‘Women with women’s hearts and women’s hands’: The Ladies’ Land League in the North East of England.

In the preface to her book Unmanageable Revolutionaries, Margaret Ward explained that it was not until the re-building of the nationalist movement in Ireland following the Easter Rising that nationalist women had ‘their demand for an equality of status at least partially accepted’.[1] Consequently, in 1919, Theresa Mason was able to join the leadership of the Irish Self-Determination League on Tyneside.

Previously, nationalist women in the North East of England, excluded from nationalist organisations whether constitutional or revolutionary, had been relegated to an auxiliary role, as the singers at nationalist events of ‘patriotic and soul-stirring songs of our native land’ [2] and as the donors of shillings for the relief of distress in Ireland or to support the families of Fenian prisoners.[3] And this was as much as they could aspire to.

Women, however, were not banned from attending nationalist events, especially where they could be noticed. Thus, at a demonstration on Newcastle’s Town Moor in 1869 to demand the release of Fenian prisoners, women wearing ‘scarfs of green ribbons’ processed behind the Irish harp flag bearing the motto ‘God Save Ireland’.[4] And women were positively encouraged to attend meetings in Newcastle of the National Brotherhood of St Patrick (an organisation credited as being the Irish Republican Brotherhood’s ‘chief recruiting ground’ in Britain)[5] for, as the branch secretary argued, ‘Surely… ours cannot be a secret society when we are so largely patronised by the fair sex’.[6]

During ‘moments of exceptional political crisis’,[7] however, this secondary role could – at least temporarily – be set aside, as during the Land War in Ireland in 1881, when the leaders of the Land League, including Charles Stuart Parnell, were arrested and the League proclaimed unlawful. Then the Ladies’ Land League, the first Irish nationalist women’s organisation, assumed the leadership of the movement.

Though this post is chiefly concerned with the Ladies’ Land League in the North East of England, a brief introduction to the Land War may be of use to some readers.

During the late 1870s, severe agricultural depression in Ireland led to widespread distress amongst tenant farmers and opposition, often violent, to the landlords, their rents and evictions. This was the Land War and, in October 1879, the Irish National Land League was formed by the Fenian Michael Davitt to coordinate that opposition.[8]

The British government’s uncompromising response to the agitation prompted widespread condemnation in Britain. Protest meetings were held across the North East and, in Gateshead, Michael Davitt, then awaiting trial, was welcomed ‘with martial strains of music and by cheering crowds’.[9] As arrests and evictions in Ireland mounted, so Land League branches multiplied across the North East, mobilising not only Irish but also English working-class anger against ‘the pernicious land system that crushed people down’.[10]

In January 1881, Davitt, fearing that the entire Land League leadership faced arrest, established the Ladies’ Land League to ensure that the movement survived. One of the new leaders was twenty-eight-year-old Anna Parnell, a sister of Charles Stuart Parnell, and she was to prove the organising inspiration behind the new League.[11]

Though the Ladies’ Land League was only publicly launched on 31 January 1881, a branch soon formed in Newcastle and held its first meeting in late February in the Irish Literary Institute in Clayton Street.[12] In the chair was Miss McGuinness, the branch’s first president, who enrolled 130 members during a ‘crowded’ meeting and so, for the first time, the region’s Irish women were officially part of nationalist politics and no longer simply auxiliaries. Other branches followed and there is a list of known North East Ladies’ Land League branches at the end of this post.

One of the North East’s most vibrant branches was in Jarrow and, through reports printed in local and Irish newspapers, the history of this branch will be used to tell the story of the Ladies’ Land League in this region.

In July 1881, the secretary of Jarrow’s Land League branch, received a letter from the Ladies’ Land League headquarters in Dublin, signed by Anna Parnell, encouraging the branch to facilitate the formation of a women’s branch in the town:

‘It is unnecessary to dwell on the advantages our organisation would derive from the cooperation of Irishwomen of England and Scotland, not only would they be able to collect funds to help in the support of evicted families and families of prisoners, but they could form centres for the dissemination of correct views on the Irish Question, and would have opportunities of reaching the ear and rousing the conscience of that minority of the English who really desire that the outrages practised on the defenceless human beings in this country should cease.’[13]

