders with the symbolic "cap of liberty", an emblem with Saxon as well as French connotations. Fildes also gave Hunt the "colours" of the Manchester Female Reform Society. It has been pointed out that William Cobbett patronisingly equated this action with the role of queens at jousts in blessing the participants. (14)
At 1.30 p.m. the magistrates came to the conclusion that "the town was in great danger". Hulton therefore decided to instruct Joseph Nadin, Deputy Constable of Manchester, to arrest the other leaders of the demonstration who were now assembled on the platform. Nadin replied that this could not be done without the help of the military. Lieutenant Colonel George L'Estrange, the commander of the military forces in Manchester and Major Thomas Trafford, the commander of the Manchester & Salford Yeomanry, chose Captain Hugh Birley to carry out the order. Local eyewitnesses claimed that most of the sixty men who Birley led into St. Peter's Field were drunk. Birley later insisted that the troop's erratic behaviour was caused by the horses being afraid of the crowd. (15) Robert Poole has argued that the Manchester & Salford Yeomanry had "vowed to capture the Manchester colours after humiliating failures at meetings elsewhere." (16)
When Captain Hugh Birley and his men reached the hustings they attempted to arrest Mary Fildes, Henry Hunt, John Knight, Joseph Johnson, George Swift, John Saxton, John Tyas, John Moorhouse and Robert Wild. As well as the speakers and the organisers of the meeting, Birley also arrested the newspaper reporters on the hustings. John Edward Taylor reported: "A comparatively undisciplined body, led on by officers who had never had any experience in military affairs, and probably all under the influence both of personal fear and considerable political feeling of hostility, could not be expected to act either with coolness or discrimination; and accordingly, men, women, and children, constables, and Reformers, were equally exposed to their attacks." (17)
Some reports claimed that the Manchester & Salford Yeomanry attempted to murder Mary Fildes while arresting the leaders of the demonstration. According to the record of those injured, Fildes was "much beat by Constables & leaped off the Hustings when Mr Hunt was taken, and was obliged to absent herself a fortnight to avoid imprisonment". (18)
One eyewitness described how "Mrs. Fildes, hanging suspended by a nail which had caught her white dress, was slashed across her exposed body by one of the brave cavalry." (19) According to Mary Fildes's own petition to the House of Commons, she was beaten to the ground by a truncheon-wielding special constable who then wrenched the embroidered handkerchief from her. Shortly afterwards she was saved from another sabre cut by the upraised truncheon of a special constable who recognized her and "in making her way through the crowd, heard with horror the shrieks and cries of the dying and the wounded". (20)
Other female reformers including Elizabeth Gaunt, Sarah Hargreaves, and Mary Waterworth were arrested, possibly in mistake for Fildes. When her handkerchief-flag was displayed that evening as a trophy in the window of a local shop, it provoked riots which led to further casualties. The heavily pregnant woman, Elizabeth Gaunt was badly beaten and later thrown into the New Bailey Prison, where she was kept in solitary confinement and physically abused. (21)
Mary Fildes survived but at least 18 people were killed, of whom four were women. These were named as: Margaret Downes (sabred), Mary Heys (trampled by cavalry), Sarah Jones (truncheoned) and Martha Partington (crushed in a cellar). (16) Around a quarter of those injured were female; as women formed fewer than one in eight of those present, it seems that they were deliberately targeted. Two miscarriages and one premature birth were attributed to injuries on the field. (16a) Fildes, who was living at 3 Comet Street, went into hiding for a fortnight to avoid imprisonment. Eventually she was awarded 40/- (£2) by the Peterloo Relief Fund. (22)
Mary Fildes remained an active reformer. Her name featured prominently on an address from the Manchester female reformers to William Cobbett in late 1819 and on an address to the king's estranged wife Queen Caroline in 1820 which proclaimed: "As the chiefs of a cruel and corrupt system have levelled their menaces at you, so have the drawn sabres and the fixed bayonets of their armed satellites been brandished at us". (23)
