Mary Cooper was born in 1816 in Attercliffe. She came from an ordinary family, her father John was a labourer. She married Samuel Holberry in 1838 when she was 22 years old. This was the year The People’s Charter was published, a text which became the foundation of a mass movement, calling for huge political reform, including for the right of every man to have the vote, secret ballots, payment for MPs – so that ordinary men could afford to stand for election – and annual parliaments. It was known as the Chartist movement.
Chartism quickly gathered support amongst working men and women and huge rallies were held nationwide. Many hundreds of thousands of people signed the Charter, which was presented to Parliament. About a third of these signatories were women.
Samuel Holberry was one of the leaders of the Sheffield Chartists and Mary was an active supporter. He organised meetings and spoke to crowds of thousands. He was also involved in an uprising in January 1840, during which he and his companions planned to take over the town hall. The radicals were betrayed and the police entered the Holberry home and arrested both Mary and Samuel. Mary was pregnant at the time of her arrest. She was locked up for two days and interrogated. She refused to talk and was released without charge. Samuel was not so lucky. He was charged with sedition and sent to prison. Mary petitioned for his release, writing letters to politicians and the newspapers. Samuel did not want Mary to visit him, knowing that seeing him in prison would be very difficult for her. He wrote to her:
‘My dear, you say you should like to come to York to see me; to that I cannot give my consent. In the first place we should have to look through the odious bars and it would only make your more unhappy’
Samuel died in 1842 at the age of 27. He had been forced to work, illegally, on a treadmill and this destroyed his already poor health. The Holberry’s baby, Samuel John was born in May 1840. He died at the age of 18 weeks and is buried in a pauper’s grave.
Mary remained active in the Chartist movement. In 1844 she joined the Chartists on a picket line in support of a miners’ strike. She married a publican, Charles Pearson and went on to have more children. The first of these she names Holberry Pearson. In 1845 she was described by a Chartist newspaper:
‘After three years of heart corroding activity and mental anguish, she is still a truly fine woman, tall in stature, of graceful deportment, handsome expression and possesses an excellent temper and considering the defects of education, a mind of no mean order’
Mary died at the age of 67 in 1883 and is buried in the same grave as Samuel Holberry, G 55, a grave paid for by the Chartist Association.