After some discussion, the men agreed, and so, on Sunday afternoon 14 August 1881, the inaugural meeting of the Jarrow branch of the Ladies’ Land League was held in the Irish Literary Institute in Monkton Road.[14] Sunday afternoon meetings must have proved difficult for members and so the weekly meeting was moved to Wednesday evenings. The members also decided to name the branch after Anna Parnell.[15]

In early summer 1881, the Ladies’ Land League’s executive in Dublin invited delegates from the Democratic Federation to see for themselves what was happening in Ireland.[16] One of the delegates was the working-class activist and suffragist Jessie Craigen,[17] who, on her return to England, embarked on a speaking tour to promote the League’s goal of ‘the ownership of the soil of Ireland by the Irish people’.[18] Jarrow women heard Jessie speak at Hebburn and were quick to invite her to their town.[19] Though Jarrow’s ‘Anna Parnell’ branch organised the public meeting for Jessie, when the meeting was reported, the platform in the Mechanics’ Hall was dominated by the men of the town’s Land League with their president, John O’Connor, in the chair. No Jarrow women were reported to have spoken.[20]

In October 1881, with events spiralling out of control in Ireland, the Land League was supressed and the leadership imprisoned.[21] Whilst this meant that the Ladies’ Land League now led the movement in Ireland, the arrests and suppression did not extend to Britain and both the men’s and women’s branches in Jarrow continued to meet. At the first meeting of the women’s branch after the arrests, twenty-eight new members were proposed and a resolution passed calling upon ‘the women of Jarrow with Irish hearts to come forward and identify themselves with us in our endeavours to keep flying the flag of the Ladies’ Irish National Land League and free our country from thraldom and the tyranny of foreign rule’.[22] The branch had also received a letter from Anna Parnell. She was going to visit Jarrow.[23]

Anna Parnell’s visit was booked for 24 November in the Mechanics’ Hall. There was to be a grand concert, as well as the guest of honour, and the Jarrow Express described the event as ‘one of the most enthusiastic gatherings of Irish people that has ever been held in Jarrow’.[24] Once again John O’Connor was in the chair, though on this occasion the women’s branch leadership was on the platform, along with local Catholic clergy and officers from neighbouring men’s and women’s branches. Unfortunately, Anna herself was still in Dublin, unavoidably detained with League business. The evening was saved, however, by Mrs Margaret Moore, one of Anna’s colleagues from Dublin, who described the work of the League in Ireland, and who urged all women present to join as ‘they were engaged in holy, womanly work, a work of charity – consoling the afflicted; feeding, clothing and sheltering the destitute’. She also added that, though the organisation was called the Ladies’ Land League ‘for the sake of euphony’, ‘it was women they wanted, not ladies, women with women’s hearts and women’s hands’.

A second attempt to speak in Jarrow on 20 December was thwarted when the Ladies’ Land League in Ireland was supressed and Anna was delayed in Dublin.[25] She eventually arrived in Jarrow at 11.30pm, after travelling for eighteen hours, only to find the hall empty and locked.

Anna’s third attempt to speak in Jarrow on 22 December was also dogged by delays and she did not arrive until after 10pm.[26] The hall, however, was still crowded and she was ‘loudly and enthusiastically cheered’, before she described the current situation in Ireland.[27]

The Ladies’ Land League in Jarrow remained active during the winter of 1881-82, raising money for evicted tenants and prisoners’ families, and endorsing Parnell’s call from Kilmainham prison for a rent strike:[28]

‘We heartly endorse the no-rent manifesto, and call upon our brethren at home to pay no rent or make no compromise with landlords till the suspects are released and the peasantry of Ireland are placed upon the footing of freemen, and not as serfs and slaves.’

Meanwhile, Parnell was, unbeknown to his sister and the Ladies’ Land League, negotiating with Gladstone’s government. In return for the prisoners’ release, the easing of coercion, and concessions for tenants, Parnell would disown the Land War.[29] In this new world, however, there would be no place for the Land Leagues and in August 1882 the Leagues were dissolved.

