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.
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