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Dear Sisters of the Earth

Susannah Baker-Smith meets Irish actress, Dorothy Duffy, who plays her radical great-great-great-grandmother in Mike Leigh’s new film, Peterloo

The Peterloo Massacre was a turning point in radical politics but for the last 200 years it has been strangely overlooked. For me personally, Peterloo has a particular resonance, since my great-great-great-grandmother, a young working-class mother of five, Mary Fildes, was one of the 60 000 who gathered on 16th August 1819 in St Peter’s Fields in Manchester.

Mary was there as organiser of the Manchester Female Reform Society. She and the other women were dressed in their finest, waving flags and singing patriotic songs. But the white garments the Reformers wore to symbolise purity belied their overcrowded and filthy living conditions. They were close to starvation as wages had been cut over and over again by the factory owners. The working class had no representatives in Parliament, no voice. The women marched for the right to vote, if not for themselves, for their men.

They had brought their children, and picnic baskets, looking forward to a day out and some rousing speeches. Mary was invited to climb aboard the barouche of Henry Hunt, a radical of great renown, and as they entered the field on the edge of town, she was holding a large flag depicting a woman treading corruption underfoot.

According to all accounts, there was a holiday atmosphere; everyone was excited that Mr Hunt had come up from London to address the crowd. But the authorities, rattled by memories of the Revolution in France and recent rebellions in Ireland, were taking no chances. 

Shortly after Mary and the other speakers mounted the stage the local yeomanry surrounded the field and charged. The first casualty was a baby knocked from his mother’s arms. Next the 15th Hussar Cavalry Regiment galloped into the crowd, swords drawn. In the slaughter that ensued, men, women, and children were crushed, beaten and sabred. There was never an accurate record of the dead and wounded as the authorities sought to cover up the horror, but one witness, who had fought in the battle of Waterloo four years earlier described the carnage as even worse since the people had not the means to defend themselves. It hence became known as Peterloo.

In Mike Leigh’s film Mary Fildes is played by Dorothy Duffy, who comes from Derry. Shortly after seeing a preview of the film, I set off to Northern Ireland to interview her.

There is very little information about Mary, simply dates, births, deaths, so how did you go about making her into a character?

Well we know that Mary was born in Cork in 1789, the year of the French Revolution, and then you had the United Irishmen rebellion of 1798, so she was a child at a time of revolution and the fight for equality in Europe.

Early on I spent a month researching in England. At the Working Class Movement Library in Manchester, I discovered a relief committee had made a list of those injured at Peterloo and she was on it.

They listed her injuries?

Yes. She had been beaten around the head by one of the constables and had to abscond from her home for two weeks for fear of arrest.

‘Mrs Fildes (Mary): who carried the flag in Mr Hunt’s carriage and was wounded...was much beat by constables and leaped off the hustings when Mr Hunt was taken. Was obliged to absent herself a fortnight to avoid imprisonment...aged 27 with 5 children. £4 received in relief.’

Mrs G.Linnaeus Banks, The Manchester Man, (first published in 1876)

The family story is that she fell while trying to flee from the stage during the charge of the Hussars. Her petticoat caught on the hustings and as she was dangling there, a soldier galloped by and sabred her across the face.

We also discovered that story and that is how it is in the film.

You said that Peterloo reminds you of Bloody Sunday.

Yes and Mary reminds me of Bernadette Devlin, a civil rights leader here in Derry and the youngest politician ever elected to Westminster before Mhairi Black was elected in 2015.

Bernadette witnessed Bloody Sunday first hand. A week later she crossed the House of Commons floor and slapped Reginald Maulding, the conservative Home Secretary, across the face when he stated that the paratroopers had fired in self- defence. Afterwards, talking to the press she was asked ‘Do you regret bringing violence to the Houses of Parliament?’ She answered ‘The only thing I regret is not hitting him harder’.

Derry murals of Bernadette Devlin and the victims of Bloody Sunday by The Bogside Artists

Mary too was very young at Peterloo, about 27, and already a mother of 5 children, as well as an organiser of the Manchester Female Reformers. The way you play her in the film she is quite gentle, and that touched me because the only picture I have ever seen of her, a photograph taken when she was quite old, she looked so fierce.

It was just the way she came out. In our discussions about her character we decided that maybe she had taught at a Sunday school, because these women were trying to be respectable, they had to be in order to be taken seriously.