Whilst Parnell reasserted his control over the nationalist movement in Ireland, the Land Leagues in Britain were not supressed, and continued to function without direct control from Ireland. Even in the aftermath of the Phoenix Park killings in May 1882, when Land League leaders in England were implicated in the conspiracy, the Land League retained sufficient vigour to muster delegates from 200 branches for its convention in Manchester.[30] This convention also saw the League assert its independence with a new title – the Irish National Land and Labour League of Great Britain. This independence was, however, short-lived. In October, Parnell created a new organisation in Dublin, the Irish National League, and, early in 1883, he extended his control to Britain, when the Land and Labour League’s executive accepted affiliation to the new National League in Dublin, and the Irish National League of Great Britain was born.[31]

The Ladies’ Land League in the North East of England had no part to play in the new Irish National Land and Labour League of Great Britain and, without the leadership and energy of Anna Parnell and her associates, their slow decline began. In Jarrow, the women continued to meet, though their meetings changed from weekly to fortnightly,[32] until the branch no longer sent reports to the newspapers. And one of the last references to a women’s branch in the North East was in April 1883, when a donation from the Blyth, Bedlington and Bebside branch for the relief of distress in Ireland was acknowledged.[33]

Not until the advent of the Irish Self-Determination League in 1919, were women in the North East of England again able to play such a prominent part in the Irish nationalist movement. But who were these pioneering nationalist women of the Ladies’ Land League?

In Ireland, the leadership of the Ladies’ Land League has been identified as being largely drawn from the urban Catholic middle-class, though Anna Parnell, herself, was from the Protestant landed gentry.[34] But this was never going to be the case in the North East, where, even after decades of settlement, the majority of Irish people, whether Irish-born or increasingly of a later generation, remained working-class, and a middle-class, except in Newcastle, had yet to emerge.[35]

In the nineteenth century, there was no shortage of newspaper reports of nationalist organisations and almost all these reports list the key participants, usually men, but occasionally women. Positively identifying these women, however, is made difficult by the various spellings of their surnames; the lack of first names or initials; and the fact that people in rented accommodation rarely remained in one house or even district for long.

The Ladies’ Land League, however, coincided with the census taken on 3 April 1881 and this has been used to identify the leadership of Jarrow’s ‘Anna Parnell’ branch. When the branch was preparing for Anna’s visit that December, a presentation address was printed and, crucially, this bore the full names of the branch’s officers.[36]

  • Ellen Freeman, president, aged 40, born c.1841 in Ireland, her Irish-born husband was a labourer. Address Nixon Street, Jarrow.[37]
  • Margaret O’Hanlon, vice president, aged 29, born c.1852 in Ireland, her Irish-born husband was a general labourer. Address Hardwick Place, Jarrow.[38]
  • Annie Martin, secretary, aged 16, born c.1865 in Scotland, her Irish-born husband was a brick layer’s labourer. Address Back Tennant Street, Jarrow.[39]
  • Sarah Bradley, assistant secretary, aged 17, born c.1865 in Ireland, unmarried, her Irish-born father was a butcher. Address Grange Road, Jarrow.[40]
  • Mary Jane Short, treasurer, aged 25, born c.1856 in Scotland, unmarried, dressmaker, her Irish-born father was a shipyard labourer. Address Albion Street, Jarrow.[41]

These five working-class women in Jarrow, bar their race and gender, had little in common with Anna Parnell or the middle-class leadership in Dublin. They were all, however, members of the first nationalist organisation for Irish women, preparing the way for others to follow, even if it did take a further four decades before Irish women in the North East of England could join a nationalist organisation on the same terms as men.  

Ladies’ Land League branches in the North East of England

  • Bishop Auckland (The Nation, 17 December 1881)
  • Blyth, Bedlington & Bebside (Morpeth Herald, 28 January 1882)
  • Durham City (Freeman’s Journal, 1 February 1882)
  • Hebburn (The Nation, 26 March 1881)
  • Jarrow (South Shields Daily Gazette, 8 August 1881)
  • Newcastle upon Tyne (South Shields Daily Gazette, 24 February 1881)
  • South Shields (Freeman’s Journal, 20 April 1881)
  • Stockton on Tees (Freeman’s Journal, 11 January 1882)
  • Tow Law (United Ireland, 27 August 1881)
  • Walker (Jarrow Express & Tyneside Advertiser, 16 December 1881)
  • Wallsend (Freeman’s Journal, 1 February 1882)
  • Willington Quay (Jarrow Express & Tyneside Advertiser, 28 October 1881)

Note: Unless otherwise noted, all newspapers have been accessed from the British Newspaper Archive

[1] Margaret Ward, Unmanageable Revolutionaries: Women and Irish Nationalism (London, 1995), p.x.

