Turbulent Londoners: Eliza Sharples, 1803-1852

Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who contributed to the city’s contentious past, with a particular focus of women, whose contribution to history is often overlooked. My definition of ‘Londoner’ is quite loose, anyone who has played a role in protest in the city can be included. Any suggestions for future Turbulent Londoners posts are very welcome. The first Turbulent Londoner of 2019 is Eliza Sharples, radical speaker and partner of Richard Carlile.


Eliza Sharples

Eliza Sharples (1803-1852). This image comes from a biography of Richard Carlile written by the couple’s daughter, Theophilia (Source: The Battle of the Press, 1899).

To celebrate the centenary of the Representation of the People Act, which gave some women in the UK the right to vote, all of the Turbulent Londoners I featured during 2018 were involved in some way in the campaign to increase the political rights and responsibilities of women (See the Vote100 page for the full list). Most of them were active in the mid-to late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. The history of female radicalism in London goes back much further than that however. One such radical was Eliza Sharples, who was one of the first women to speak publicly on the topics of politics and religion.

Eliza Sharples was one of 6 children, born into a middle class manufacturing family in Bolton in 1803. She was well educated, attending boarding school until she was about 20. As a young woman, Eliza was both politically and religiously conservative. When the radical Richard Carlile (a prominent atheist who campaigned for universal suffrage and freedom of the press) visited Bolton in 1827, Eliza was unimpressed. After she met him at a dinner party in 1829 however, she became curious about the man and his politics. She began to read The Republican, the paper Carlile edited. In 1830 she began writing to him. Despite Carlile being married, they fell in love, and Eliza determined to share his work.

Carlile was imprisoned multiple times for publishing radical material. In 1831 he was sentenced to two and a half years in prison for seditious libel. The following January, Eliza moved to London and began visiting Carlile in prison. Carlile invited her to speak at the Blackfriars Rotunda, a venue he took over in 1831 and used for radical lectures and meetings. Other speakers included William Cobbett, Henry Hunt, and Robert Owen. Eliza gave her first lecture on 29th of January 1832; she was advertised as the first woman to speak publicly on politics and religion. She gave two lectures on Sundays, as well as Monday and Friday evenings. The Friday evening lectures were free, ensuring the venue remained accessible to the poorest Londoners. In her lectures, Eliza argued that Christianity was the main barrier to the dissemination of knowledge, and by restricting education, religion also limited freedom.

As well as lecturing, Eliza also ran the Blackfriars Rotunda, and edited a new weekly radical journal called Isis. She was also Carlile’s biggest supporter whilst he was in prison, visiting him regularly. In 1832 Carlile’s wife, Jane, moved out of the family home. The following April, Eliza gave birth to a son, named Richard Sharples. Carlile finally acknowledged his relationship with Eliza, announcing that they were in a ‘moral marriage.’ Throughout 1832 the audiences and income from the Rotunda fell, and Carlile had to close it in 1833.

Richard Carlile was released from prison in August 1833. The couple lived near Fleet Street. Their first son died of smallpox that October, but Eliza went on to have three more children: Julian Hibbert, Hypatia, and Theophila. Eliza accompanied Carlile on his lecture tours, although he became increasingly religious as time passed, which alienated him from other radicals.

Richard Carlile died on the 10th of February 1843. Eliza now had to provide for her family alone. For a while she took charge of the sewing room at Alcott House, a small utopian spiritual community in south-west London. She inherited some money from an aunt which allowed to set up on her own, renting apartments and doing needlework. In 1849 a public subscription helped her to establish a coffee house which doubled as a discussion room at 1 Warner Place on Hackney Road. She used this venue to advocate for radical thought and women’s rights. The business wasn’t profitable however and eventually shut down, just as the Blackfriars Rotunda had. Eliza died at her home at 12 George Street in Hackney on the 11th of January 1852.

Eliza Sharples may have dedicated herself to radical ideas because she fell in love, or she may have come to her radical beliefs regardless. Whatever her reasons, she was a dedicated and enthusiastic public speaker, at a time when it was very unusual for women to speak in public on any topic, let alone politics.

Sources and further reading

Parolin, Christina. Radical Spaces: Venues of Popular Politics in London, 1790-c.1845. Canberra: Australia National University E Press, 2010.

Royle, Edward. “Carlile, Elizabeth Sharples,” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Last modified 23rd September 2004, accessed 6th November 2018. Available  https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/38370 [requires subscription to access].

