Illustration: Paloma Pedrera
2014 is the Year of Reading Women and there’s one woman in your book who has done more than most for publishing…
Susannah Wright opened an atheist and freethought bookshop in Nottingham in 1826. Much had been written about her life in London, her trial and imprisonment for blasphemous libel, but her subsequent return to Nottingham and the furore her bookshop created had been largely overlooked. She was born in Nottingham in 1792 as Sarah Godber, became a lace mender and embroiderer, and by 1815 was in London where she married. She had reprinted some writings by Richard Carlile who, along with his wife and sister, were already in jail for printing seditious and blasphemous publications.
Tell us about the court trial...
She defended herself and ignored the judge’s demands that she be quiet on more than one occasion. She was pregnant at the time and was temporarily sent to Newgate Jail for contempt where she gave birth in horrendous conditions. On returning to court for sentencing she still refused to accept the charges against her and again attacked the link between religion and the state. She was sentenced to eighteen months in jail at Cold Bath Prison in Clerkenwell.
Was printing blasphemous books common practice during this period or was she unique?
There were hundreds who were sent to prison for either printing, publishing or distributing books that were considered blasphemous during the early nineteenth century, but she was unique in being the only woman to be sent to prison on this charge. She was also important because she defended herself. She knew what she was up against because she had been in court to watch Carlile’s wife being tried and yet she persisted. She was a very courageous woman, particularly for daring to expose the links between religion and the state. When she came out of prison she returned to Nottingham to open a bookshop on Goose Gate.
What role did libraries play during this period?
There were very few libraries in the first half of the nineteenth century. Bromley House library was one of the first, but it was a place for the educated middle class at a time when most people had no more than basic reading skills. The Mechanics Institute, a philanthropic venture which never succeeded in fully reaching out to 'mechanics', was one of the first to open its doors to working men – not women – but it was an intimidating and expensive place to go. And they would not stock publications that dealt with religion or politics, and did not open on Sundays, the only free day that workers had to use a library.
Did this create the need for alternative forms of education?
Workers responded by opening 'operatives libraries', which dispensed with those restrictions, were run by workers themselves, and cost only a few pence to use. The first opened in 1835, which was set up at the Rancliffe Arms in Broad Marsh. The first book they bought was William Howitt’s History of Priestcraft. Howitt was not politically radical but he was a member of the Quakers, who were very hostile to the established Church of England, so it was a controversial choice for the prevailing attitudes of the time. The number one ethic for the operatives was that they got to choose their own books, and they made this clear from the outset.
How did illiterate workers self-educate?
There were newspaper readers in some of the pubs on Sundays. There were also newspaper readers at Chartist meetings in the 1840s. They would read from the Nottingham Review and the Northern Star. Newspapers were expensive because of the stamp duties imposed by the government to censor and restrict their circulation, so libraries and readings were the obvious places for people to go.
Whereabouts in the pub did the reading take place?
Most of the twelve pubs that had an operatives' library would probably have had upstairs rooms that they set aside for the library with seats and tables for reading. It appears that the landlords were sympathetic and probably didn’t charge rent but they derived income from readers buying beer. The libraries also had annual meetings of members followed by dancing and music, so the rooms in some pubs must have been quite large. When a landlord left one pub for another, the operatives’ library would usually relocate too. The only building that still survives as a pub is the Sir John Borlase Warren at Canning Circus.
Was Notts unique in having so many operatives’ libraries?
Peter Hoare, who has a specialised interest in the subject, believes that Nottingham is quite unique in the concept and scale of the operatives' libraries. The fact that they were mostly numbered suggests that they had some sort of mutual organisation, and they did also come together with Chartists and others to try to establish an Operatives' Hall, which would have disposed of the restrictions that private owners of halls imposed on who and what could take place on their premises. Chartists, socialists and irreligious 'infidels' had long experience of being banned from meeting places and having to meet in fields or yards.
Why was Nottingham so receptive to this form of self-education?
It probably had something to do with the fact that Nottingham had a rapidly growing population as well as very restricted boundaries. You could walk around the town boundary in under forty minutes. There were about 50,000 people who were living in the area of what we would call The Lace Market, Hockley and west of St Mary’s down to the Market Square. There were people almost living on top of each other among pubs, workshops and brothels. There were forty brothels on Long Row alone.There were three occupations that accounted for the majority of work: the lace trade, framework knitting and shoemaking, each of which had rudimentary trade union organisations. News spread fast, like-minded people knew where to meet, and stories of past struggles and triumphs would be passed down the generations.
This period saw the emergence of the Luddites and the burning down of the castle…Leading participants in all of these struggles were intelligent people, often self taught, keen to learn and spread enlightenment. They also took leading roles in struggles against religious dogmatism, for a free press, against stamp duties on newspapers, in the operatives' library movement, and in setting up co-operative societies. These were all expressions of a growing and confident working class, keen to cast aside the privileges of aristocracy and the stifling patronage of a – sometimes – well meaning middle class. This was what 'self help' was all about, doing it for themselves to their own standards and values.
Why City of Light?
Nottingham was a squalid city with poor living conditions and was anything but a city of light during the period I was writing about. It actually comes from a quotation from a film celebrating the Rochdale Pioneers of 1844, which epitomised an aspiration to a better life: “a city of light on a hill for all to see, free from poverty, crime and meanness.” It was an aspiration that is as relevant today as it was then.
City of Light: Chartism, Socialism, Co-operation - Nottingham 1844 is available from Loaf on a Stick Press for £7.99.