[2] Flag of Ireland , 15 January 1870.

[3] The Irishman, 23 May 1863 & 28 April 1866.

[4] Newcastle Daily Journal, 25 October 1869.

[5] John Denvir, The Irish in Britain from the Earliest Times to the Fall and Death of Parnell (London, 1892), pp.178-179.

[6] The Irishman, 10 October 1863.

[7] Ward, Unmanageable Revolutionaries, p.2.

[8] R. V. Comerford, ‘The land war and the politics of distress, 1877-82’, in W. E. Vaughan (ed.), A New History of Ireland, vi, Ireland under the Union, 1870-1921 (Oxford, 2010), pp.26-52.

[9] Newcastle Weekly Courant, 28 November & 5 December 1879; The Nation, 6 December 1879.

[10] Morpeth Herald, 26 February 1881.

[11] See Danae O’Regan, ‘Anna & Fanny Parnell’, History Ireland, 7.1 (Spring, 1999), pp.37-41.

[12] The Nation, 5 March 1881.

[13] Sunderland Daily Echo, 28 July 1881.

[14] Jarrow Express & Tyneside Advertiser, 12 August 1881.

[15] Jarrow Express & Tyneside Advertiser, 26 August 1881.

[16] The (Social) Democratic Federation was Britain’s first Marxist political party. J Gardiner & N Wenborn (eds), The History Today Companion to British History (London, 1995), p.702.

[17] Jessie Craigen, Report on a visit to Ireland in the Summer of 1881 (Dublin 1882).

[18] Freeman’s Journal, 11 August 1881.

[19] Jarrow Express & Tyneside Advertiser, 30 September 1881.

[20] Jarrow Express & Tyneside Advertiser, 7 October 1881.

[21] D. George Boyce, Nationalism in Ireland, (London, 1991), pp.210-211. 

[22] Jarrow Express & Tyneside Advertiser, 4 November 1881.

[23] Anna Parnell also visited the Ladies’ Land League in Newcastle. Newcastle Courant, 9 September 1881.

[24] Jarrow Express & Tyneside Advertiser, 25 November 1881.

[25] Newcastle Daily Chronicle, 22 December 1881.

[26] Before her speech, Anna Parnell explained the reason for her delay, claiming (to laughter) that it was ‘as if all the trains were in the employment of the Government… Not one train was on time anywhere’.

[27] Newcastle Daily Chronicle, 23 December 1881.

[28] In January 1882, the Jarrow branch sent £4.2s to Dublin for the prisoners’ families. Jarrow Express & Tyneside Advertiser, 13 January 1882.

[29] Alan O’Day, Irish Home Rule 1867-1921 (Manchester, 1998), p.77.

[30] Freeman’s Journal, 14 August 1882.

[31] O’Day, Irish Home Rule, p.80; Freeman’s Journal, 29 January 1883.

[32] Jarrow Express & Tyneside Advertiser, 19 May 1882.

[33] United Ireland, 28 April 1883.

[34] Adrian N. Mulligan, “‘By a Thousand Ingenious Devices”: The Ladies’ Land League and the Development of Irish Nationalism’, Historical Geography, 37 (2009), pp.59 & 167.

[35] Joseph Keating, ‘The Tyneside Irish Brigade: History of its Origin and Development’, in Felix Lavery, Irish Heroes in the War (London, 1917), p.45.

[36] Jarrow Express & Tyneside Advertiser, 25 November 1881.

[37] 1881 England Census. Class: RG11; Piece: 5024; Folio: 17; Page: 28; GSU roll: 1342210.

[38] 1881 England Census. Class: RG11; Piece: 5037; Folio: 59; Page: 20; GSU roll: 1342214.

[39] 1881 England Census. Class: RG11; Piece: 5027; Folio: 54; Page: 49; GSU roll: 1342211.

[40] 1881 England Census. Class: RG11; Piece: 5022; Folio: 33; Page: 58; GSU roll: 1342210,

[41] 1881 England Census. Class RG11; Piece: 5022; Folio: 14; Page: 19; GSU roll: 1342210.

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