Sheffield, the road to Women’s rights

The birth of female activism

In the last budget the chancellor announced funding for the key cities involved in the fight for women’s suffrage which is being celebrated this year as it is the centenary of women getting the vote. Sheffield was not on the list.  Enquiries have found that this was because Sheffield Council did not apply. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised as the history of women activists in Sheffield is not one that is celebrated. There have been only two plaques put up to women in the city.  One at Kelham Island that recognises Enid Hattersley’s contribution and one to Adela Pankhurst in Malborough Road. Mary Ann Rawson’s grave lies in a forgotten graveyard till recently unkempt and was about to be tarmacked over. Most people till recently would be saying “Mary Ann who?”

You might think that having a woman council leader and a woman mayor might have changed things,  but women are not always the strongest arbiters of their own cause. Queen Victoria strangely saw women who had a political opinion as “un-natural” and women’s rights whether it be the vote, equal pay, or political spokesperson has a long history of being ignored or ridiculed. But the road to women’s activism which shook the world started in Sheffield.

In 1791 women abolitionists took to the newspapers and the streets to persuade people to avoid buying slave produced sugar. Estimates suggest that they persuaded 300’000 people to abandon sugar.  Possibly the first time ethical consumerism was used to make a political point. The size and strength of feeling demonstrated by these popular protests made even pro-slavery politicians consider the consequences of ignoring public opinion. One pro-slavery lobbyist of the time noted that the ‘Press teems with pamphlets upon the subject … The stream of popularity runs against us.’

Women discovered that the newspapers gave them a voice because a letter could be published in the paper anonymously, their speeches reported, their public statements published. In Sheffield the paper that helped enable the ordinary man or woman on the street to be heard was the Sheffield Register. The paper was run by Joseph and Winifred Gales. Winifred was a published novelist and poet. Some people think that she sometimes wrote the editorials. She seems to have supplied poems too. Her main job was running the Newspaper Office and she may have helped as copy editor for some of the less literate contributors. Joseph Gales certainly did. Both masters and workers had a great respect for the Gales. When Joseph had to flee from the country due to charges of insurrection being laid against him, the city moved to protect and Winifred and offered her financial aid to continue.  Despite being pressured by the authorities she carried on running the paper, turning away offers to buy it which she saw as a government plot to close the paper down.

Winifred arranged for the paper to be sold to James Montgomery with Joseph’s sisters having a small share. This arrangement no doubt angered the authorities who had hoped for the paper to be shut down. Winifred then packed her bags and took her children and a young apprentice on a perilous journey to Germany to meet up with her husband. The family settling in America where her husband and sons ran several newspapers. Winifred wrote a second novel. In effect the first American novel.

Hannah Kilham nee Spurr was born in 1774. Her mother died when she was 12 and her father when she was 14 . In 1798 she married Alexander Kilham the founder of the New Connexion Methodists, but became a widow soon after. In 1801 she joined the Society of Friends. She  supported herself and step daughter by teaching and helped set up two schools for the poor in Sheffield.  In 1817 she decided to go to Sierra Leone as a missionary teacher. She produced text books in several African languages and opened a number of schools

Christianity could be brought to Africa, she believed, only by African teachers educated to a high level in their own languages.  Before ever going to Africa she worked among the poor in near-famine conditions in Ireland, where she formulated two important principles: that it was as important to educate the children of poor people to feed them, and that no society could be satisfactory unless its poorest members could be consumers as well as workers.

On 26 October 1823 she set sail for the first time to Africa, heading for Gambia when she opened her first two African schools. Some of children she taught had been rescued from slave ships, and were so emaciated as to be practically walking skeletons but they were keen to learn. Without receiving children direct from a ship she said she would never have understood the full vileness of slavery. She went back to Britain to campaign for the education of freed slaves, maintaining that they could not thrive without education. She set up a large school in the Gambia for children rescued from the slave ships. She died while sailing to Sierra Leone in 1832 so never saw the abolition of the slave trade act enacted.

Mary Anne Rawson nee Reade  (1801-1887) was born to Joseph and Elizabeth Read, wealthy parents who encouraged her involvement with good causes. Her abiding interest from the mid-1820s to the 1850s was to lead the campaign for anti-slavery in the Sheffield area. Rawson was a founding member in 1825 of the Sheffield Female Anti-Slavery Society, which campaigned for the rights of the slaves in the British Empire The Sheffield society was the first Anti-Slavery Society to campaign not for a gradual and managed end, but an immediate end to slavery.  Following passage of the abolition legislation, the society formally ended in 1833.

