Mary Fildes

The Manchester Female Reform Group was formed in the summer of 1819. One of the main figures in the group was Mary Fildes. A passionate radical Mary named her two sons after John Cartwright and Henry Hunt. Fildes was also involved in the campaign for birth control and when she attempted to sell books on the subject she was accused in the local press of distributing pornography.

Fildes was one of the main speakers at the St. Peter's Field meeting on 16th August, 1819. Some reports claimed that the Manchester & Salford Yeomanry attempted to murder Fildes while arresting the leaders of the demonstration. 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." Although badly wounded Mary Fildes survived and continued her campaign for the vote.

The woman on the platform in the white dress is believed to be Mary Fildes.
The woman on the platform in the white dress is believed to be Mary Fildes.

In the 1830s and 1840s Mary Fildes was active in the Chartist movement. Fildes later moved to Chester where she ran the Shrewsbury Arms in Frodsham Street. She also adopted her grandson, Luke Fildes, who was later to become one of Britain's most successful artists.

Mary Fildes died in May 1875 while visiting friends in Manchester.

Primary Sources

(1) Samuel Bamford wrote about the involvement of women in the struggle for universal suffrage in his book Passage in the Life of a Radical.

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.

(2) The British Volunteer newspaper (10th July, 1819)

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!!!

(3) In his account inThe Times published on 19th August, 1819, John Tyas described the female reformers at St. Peter's Field.

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.