Transactions of the Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire

The Preston Cock, Adultery, Homophobia and the First Petition for Female Suffrage

Transactions of the Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire (2021), 170, (1), 53–67.

Abstract

Originally spurred by determination to bring the Manchester authorities to justice in the aftermath of the Peterloo massacre, Henry Hunt persisted in seeking to gain election for the popular constituency of Preston. Eventually successful in 1830, he entered parliament pledged to present every petition sent to him, including that from Mary Smith calling for female suffrage. Having provided a rational vindication of the rights of women, her petition descended into a diatribe against married men who indulged in homosexual acts to the despair of their suicidal wives. This was a thinly veiled reference to alleged goings on in the household of the radical journalist William Cobbett. This article seeks to place in context the allegations and subsequent heated controversy by examining the long-term relationship between Hunt and Cobbett, dating back to the early nineteenth century and their mutual conversion from loyalism to radicalism. Already strained by the longstanding animus of Cobbett’s wife towards Hunt on account of his adulterous domestic circumstances, the radical allies were increasingly at odds in the years after Peterloo, divided over political and personal issues in a bewildering and increasingly unrestrained manner. Jealous of Hunt’s electoral success at Preston and furious with his radical condemnation of the Reform Bill, Cobbett inveighed against the ‘Preston Cock’. Hunt responded in kind, repeating allegations soon taken up in Mary Smith’s petition. Historians have simply noted how the petition was greeted with derision, but as this article shows, it merits deeper study. An early milestone on the long journey to secure votes for women, Mary Smith’s petition reveals political, personal and sexual divisions in early nineteenth-century radicalism - over feminism, homosexuality and adultery - attitudes and prejudices which inhibited any decisive pre-Victorian advance beyond manhood suffrage. The article concludes with a postscript noting Hunt’s fall from favour as the Reform Bill was passed, losing his Preston seat in the first election under the new propertied franchise. He died shortly thereafter but was rehabilitated and revered a few years later by the Chartists. His presentation of the first petition for female suffrage has seemingly been lost from history.

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Belchem, John