Review | Sylvia Pankhurst: Natural Born Rebel

Sylvia Pankhurst’s life was full of tireless activism in the cause of women’s rights, anti-imperialism and the emancipation of the working class. Here Danny Schultz reviews a recent biography of Pankhurst by Rachel Holmes.

Sylvia Pankhurst addressing a crowd outside the headquarters of the East London Federation of Suffragettes, Old Ford Road, Bow
Sylvia Pankhurst addressing a crowd outside the headquarters of the East London Federation of Suffragettes, Old Ford Road, Bow. © Museum of London

Rachel Holmes, Sylvia Pankhurst: Natural Born Rebel (London: Bloomsbury, 2020) 976 pp. £26.25.


This is a fantastic book. Sylvia Pankhurst lived an extraordinary life and Rachel Holmes has told her story with great power, verve, imagination and creativity. Her friends, acquaintances and correspondents are a gallery of key figures of the radical, reformist and revolutionary movements of much of the twentieth century, including James Connolly, Keir Hardie, the artists Austin Osman Spare and Amy Browning, and suffragettes and socialists including Zelie Emerson, Emmeline and Fred Lawrence-Pethick, and Norah Smyth. She met and disagreed with Lenin and received a state funeral in Ethiopia organised by Emperor Haile Selassie. She was an inspiring orator, effective organiser, polymath like writer, observant traveller and talented artist. There was little ego in what she achieved; she put herself at the centre of where people were fighting for a better world, rather than being self-centred. Inscribed upon her life’s work is the simple motto, ‘Others’.

The brief details of her early life already suggest something unusual. Her parents, Emmeline and Richard, were socialist and feminist radicals. A succession of literary and political and artistic figures of the late nineteenth century were regular visitors to the Pankhurst family when they lived in both Manchester and London. William Morris, Walter Crane and Tom Mann among many others. She met Eleanor Marx as a teenager who greatly inspired her. One is tempted to conclude that a child’s education is better served by having radical parents with interesting friends than rote learning and SATS. As an adult she lived with her partner Silvio Corio in Woodford, east London and she repeated the family tradition of open house. Her son Richard grew up in a ‘global village’ of a suburban house which was a centre of anti-fascist, anti-imperialist and anti-colonialist discussion and activity. Jomo Kenyatta, Kwame Nkrumah, W.E.B. Du Bois and many others visited.

Sylvia’s first ambition was to be an artist, and she gained a scholarship to the Royal College of Art. As an artist-activist she designed many banners, badges and emblems for the Women’s Social and Political Union including the prison medal with a portcullis and arrow. In 1907 she undertook a tour of the Midlands and the north of England in which she drew and painted women producing industrial chains, working in forges and in pits. This was a unique documentary approach to the lives of working-class women. Sylvia was a socialist and a feminist; she memorably described the position of working women as ‘the slave of a slave’.

In 1911 on a lecture tour of the United States she was more interested in visiting prisons, sweatshops and factories and talking to workers than salon visiting and dinner parties. By this time she had already served two terms as a prisoner herself, had been on hunger strike and experienced brutal force feeding. She was to be jailed many times more. She had a natural authority because she knew what the world was about and she talked from experience and lived at street level.

Holmes paints wonderful pen-portraits of the people around Sylvia, including the original Manchester suffragettes – a tough group of ex-mill workers, teachers and representatives of the New Woman, as well as socialists, radicals and feminists she met in the United States. She brings to life the enormous struggles of the North America labour movement which Sylvia witnessed at first hand. Her foes included Winston Churchill (her constituency MP for many years), Herbert Asquith and her own mother and sister, Emmeline and Christabel. She fell out with them on the lack of democracy in the suffragette movement, sectarianism and the role of the working class in creating political change.

Sylvia Pankhurst being arrested, flanked by two policemen
Pankhurst placed under arrest

The fight for the vote for women should be much better known in Britain. What the suffragettes exposed was the brutal violence and the fearful hate behind the alleged neutrality of the British state and its officials, and the flag waving crowds of jingoists it whipped up. Suffragettes were beaten, sexually assaulted and barbarically treated. Several women died – including one of Sylvia’s aunts – as a result of the injuries received at the hands of the police and the lumpen thugs they encouraged. Thousands of women were imprisoned. Large numbers were brutally force fed. Then as now, arrogant, supercilious and stupid politicians used their power and class interest – to direct state repression in a merciless way against its opponents.

Prime Minister Asquith might have seemed an innocuous nobody, remembered by his friends as a mild mannered man of few great passions and even fewer ideas. But it was on his watch that the horrors against the suffragettes were unleashed. Sylvia wrote a harrowing account of her own experience of force feeding, her gums ripped by steel clamps, her jaw forced open with metal screws and a rubber tube forced down her throat.

Despite the brutality, Sylvia and the suffragettes kept on fighting. In response to government indifference and state violence, thousands of shop windows were broken. Winston Churchill was physically attacked. A doctor involved in the brutality in Holloway Prison was beaten with a leather whip. Huge demonstrations and mass meetings took place, and branches of suffragettes and their supporters were formed in towns and cities all over Britain. Bombs were thrown, stately homes set ablaze. On one occasion a cannon was fired from a castle in the Midlands and elderly women alarmed the authorities by applying for shotgun licenses.

