Searching for Alice Mann

As part of our series for International Women’s Day, librarian Antony Ramm lays out the path that took him to one of his favourite women of Leeds: Alice Mann…

I first came across the name of Alice Mann (1791-1865) while reading Derek Fraser’s collection of articles in Volume 53 of the Publications of the Thoresby Society. Fraser references a handbill produced by Mann’s printing company during the fierce debates in local politics during the 1830s – interesting enough as it is for someone (like myself) with a broad, if hardly deep, interest in Leeds printing and radicalism, but even more so for the fact of Alice’s gender. Even if I didn’t notice on first reading – indeed, it took me a couple of reads before it truly occurred to me that it was worthy of note that it was Alice Mann who was under discussion (rather than, say, ‘Adam’ Mann). Any surviving artefact from Leeds’ rich history of 19th-century radical printing is worthy of note, but this one doubly-so.

Handbill for the Leeds Parliamentary Reform Association, printed by Alice Mann (c) Leeds Libraries

That set me off on a journey – during which I discovered more about Alice’s fascinating life in radical political circles of Leeds, including opening a bookshop in the town centre, dedicated to left-wing material. Much of this material was scattered through other texts and sources, a kind of breadcrumb trail which eventually led me to a comment below a photograph on the Leeds Libraries’ archive of historical Leeds images, www.leodis.net. That comment raised the startling possibility that Alice Mann was the Lady Ludd who had led protesting Leeds working-class during the 1812 uprisings. By now, I was completely hooked on the story of this singular, inspiring and fascinating 19th-century character.

Duncan Street, nos. 14-20. Undated. Photograph taken in the early 1900s – almost half a century after Alice’s bookshop and printing company was based in the same location. (c) Leeds Libraries, www.leodis.net

Further information followed, including a pre-print copy of the late Malcolm Chase’s superb biographical account of Alice for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, and several newspaper articles sourced from the Library subscription to the 19th-century newspapers database. And then, a startling coincidence – a friend of the department, and occasional contributor to this blog, told me of his interest in a book that turned out to be printed by Alice, a copy of which we held at the Central Library: The Emigrant’s Complete Guide to the United States, Australia, Port Stephens, Van Dieman’s Land, New Zealand, the Cape of Good Hope, and Natal; Canada, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia; and the Auckland Islands (3 vols. in 1: 1849-50)

That investigation led to this superb piece for this blog, which also incorporated the key points from the Chase piece (worth reading in full via Library member access to the ODNB).

Incredibly, other research I was doing in our local history collections – on our 19th-century parliamentary election cartoonsalso ended up relating to Alice, with several of the cartoons in that collection being published by one ‘A.Mann’ of Duncan Street. It’s more than likely that was Alice’s printing firm, probably having been taken on by Alice’s children after her death in 1865.

That’s proved to be the last real sighting of Alice in our collections, though her name does keep reappearing in different contexts – and there remains much hope we can find out more. There is an excellent summary of her life and achievements in David Thornton’s recent Leeds – A Biographical Dictionary (2021).

It’s hard to read or judge Alice’s personality from this temporal distance, not least given the paucity of biographical material. But, to the extent you can take the measure of a person through their life and the externalities of their achievements, it seems more than likely Alice was sui generis: pioneering, strong-willed, committed to her politics and her morality – but also human and vulnerable. Leeds should be proud to have created her: Alice Mann, radical printer and bookseller.

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