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

 

Turbulent London on Film: Save Our Heritage

Winstan Whitter. Save Our Heritage, uploaded 2011, available at  https://vimeo.com/32541973

Winstan Whitter was a film-maker in the right place at the right time. A local boy, he filmed throughout the campaign to save the historic Four Aces Club and surrounding buildings in Dalston, Hackney from demolition and redevelopment. Save Our Heritage tells the story from start to finish, from when the the demolition signs first appeared, to the end of the campaign. The documentary is a compelling example of a single-issue social movement, and showcases a mixture of resistance tactics, some official, others less so. The film is particularly pertinent now, as people feel increasingly marginalised in London, thanks to gentrification and rising house prices. Save Our Heritage tells a story that feels very familiar; it is a detailed snapshot of a process that is going on all over the capital.

The narrative is strung together by interviews with Bill Parry-Davies, a founding member of OPEN Dalston (Organisation for Promotion of Environmental Needs), a “community-based company” of local residents and businesses which started campaigning in early 2005 for the improvement of the local area. Mr Parry-Davies is perhaps not what you would expect in a prominent member of a social movement; he is a well-dressed, well-spoken solicitor, and he brings a certain degree of respectability to the film which may surprise some.

Bill Parry-Davies

Bill Parry-Davies, solicitor and founding member of OPEN Dalston, features prominently in Save Our Heritage (Source: Save Our Heritage).

The film focuses on the campaign to save 4-12 Dalston Lane, which at the beginning of the film is threatened with demolition, largely because it had been neglected by its owners, Hackney Borough Council. The buildings included 2 listed Georgian houses and a circus built in 1886, which has since served as a theatre, cinema, and nightclub. As the Four Aces Club, it was a became a well-known centre for black music in London. The roof was removed in the 1990s, presumably with the full knowledge of Hackney Council, and never replaced. The interiors deteriorated, but the building remained structurally sound. In 2005, the Council began their attempts to demolish the buildings.

The film documents the entire campaign to save the buildings, including a public consultation campaign, alternative proposals, high court injunctions, an occupation (which began to restore the buildings and acted as a form of community centre),  a demonstration outside a Hackney council meeting (in which 5 minutes were allocated for ALL those wishing to oppose the development plans). The council’s chosen plans did not provide any facilities which OPEN claimed the community needed, such as affordable housing, cultural facilities, and open green space. To add insult to injury, it emerged that TFL needed  income from the site to plug a £19 million funding gap from their station development on an adjacent site, which meant that Hackney taxpayers were footing the bill for even more upmarket housing.

Dalston Occupation

A sign attached to the roof of the theatre building by the occupiers (Source: Save Our Heritage).

This is a one-sided account of the story; there is no one representing Hackney Council, TFL, or the developers to tell the other side of the story. Nonetheless, I think it is a well made and informative film, that tells this David and Goliath story in an interesting way. Save Our Heritage is well worth 37 minutes of your time, particularly if you are interested in gentrification and the transformation which London has been through in recent years. It would also make an excellent teaching resource; it is a fantastic record of a diverse and enthusiastic campaign.