Chartist women in Scotland

This page briefly outlines the political activities in which Chartist women took part, examines the extent of Female Chartist Associations in Scotland, and lists women known to have participated in Scottish Chartism.

Women played a significant part in Chartism. The Chartist movement was renowned for its social life, and within the family there was much over which women had control – for example, in the way children were cared for and brought up – which helped to define the politics of Chartism.

However, women were also highly visible, at least in the early years of Chartism, in public politics, in Scotland as in England and Wales. Jump to list of Women Chartists in Scotland.

There are few histories of the Chartist movement in Scotland and there has been only one major book on the subject in 40 years (Chartism in Scotland (Chartist Studies Series)); histories of women’s involvement in Chartism are fewer still, and it is only in recent years that historians have paid any attention to this topic in general Chartist histories.

Nevertheless, there were at least 23 Female Chartist Associations in Scotland at one time or another between 1838 and 1852 (see map), and this undoubtedly understates women’s involvement as membership of the National Charter Association, set up in 1840, was open to men and women alike.

In addition to setting up and running these organisations, women:

  • collected money for Chartist funds, collected signatures for petitions both on directly Chartist concerns and on wider issues, for example in opposition to the New Poor Law;
  • organised and attended soirees and other social events which combined entertainment and political speeches;
  • attended rallies either as individuals or as delegations from female suffrage organisations, and were often asked to make presentations to famous speakers;
  • were found in the pews of Chartist churches;
  • took part in strikes;
  • were involved in rioting, for example during the general strike of 1842 and following the Bradford rising of 1848;
  • joined the Chartist Land Company as individuals; and
  • contributed to the Chartist press (one of the most noteworthy contributors to the Red Republican being Helen Macfarlane, who provided the first English translation of the Communist Manifesto) and in a handful of known cases became Chartist lecturers.

Many also signed the great national Chartist petitions. Although there is no authoritative record of the number of women signing the first petition in 1839, in Ashton-under-Lyne, Carlisle and Wednesdbury, the proportion was as high as 20%.

Little is known specifically about Scottish Female Chartist Associations, but Jutta Schwarzkopf in her book on Women in the Chartist Movement (St Martin’s Press, 1991) outlines what is known of the organisation of such associations more generally.

FCAs had a committee consisting of a president , chairwoman (a term used by Chartists), secretary and treasurer. They held weekly meetings, sometimes at a member’s house or Chartist meeting rooms, to enrol members, discuss national and local issues and activities, and to pass resolutions.

Additionally, general meetings were held, sometimes jointly with the Working Men’s Association, which were open to non-members and where the tenets of Chartism could be explained and guest speakers heard. FCAs routinely took part in Chartist demonstrations with their own banners.

Some FCAs could be substantial organisations. A group of female radicals founded at Kirriemuir was reported by the True Scotsman newspaper (22 December, 1838) to have 330 members, while the FCA at Hawick had 168 (True Scotsman, 9 March, 1839).

If it is difficult to find information on women’s activities collectively in Scottish Chartism, then finding out about individual Chartist women can be harder still.

All too often, newspapers reported male speakers (and even chairs) at female Chartist association events but failed to name a single woman. Where women are named, a first name is seldom recorded – making it difficult to confirm their identity from other sources or to be sure whether a “Mrs Smith” speaking at two events is the same individual.

Even so, a substantial start on the work of identifying women Chartists in Scotland has been made by Sue John. The results of her trawl through newspapers and other sources are shown in the table below.

The table below was compiled by Sue John, and is reproduced here with her kind permission. Email Sue John at sue.john@womenslibrary.org.uk.