In 1823 she received a package of leaflets giving explicit practical advice on birth control, with a request to pass them on to other married women. The anonymous sender was Francis Place and he suggested that they had originally come from Robert Carlile. According to Henry Hetherington she was arrested and charged with the distribution of pornography. (24)
Mary Fildes was also active in the Chartist movement. In 1833 Mary Fildes visited Heywood to launch a branch of the Female Political Union of the Working Classes. In 1843 two lectures which she gave on ‘War' in Chorlton-upon-Medlock were advertised in the Northern Star. Her sons James and John Cartwright Fildes were active Chartists in Salford. (25)
After the death of her husband she moved to Chester where she became the landlady of the Shrewsbury Arms in Frodsham Street. (26) In 1849 she inherited four small properties in Frodsham Street, Chester, from her aunt, Mary Price; she moved there to live in one of them with her mother, Ann." (27)
In the 1851 Mary Fildes was living with her mother Ann Brown (aged 89), and her grand-daughter Emma Fildes (aged 11), the daughter of George Fildes. In the Census returns Mary gives her place of birth as Manchester, Lancashire. (28)
At this time her son James, a former seaman, was living in Liverpool with his Irish Catholic wife and five children, moving house repeatedly. Three other children had died in infancy, and in 1854 Mary took her eleven-year-old grandson Samuel Luke Fildes from them to live with her in Chester. His mother later wrote, "you fancied that I did not care for you but Samuel that was a mistaken notion." (29) His son L. V. Fildes, claimed that his father was never told why he was "adopted" by his grandmother. (30)
According to David Croal Thomson his father had died and his mother had remarried. In 1857 he began attending evening classes in art at Chester's Mechanics' Institute. Although Mary Fildes initially disapproved of her grandson studying art, she supported him financially during his studies. (31)
Fildes shared his grandmother's concern for the poor and in 1869 joined the staff of the Graphic magazine, an illustrated weekly edited by the social reformer, William Luson Thomas. Fildes shared Thomas' belief in the power of visual images to change public opinion on subjects such as poverty and injustice. Thomas hoped that the images in the magazine would result in individual acts of charity and collective social action. (32)
Mary Fildes's last years seem to have been unsettled as she moved from her son Thomas Paine Fildes's house in Water Street, Manchester, to Tranmere, to lodgings in Chester, and finally back to Manchester where she owned property. During this time Samuel Luke Fildes sent her letters and postcards telling "of exhibitions in Liverpool, Vienna, and New York, celebratory dinners, and trips to the Alps." (33)
Mary Fildes of 74 Hamilton Street, Rochdale Road, Manchester, died on 3rd April 1876. She was buried on 6 April 1876 at St Luke's Church, Cheetham, Lancashire. Mary had effects valued at "under £100". In the Index of Wills in the National Probate Calendar, her grandson, Samuel Luke Fildes was named as her "sole Executor ". When Mary Fildes died her age was registered as "87" which indicates a birth year of 1789. (34)
At one of these meetings, which took place at Lydgate, in Saddleworth, and at which Bagguley, Drummond, Fitton, Haigh, and others were the principal speakers, I, in the course of an address, insisted on the right, and the propriety also, of females who were present at such assemblages voting by a show of hands for or against the resolutions. This was a new idea; and the women, who attended numerously on that bleak ridge, were mightily pleased with it. When the resolution was put the women held up their hands amid much laughter; and ever from that time females voted with the men at the Radical meetings.
Among the many schemes which now endanger the peace of our society, are some for the forming female political associations, to inculcate in the minds of mothers and of the rising generation a disrespect for parliament. One of these, it is alleged, has been formed in Blackburn, in this county!!!
