Elizabeth Wolstenholme-Elmy: Manchester’s Free Love Advocate and Secular Feminist

As an advocate of ‘free love’, a pacifist and more controversially a secularist, the Victorian feminist Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy did not exactly lead a conventional life. Born in Eccles in 1833 and self-educated, she went on to become a significant pioneer of the British women’s emancipation movement. She was at the heart of almost every Victorian feminist campaign ranging from the demand for better education, the right to vote and the rights of prostitutes to the sensitive issue of marital rape.

Unfortunately, her rather forthright nature as well as the scandal surrounding her pregnancy out of wedlock meant that she was marginalised in official histories. In accounts by the Pankhurst family, she is unfairly portrayed as a bad mother, a scandalous ‘free love’ secularist; her partner Ben Elmy is painted as a cruel and unfaithful man. Maureen Wright, who teaches history at the University of Portsmouth, wanted to challenge that misrepresentation with a more balanced look at Wolstenholme-Elmy’s life.

In her book Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy and the Victorian Feminist Movement – The biography of an insurgent woman, Wright portrays the complex and also contradictory nature of her subject. The book is broken down into eight chapters which chart Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy’s life from her birth to her death at the age of 84 in March 1918 – just days after hearing the good news that women had been granted the right to vote. Arwa Aburawa interviewed Maureen Wright for Manchester Radical History.

Elizabeth Wolstenholme-Elmy was born in Eccles, Salford in December 1833. Can you tell a little about her early experiences and how they help shape her activism around education and universal suffrage?

Maureen Wright: Although born in Eccles, Elizabeth’s father Joseph Wolstenholme was an Independent Methodist Minister and his wife Elizabeth, the daughter of Richard and Mary Clarke of Roe Green, Salford. By the time Miss Wolstenholme was 12 she had lost both her parents. Her mother had died when she was little more than a week old and her father died in 1845. At that time Elizabeth and her brother, Joseph Jnr., became the wards of their maternal Uncle, George Clarke of Worsley. While Joseph Jnr, aged 17, became a student of mathematics at St John’s College, Cambridge, Elizabeth’s two years of secondary education drew to a close when she was just 16, her Uncle having declared that by then she had ‘learnt everything it was necessary for a woman to know’.

But Elizabeth defied her guardian and studied privately, preparing herself to be a governess and, latterly, headmistress of her own girls’ school. She had no desire to remain in the domestic realm. She placed her commitment to feminism from the moment when, acting as a bridesmaid aged 17, she fully realised what marriage meant for women – a “lifelong sentence of pauperism and dependence” with no control over their actions or autonomy over their own bodies.

Elizabeth’s political commitment was to liberal ideals. She was brought up in the environment of the ‘Manchester Radicals’ – namely the group of Quaker-inspired activists gathered around Richard Cobden and John Bright and others who had led the anti-Corn Law movement in the city. She believed wholeheartedly in the rights of the individual. For her, votes for women was a simple matter of women receiving the vote ‘on the same terms as it is, or shall be, granted to men’ – for it must be remembered that, at this time, it was property, not individuality, that enabled men to claim citizenship. When she placed her signature on the petition for women’s suffrage in 1866 Elizabeth was asking not for special treatment for women, but equal treatment or “justice”.

Although Elizabeth Wolstenholme-Elmy was part of a quite a small groups of women emancipators working in the nineteenth century, she never really got much recognition for her work. Why do you think that was?

Two of the earliest significant histories of British women’s suffragism were written by Ray Strachey and E. Sylvia Pankhurst. Strachey’s book, The Cause, (1928) told the story from the point of view of the ‘constitutional’ suffragists – those women who did not support the militancy of the suffragettes of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). Wolstenholme Elmy’s opinion of these activists was not always complimentary as she believed that their commitment to ‘the cause’ was not total. Many were content, she believed, “to give their name” to the movement without engaging sacrificially to its work. Elizabeth’s somewhat scandalous private life caused her to be criticised by many among this more conservative group, and thus she received only a couple of mentions in Strachey’s work.