In 1837 Rawson became secretary of the Sheffield Ladies Association for the Universal Abolition of Slavery, which continued the case for enslaved workers across the world. The anti-slavery organisations run by women were sometimes dismissed as of marginal interest, but recent research has revealed that these groups had a national impact.

Both Hannah Kilham and Mary Ann Rawson’s view of slavery stemmed from their deep religious views. Both worked substantially with the local poor as well as campaigning against slavery, but some felt that abolitionists were ignoring the harsh conditions at home.

On your altars petitions were laid for the abolition of slavery, and were numerously signed, even after divine service, on the Sabbath, in many places; let those altars be now consecrated to a not less holy project. Let the cry of the oppression at your own doors excite an interest, at least, as powerful as that which was called forth by the wrongs of strangers; and let us, at least, have one proof that you are not entirely dead to the claims of domestic misery, and the demands of most holy faith (Northern Star 28 May 1842)

The problems that arose from the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars together with new poor laws were felt especially by the women of the city. The Corn law which kept prices high and the boycott of American trade hit the people hard.

In 1812 a riot flared up across Sheffield and resulting in the local Militia’s arms being smashed up. Described as a petty thief Mary Gibbons was charged with theft and sentenced to several months in Wakefield jail.  Closer examination would seem to indicate that Mary Gibbons was working in concert with Leeds Luddites and was in fact the leader of the riot, but local authorities played down the whole riot, possibly because some of the militia had actually joined in. They said it was more about a hungry populace than insurrection. Not much is known about Mary other than she was 48 at the time, lived in Coalpit Lane now Cambridge Street and was wife to a file cutter.

In Manchester in 1819 a peaceful demonstration led by women protesting for electoral reform and against the Corn laws was attacked by cavalry resulting in the 10 deaths including four women and a child. In Sheffield the massacre was loudly condemned. So Sheffield women were not unaware of the risks of protest.

Women were under pressure because of the new poor laws which meant they had to pay to prosecute the father of their child for subsistence and consequently many women ended in the Workhouse. They called it the Bastille.  At the same time as Mary Ann Rawson was appealing to the “Christian women of Sheffield”  to consider the plight of the woman slave, other women were calling for universal suffrage.

In 1839 the Chartist women formed the Radical Female Association in Fig Tree Lane. A rallying speech was published in the paper.

Women of Sheffield-you are met, perhaps the first time in your lives, to consider the propriety of forming an Association to co-operate and assist your husbands and fathers, your sons and your brothers, in causing the People’s Charter to become the law of the land. Without any apology, I proceed to address you upon the importance of the great object you have in view. You are well aware that there are persons that will say that women have no right to interfere with politics; but I ask is it not high time that every individual in Great Britain, to whom God has imparted reason should immediately study the science of political economy, when it is stated in No. 4 of the Corn Law Circular, that there is one manufacturer in Manchester who has discharged no less than one thousand hands from his employment, who can neither pay school wage, rent, or taxes, and when there are shopkeepers and tradesmen becoming bankrupts, who were dependant upon the above- mentioned  unfortunate artisans for their support? Is it not also requisite, I ask, that every woman be conversant with political science, when there are thousands of hard-worked, half-fed, and half-clothed Factory children calling aloud for assistance to break the chains of slavery from their necks? Is it not the duty of every individual in the kingdom to join an Association which has for its object the attainment of the people’s Charter, when there are thousands of wretched and miserable females in this country obliged to commit vice prostitution, and crime of every description, or die in the streets, because their husbands and fathers for want of political power to compel the Legislature of this country to grant free trade, cannot support them as every man ought to be enabled to do out of the proceeds of his own hard labour and industry. Women of Sheffield! To you, then, I appeal. Shall this state of things exist? No! Methinks I hear a host of female voices exclaim, the atrocities of the new Poor Law, and the villainies of the old Corn Law, are of themselves sufficient to call forth the most energetic endeavours to gain the People’s Charter, in order that these and all other grievances may be immediately redressed! Would to God that the magistrates of this land, instead of sitting day by day, and week after week, to pass sentence upon culprit after culprit, would meet in one concentrated spot, and there and then consider the most efficient means of enabling every man in the United Kingdom to support, by his own honest industry, the children would then be a blessing onto him. Having thus given a few reasons out of the many which may be argued to induce you to make the most strenuous of endeavours to assist to obtain our most sacred and inalienable rights, I would impress upon you the necessity of  keeping peace, law and order, and of educating your children, by improving their moral powers, and cultivating their intellect, for I am persuaded the time is not far distant, when intelligence and honesty instead of wealth and property, will be the popular standard of all true greatness!

