Before I start this post, I should point out that Samuel Bamford has been one of the most important men in my life for some time now. I first met him in my undergraduate years – he was introduced by my then supervisor, Professor Robert Poole, who has worked extensively on Bamford’s life and career –and he’s made appearances in almost everything I’ve worked on since. For anyone who isn’t aware of him, Bamford was a Lancashire weaver, who rose to prominence for his key role in local reformist politics in the period after the Napoleonic Wars. His memoirs are one of the key sources for historians of popular working class politics in this period, and were used extensively in E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Class. But the interest in Bamford’s work goes way beyond a study of working-class politics. His autobiographies, diaries, poems and books of walks also paint a vibrant and often humorous picture of the everyday and the extraordinary in Lancashire life during his long and productive life. They convey Bamford’s wonderful personality – sometimes mischievous, sometimes curmudgeonly, proud, stubborn, dedicated and capable of great love and passion. Which leads me to the main point of this post, in which I want to talk about one of my all-time favourite love stories – that of Samuel and Jemima Bamford, and its importance for his political career.
Samuel and Jemima met in their childhood in Middleton, near Manchester, when both were charged with the task of fetching milk home from the local dairy. In his Early Days, Bamford recalled his ‘most constant attendant on these occasions…a little, smiling, rosy-cheeked child…a kind of little human-cherry bud.’ He felt protective of his companion, but little more. However, Mima (as her husband always called her) was smitten from the off, and was possibly the mystery creator of a Valentine which caused much embarrassment to the young Samuel, featuring ‘Cupids, and darts, and bars of love, and birds and chains, and bleeding hearts, all cut out and coloured’. Later, Bamford was to reciprocate with a Valentine of his own, and the pair were ‘united in heart’, at least temporarily. Bamford was not, in his youth, the most constant of suitors, frequently absent from Middleton in the cause of impetuously chasing both adventure and other women, and eventually hauled up before the parish authorities for an illegitimate child fathered with ‘a Yorkshire lass, as thoughtless as myself.’ Loyal Mima also fell pregnant by Bamford, during one of his intermittent returns to Middleton and to her. Fortunately, when he eventually saw that his dissolute lifestyle would be his ruin, and resolved to marry, his childhood sweetheart was still willing to accept him. On the day of their wedding, Bamford was presented with their child, ‘a being which was dearest to me of any in the world, save my wife’ and resolved that his life’s endeavour would be to compensate for the hurt he had caused them. But Mima’s great contribution did not end there, and throughout Bamford’s Passages in the Life of a Radical, in which he details his political career, the enormous worth of a supportive wife is continually evident.
Passages details the most turbulent years of Samuel Bamford’s life, in which he became a prominent figure in both local and national politics. It was Bamford who, at a meeting in London, converted the journalist William Cobbett to universal (rather than householder) suffrage, and he mixed with men such as Henry Hunt and Francis Burdett, the stars of the radical movement. All of this, however, took a toll on family life. Although he was later to write that ‘the industrious and poor man, best serves his country by doing his duty to his family at home’, Bamford was frequently forced on the run after 1818, when Habeas Corpus was suspended as part of a nationwide crackdown on political dissent. He and other fugitives would sneak back to their families at night, when ‘his wife would rush into his arms, his little ones would be about his knees, looking silent pleasure – for they, poor things, like nestling birds, had learned to be mute in danger.’ The strain on these wives, left with sole care of children in an atmosphere of fear and suspicion, not to mention economic hardship, must have been immense. As well as understanding her husband’s frequent absences, Jemima Bamford was a perfect political hostess. ‘My wife and myself, considered all persons as friends, who came to our house as reformers’, Bamford wrote, adding that she ‘never deemed any trouble too great, if bestowed for “the cause”’, taking as much care of guests as if they were her own relations. Jemima, who wrote her own chapter for Bamford’s memoirs on her experience of the Peterloo massacre, made little of her own radicalism. Women were involved in the movement on their own behalf, but Mima’s account focuses on her premonition of the meeting ending badly and her concern for her husband’s safety. Elsewhere, however, she can be seen bravely shouting ‘Hunt and liberty!’ at the soldiers who, not long after Peterloo, arrested Bamford in his home in the middle of the night. One of them threatened to blow her brains out, to which she defiantly responded ‘Blow away! Hunt and liberty! Hunt for ever!’ It was the soldiers who backed down, and Mima was later praised for her bravery by the veteran reformer Sir Charles Wolseley.
Most important, in Bamford’s account at least, is his wife’s presence as a constant reassurance, a source of hope even in the most hopeless of times. During his first period of imprisonment, the distraught cries of a recently bereaved mother reminded him of his own family, that ‘I still had something to be thankful for, – that I had yet a dove-nest in reserve… I retired to my ward for the night, contented with my lot.’ Upon beginning another jail term after Peterloo, he immortalised his feelings toward his wife in the poem ‘To Jemima’:‘I never will forget thee, love! Tho’ in a prison far I be; I never will forget thee love! And thou wilt remember me. I never will forget thee, love! When wakes on me the morning light; And thou shalt ever present be, When cometh down the cloud of night. I never will forget thee, love, When summer sheds the sultry ray; And thou shalt be my comforter, Amid the winter’s cheerless day. Oh! they may bind, but cannot break, This heart so, fondly full of thee; That liveth only for thy sake, And the high cause of libertie.’
By this point, Bamford was somewhat disillusioned with his radical comrades, and he felt slighted that friends and neighbours had offered so little assistance during his trial and imprisonment. Without Mima’s continued love and support, Bamford, whose health was also failing at this point, could easily have fallen into despair. Her visit during his illness allowed him ‘one true friend to converse with’, and so obviously lifted his spirits that Hunt and Sir Charles Wolseley vowed to finance her continued stay at Lincoln. Jemima Bamford’s tenacious love for her husband was a constant in a world that often seemed fickle and unfair, bolstering his courage in their shared convictions in the face of constant challenge. Passages in the Life of a Radical not only illustrates the political life of its author, but the personal one that made it possible. We can only imagine the countless other undocumented women, whose quiet encouragement and selflessness enabled their loved ones to be recorded for posterity as important players on a public stage, but I’m glad that Samuel Bamford was willing to show that behind at least one great man, there definitely was a great woman.
*Photographs of Samuel and Jemima Bamford from spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk and http://www.cottontimes.co.uk.