Simkin, John. “Elizabeth Sharples,” Spartacus Educational. Last modified January 2017, accessed 5th November 2018. Available at https://spartacus-educational.com/Elizabeth_Sharples.htm

Simkin, John. “Richard Carlile,” Spartacus Educational. Last modified January 2017, accessed 17th December 2018. Available at https://spartacus-educational.com/PRcarlile.htm

 

Manchester’s Protest Stickers: Brexit

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The bee is strongly associated with Manchester. This stenciled design is a clear symbol of support for the EU in the city (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Sometimes it feels as though we might be stuck in Brexit limbo forever. It’s been over two years since the EU Referendum, and we’re no closer to any kind of resolution. Brexit has been a topic of protest stickers since before the referendum. Manchester is one of the best cities I’ve been to for protest stickers, and I’ve found loads of Brexit stickers there, including ones that I haven’t seen anywhere else. I haven’t seen any of the stickers featured in this post anywhere other than Manchester, although if you have I would be very interested to know where!

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I found this sticker almost as soon as I stepped out of Manchester Piccadilly train station. I like stickers that use word play, and this sticker can be read two ways, depending on whether or not the reader replaces the stars with letters. Word play like this is amusing, but it also allows you to convey more meaning in a small space. This is an important consideration when it comes to protest stickers, which are often not much bigger than a credit card (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This sticker was produced by EU Flag Mafia, which was started after a photo of an EU flag hanging from a bridge on the M40 went viral. The website sells EU flags and other anti-Brexit merchandise. They are the producers of the florescent yellow “Bollocks to Brexit” stickers that can be found in most towns and cities around the UK (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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Part of this sticker has been removed, but it is still possible to make out what it says: “We were conned. Only the rich can afford Brexit.” The hashtag is #StopBrexit. This sticker is using the famous red, white, and black design that was popularised as I heart NYC, but has since spread to cities around the world (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This sticker also refers to the argument that the Leave Campaign made unsubstantiated, exaggerated, and even false claims in order to win the Brexit referendum. This is a key reason why many people feel that we need a second referendum (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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Like the previous one, this sticker has a design that is simple, but quite effective. It plays on the uncertainty surrounding the economic impact of Brexit. No one really knows what effect leaving the EU will have on our economy. This uncertainty is in itself damaging (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This sticker was perhaps designed to be worn by a person rather than a lamppost. A lot of British people, especially younger generations who grew up in the EU, identify as Europeans as well as British/English/Welsh/Scottish/Northern Irish (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This sticker is a variant of the ‘Smash Fascism’ motifs that are quite common on protest stickers. In this case, the EU is ‘smashing’ a swastika, a reference to the argument that the EU helps to maintain peace and democracy in Europe (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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Most protest stickers I come across related to Brexit are pro-Remain. I have found some pro-Brexit stickers however, such as this one. It was produced by the Leave means Leave campaign, which does pretty much what it says on the tin. Some people believe that Britain is better off out of the EU, and that our fortunes will improve once we leave (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This sticker is more basic in its design compared to the others so far. It is referring to the argument that Remainers should just accept the result of the referendum and by extension, Brexit. I find it hard to believe that Leavers would have quietly accepted the referendum result if they only lost by 2% of the vote, but there we go (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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Part of this sticker has been removed, but the top line probably said “Leave means Leave,” which has become quite a common motto over the last few years. It refers to the idea that we might end up with Brexit in name only; we will leave the EU, but very little will actually change. Most Leavers are opposed to this outcome (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This sticker has also had the top line of text removed. I am less sure about what it said though, perhaps “Brexit means Exit”? It is again referring to the idea that because the Leave campaign won the referendum, that should be the end of any debate or discussion over how to proceed (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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I thought it might be nice to end on a positive note. Whilst the design of the sticker implies that those who made it are pro-EU, the message is universal. There is no doubt that Brexit has been an incredibly divisive issue, and it may take a long time for UK politics to recover. However, an increasing number of people (including the Queen) are calling for the vitriol to be toned down, and for both sides to focus more on what we have in common than what divides us (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff by The Young’uns

Ballad of Johnny Longstaff Cover

The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff by The Young’uns.

The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff is the latest album by folk trio The Young’uns. The album tells the story of Johnny, a poor working-class man from Stockton who went to London on a hunger march when he was just 15. He took part in many of the protests and campaigns in the mid-1930s, including the Battle of Cable Street, and at the age of just 17 volunteered to fight in the Spanish Civil War. But The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff is much more than just an album. When performed live, it is a powerful combination of songs, oral history, and archival sources such as photos and newspapers. I went to see the performance on the first night of the tour, at Middleton Hall in Hull, East Yorkshire.

Folk fans know The Young’uns for their beautiful harmonies and political lyrics that don’t pull any punches. Some of their songs are hopeful, uplifting stories that restore faith in humanity. Others are angry, tragic, or defiant, but all of them are thoughtful. Like The Young’uns’ previous albums, the Ballad of Johnny Longstaff contains a mix of such songs. ‘The Great Tomorrow’ is a stirring tribute to international solidarity, ‘Paella’ is a comic song about Johnny encountering Spanish food for the first time, and ‘Ay Carmella’ is a poignant account of conditions in Spain during the Civil War. Interspersed with the songs are clips of Johnny himself talking about his life, and photos, newspaper articles, and other historical sources projected onto the back of the stage.