Chartist women in Scotland

First name / titleSurnameLocationActivitySource
MissAitkenGlasgowProvided the reading at a soiree held at the Glasgow Chartist ChurchJones, David, (1983), “Women and Chartism”,History: the Journal of the Historical Association , Vol. 68 No. 224, p.19
MrsAngusAberdeenSpoke at the meeting of Female Radical Association, held on 29th April 1839 at the Temperance Hotel, AberdeenThe True Scotsman , 11th May 1839
MrsBarclayMontroseChairwoman of the Female Political Union, letter published in The True ScotsmanThe True Scotsman , 30th March 1839
MrsCollieDunfermlineAddressed a ‘physical-force' meeting in honour of White, Collins et al, delivered a speech and sang. Interpreted as an incitementScots Times , 11th November 1840
MrsColvilleKirriemuirChaired a Female Political Union soireeThe True Scotsman , 16th February 1839
MrsCullenGorbalsRepresented a deputation to a ‘soiree' in honour of Collins, McDouall and White in Glasgow, held at the Chartist Christian Church on 21st September 1840, with a crowd of 1,800The True Scotsman , 3rd October 1840
MrsDonaldPaisleyNominated for Female Radical Association presidency and electedPaisley Advertiser. 4 May 1839
Miss MEdwardsAberdeenChairwoman of the Female Radical AssociationThe True Scotsman , 11th May 1839
MrsErskineGorbalsRepresented a deputation to a ‘soiree' in honour of Collins, McDouall and White in Glasgow, held at the Chartist Christian Church on 21st September 1840, with a crowd of 1,800The True Scotsman , 3rd October 1840
Miss MFindlayAberdeenSecretary of the Female Radical Association. Spoke at the meeting of Female Radical Association, held on 29th April 1839 at the Temperance Hotel, AberdeenThe True Scotsman , 11th May 1839
MissFraserEdinburghDaughters of John Fraser, radical and Chartist. The ‘Misses Fraser' sang at musical lectures given by their father, regularly reviewed by the Chartist pressBriggs, Asa, (ed), (1967), Chartist Studies. London , Macmillan. The True Scotsman , 2nd May 1840, 30th May 1840, 27th March 1841
Miss MaryGrahamGorbalsRepresented a deputation to a ‘soiree' in honour of Collins, McDouall and White in Glasgow, held at the Chartist Christian Church on 21st September 1840, with a crowd of 1,800The True Scotsman, 3rd October 1840
IsabelGunnBridgetonReferred to as their ‘indefatigable, virtuous and intelligent chairwoman' at a meeting on 17th June 1839The True Scotsman, 29 th June 1839
MissHardieSt, Ninians, StirlingSecretary, Female Political UnionThe True Scotsman , 2nd February 1839
Miss CHaySinclairtownAddressed a meeting, aged17, introduced as one ‘who eats, or rather earns, her bread by the sweat of her brow'. Born c.1822The True Scotsman , 9th March 1839
MrsHendersonKirkcaldyPresented richly embroidered silk scarves to Mr Collins and Mr Lovell on behalf of the females of Kirkcaldy, 1,000 people attendingScots Times, 11th November 1840
Miss AnnHorneAlloaPresented a tartan plaid to Mrs CollinsScots Times , 11th November 1840
Elizabeth HunterClackmannanA collier, imprisoned for 6 months for her role in instigating and leading disturbances in Clackmannan. Related to James Hunter, whose arrest led to these disturbancesWright, Leslie C., (1953), Scottish Chartism. Edinburgh, Oliver and Boyd Ltd.p.148
Miss MJohnstonAberdeenChaired and spoke at the meeting of Female Radical Association, held on 29th April 1839 at the Temperance Hotel, AberdeenThe True Scotsman, 11th May 1839
Mrs LeggeAberdeenMrs Legge led a small group of female Chartists who wanted votes for all adults, and not just for men. Wife of James Legge, stonemason, first chairman of the Aberdeen Charter UnionThe Voice of Radicalism (University of Abderdeen). http://www.abdn.ac.uk/radicalism/chartism.shtml accessed 24 Nov 2015
