the men who said no
Let me be counted among the citizens of the world who own no barriers of race or nation, whose hopes are set on the golden age of universal fraternity we believe to come.  


Sylvia Pankhurst


Sylvia Pankhurst was a leading opponent of WW1, orchestrating ‘her own war against war’. She spent the war helping the poor in the East End of London, seeing the effects of the war on the home front. At the same time she was speaking, writing and campaigning around the country against the war.

Estelle Sylvia Pankhurst was born in Manchester on 5th May 1882. Her father was Dr. Richard Pankhurst, a barrister, socialist, pacifist and supporter of women’s suffrage, and her mother Emmeline became famous as the leader of the suffragette movement. By the time she was 10, Sylvia declared herself a republican who was ‘on the side of the People and the Poor.’ She developed her artistic interest in painting and drawing and went to the Manchester School of Art. The Pankhursts met Keir Hardie, who later became Sylvia’s great friend and lover, and were among the first to join his Independent Labour Party.

In 1898 Sylvia’s father, her ‘hero and guiding light’, died. In 1903 the first meeting of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) took place at the Pankhurst house in Manchester, working for social reform and the female franchise. The next year she moved to London to attend the Royal College of Art, and her friendship with Keir Hardie developed. The WSPU movement grew more confrontational. Sylvia was designing posters and postcards for WSPU but having little time to pursue her career in art. As WSPU members were increasingly arrested on protests, she too was later imprisoned many times, enduring appalling treatment, but managed to use her time inside to write prose and poetry and to paint, and afterwards to make protests in the press about the treatment of all prisoners. In 1907 she combined her art with her concern for the poor by travelling on an artistic pilgrimage to paint the working women of Britain, being shocked by the conditions she found.

As divisions within WSPU grew, and some women split away in protest at the increasing autocratic control exerted by her mother Emmeline and sister Christabel, Sylvia found there was no place for her at the top of the organisation. Nonetheless she initiated open air meetings, and organised local support for huge rallies in Hyde Park, designing and making the banners and flags. As the campaign developed new tactics of vandalism and arson, Sylvia grew uncomfortable.

She began to develop her own links with the East End of London, drawing on her friendship with George Lansbury and the long tradition of political activism in the area. She was shocked by the slums, the starvation wages and exorbitant rents. She determined to create a women’s socialist movement: ‘the East End was the greatest homogeneous working-class area accessible to the House of Commons by popular demonstrations. The creation of a woman’s movement in that great abyss of poverty would be a call and a rallying cry to the rise of similar movements in all parts of the country.’ She and her friends Norah Smyth and Zelie Emerson found an old shop in Bow Road and established the East London branch of WSPU. She started working with Lansbury, writing articles for his newspaper and appearing on platforms with men - not allowed by WSPU, who withdrew all their funds from her.

Sylvia tried a small act of vandalism in the House of Commons - she didn’t want to damage any art so chose a dull portrait, hoping she would only break the glass, but her lump of concrete bounced off, to the amusement of the police. When she later threw a stone at a window, after which several people were arrested including her, she was sentenced to two months hard labour. She smuggled in paper and pencils, and went on a hunger and thirst strike. On the third day they started force-feeding her twice a day - a ‘nightmare ritual of the steel gag, the rubber tube, the vomiting and the agony.’ She fought them the whole way. ‘The flesh around her eyes and the eyeballs themselves became more and more painful.’ The truth of what was happening to her and others was hushed up. The Cat and Mouse Act was introduced, enabling the government to release seriously ill hunger-strikers and then re-arrest them when they had recovered. On her release Sylvia wrote an article in the Daily Mail about her experiences which led to protests against the feeding and the Act. She established a fund to help the families of imprisoned suffragettes. Back in prison, she kept fainting, and had to be constantly released. Eventually her health was so bad she attended meetings on a stretcher, carried aloft ‘emaciated and indomitable…like a medieval saint in a procession.’

In early 1914 the East London Federation was expelled from WSPU, marking a major break with her mother and sister Christabel. The Federation changed its name to the East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELFS). They launched the Woman’s Dreadnought newspaper in March 1914. Sylvia was imprisoned several times between February and June 1914, using the time to plan her programme for the East End. She found a new home for the ELFS in Old Ford Road, with a large hall. Here they organised a library, choir, lectures, concerts and a junior suffragettes club. Sylvia determined to get an elected group of representative suffragettes from the East End to see the Prime Minister, Asquith. She was driven to the House of Commons, where she lay on the ground, refusing to eat or drink until she died or he agreed to see them. Hardie and Lansbury persuaded him to agree to meet six women, and he was impressed with their moderate, well-reasoned case. She had achieved something of a breakthrough, but then the war came.