The other significant book, The Suffragette Movement, (1931) was written by Emmeline Pankhurst’s daughter, Sylvia. While Pankhurst did acknowledge Elizabeth’s significant contribution to the early years of women’s suffragism from the 1860s, she clearly wanted to place her mother and her father (the “Red Doctor”, socialist lawyer Richard Marsden Pankhurst) in the premier roles. Elizabeth was, therefore, marginalised and damned with faint praise as an overworked woman and an ‘instrument in the grasp of progress’ – her small physical frame likened to that of a ‘Jenny Wren’. Subsequent scholars failed to realise her significance to the movement until the 1980s when revisionist scholars began to uncover the extent of her contribution. My biography is the first full-length narrative of Elizabeth’s life, some 30 years after the first call was made for it to be written!

Elizabeth’s early passion was education for women. Tell us a little about how that emerged and the role Manchester played in her development as a campaigner.

When Elizabeth returned to Worsley in 1854 from undertaking two years work as a governess in Bedfordshire it was to inherit a ‘small capital’ on her 21st birthday. Her guardian, who, remember, had advised her against undertaking higher education herself, now suggested that she invest her money in the establishment of a boarding school for middle-class girls. Elizabeth established precisely such a school, at The Grange in Boothstown Road, which catered for between 12-16 teenage pupils. In the spring of 1867 she moved her school to Moody Hall, a substantial Georgian residence in the town of Congleton where she continued in her role of Headmistress for another 4 years. Before her move to Cheshire Elizabeth founded the Manchester Schoolmistresses Association in 1865, and her pupils were among the first to sit the Cambridge Local Examination.

In 1866, Elizabeth had travelled to London to testify before the Royal Commission into Education – known as the Taunton Commission. She was one of the first women in the country to undertake such a role, but did not appear at all daunted at the prospect. If one reads the transcript of her evidence, it’s obvious that her answers were given in a clear and direct manner. As she tells of her work at The Grange, it’s clear too that the curriculum she taught was not one only of female “accomplishments” (such as singing, dancing and drawing) but included political economy, mathematics and other skills thought to be to ‘masculine’ in nature for a girls’ school. Elizabeth sought to fit her girls for not only the world of marriage and motherhood, but for the world of work, and many of them went on to become Headmistresses of schools.

It became increasingly difficult, however, at this time for Elizabeth to continue her career. This was because she was turning against the Christian faith – the teaching of which was, of course, a core element in the Victorian curriculum. The loss of her faith caused Elizabeth deep personal pain and unhappiness and ultimately she couldn’t force herself against her conscience to teach something in which she no longer believed. Thus she abandoned Moody Hall for a new life as the first professional employee of the women’s emancipation movement.

From around 1870, EWE’s role as a feminist took precedence over her vocation in education. What were the major campaigns she worked on and what long-term influence did she have?

Before her move to Congleton, Elizabeth had been active in many areas of female emancipation in Manchester. These included: The Manchester National Society for Women’s Suffrage, the Manchester Branch of the Society for the Employment of Women and the Northern Counties League for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts. She was a founder member of the Married Women’s Property Committee (MWPC), established in the winter of 1867/8 to campaign for the rights of women in marriage. She was to be its Secretary until the passage of the Married Women’s Property Act, 1882. In addition, she was an Executive Committee member of the Ladies’ National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts (LNA) from 1870.

Her paid work however (from 1871-74) was as Secretary of the Vigilance Association for the Defence of Personal Rights (VADPR). She was based in London and she termed her work as being as a ‘scrutinizer’ of parliamentary practice – for which her salary was the princely sum of £300 per annum. So effective a political lobbyist did she prove that MPs gave her a nickname – the ‘parliamentary watch-dog’ – and, upon seeing her tiny figure approaching them along the corridors of power, many of the country’s greatest would quake in fear. Elizabeth’s tenacity shines through here. She was a life-long advocate of “small government”, in which the individual’s personal right to ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ should be as free from government intervention as possible.

The ‘New’ Liberalism of the late-nineteenth century, with its increased emphasis on regulating public behaviour through legislation, was anathema to her. Elizabeth worked tirelessly and travelled extensively to promote the organisation’s objective of an equal right to live in a just society. She published copious reports, minutes, pamphlets and articles and Elizabeth continued her labours in other areas. She was, for example, a Committee member of the Central Committee of the National Society of Women’s Suffrage and remained strongly committed to the work of both the LNA and the MWPC. In fact, one begins to wonder how she ever found enough hours in her day!

One radical aspect of Elizabeth WE is that she was secularist and an advocate of ‘free love’. This was quite hard for many of her colleagues to deal with and was particularly problematic when she got pregnant. Was she perceived as too radical in some ways?