Miss AgnesLennoxGorbalsChairwoman of the Gorbals FCA. Denounced as ‘Miss Impudence' and ‘a Brazen-faced Jade' in the Glasgow Constitutional.Glasgow Constitutional , 20th November 1839; Scottish Patriot, 14th and 21st December 1839; 11th and 27th January 1840; 2nd May 1840
Miss HelenLennoxGorbalsRepresented a deputation to a ‘soiree' in honour of Collins, McDouall and White in Glasgow, held at the Chartist Christian Church on 21st September 1840, with a The True Scotsman , 3rd October 1840
MissLindsayCalton and Mile EndRepresented a deputation to a ‘soiree' in honour of Collins, McDouall and White in Glasgow, held at the Chartist Christian Church on 21st September 1840, with a crowd of 1,800The True Scotsman , 3rd October 1840
MissMcDonaldGlasgowProvided the songs at a soiree held at the Glasgow Chartist ChurchJones, David, (1983), “Women and Chartism”, History: the Journal of the Historical Association , Vol. 68 No. 224, p.19
Miss HelenHutchensenAlloaPresented a tartan plaid to Mr George WhiteScots Times , 11 th November 1840
MissMackayCalton and Mile EndFemale Chartist Association. Address delivered on 9th December 1840Scots Times , 30th December 1840
Mrs McNicolPaisleyNominated for Female Radical Association presidencyPaisley Advertiser. 4 May 1839
MissMcWhirterKirkcaldyPresented a richly embroidered silk scarf to Mr White on behalf of the females of Kirkcaldy, 1,000 people attendingScots Times, 11th November 1840
JaneMorrisonKilliemuirChaired the first meeting of the Female Political Union, with 330 members attendingThe True Scotsman, 22 December 1838
MissMuirCalton and Mile End1. Represented a deputation to a ‘soiree' in honour of Collins, McDouall and White in Glasgow, held at the Chartist Christian Church on 21st September 1840, with a crowd of 1,800. Long speech delivered on 11 November 1840.1. The True Scotsman , 3rd October 1840. 2. Scots Times , 18th November 1840
MrsOgilvieAberdeenTreasurer of the Female Radical AssociationThe True Scotsman , 11th May 1839
AnnPawsonAlvaSecretary, Female Chartist Association (?)Scottish Patriot, 20 July 1839
Miss MargaretRobertsonMontroseTreasurer, Female Political UnionThe True Scotsman , 30th March 1839
MissRossGorbalsRepresented a deputation to a ‘soiree' in honour of Collins, McDouall and White in Glasgow, held at the Chartist Christian Church on 21st September 1840, with a crowd of 1,800. Daughter of George Ross, Treasurer of the Universal Suffrage Central Committee for Scotland, 1839-1842The True Scotsman, 3rd October 1840
MrsShieldsPaisleyNominated for Female Radical Association presidencyPaisley Advertiser. 4 May 1839
CatherineSmithClackmannanA collier, imprisoned for 6 months for her role in instigating and leading disturbances in ClackmannanWright, Leslie C., (1953), Scottish Chartism . Edinburgh, Oliver and Boyd Ltd. p.148
Mrs WSmithKilmarnockPresident, Female Political UnionThe True Scotsman , 20th April 1839
Miss ElizabethThompsonAlloaPresented a tartan plaid to Mr Abram DuncanScots Times , 11th November 1840
Miss JessieThomsonMarkinchPresented a silk handkerchief and pair of gloves to Mr John Collins on behalf of the females of Rothes Paper MillsScots Times , 11th November 1840
MrsWatsonEdinburghKnown as one of the keenest fundraisers for the Chartist causeJones, David, (1983), “Women and Chartism”,History: the Journal of the Historical Association , Vol. 68 No. 224
Miss MaryWatsonAlloaPresented a tartan plaid to Mr John CollinsScots Times , 11th November 1840
MrsWattsAlvaChairwoman, Female Chartist AssociationScottish Patriot, 20 July 1839
Mrs WilsonMarkinchPresented a silk handkerchief and pair of gloves to Mr White on behalf of the females of Balgonie BleachfieldScots Times, 11th November 1840
HelenYuillClackmannanA collier, imprisoned for 8 months for her role in instigating and leading disturbances in ClackmannanWright, Leslie C., (1953), Scottish Chartism . Edinburgh, Oliver and Boyd Ltd. p.148