Dear Sisters of the Earth. It is with a spirit of peaceful consideration and due respect that we are induced to address you, upon the causes that have compelled us to associate together in aid of our suffering children, our dying parents, and the miserable partners of our woes. Bereft, not only of that support, the calls of nature require for existence; but the balm of sweet repose hath long been a stranger to us. Our minds are filled with horror and despair, fearful, on each returning morn, the light of heaven should present to us the corpse of some of our famished offspring, or nearest kindred, which the more kind hand of death had released from the grasp of the oppressor. The Sabbath, which is set apart by the all-wise Creator for a day of rest, we are compelled to employ in repairing the tattered garments, to cover the nakedness of our forlorn and destitute families. Every succeeding night brings with it new terrors, so that we are sick of life, and weary of a world where poverty, wretchedness, tyranny, and injustice, have so long been permitted to reign amongst men.
Dear Sisters, we feel justified in stating, that under the oppressive system of Government that we now live, the same fate that hath overtaken us, must speedily be the lot of many of you; for it is said in the word of God, ‘Where the carcase is, there will the eagles be also'; and this we have proved to demonstration, that the lazy Borough mongering Eagles of destruction have nearly picked bare the bones of those who labour. You may then fairly anticipate, that when we are mixed with the silent dust, you will become the next victims of the voracious Borough Tyrants, who will chase you, in your turn, to misery and death, till at length, the middle and useful class of society, is swept, by their relentless hands, from the face of the creation.
From very mature and deliberate consideration, we are thoroughly convinced, that under the present system, the day is near at hand, when nothing will be found in our unhappy country but luxury, idleness, dissipation, and tyranny, on the one hand; and abject poverty, slavery, wretchedness, misery, and death, on the other. To avert these dreaded evils, it is your duty therefore to unite with us as speedily as possible; and to exert your influence with your fathers, your husbands, your sons, your relatives, and your friends, to join the Male Union for constitutionally demanding a Reform in their own House, viz. The Commons' House of Parliament; for we are now thoroughly convinced that for want of such timely Reform, the useful class of society has been reduced to its present degraded state – and that with such a reform, the English nation would not have been stamped with the indelible disgrace, of having been engaged in the late unjust, unnecessary, and destructive war, against the liberties of France, that closed its dreadful career on the crimson plains of Waterloo; where the blood of our fellow-creatures flowed in such mighty profusion, that the fertile earth seemed to blush at the outrage offered to the choicest works of heaven; and for a space of time was glutted with the polluted draught, till the Almighty, with a frown upon the aggressors, drew a veil over the dismal scene!
Let us now ask the cause of this dreadful carnage? Was it to gain immortal happiness for all mankind? Or, if possible, ‘was it for a nobler purpose?' Alas, no! The simple story is this, that all this dreadful slaughter was, in cold blood, committed for the purpose of placing upon the Throne of France, contrary to the people's interest and inclination, the present contemptible Louis, a man who had been living for years in this country in idleness, and wandering from one corner of the island to the other in cowardly and vagabond slothfulness and contempt. Let it be remembered at the same time, that this war, to reinstate this man, has tended to raise landed property threefold above its value, and to load our beloved country with such an insurmountable burden of Taxation, that is too intolerable to endure longer; it has nearly annihilated our once flourishing trade and commerce, and is now driving our merchants and manufacturers to poverty and degradation.
We call upon you therefore to join us with heart and hand, to exterminate tyranny and foul oppression from the face of our native country. It affords us pleasure to inform you, that numbers of your ranks have voluntarily mixed with us, who are fully determined, in defiance of the threats of the Borough mongers, to aid us in our just and constitutional career. Our enemies are resolved upon destroying the last vestige of the natural Rights of Man, and we are determined to establish it; for as well might they attempt to arrest the sun in the region of space, or stop the diurnal motion of the earth, as to impede the rapid progress of the enlightened friends to Liberty and Truth. The beam of angelic light that hath gone forth through the globe hath at length reached unto Man, and we are proud to say that the Female Reformers of Manchester have also caught its benign and heavenly influence; it is not possible therefore for us to submit to bear the ponderous weight of our chains any longer, but to use our endeavour to tear them asunder, and dash them in the face of our remorseless oppressors.