Edifying as all this direct action was, Sylvia realised that it wasn’t going to be enough, and that he real force to change society would not be knitting circles engaged in shoot-outs with the police, but the organised working class. She broke with her mother’s individual martyrdom and her sister’s intransigent tactics and went to east London. That was a tough call but Sylvia held out, winning respect, support and many friends. Years later, people in the area still talked of ‘Our Sylvia’.

The jingoist crowd was there too; bullying, cat calling, punching and kicking its opponents. But there was also a socialist crowd: dockers in the Royals and on the Isle of Dogs, gas workers at Beckton who remembered Eleanor Marx (‘Our Old Stoker’ as they described her), railway workers at Stratford, factory workers in West Ham and along the River Lea, sweat shop workers in Whitechapel, home workers in the Roman Road. That’s where Sylvia sought to make her base. She was often on the run from the police. On one occasion they were waiting for her after she had spoken at a large meeting in Bethnal Green. But George Lansbury’s son had secured her a bodyguard, Kosher Hunt, a legendary bare knuckle street fighter. He advanced, the police retreated. He put his arm around her shoulders as a touching protective gesture. When they got outside into the cold air he insisted that she wore his muffler.

What Sylvia set out to achieve in east London was to increase that socialist crowd. She set up the East London Federation of the Suffragettes, no longer just concerned about votes for women, but workers’ rights, welfare services, decent housing, trade unions and revolutionary change for working women – and men. She was now fighting for the emancipation of the whole working class. When Sylvia organised a contingent of working-class women to meet Asquith, he suddenly realised the danger of these powerful opponents.

A mural in Bow, East London commemorating Pankhurst
A mural in Bow, East London commemorating Pankhurst. Image: Loco Steve

The First World War created chaos among the left across Europe. Despite the pledges of peace and internationalism far too many socialist leaders lined up with their own ruling classes. There were notable exceptions: Lenin, Luxemburg, Clara Zetkin, Liebknecht, Trotsky, and in Britain, Keir Hardie and Sylvia. She stood firm in her principles and beliefs, and bravely pointed out that while 74,000 British soldiers had been killed in France in 1914, over 100,000 babies had died in Britain. She had a great ability to read the ‘political weather’ and knew that the carnage would change people’s views. As the war developed into a huge industrial machine for killing young men, it started to create a bigger and bigger anti-war movement. Sylvia was at the centre of this despite the violence used by the state to try and stop it.

The murderous stupidity of the war was matched only by the government’s indifference to the soldiers’ dependents. Women and children were left with massively reduced incomes. Many slowly started to starve. To alleviate the problem an official committee was formed, which did nothing and then adjourned. Sylvia came up with the idea of cost-price restaurants, and within a week the first one appeared as a reality with local workers making the furniture and fitting out the first building. It opened with many donations of both food and money. Her starting point was always taking a matter into her own hands and at the same time calling on others to join in to help, in other words providing real leadership. Nellie Cresswell, one of the early diners later recalled, ‘I’ll never forget those dinners, they were made of meat pudding, greens and potatoes. They had it with a slice of spotted dog’. The restaurants were nick-named ‘Sylvia’s Penny Carltons’.

The First World War was ended by a series of revolutions in Russia, Germany, Austria and Hungary and social upheavals across Europe. In 1919 she became the British correspondent for the Communist International. The country was full of mass strikes, constant meetings, soldiers’ mutinies, huge demonstrations, red flags. From this emerged the Communist Party. Lenin admired her but politically disagreed with her. They met and debated in the Kremlin when she visited Russia to see the revolution, and she was one of the targets of his Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder. These debates centred on questions of reform and revolution and party building and party type, and they are just as important today.

In the 1920s Sylvia was one of the first to see the emerging dangers of fascism, first in Italy, then in Germany. She was an anti-imperialist and anti-colonialist and argued furiously with the British government in the 1930 about their failure to support the Ethiopian struggle against Italian fascism and imperialist expansion. She constantly pointed out the hypocrisy of how the fascists were allowed to grow by liberal states; and how those same liberal states curtailed the power of the anti-fascists.

Do not be put off by the size of the book. It’s difficult to stop once you get started. Holmes has a measured and tempered writing style which conjures up vivid picture-images – arriving at New York by liner, a demonstration in that city, driving across Ethiopia in a Fiat Millecento, dancing with Red Navy sailors, dangerous illicit journeys by sea and land to evade capture and arrest in the Alps, northern Russia, Scandinavia. She also has that wonderful gift of writing in such a way that you will remember huge chunks of detail long after reading. There is no padding and instead you will wish for more. Holmes makes a passionate plea for the publishing of Sylvia’s entire works. There are thousands of pages which few have seen. On the basis of this book, no one will be disappointed in what will be found within her archive.

Sylvia has been described as an ethereal dreamer. Why not? An ambition to change the world is but a modest one. But she was also a practical politician with clear demands. An end to poverty, injustice, racism, sexism, imperialism, exploitation. The realisation of those demands is still outstanding. If we learn to wear her shoes we walk more boldly towards the revolutionary change which she fought for.


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