Sylvia heard that war had begun while she was in Dublin. Returning home on a steamer full of troops she wrote ‘Men going to die without heed to the beauty and purpose of life, untouched by the cleansing fires of enthusiasm, going like cattle to be slaughtered, mere pawns in the hands of those whose identity was unknown to them…Throughout Europe would be a vast widowhood, the cries of fatherless children…a gigantic arrest of human progress, a huge vanquishing of the higher life of culture, the finer processes of thought.

During WW1 Sylvia ‘was to orchestrate her own war against war and to establish her own personal welfare state - to do, in effect, what she felt the government should be doing.’ She widened her concern out from the East End to the whole society, while continuing to campaign for universal franchise. She was shocked by the decision of her mother and Christabel to support the war, remembering ‘my father’s peace crusade…his unswerving life-long advocacy of Peace and internationalism’. She set about writing hundreds of letters and articles, leading deputations and protest marches. She protested loudly against government injustice, about sweated pay and bad working conditions. She challenged people to act: ‘The men in power have plunged us into war for their commercial interests. They pass bills in the interests of financiers. What will they do for you?’ Her passionate beliefs lost her many supporters.

Full of ideas for wiping out poverty, she was not content to wait for the local authority to take action, so started herself, in response to desperate local need - ‘Starvation, that strange, dull gaze, daily stared in my face from the eyes of mothers and children.’ Women and children were being turned away from hospitals to make room for soldiers. She set up a milk distribution centre and eventually four mother and baby clinics, free of charge. Doctor Barbara Tchaykovsky, who helped to run the clinics, pointed out that while 75000 British soldiers died in the first year of the war, 100,000 babies died at home. By 31 August 1914 Sylvia had created her first Cost Price restaurant. During 1915 her team served about 400 meals a day and helped 1000 mothers and babies at the clinic. Other organisations began to copy her scheme. ‘She had inherited the Pankhurst talent for inspiring and persuading anyone and everyone to help her in whatever she wanted to do.’ She created a co-operative Toy Factory to provide employment, and a small nursery, with parties and festive events for local children.

Seeing the difficulties of the families of those in the armed forces, in February 1915 she and others set up the League of Rights for Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Wives and Relatives. They campaigned for proper allowances for the wives, and pensions for widows and dependents. Lansbury said that Sylvia ‘worked day and night, rushing from town to town, from one Government office to another….the War Office must have been considerably worried by her attentions. It is certain, however, that many thousands of women and children owe her, and the rest of the committee, thanks for securing something approaching decent treatment….’ In the end the government set up its own organisation.

Sylvia discovered that hunger was being used to recruit men into the army; she found food relief from the Commonwealth was diverted to the army and commercial companies away from the poor. When she saw that the West End still had supplies of bacon and sugar, she organised a deputation to the Prime Minister, taking with them food from Harrods and the Army and Navy Stores which they dumped on his desk. She threatened to return with ever larger deputations if he didn’t provide food for the East End. Relief began to get through to Poplar. In April she found a disused pub, the Gunmakers’ Arms, in the Old Ford Road which she converted into The Mothers’ Arms as a progressive nursery school, with support from the City of London Corporation and the Ministries of Health and Education.

Sylvia involved herself with the growing international women’s peace movement, being one of the first suffragettes to speak out against the war, and signing the letter to German and Austrian women circulated by Emily Hobhouse at Christmas 1914. When the Women’s Congress was held in the Hague, Sylvia had anticipated she wouldn’t be allowed to attend, and instead drafted resolutions for the Congress. She wanted ‘the abolition of secret foreign treaties, the creation of a permanent peace treaty uniting all nations, the abolition of national armies and navies, and the democratisation of the International Court of Arbitration…with an extension of its powers.’ She was elected to the committee of the British group formed after the Congress, the Women’s International League, but soon felt she could do more radical work on her own. She campaigned against conscription, joining the National Council against Conscription, speaking in September 1915 at a meeting in Trafalgar Square, organised by socialists, trade unionists and suffragists, at which she saw news placards saying that Keir Hardie was dead. Shattered, she went home to write his obituary for her Dreadnought paper, calling him ‘the greatest human being of our time’.

The Woman’s Dreadnought was growing in circulation throughout 1916, including stories of hardship coming from the troops and their families, such as men being executed for desertion, and cruel punishments and torture. She took up the cause of enemy aliens being victimised, miners on strike, disabled soldiers, widows, and the petty bureaucracy stopping their allowances, pensioners who could no longer afford the increased price of food, some being driven into the workhouse - one veteran of the Crimean war drowning himself rather than go there. By highlighting these personal cases she brought injustices to wide attention. In the case of a young conscript shot for desertion when shell-shocked, she published his letters home and made a pacifist pamphlet from his story. The stories of conscientious objector tribunals were also reported, and the ill-treatment of many COs as well as ordinary serving soldiers, such as the No. 1 Field Punishment where they were strapped to a crucifix for hours. She lobbied the War Office on behalf of the COs sent to France, at the request of some of their mothers.