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The Young’uns performing The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff. The performance makes use of a range of historical sources, like this photo of Johnny and his friends before he left London to fight in the Spanish Civil War (Photo: Mike Ainscoe).

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Imperial War Museum recorded oral history interviews with many of those who had traveled from the UK to Spain as volunteers for the Spanish Republic. The interviews are all available online for anyone to listen to; I used some of them whilst researching the Battle of Cable Street during my PhD. Johnny Longstaff was one of the men who was interviewed. The Young’uns’ Sean Cooney became captivated by Johnny’s story after his son, Duncan, told them about his father at a gig in 2015. The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff was written with the aid of that interview, Johnny’s unpublished memoirs, his annotated collection of Spanish War literature, his personal collection of photos, and the memories and anecdotes of his family. It is an excellent example of the captivating stories that can be uncovered with meticulous archival and historical research, as well as the range of sources that can be used for this kind of biographical research.

As a historical geographer of protest, I already knew quite a bit about the events Johnny took part in, but I often wonder how much ‘ordinary’ people know. Leaving the auditorium, I listened to other audience members talking about the show. I heard several people saying things like “Well I knew about x, but I didn’t know y.” It was great to hear that people got so much out of it. I recently reviewed Mike Leigh’s 2018 film Peterloo, about the 1819 Peterloo massacre when soldiers in Manchester killed and injured dozens of peaceful protesters. The film is educational, but it is not very entertaining. The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff is both. It isn’t just a wonderful performance, it also educates people about the anti-fascist history of the second half of the 1930s. It is a great example of how creative methods can be used to make history accessible. The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff will undoubtedly reach more people than my PhD thesis ever will (having said that, I am more than happy to share my 400+ page beast if you would like to read it), and what is the point of doing such research if you can’t find a way to communicate the results with people? As far right groups gain popularity across the world, it seems more important than ever that we don’t forget this crucial period of European history.

To me, The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff is everything that good art should be. It is engaging, it teaches you something, and it makes you think. I don’t know if The Young’uns have any more performances planned, but I really hope so. It is a show that deserves to be seen.

Book Review: When the Clyde Ran Red- A Social History of Red Clydeside

When the Clyde ran Red

When the Clyde Ran Red by Maggie Craig.

Maggie Craig. When the Clyde Ran Red: A Social History of Red Clydeside. Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2018. RRP £9.99 paperback.

I don’t need much of an excuse to go book shopping, but traveling is one of them. Whenever I go somewhere new, I keep an eye out for books about local history, particularly relating to protest and dissent. On a recent trip to Scotland, I bought When the Clyde Ran Red: A Social History of Red Clydeside by Maggie Craig. The book tells the story of a period in Glasgow’s history known as Red Clydeside. In the first half of the twentieth century Glasgow and the surrounding areas experienced a period of radical politics which saw a number of dedicated campaigners fighting to improve the lives of working-class Glaswegians. When the Clyde Ran Red tells the story of Glasgow between the Singer Sewing Machine Factory strike in 1911 and the Clydebank Blitz in 1941.

Warm and witty, kind-hearted and generous, interested in everything and everyone, the spirited men and women of Red Clydeside had one goal they set above all things…to create a fair and just society, one in which the children of the poor had as much right as the children of the rich to good health, happiness, education and opportunity.

Craig, p. 301

When the Clyde Ran Red is an engaging and lively read, it is a book that I thoroughly enjoyed. Maggie Craig has an informal writing style, her prose peppered with phrases in Scots that helps to transport the reader to Glasgow in the first half of the twentieth century. The book is comprehensive, covering everything from party politics undertaken by idealistic and self-sacrificing men, to rent strikes organised by fierce and determined housewives. Craig also brings in social history, explaining the context of Red Clydeside by describing the social, economic, and cultural life of Glasgow. For example, the Scottish Exhibition (1911), the Empire Exhibition (1938) and the popularity of increasingly ‘raunchy’ dance styles as a form of social revolution.

I criticised the last book I reviewed, The Road Not Taken by Frank McLynn (LINK), for going into too much detail. Sometimes, When the Clyde Ran Red goes to far in the opposite direction. I occasionally found its lack of detail frustrating. For example, the Singer Sewing Machine Factory strike in 1911 failed, but Craig does not any offer explanations about what went wrong. There were several points where I just wanted more information. Nevertheless, I think the book is a good introduction to an area of history that I previously knew very little about, and I can always find more detail elsewhere about all the events featured if I wanted to. When the Clyde Ran Red is an excellent starting point.

I admit that my knowledge of Scottish history is patchy at best, but When the Clyde Ran Red was an enjoyable way of filling some of those gaps. I would recommend it to anyone interested in labour history, the history of protest, or Scottish history.