Mary was also pretty canny. Later on, she became a successful businesswoman to the extent that she was able to finance her grandson, Luke Fildes, to go to art school. I think that gives some clues to her character, she was a revolutionary spirit, entrepreneurial and open minded. Within a generation he is Sir Luke Fildes, royal painter, society portraitist, and friend to Charles Dickens. I think Mary would have been proud. Luke enjoyed his wealthy lifestyle, but his greatest works highlight the poverty and destitution he saw as he walked the streets of London.

I feel I know so little, but most of the family were more interested in Sir Luke Fildes. It was only when I found my father’s print of Peterloo, in which Mary is centre stage, that I began to ask questions. I suspect Sir Luke had to keep his radical grandmother quiet as he rose through society, and she got written out of family history.

Did you discover anything about Mary’s life after Peterloo in your research?

After Peterloo we know she became involved in the Chartist movement, and was even arrested later on for distributing pamphlets on birth control which opened her up to accusations of pornography in the press. There is also correspondence with Richard Carlile, the radical speaker, but then he starts to talk about atheism and free love.

And Mary wasn’t into that?

No. There were those who said the problems of the working classes came from too many children and that it was their own fault to which she objected but she came round to birth control.

Obviously she is a firm believer in women’s rights, but she is also anxious to be perceived as a respectable woman, and of course that fight has continued through history, women who speak up for their rights have often been depicted as loose. Look how resonant that remains today.

When the female reform societies began, cartoonists depicted them as prostitutes - after Peterloo there is even a letter Mary wrote to the newspaper thanking a man called Cobbett for defending them. When you look at the casualties after the massacre, a huge proportion were women, and the reaction to them was vicious. After the French Revolution there was such fear that women were going to take over; the whole fabric of society was seen to be at risk.

So what changes would Mary see now? Women have the vote, but still the fight for equality goes on.

When we were working on the film we sometimes got very depressed looking at the state of the world. As I said Bloody Sunday did keep coming up for me and I remembered Bernadette Devlin talking about that day, standing on the stage, seeing the army coming towards them and thinking ‘There is no way they will open fire on us’. The exact same thing happened at Peterloo : when the people saw the yeomanry coming towards them, they were saying to themselves ‘It’s fine, we are women and children there is no way they will harm us, not the local militia against local people’.

Is it hard not to be consumed by anger?

Well that is the choice : whether to go about it with peaceful means or violence. Coming from Northern Ireland I could understand the dilemma, even though it was 200 years ago. I got a strong sense that Mary was all about equality and empowering women. The Manchester Female Reformers address that was in the paper was almost certainly written by her. She was obviously a gifted orator.

Dear Sisters of the Earth,
It is with a spirit of peaceful consideration and due respect that we are induced to address you, upon the causes that have compelled us to associate together in aid of our suffering children, our dying parents, and the miserable partners of our woes... Our minds are filled with horror and despair, fearful, on each returning morn, the light of heaven should present to us the corpse of some of our famished offspring, or nearest kindred, which the more kind hand of death had released from the grasp of the oppressor... it is not possible therefore for us to submit to bear the ponderous weight of our chains any longer, but to use our endeavour to tear them asunder, and dash them in the face of our remorseless oppressors.

National Archives Transcript

I wonder how you found a way into her soul?

Maybe it’s an Irish thing but I think everyone has a song they would sing, so I like to imagine that for Mary too. One I chose was the Dressing of the Green, because it was around at that time, another is As I Roved Out. That’s important, to have a song that brings up the feelings.

Did you help choose the clothes? You really stood out in the film, she’s very pretty and takes care of her appearance.

I thought of my granny. They never had any money but she always looked her best. Mary had very little but there was a sense she was there representing not just these women but the working classes too. If they were to be sending people to Parliament it was important how they looked.

Henry Hunt obviously appreciated her, he commented ‘She was a remarkably good figure and well dressed, it was very justly considered that she added much to the beauty of the scene’.

These days when you hear of people having 8 children you think Oh god. But my granny had 14 and she was calm and strong. I look at my own family who all worked at the mill, there was a lot of poverty and injustice and so it was familiar. I remember people marching.

By the time of Peterloo Mary had either given birth to or was pregnant with her 6th child. She named her sons after Thomas Paine, another Henry Hunt, a third John Cartwright, there was even a Washington, so she named four children after radicals. The more I learned about her, the more I was convinced this woman was a Leo, and so I gave her my father’s birthday : 27th July - because you have to construct a fully- fleshed character - and then my daughter, who was due on 18th July, was born on the 27th July ! We have given her the middle name Mary because we loved the way she named her own children after radicals.

It sounds as if she’s in your DNA now.

Interview and Images
Susannah Baker-Smith