The Dreadnought was said to be ‘one of the most important anti-war, non-sectarian socialist papers in Britain.’ Sylvia frequently wrote what could be seen as treasonable articles, and the paper was under surveillance. In 1916 a young women journalist covered the Easter uprising in Ireland, and the executions that followed, in the Dreadnought. In 1917 the Russian revolution came as a sign of hope to Sylvia, who by now favoured revolution, believing that the persecution of women had deep roots in the capitalist parliamentary system. The ELFS whose name had been changed to the Workers’ Suffrage Federation in 1916, now became the Workers’ Socialist Federation, dedicated to overthrowing capitalism. The Dreadnought’s biggest scoop was the publication in the summer of 1917 of Siegfried Sassoon’s letter stating his opposition to the war: ‘I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority, because I believe that the War is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it. I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that this War, upon which I entered as a War of defence, has now become a War of aggression and conquest.’ Two days later his letter was read out in the House of Commons. The police raided the offices of the Dreadnought and the No-Conscription Fellowship, seizing copies of the letter. The issue of October 6, 1917 advocating a peace referendum among the troops, was destroyed and the type broken up.

The paper carried articles by leading communists and thinkers including Marx and Lenin, and Silvio Corio, an Italian anarcho-socialist, who became Sylvia’s partner. She continued to promote communism after the war, travelling to Russia to meet Lenin in spite of her passport being confiscated. Once again she ended up in prison, for sedition, after publishing articles urging men in the Royal Navy to revolt. By 1921 the Communist Party of Great Britain tried to gag her paper, now the Workers’ Dreadnought, which was reporting on internal party controversies. She continued to produce it, now attacking the Communist Party and Lenin. Sylvia was one of the first to see the dangerous developments in the growth of fascism in Italy and Germany and the threat of the confrontation between fascism and communism. She was ahead of her time publishing information about racial inequality in South Africa, employing the first black correspondent, and publishing Indian writers. The paper itself closed in 1924.

Moving to Woodford Green, she wrote books including The Suffragette Movement, and The Home Front about her work in WW1. She gave birth to her son Richard Keir Pethick Pankhurst in 1927. Even before Mussolini invaded Ethiopia in 1935, Sylvia had found a new cause, the people of Ethiopia, and fought against fascism in Italy. She ‘launched an onslaught on anyone with influence…letters from E. Sylvia Pankhurst began to arrive, often written in green ink, on paper torn from exercise books. Embassies, politicians and editors - she drove them all to distraction. But there is no doubt that ultimately her efforts were recognised and not in vain.’ She spoke at meetings denouncing the use of mustard gas, the bombing of Red Cross hospitals and the failure of the League of Nations to enforce sanctions. She started another newspaper, the New Times and Ethiopia News in 1936. When the Emperor Haile Selassie had to flee and came to England, it was she who met him and took him under her wing. During all this her home saw a stream of refugees from fascism, as well as miners’ children during the General Strike, suffragettes and East End women.

In July 1936 a monument in the form of a stone bomb was unveiled by a group including the Secretary of the Imperial Ethiopian Legation in front of Sylvia’s Red Cottage in Woodford Green. ‘To those who in 1932 upheld the right to use bombing aeroplanes this monument is raised as a protest against war in the air.’ It recalled the Zeppelin raids over the East End in WW1, the British bombing of rebels in Burma and India in 1932 and the recent mustard gas bombs dropped by the Italians on Ethiopian civilians. An article in Sylvia’s paper said ‘There are thousands of memorials in every town and village to the dead but not one as a reminder of the danger of future wars. The purpose of the monument was to create a lasting reproach to those whose morality was untouched, whose consciences were unmoved and whose emotions were unaffected.’ (In recent years Sylvia Ayling has rescued this monument from neglect.)

Her biographer describes her as by now, a national institution, but one who often irritated people by her inability to play second fiddle. By WW2, she was on Churchill’s side against the fascists, she was on Hitler’s list to be arrested, and she was under police protection after receiving death threats. In this war, Sylvia became Hon. Secretary of the War Emergency Council set up to help working class families, and was pleased to find the Ministry of Food starting Cost Price Restaurants such as she had run in WW1.

The Emperor returned to Ethiopia in 1941 and Sylvia visited the country later. In 1954 Silvio died, and in 1956 her son Richard was offered a post at the University of Ethiopia by the Emperor, with a home for Sylvia. She was soon typically involved in local charities and social work. On 27 September 1960 she died, and was given a state funeral in Addis Ababa. Eulogies came from all over the world. An unpublished letter was found among her papers: ‘Let me be counted among the citizens of the world who own no barriers of race or nation, whose hopes are set on the golden age of universal fraternity we believe to come.’




Women's Dreadnought

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