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The Papers of Sylvia Pankhurst, 1882-1960

From the Internationaal Instituut voor Sociale Geschiedenis, Amsterdam

Part 1: Inventory Numbers 1-224

Part 2: Inventory Numbers 225-362

Introduction to Sylvia Pankhurst

Estelle Sylvia Pankhurst was born in Manchester on May 5, 1882, the second daughter of Dr Richard Marsden Pankhurst (1836-1898) and Emmeline Goulden Pankhurst (1858-1928).  Both her father and mother were active in local politics and in the suffrage movement.  They joined the Independent Labour Party on its establishment in 1893.  After Christabel Harriette (1880-1958) and Sylvia three more children were born: Henry Robert (Frank, 1884-1888), Adela Constantia Mary (1885-1961) and Henry Francis (Harry, 1889-1910).  Among the friends and acquaintances of the Pankhursts were people like Kropotkin, Malatesta, William Morris, Mr and Mrs Jacob Bright, Sir Charles Dilke, Annie Besant and James Keir Hardie.  From an early age the Pankhurst children were involved in the social and political activities of their parents.  Sylvia’s talents both as a journalist and as illustrator were developed by the publication of a weekly illustrated Family Bulletin: “The Home News and Universal Mirror”.

It was her ambition to become a painter.  In 1900 she won a scholarship to study design at the Manchester School of Art.  Here she was strongly influenced by the socialist artist Walter Crane.  She travelled to Venice to study art (1902).  In 1904 she settled down to London and studied at the Royal College of Art in South Kensington for a number of years.  Her best known monumental work is the decoration of the Pankhurst Hall in Salford, erected by the Independent Labour Party to commemorate her father.  She also designed the logo, scarves, brooches and the like for the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) and its first organ Votes for Women.  Her largest designs probably were the murals for the WSPU at the Women’s Exhibition in 1909.

The WSPU was established in 1903 by Emmeline Pankhurst.  On the initiative of her daughter Christabel it assumed a militant attitude in the struggle for women’s suffrage.  Though the leadership of the organization rested with Emmeline and Christabel, Sylvia became more and more involved in its activities, especially when the organization’s headquarters were moved to London in 1906.  There the WSPU gained strength, assisted by the financial and administrative support of Emmeline and Frederick Pethick-Lawrence and the advice of Keir Hardie.  With all three Sylvia remained friends throughout their lives.  From the beginning of the WSPU the relationship between Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst on the one hand and Sylvia on the other was uneasy.  Emmeline and Christabel were inclined to accept a limited enfranchisement for women householders as a first step towards general Adult Suffrage and they though that all social legislation should wait until women’s suffrage had been enacted.  Sylvia, at that time already a convinced socialist, believed that Household Suffrage would only benefit the Conservatives and thought it important that proletarian women were involved in the struggle.  This conviction had been reinforced by her study trip to the industrial North of England in 1909, when she had made sketches and written articles about the conditions of labouring women.  Her choice for the oppressed was strengthened by her stay in Holloway Prison in 1906 for “obstruction and abusive language”.  This was the first of numerous prison episodes, as suffragette militancy and government repression grew over the years.  In prison the suffragettes introduced the hunger strike, to which the prison authorities responded by forcible feeding.  Of this too, Sylvia had her share.  In 1910, after a police raid on WSPU headquarters and the arrest of Emmeline Pankhurst and the Pethick-Lawrences, Christabel fled to Paris.  Sylvia’s militancy reached its peak in 1913 during the agitation against the “Cat-and-Mouse” Act.  This was the popular name for the “Prisoners' Temporary Discharge for Ill-health Act”, which enabled the authorities to set hunger-striking prisoners free on licence until they recovered and then put them back in prison.  Sylvia’s prolonged hunger strike was interrupted by this act, and she started a “People’s Army”, formalizing the popular support to protect a freed “mouse”, if necessary by force.

While Emmeline and Christabel gradually turned the suffragette’s fight into a war of the sexes – culminating in the campaign “Votes for Women and Chastity for Men” in 1913 -Sylvia got more and more involved in the social struggle in London’s East End.  At the end of 1913 the break that had been in the air for some time became a fact.  At the request of her sister and her mother Sylvia and her East End Branch left the WSPU and became the independent East London Federation of the Suffragettes with its own organ, The Woman’s Dreadnought.  The outbreak of the First World War widened the breach.  Emmeline and Christabel became strongly patriotic, rechristened and their organ The Suffragette into Britannia, stopped all suffrage activities and helped with the recruiting of volunteers for the armed forces.  Sylvia, on the other hand, took the socialist stance that the war only furthered capitalism.  She agitated for social facilities for the wives and children of enlisted working-class men, became more of a pacifist during the war and spoke on anti-conscription platform when conscription was to be enacted.  In the East End she founded a toy factory to provide work for the women who had become unemployed with the breakdown of luxury manufactories as a result of the war.  The former pub “The Gunmaker’s Arms” was reshaped into “The Mother’s Arms”, a maternity clinic, day nursery and Montessori nursery school.  She opened cost-price restaurants for working women and continually agitated with local and central authorities about the provision and prices of food.  In 1916 the organisation was renamed into the “Workers' Suffrage Federation", and The Woman’s Dreadnought became The Workers’ Dreadnought.  Partly as result of the war – and the large-scale involvement of women in the munitions industry and many other vital economic activities – the Representation of the People Bill was enacted in 1918, enfranchising about 8½ million women above 30 years of age, women householders or the wives of householders, occupiers of land and university graduates.

