Sylvia Pankhurst (1882-1960) is most famous for her work to advance the cause of women’s suffrage in the United Kingdom. Alongside other members of her family, she agitated throughout the first two decades of the twentieth century to give British women the vote.
Unlike her mother, Emmeline, and sister, Christabel, however, Sylvia Pankhurst’s politics were always explicitly socialist. She based her campaigning for suffrage in the poor East End of London and, during the 1910s, wanted the wider suffrage movement to affiliate with the Independent Labour Party.
In 1917, with votes for women just around the corner, Sylvia Pankhurst turned her attentions fully to socialism. She changed the name of the East-End newspaper she published from the Women’s Dreadnought to the Workers’ Dreadnought. And when Lenin’s Bolsheviks took power in Russia, she quickly became an outspoken supporter. Thus, while other suffrage campaigners were to gain respectability after 1918, and often to fall from public view, Sylvia Pankhurst remained, for a time, a prominent and controversial figure.
The letter reproduced below was sent to her by an angry and anonymous British sailor, in late 1920. The sailor was stationed in Malta, then a British territory, and he was writing to express his outrage at Pankhurst’s public calls for the dismantling of the British Empire and revolution in the Royal Navy. It seems that the sailor was probably referring to a specific article Pankhurst had written in the Workers’ Dreadnought earlier in the year. For writing it, and subsequently refusing to reveal her sources, Pankhurst had been jailed for five months (her first imprisonment since the Suffragette years), occasioning considerable media attention.
The sailor almost certainly did not read the original Dreadnought article but some of the subsequent coverage. He wrote to Sylvia in what was, to say the least, plain, colourful and highly colloquial language. For instance, ‘If I ever come across you,’ he said, ‘I’ll play ‘Merry Hell’ and risk the consequences’. He ridiculed her, addressing her initially as ‘Idiot’. Others at the time, from a wide range of social backgrounds, would not have spoken in such terms, especially to a woman. But evidence indicates that many would likely have agreed with the sentiment behind this sailor’s words.
Of all the extreme Left-wing personalities in British history, none, perhaps, was more laughed at in her time than Sylvia Pankhurst. Her gender, no doubt, played a part in this, as many people, at the time and since, have found it difficult to accept women in positions of political leadership. (To be fair, the sailor himself does not mention Sylvia’s gender.) Her own quixotic policies, the difficulty she found in compromising, even with close comrades, and her quasi-romantic infatuation with Lenin, about whom she wrote at length, did nothing to help her cause either.
The British authorities in the early 1920s viewed Sylvia Pankhurst as a real threat. Her organisation had little support, but they knew that small groups of radicals could do great damage, if left unchecked. However, Ministers and officials also thought Sylvia a figure of fun. And it seems that this is why we are able to read the sailor’s letter.
The only surviving copy of the letter, I believe, is contained in the papers of the British Cabinet, in one of the weekly Reviews of Revolutionary Organisations in the United Kingdom that were produced between 1919 and 1924. These reviews were sent to every Cabinet minister. The one containing the sailor’s letter dates from 16th December, 1920. Although mostly the reviews detailed pressing threats to the country, they occasionally turned into diatribes and, at other times, gleeful accounts of this or that Left-wing organisation’s failure. If this was hardly dispassionate politics, it was definitely very human.
The author of the review containing the letter to Sylvia Pankhurst – probably Sir Basil Thomson, then Director of Intelligence at the Home Office – certainly makes no claim for the missive’s importance as intelligence. Rather he introduces it in a somewhat lighthearted way and with, I think, decided traces of that glee to which I was referring. It ‘seems to show’, he writes, ‘that Communism has not penetrated very far into the Lower Deck’. No further analysis is made of the text thereafter, and so, with all its ridiculous language and bluster, it was allowed to go unchallenged. Was it reprinted mainly to amuse? I fear so.
Once released from prison, in 1921, Sylvia briefly joined the unified British Communist Party, but was expelled from it for insubordination. She continued to publish the Workers’ Dreadnought until 1924, when a new avenue of life opened up. She was never to repay the fear that the authorities invested in her. Instead, she went on to campaign ferociously against fascism in Italy and, subsequently, against Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia. She also operated a cafe from her small, wooden home in Woodford Green, Essex.
A Sailor’s Letter to Sylvia Pankhurst
Post mark Malta 5.12.20.
I foam at the mouth at having to write to a person who is not fit to be allowed to roam about loose in such a place as England. My messmates tell me that I am a fool for wasting my time writing to you but I feel that I shall get a little satisfaction by giving you a bit of my tongue.
By all accounts you seem to fancy yourself but in the eyes of any sensible person you appear to be an imbecile with not an atom of c.s.
To cause the downfall of the British Empire is undoubtedly your plan and for this you ought not to be shot – that would be too easy an end for you – but penal servitude for life would just about suit you.
Your letter to your friends across the North Sea is all ‘tommy rot’ and as regards getting the Royal Navy to revolutionize, well as far as I can see about 99% would screw your neck round if they had an opportunity of doing so, I know I would and quick too.
This letter will no doubt be opened by Govt. officials, otherwise, I should have expressed my feelings in proper sailor’s language and the names and terms used would be even enough to shock you although no doubt you did originate in the slums.
You may take not the slightest notice of this, but I warn you that if I ever come across you or any members of your tribe I’ll play ‘Merry Hell’ and risk the consequences.