It was when Elizabeth was headmistress of Moody Hall School in Congleton she met the man who would become her life-long companion. Benjamin Elmy was from a Suffolk family, he owned three silk-crepe mills in Congleton but his avowed secularism was always a matter of concern for the town’s civic leaders. One of the most divisive issues was the charge that secularists advocated ‘free love’ (living together un-wed), something which undermined the rigid moral structures of mid-Victorian society.

The couple undertook a ‘commitment’ ceremony in the spring of 1874, making solemn vows to one another before witnesses. But when this and Elizabeth’s subsequent pregnancy became known more widely, there was general outrage and condemnation within their circle of friends. Despite her expressed wish that her marriage (with took place under some duress in October 1874 in London) should have no effect upon her work for women, the opposite was true and the couple were forced to retire from public life for a short period. Elizabeth did however continue her Secretary’s role with the MWPC, working ‘underground’ and unacknowledged in the organisation’s reports for another six years – until her ‘rehabilitation’ in 1880.

Those of Elizabeth’s colleagues who knew of her secularism were prepared to turn a ‘blind eye’ to it before her pregnancy – one reason being that they knew her work was exemplary and her shoes would be difficult to fill. However, the immanent arrival of her son Frank proved to be the catalyst that changed attitudes towards her.

Lydia Becker (a close friend and confidante of Elizabeth’s since 1867) demanded at one meeting that the Registers at Kensington be searched to confirm that the October wedding had taken place. Another close friend since 1866, the physically frail Josephine Butler, recorded in a letter from her sickbed that she wished she had ‘never heard of such people as the Elmys’. Millicent Garrett Fawcett, never especially close to Elizabeth, chastised her with the fact that she had brought the women’s movement into disrepute. For Elizabeth the hurt of their rejection of friends was so great that she retired to Congleton for the birth ‘wishing never to be spoken of again’. Obviously, her resolve on this matter did not last long.

Although Elizabeth WE preferred to work outside party politics (apart from her support for the Independent Labour Party), there were political movements and figures which influenced her. Could you talk us through the main players which informed her political consciousness?

Elizabeth believed that party politics ‘ruined work’, as it caused divisions and factionalism where there should be a united desire to improve life for all. The bedrock of this belief, I believe, came from the Quaker influences of her early life. She was a lifelong pacifist, a cause to which she held true even throughout the jingoism of the 1899-1902 Anglo-Boer War. The family refused, in 1902, to join in the celebrations in Congleton Park after peace was restored and although there are no first-hand sources to confirm or deny this, I feel sure Elizabeth’s reaction to the outbreak of the Great War in 1914 would have been one of complete horror.

Though of radical-Liberal heritage, Elizabeth found William E. Gladstone, three times PM of the United Kingdom, a trial. She believed he was the biggest stumbling block to women’s freedom, as he was known to use his veto as Prime Minister to prevent the passage of women’s suffrage bills through parliament. Elizabeth herself became a member of the Manchester Central Branch of the ILP in 1905 but her commitment to socialism in its strictest sense was never total, unlike that of her husband, who she wrote of as being an ‘ardent socialist’ until his death in March 1906.

The truth about Elizabeth’s politics is that she was, first and last, a humanitarian and she was not above using any party-political machinery she could to promote her work. As secretary of the Women’s Emancipation Union from 1891-99 she had as much contact with the labour movement’s Women’s Co-operative Guild and Trades’ Unions as she did with the Conservative’s Primrose Dames, using these and many other organisations to promote feminist views and propaganda.

The decision in 1909 to force feed the militants of the WSPU was seen by Elizabeth as ‘state torture’ – even though she condemned the actions of the women themselves, which grew increasingly more violent after 1912. She berated them for their antics of window smashing, axe throwing and arson for, she wrote, “how could they be certain not to hurt the innocent?” From that moment on (and bear in mind she was almost 80 years old) she continued her campaigning as a ‘non-militant’ – even leading the NUWSS procession into her home town of Congleton in 1913. By now, as an octogenarian, she had earned the respect even of her former critics.

One of the controversial topics which Elizabeth WE spoke about was marital rape- indeed she was the first woman to speak on the issue in a public platform. Why did she feel so strongly about this issue?