We can no longer bear to see numbers of our parents immured in workshops – our fathers separated from our mothers, in direct contradiction to the laws of God and the laws of man; our sons degraded below human nature, our husbands and little ones clothed in rags, and pining on the face of the earth! Dear Sisters, how could you bear to see the infant at the breast, drawing from you the remnant of your last blood, instead of the nourishment which nature requires; the only subsistence for yourselves being a draught of cold water? It would be criminal in us to disguise any longer the dreadful truth; for, in the midst of all these privations, if we were to hold our peace, the very trees of the forest, and stones of the valley, would justly cry out!
These are a few of the consequences resulting from the mad career of the Borough mongers' war, to say nothing of the thousands and tens of thousands that have been slain! The widows and orphans that have been left destitute and unprotected. The hyprocrital [sic] hireling will blasphemously tell you that these things are of divine ordinance; but in vain does he publish this to reason and common sense – the great Author of nature makes no distinction of persons – the rich and the poor are all alike to him; and surely the forked lightning, the awful thunder, the terrible earthquakes, and the howling and flaming volcanoes, are sufficient to chastise the most obdurate, without man becoming the oppressor of man. We close the disgusting scene; for language would infinitely fall short in painting the portrait of our woes in all their horrible deformities.
In conclusion, we earnestly entreat you to come forward – posterity will bless the names they see enrolled under the banners of Reform. Remember, that all good men were reformers in every age of the world. Noah was a reformer; he warned the people of their danger, but they paid no attention to him; Lot did in like manner, but the deluded people laughed him to scorn; the consequence was they were destroyed; all the Prophets were Reformers, and also the Apostles; so was the great Founder Christianity, he was the greatest reformer of all; and if Jesus Christ himself were to come upon the earth again, and to preach against the Church and the State in the same manner he did against the Jewish and heathen nations, his life would assuredly be sacrificed by the relentless hand of the Borough-Judases; for corruption, tyranny, and injustice, have reached their summit; and the bitter cup of oppression is now full to the brim.
A club of Female Reformers, amounting in numbers, according to our calculations, 150 came from Oldham; and another, not quite so numerous, from Royton. The first bore a white silk banner, by far the most elegant displayed during the day, inscribed 'Major Cartwright's Bill, Annual Parliaments, Universal Suffrage, and Vote by Ballot'. The females of Royton bore two red flags, the one inscribed 'Let us die like men, and not sold like slaves'; the other 'Annual Parliaments and Universal Suffrage'.
A group of women of Manchester, attracted by the crowd, came to the corner of the street where we had taken our post. They viewed the Oldham Female Reformers for some time with a look in which compassion and disgust was equally blended, and at last burst out into an indignant exclamation - "Go home to your families, and leave sike-like as these to your husbands and sons, who better understand them." The women who addressed them were of the lower order of life.
The Society drew up a further address to Henry Hunt, one of the principle speakers at the Peterloo meeting, which they had intended to present to him at the meeting on along with the Society's banner, which showed a woman holding the scales of justice and treading the serpent of corruption underfoot. The meeting was dispersed before this the presentation could take place and so the address was printed in the Manchester Observer.
In these addresses the women, whilst expressing solidarity with men and asserting their right to comment publicly on political questions, made no claim for political rights for themselves, at least publicly. Their private thoughts are more difficult to discern as, unlike the men, none of the women later published political memoirs.
Female Reform Societies emerged in north-west England in the summer of 1819, just over a month before the fateful meeting at St Peter's Fields, and were immediately faced with the scorn and revulsion of the conservative press and caricaturists. Female Reformers were described as devoid of morals or religion, and depicted as revolutionary harridans or sexual objects, not to be taken seriously as political actors. However, though the women-only groups were new, their interest in political issues was not. Women had been involved in bitter cotton industry strikes and food riots, and already attended and voted on motions at radical meetings. As they took to hustings at radical meetings, they drew on their experiences of social and economic injustice to argue that the franchise must be extended to working men to address issues of poverty and corruption.