In 1917 Sylvia had become an enthusiastic adherent of the Russian Revolution.  Her activities largely moved in the direction of propaganda for socialism.  In 1918 the movement’s name was changed into Workers’ Socialist Federation (WSF).  One of the ideas she put forward very strongly was the establishment of workers’ councils in Great Britain.  Her “Russian People’s Information Bureau” (established in September 1918) published pamphlets about the Russian Revolution, several of them translated from Russian.  She also joined the “Hands Off Russia” movement.  For some time she was an influential English correspondent of the Communist International periodical International Communist (1919), published from Moscow in several languages.  The WSF was only one of a number of groups in Britain that furthered socialism.  One of the problems in the way of the establishment of one large Communist party was that of affiliation to the Labour Party.  Pankhurst was strongly opposed to affiliation.  In a letter to Lenin (July 1919) she wrote that the socialist movement was too full of compromisers.  To be one step ahead of these, in June 1920 she rebaptized the WSF into Communist Party, British Section of the Third International (CPBSTI).  She refused to join the Communist Unity Convention in July 1920, where the first outline of the Communist Party of Great Britain came into being.  Instead, she was present at the second congress of the Third International Moscow.  Lenin condemned Sylvia’s attitude and he persuaded her to make the CPBSTI join the CPGB.  She did so in January 1921, but in The Dreadnought she continued propagating her own ideas about affiliation with the Labour Party.  For this reason she was expelled from the CPGB in the late summer of 1921.  Later she turned to the Spartacist school of socialism, but she was not to play an important role in a political party.  During these revolutionary years Sylvia Pankhurst was continuously watched by the authorities and from October 1920 to May 1921 she was in prison once again, this time for alleged seditious articles in The Dreadnought.

She had met Sylvio Erasmus Corio, a libertarian socialist from Italy, in London.  In the middle Twenties they settled in Woodford, where they opened a tearoom.  In 1924 The Dreadnought was discontinued.  A son was born to them in 1928: Richard Keir Pethick Pankhurst.  While Corio ran the tearoom, Sylvia wrote books and articles, most of them based on meticulous research, such as: Save the Mothers: A plea for measures to prevent the annual loss of about 3000 child-bearing mothers and 20,000 infant lives in England and Wales and a similar grievous wastage in other countries (1930).  Important is her account of The Suffragette Movement (1931) and her role in it.  This is largely autobiographical, as is The Home Front (1932).  In The Life of Emmeline Pankhurst (1935) she portrays her mother, with whom all contact had been broken off.  In Delphos, or the future of International Language (1928) she advocates Interlingua.  In collaboration with I O Stefanovici, she published a translation of poems by Mihail Eminescu, a romantic Rumanian poet of the nineteenth century.  Throughout her life she wrote poems herself, scribbled in notebooks or on odd pieces of paper that happened to be at hand.  Many of them appeared in The Dreadnought.  In Writ on cold Slate (1921) her prison poems were collected.  She used to write down all kinds of observations, especially during her long journeys through the United States (1910 -1912), Europe (1913, 1919) and Russia (1920).  Later she would use these notes as a basis for her books and articles.  A study of the international socialist movement, In the Red Twilight, was not completed and was not published in its original form, though the first part appeared as a serial in The New Times and Ethiopia News (1936).

Together with Corio and her son she travelled to Rumania in 1934 to be present at the unveiling of a statue of Eminescu.  The direct confrontation with European fascism shocked them.  As a result of Corio’s links with Italy their anti-fascism was chiefly concentrated on that country.  Pankhurst started the Society of Friends of Italian Freedom and the Women’s International Matteotti Committee (1932), which agitated for the release of Matteotti’s widow.  Its organ Humanity was issued only once.  She joined the International Women’s Peace Crusade and became treasurer of the Women’s World Committee against War and Fascism, British Section.  This Popular-Front organisation had been initiated in Paris in 1934.  From Italy to Ethiopia was only one small step.  From the moment of Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia the anti-fascism of Pankhurst and Corio focused on Ethiopia.  On 5 May 1936 they started the New Times and Ethiopia News, which not only reported about Ethiopia, but rather about fascism and nazism in general.  It reached a circulation of 40,000.

On the outbreak of the Second World War Pankhurst once again took practical action.  She started the Women’s War Emergency Council (October 1939), which agitated for a rise of war separation allowance and control of food prices.  She arranged for permits for European refugees and began fund-raising for permits for European refugees and began fund-raising for a hospital to be erected in Ethiopia.  She kept in close touch with the Emperor Haile Selassie, who had settled down in Bath with his retinue.  From 1945 she worked for the surrender of the former Italian colonies Somalia and Eritrea to Ethiopia.  In 1952, under the auspices of the United Nations Eritrea was brought into a federation with Ethiopia.  After Corio’s death Pankhurst settled in Addis Ababa with her son.  She did much social work and was very well known, not only in Ethiopia but also in the Pan-Africa movement and the League of Coloured Peoples.  Together with her son she edited the Ethiopia Observer.  On 25 September 1960 she died during her afternoon nap from coronary thrombosis.  She was buried in a place reserved for the heroes of Ethiopia, the Emperor attending the ceremony.


Barbara Castle, Sylvia and Christabel Pankhurst (Harmondsworth 1987); Silvia Franchini, Sylvia Pankhurst, 1912-1924: dal suffragismo alla rivoluzione sociale (Pisa 1980); Lenin on Britain (London 1934); David Mitchell, The Fighting Pankhursts.  A study in tenacity (London 1967); Richard Pankhurst, Sylvia Pankhurst, artist and crusader (New York 1970) ; Henry Pelling, The British Communist Party.  A historical profile (London 1958); Patricia Romero, E. Sylvia Pankhurst, portrait of a Radical (New Haven 1987).  See also Rita Pankhurst, “Sylvia Pankhurst in perspective.  Some comments on Patricia Romero’s biography” in Women’s Studies International Forum, vol. 11 no. 3, pp. 245-262.




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