Elizabeth’s abhorrence of marital rape became clear in 1880, when she stood on the platform of the London Dialectical Society to declare her desire to see the practice criminalised. Her opposition was in part built on personal reasons and a desire to see a legal inequality quashed.
Wives were often beaten or starved for non-compliance or, as evidence from one notable legal case of 1891 shows, imprisoned against their will. Elizabeth saw the crime of marital rape as one common to women of all classes, and thus a cause of unity. At a moment when even polite society was concerned with the ever-increasing rise in sexually transmitted diseases she found a receptive audience, in some quarters, for her views.

That is not to say her path in this regard was an easy one; far from it, for she found herself apologising to her 1880 audience for speaking, as a woman, on so ‘delicate’ an issue in public. Of all the disadvantages married women faced Elizabeth believed this ‘sex slavery’, as she termed, it to be the worst. For all her efforts, Elizabeth did not see a law passed against it in her lifetime – in fact this did not pass the Statute Book until 1991.

Reading through some of the exchanges and letters of Elizabeth WE it’s clear that whilst she was hard to work with at times, people respected her and her work for the feminist movement deeply. One example of this, is the financial support she received after the death of her husband.

Ben Elmy’s firm was a victim of the textile recession in north-west England in the late-1880s and was sold at a significant loss. After his death, Elizabeth and her son Frank had little more than their house and the £52 a year Frank earned as a local council rate collector. What saved them financially was the assistance of Elizabeth’s colleagues, led by Harriet McIlquham along with Frances Rowe and Louisa Martindale. These women could see beyond the sometimes acerbic exterior to the woman beneath and, to ease her material burdens, established the ‘Grateful Fund’ in the mid-1890s, which provided an income for the Elmys of £1.00 per week. The ‘Grateful Fund’ and, latterly, a Testimonial organised in 1910 by (among others) Lady Constance Lytton and Emmeline Pankhurst, provided for her care in the final years of her life.

Sometimes, as Elizabeth’s letters show, the money kept the family from real poverty – although she only accepted it on the grounds that it let her work continue. The reality is that as many as found Elizabeth difficult found her vulnerable, and they loved her with real devotion and commitment, understanding that she worked from pure, selfless motives. Elizabeth’s significant collections of letters and other documents, which form the documentary base for the biography, are wonderful resources and they tell many times of her gratefulness to her benefactors. Often written late at night, after she had completed a full day of domestic and political work, her letters to Harriet McIlquham are full of love and tender concern.

Also, albeit infrequently, they show what one eminent historian has referred to as ‘bile and vitriol’, spiteful commentaries regarding colleagues who, Elizabeth believes, have fallen from the true, selfless, feminist path. Particular targets of criticism include Florence Fenwick Miller, Ursula Bright (sister-in-law of John Bright), Millicent Garrett Fawcett and the leadership of the NUWSS. It is true that some of these letters can be read as being excessively critical of some of her colleagues, but the context in which she wrote them is important – particularly when she was under severe strain following Ben Elmy’s business failure in 1888. The fact that she was herself working over 50 hours a week in the textile mill to try and save its fortunes, plus her ‘normal’ domestic duties and feminist campaigning, perhaps makes her somewhat harsh style a little more understandable.

What do you think is the key aspect of EWE’s legacy?

Simply, her tenacity. Without her single-mindedness and untiring focus, I wonder just how successful Victorian feminists would have been in changing so many of the laws that repressed women in all circumstances of life. Elizabeth was foremost in campaigns which made it possible, for example, for working women to have a right to their own income; for separated wives to have increased rights of access to their children; and for the campaign for the vote to be rooted not in the possession of property but simply on grounds of individual autonomy. She died having achieving much of what she had set out to do. The parliamentary vote had been granted to women over thirty year of age (and to women University graduates) a mere six days before her death.

As I have written in the conclusion to the book, it is satisfying that she died at a moment of triumph in feminist history but she still would not have been content because the issue of ‘sex slavery’ had still not been resolved. Her true legacy though is that she never stalled in her objectives, no matter how ill or tired, no matter what her age or personal circumstances, she put all thoughts of self aside. Her place in history should be, perhaps, as one of England’s greatest humanitarians.