In conclusion I would remark, that with God to help us, and you to assist us the Bible and Justice on our side, neither Monarchy, Aristocracy, nor all the powers of earth or hell can or shall prevail against us. Remember our motto is, “United we stand-divided we fall.”

In Sheffield the women Chartists could not be called middle class.   Eliza Rooke born in Lincolnshire and married to a York confectioner who moved to Sheffield. Abiah Higginbotham daughter of a miller and whose husband was a Spring Knife Cutler, Eliza  Cavill whose husband was a file cutter and kept the Democratic Temperance Hotel, Kate Ash wife of a spring knife cutler. All their husbands were Chartists too but the women were more often quoted in the press than their husbands.  Across the country a third of all those signing the Charter were women.

Male Chartists were unsure about women getting the vote and they dropped the idea from the Charter feeling that it would only cloud the issue. In Sheffield however, it would seem that the men did still back the women. Perhaps in part this was due to the nature of the manufacturing in Sheffield which had a strong reliance on “little Mester” and the whole family being involved including wives, sisters and daughters.

Mr. Gill next vindicated the claims of the female sex to an equality of rights with the male, and concluded a lengthy and excellent speech by earnestly appealing to his hearers to labour to make it known the glorious principles of Chartism among their kindred and Kind.”  1841

Elsewhere in the country some were suggesting that the female chartist groups were coming to an end and they were glad. Many were worried by the connections with revolutionary France and America. In Sheffield the women shared a letter from French Women imprisoned for their campaigning. A moving letter that in publishing it many male commentators would have called foolish and meddling in international politics that women couldn’t possibly understand. It was not surprising that Flora Tristan, an engraver, and promoter of trade unionism for all would send her letter to Abiah Higginbotham, a spring knife cutler’s wife, secretary of the women’s political association.

The darkness of reaction has obscured the sun of 1848. Why? – because the storm, in overthrowing the throne and the scaffold, in breaking the chains of the black slave, had forgotten to break also the chain of woman-this pariah of humanity; for after, as before the revolution, she is nothing, and she can do nothing for herself; she is not reckoned as a member of society. She is without a name and a country – her name! It is the name of her master, or the father, or the husband. Her country, whether she be born on the banks of the Tagus, Ganges, Thames or the Seine, it is the country of her master; for she ever bears the law imposed by man.” 1851

As for folding up Sheffield women were coming out strongly with speeches like this.

Sisters we live in an age distinguished from all preceding times by the intellectual progress of the working classes; the industrious millions have began to think for themselves and have discovered that the great cause of all the evils that effect them is class legislation; a most important sign of the times is the wide-spread contempt with which the working classes now regard the trade of butchery and blood-spilling heretofore dignified with the title of the profession of arms. This augurs well for the future, and affords us a bright and buoyant hope that the time is not far distant when men will refuse to become the hired murderers of their fellow men and when the reign of violence and tyranny will give place to the empire of peace and justice. Sisters, we appeal to you to  help your brethren in their warfare against the despotism of class legislation, that we have equal rights and equal laws  by the establishment of the People’s Charter as the law of the land. In conclusion, we beg of you never to forget our petition, signed by three millions and a half of the starving people, spurned rejected by the proud aristocrats of England.”   Signed on behalf of the female Chartists of Sheffield.  Ann Harrison Chairwoman  1842


Many women worked as cutlers and file cutters with their husband or father, and many women took over the business when their husband died. An article discussing stopping women working in the file cutting business came to the conclusion that losing the 300 women in the trade would cause serious economic damage. Attitudes to women in Sheffield by authorities was mixed. A woman Mester  in 1847 who complained of being Rattened by a Union  man had her rights as a Mester upheld despite the Union man claiming she could not be a Mester as that was a man’s title.  In the same year an attempt was made to remove women from the File trade.

The File Trade- We regret to learn that this trade still remains in a very unsettled state, owing to the majority of the members to stop the working of women and girls at file cutting. There are now upwards of 200 so employed. Of those 170 are the wives and daughters of members of the trade and the rest are widows or orphans of members of the deceased.”


By 1865 the File trade recorded that over 1’600 women and boys were employed. At that time the File trade had the biggest Union in Sheffield although no women were allowed membership.   

In 1859 five women buffers were prosecuted for a walk out because of their employers violent attacks on Union men who tried to talk to the workers.. They  were described as five Foolish Virgins, despite the fact that they were all married and in their 30s ,and told to go back to work and serve their notice and not to be so foolish. Ironically their employer was the younger brother of Richard Otley a well known Sheffield Chartist.

In 1869 Miners wives from Handsworth were arrested and tried for rioting during a miner’s strike, but it was treated more as just tempers frayed. Women as a political force always had the problems of  being taken seriously.

