Socialist Ball.jpg
Socialist Ball.jpg

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This poster promotes a ball, at the Sheffield socialist ‘Hall of Science’ celebrating the Marriage of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in 1840. It gives an insight into socialist culture in the 1840’s; a culture which contested and subverted social norms.
Halls of Science were the focal point of the socialist movement, there were two dozen such halls in operation by 1832. The Sheffield Hall of Science opened in 1839 ‘for the exposition of their [socialist] views’ according to a local newspaper report. Activities organised by the Halls included debates, speeches, tea parties and days out. These recreational activities ran alongside, and sometimes overlapped with, a significant educational impetus – halls of Science organised on lectures and held classes. Both uses of the Hall can be seen in the poster.
The poster promises a night of dancing, punctuated by a brief talk by a socialist orator and a longer talk by the same orator, Mr Hollick, later in the week. Frederick Hollick was a high profile ‘socialist missionary,’ who defended the Owenite approach to marriage in several public debates and later published a popular sex manual in America. Both talks address ‘marriage and divorce,’ by 1840 one of the key issues engulfing the Owenite social movement.
The early-mid 19th century was a period of sexual transition. A nascent ‘Victorian’ model of marriage was emerging which restricted female agency and challenged the validity of open or fluid relationships – relatively common in some working-class communities. During a series of lectures in 1835 Owen had attacked this system, calling for civil marriages and easier access to divorce. Although these critiques were not uncommon in radical circles, he also called for more radical reforms advocating free unions and the use of contraception. These proposals were vehemently condemned in the press. One report asserted ‘Owen’s proposals require us to break up house, to tear asunder our household ties, and to put to death the strongest and dearest affections of our hearts.’ The ‘marriage issue’ undermined the socialist’s credibility in the eyes of many although it also stimulated interest. In 1840 over 5000 tickets were sold for a debate between Owen and a member of the clergy about marriage – many more had to be turned away. Crowds were often lively and could turn against establishment figures. The marriage debate is also significant as it formed a key split between Owenites and Chartists; a split which weakened political dissent in this period even though membership of the two organisations often overlapped.
The fact that the Owenites were holding a ball ‘to celebrate’ a royal marriage attests to the underlying mix in the socialist movement of the 1840’s of orthodoxy coupled with radicalism (especially in connection with Owen’s views on marriage). While the movement seemed to be expanding, Owenism was under increasing pressure, beset by internal tensions and external conflicts, and with their flagship communitarian settlement, ‘Queenwood’, struggling to survive. The ball may well have been an opportunity to illustrate the ‘normality’ of socialism in the face of these problems – engaging with a key national social event. However, the failure of Queenwood in 1845 stimulated a collapse of Owenism. By 1850 the Sheffield Hall of Science was no longer in socialist hands and the movement had almost completely fizzled out.

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