Title: Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy and the Victorian Feminist Movement – The biography of an insurgent woman
Author: Maureen Wright
Price: £65.00 (hardback)
Published: 2011
Publisher: Manchester University Press
ISBN: 978-0-7190-8109-5

Article by Arwa Aburawa

Peace and Antiwar activities in 1930s Manchester

In the decade before the outbreak of the Second World War there was extensive campaigning by a number of organisations in Manchester on the issues of peace and opposition to war.

The experience of the slaughter of millions during First World War (“the war to end all wars”) had led many to believe that war was not a solution to international conflict, indeed it might lead to the complete collapse of civilisation. The establishment of the League of Nations after the Paris Conference had appeared to offer hope that new system of international accord might prevent future conflicts. Its aims, as stated in its Covenant, included preventing war through collective security and settling international issues through discussion and arbitration. By 1935 it had 58 members, but not the United States, which refused to join despite the best efforts of President Woodrow Wilson.

Despite some successes, the League was revealed as powerless and ineffectual when countries ignored it and embarked on wars of aggression. In 1931 Japan invaded Manchuria (then part of China), in 1935 Italy attacked Abyssinia (now known as Ethiopia), in 1936 Franco and other generals launched a coup against Spain’s Republican government, aided by Italy and Germany, in 1937 Japan launched a full-scale war against China. In each of these cases the League was unable to act effectively. Coupled with the accession to power of the Nazis in 1933 and their rapid re-armament of Germany, the worsening international situation appeared to portend that another world conflict was inevitable, a prospect many people found almost unbearable when memories of the last war were still so raw.

This public mood was crystallised by what became known as “the King and Country debate” at the Oxford Union on 9 February 1933. A motion stating “That this House will in no circumstances fight for its King and Country” was proposed. It was moved by Kenelm Digby, who told the packed chamber that , “It is no mere coincidence that the only country fighting for the cause of peace, Soviet Russia, is the country that has rid itself of the war-mongering clique. The justification urged for the last war was that it was a war to end war. If that were untrue it was a dastardly lie; if it were true, what justification is there for opposition to this motion tonight?” “. The motion was passed by 275 votes to 15.

The debate and the result caused enormous public controversy and contributed to the emergence of a new peace movement. In 1934 the Peace Pledge Union was founded by Canon Dick Shepherd and attracted tens of thousands of members. The PPU joined with the Women’s Co-operative Guild to promote the wearing of the White Poppy on Remembrance Sunday, which the Guild had started selling in 1933.

A survey conducted in 1934 by the Manchester and District Anti-War Council listed the following organisations in Manchester. Some had been started in response to the Great War, others founded more recently.

Manchester & District Anti-War Council:
This had been formed in 1933 and was a coalition of about fifty mainly working-class and left-wing organisations such as Co-operative Guilds, trade union branches, Labour Parties, ILP, Communists and youth organisations. It carried on regular propaganda work, including public meetings, producing leaflets and posters, contacting the press and holding monthly meetings. On occasions it worked with the Women’s International League and the Society of Friends. The officers were listed as Louise Bell of Daisy Bank, Manchester 10 and Cicely M. Marsh of Granville Road, Fallowfield.

Anti-War Group, Manchester University:
This University society was affiliated to the British Students’ Anti-War council. Student members, which were estimated at about one hundred, pledged themselves not to take part in war and to work actively against wars. The Secretary was P. Chantler.

Fellowship of Reconciliation:
This was an international Christian pacifist society founded in 1914. The Manchester branch was willing to collaborate with any organisation whose views did not conflict with those of FOR. The Secretary was Frank Adey, of Lower Broughton Road.

Manchester & Salford Joint Disarmament Council:
This had been formed in 1931 and was established for the purpose of co-ordinating the work of some thirty local organisations in preparation for the Disarmament conference. This conference was organised by the League of Nations and took place in Geneva from 1932 to 1933. It broke down when Hitler, on coming to power, withdrew Germany from the conference and also from the League of Nations. By 1934 this Council seems to have ceased to function.

League of Nations Union:
This had been established as a national organisation in October 1918 by the merger of the League of Free Nations Association and the League of Nations Society, with the aim of working for the support of the League of Nations amongst the people. Membership in Manchester and near-by districts was claimed to be around 25,000, organised into 72 branches. The LNU issued literature and provided speakers for public meetings and schools. The Secretary was C E Clift and the LNU had an office at 53 Barton Arcade.