As Chartist protest faded due to electoral reform and the abolition of the enforced high cost of corn , Chartist women in Sheffield regrouped and created a women’s political association. Its members were approached in that year by Anne Knight, a Quaker activist in the antislavery movement who had been at the same abolitionist conference as Mary Ann Rawson in London in 1840. She and Mary Ann were part of a very small female contingent allowed to be present, and despite being major campaigners were forbidden to speak.  Anne Knight became convinced that women had to have the vote in order to have their voices heard. She contacted a famous Sheffield chartist councillor named Isaac Ironside who put her in touch with Eliza Rook, one of the women who were on the committee of the women’s political association. She was well known to the women through her pamphlets on women’s suffrage.

Anne Knight encouraged  the women to rename it the Women’s Rights Association in 1851 and used her influence and her experience of public relations to help them successfully to petition parliament.

hope deferred maketh the heart sick,” and we have waited too long, cherished that hope too much, until we have found that we must organise independent of our brothers, and fight our own battle; and proud are we to say that our humble appearance on the field, and the few steps we have taken, have proved satisfactory, for the congratulations we continue to receive from various quarters embolden us to go forward in faith until the accomplishment of Universal Suffrage in its full extent is achieved. Although we agree in the Six Points, we feel convinced that the first obtained will open the road to all. As for your proposition of a seventh, I would rather dispense with it, for our humble abilities are but directed in a course which, if carried out, will not only do justice to us, but be  instrumental of much good to society. Abiah Higginbotham February 1851


“To the Honorable the Commons of Great Britain and Ireland, in Parliament assembled, the humble petition of the Female inhabitants of the Borough of Sheffield, in the Country of York, in public meeting assembled.

“SHEWETH,-That we the females of Sheffield do approach yourHonourable House will all due respect, to make known our desires and opinions upon a subject which we consider is a right withheld,-but which legitimately belongs to our sex –the enfranchisement of Women. Therefore, we beseech your Honourable House to take into your serious consideration the propriety of enacting an “Electoral Law,” which will include  ADULT FEMALES Within its provisions, and your petitions as in duty bound will ever pray.” Signed on behalf of the meeting,

Mrs Abiah Higginbottom, chairwoman.

In 1852 they appointed Anne Knight as their president and began linking other female political associations together becoming the National Women’s Rights Association. It took till 1918 that some women actually got the vote and another 10 years before all women got the vote.  Full recognition within the Trade Union movement took quite a while longer. In Present times women registering for the vote has dropped. With half the population of the UK being women. Perhaps Sheffield Council and other local politicians that have overlooked  our city’s history, need to realise the debt they owe to Women activists of Sheffield.

“Chartists who abandoned their sisters in their demand for Universal Suffrage and called that universal which was only half- that complete which is incomplete, and not merely a logical inaccuracy, but an injury in a political sense, as they have deserted the interests of the major part of the nation; and in so doing

” Rob us of that which enriches them,

  And makes us poor indeed.”                      Anne Knight 1851








Gales Family Papers 1815-1939 Gales Family Papers #2652-z, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.


The Heathen at Home and Overseas: The Middle Class and the Civilising Mission, Sheffield 1790-1843 by Alison A. Twells Submitted for the degree of DPhil, University of York, Department of History

September 1997

Memoir of the Late Hannah Kilham chiefly compiled from her Journal and edited by her daughter in law Sarah Biller of St Petersburg – London Darton and Harvey, Gracechurch Street 1837

Founding of Female Radical Association – The Sheffield  Iris, Tuesday, June 18th, 1839

Ann Harrison’s appeal to Queen Victoria – The Northern Star Saturday June 4th 1842

Women Buffer’s strike – supplement to the Sheffield and Rotherham Independent, June 11th 1859

Intimidation woman Scissor Manufacturer – Sheffield and Rotherham Independent January 2 1847

Women in Miners Strike Supplement to Sheffield and Rotherham Independent, Saturday September 13th 1879

Women’s Rights Association Petition – The Dundee Courier Wednesday, March 5, 1851

Anne Knight to be appointed president National Women’s Right’s Association -The Northern Star and National Trades Journal. Vol. XV. No. 748. London, Saturday, March 6th, 1852

Anne Knight’s appeal to Male Chartists –  Northern Star and Leeds Advertiser 29th March 1851

Appeal to the Christian Women of Sheffield – The Sheffield Independent Saturday January 20, 1838

Gill vindicates Female Suffrage – The Northern Star and Leeds General Advertiser Saturday 11 September 1841

French Women’s letter to  Abiah Higginbotham,   Reynolds’s Newspaper June 21st 1851

Newspaper articles accessed through British Newspaper Archives