The Strong Women of Victorian Manchester

Visioning Lab are looking to produce a digital storytelling project to champion the histories of women in Victorian Manchester. This blog has been written by their Creative Producer & Storyteller, Ellie Andrews

By Karen Shannon · March 8, 2022

March 2022 marks the beginning of Women’s History Month, an opportunity to reflect on the women before us who paved the way for equality. Manchester is lucky enough to have a rich history of strong women, particularly those from the Victorian period. From renowned suffragettes, such as Emmeline Pankhurst, to the literary icon Elizabeth Gaskell, Manchester has been a hotbed for social dynamism and cultural revolution. However, behind them stood the lesser-known women, who fought for empowerment in their everyday lives, often with great personal sacrifice.

Below are just a few of the women to be featured in an upcoming digital storytelling project called The Strong Women of Victorian Manchester, which is currently fundraising on Kickstarter. The narrative will explore each historical figure and how their lives cross over and intersect. Using a choose-your-own-adventure format, readers will have the ability to select the destiny of each woman in this immersive experience.

Sarah Parker Remond

African American lecturer and abolitionist Sarah Parker Remond was born free in Massachusetts 1826 and became known as an agent of the American Anti-Slavery Society. As an international activist for human rights and women’s suffrage, she made her first speech against slavery when she was 16 years old. In 1859 she came to Lancashire to appeal to mill owners and cotton workers to support the US anti-slavery movement. She later spoke at a meeting presided over by the Mayor in the Manchester Athenaeum on the subject, where she delivered a rousing speech to mobilise the working-classes.

“When I walk through the streets of Manchester and meet load after load of cotton, I think of those 80,000 cotton plantations on which was grown the $125m worth of cotton which supply your market, and I remember that not one cent of that money ever reached the hands of the labourers.”

Mary Burns

Perhaps best known as the lifelong partner of German philosopher, Friedrich Engels, Mary Burns was a working-class Irish woman who is thought to have grown up in the Deansgate area. Whilst few details remain about her life, her impact on some of Engel’s major works are clear. She met Engels during his first stay in Manchester and is thought to have guided him through the worst districts in the region for his research on ‘The Condition of the Working Class in England’.  After the German revolution, Engels returned to England where they set up a formal home arrangement together, where they remained for the next 20 years. Burns died suddenly in 1863 at the age of 41, but her impact lives on vicariously through Engels’ seminar work.

One of the few references left that immortalise her in this poem written by the revolutionary German poet Georg Weerth, detailing Mary’s work at the markets.

“From Ireland with the tide she came,
She came from Tipperary:
“Oranges, fresh and good for sale”
So cried our lassie Mary.”

Anna Olga Alberta Brown (Miss LaLa)

Miss Lala was an expert circus acrobat whose star performance featured being hoisted to the roof of the Gaiety Theatre, Manchester and suspended by her teeth. Born in Poland to a black father and white mother, she began touring in 1867 at age 9 and became reputable for her flying trapeze and human cannon act.

Lala’s African and European ancestry were regularly exploited to create mystery and reinforce so called ‘exoticism’ in order to increase ticket sales. At the age of 21, she became of the muse of French impressionist Edgar Degas’s painting ‘Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando’. Despite quitting the circus in 1888, her legacy still lives on and the painting of her hangs high today, just like she did, as part of the collection at the National Gallery London.

Annie Horniman

Regarded as the Founder of the British repertory theatre movement, Annie Horniman used £25,000 of her family’s packet tea fortune to purchase Manchester’s Gaiety Theatre in 1908, with the intent of bringing classics and new locally written plays to the working-class audience. Horniman was noted for her celebrity status, extrovert behaviour, eccentric style of dressing, heavy smoking and interest in the astrology. She was a member of an occult group called the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and was noted for her daily use of tarot card readings. She embraced her love for the theatre, despite the disapproval of her wealthy family and actively shunned restrictive Victorian values.

Martha Partington

A passionate pro-democracy and anti-poverty protestor, Martha Partington was one of approximately eighteen victims of the Peterloo Massacre. On the 16th of August 1819, the mother-of-two marched from her home in King Street, Eccles to St Peter’s Field to support the Anti-Corn Laws movement. However, she sadly died whilst fleeing the scenes, having either been thrown or fallen into a cellar on Bridge Street. Her husband and children were reportedly awarded just £5 in relief.

The Peterloo Massacre resulted in over 700 serious injuries and remains a dark day in the city’s history. Whilst there were less women than men present at Peterloo, a disproportionate number of women were either attacked or injured, serving as a reminder of the brutality women faced for a cause they believed in.

The Strong Women of Victorian Manchester Kickstarter will be running through Women’s History Month 2022. You can help bring the project to life by making a pledge here.