Manchester Peace Players:
This drama society was formed to produce Peace Plays only and to perform these plays to churches, Co-operative Societies and Peace organisations. The players had about 25 acting members and 40 supporting members. The secretary was Helen Savage of York Road, Chorlton-cum-Hardy.

No More War Movement:
The NWM was the British branch of the War Resisters International, founded in 1921. Members signed a declaration not to support any war, international or civil, and to work for the establishment of all caused of war, and the establishment of a new social and international order, based on co-operation for the common good. Membership was estimated at about 330. The Secretary was W Bingham, of Stretford Road.

Society of Friends:
The Friends Peace Committee actively sought to bring about a better understanding and co-operation between all peoples and collaborate where possible with other bodies in education for world peace. It issued literature and held public meetings and had been prominent in the activities of the Manchester and Salford Joint Disarmament council. The Secretary was Joseph Pennington, of Chestnut Avenue, Walkden.

Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom:
On April 28, 1915, despite many obstacles, a group of a thousand women met in an International Congress in The Hague, Netherlands to protest against the First world War. The organisers of the Congress were women who had been active in the International Suffrage Alliance, and who saw the connection between their struggle for equal rights and the struggle for peace.
The Congress led to the formation of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. The WIL branch in Manchester was active in organising public meetings, providing speakers and protesting against military displays. It had 540 members and the Secretary was Audrey Bullough. They had an office at 1 Princess Street

Peace and anti-war activities

1935

The Manchester Anti-War Council organised an exhibition which took place in the Friends Meeting House between 14-19 January 1935. It was opened by George Sutherland, principal of Dalton Hall, with E C Whitaker in the chair.

The President of the Council was John Jagger, who was a trade unionist, President of the shop workers’ union the NUDAW, and was elected as MP for Manchester Clayton at the general election in November 1935. The exhibition comprised eight sections which looked at the causes, conduct and aftermath of the Great War and how preparations for another war were being made. The exhibition programme included an advert for anti-war literature at Books & Books, 54 Victoria Street.

1937

In July 1937 there was a Manchester & Salford Peace Week organised by an umbrella council, whose Presidents were the Lord Mayors of Manchester and Salford. The Peace Week appears to have been closely connected with the LNU as the Secretary of the council was C E Clift, who was also the Secretary of the LNU. The events included a Peace Exhibition at Central Hall, Oldham Street; a Peace shop on Deansgate (corner of Blackfriars); a Peace Shop and Exhibition on Wellington Street, Gorton; a performance of the anti-war play The Miracle of Verdun by Hans Schlumberg; and Peace Films at the Tatler Theatre, Oxford Road . There were also processions and meetings in many parts of Manchester and Salford, including meetings at the Friends Meeting House where on Monday 5 July Dr Herbert Gray spoke on “What Makes Nations Dangerous” while on 7 July Professor C E M Joad spoke on “The Coming of the World State”. On Wednesday 7 July there was a Women’s Day whose main event was a procession of one hundred women’s organisations from All Saints to Platt Fields where the speakers included Ellen Wilkinson MP.

The week concluded with a mass meeting in the Free Trade Hall , chaired by the Lord Mayor. The speakers were Norman Angell and Phillip Noel Baker MP. Norman Angell was Labour MP for Bradford 1929-1931 and active an international issues, including opposition to fascism. He was the author of many books. Philip Noel Baker (1899-1982) was from a Quaker family and during the First World War led the Friends Ambulance Unit which was staffed by conscientious objectors. He was MP for Derby 1936-1970 and later served in the House of Lords.

During the week there was an office for selling tickets at 53 Barton Arcade.

1938

In January 1938 the Manchester & District Ant-War Council hosted the Cambridge Anti-War Exhibition at the Burlington Café, Oxford Road (11-14 January) and then at the Friends Meeting house (15-19 January). The exhibition was opened by Maurice Dobb, a lecturer on economics at Trinity College Cambridge University. He was a member of the CPGB.

The art and lighting direction was by E G Barlow, who lent six of his own drawings. The design and mounting was by Misha Black who was an architect and designer, joint founder of the Artists’ International Association in 1933, and later professor of industrial design at the Royal College of Art from 1959-1975, and by Barbara Nixon (about whom I have not been able to find more information).

The mystery of Guernica

Guernica is Pablo Picasso’s most famous painting, created in response to the bombing of the Basque town by German and Italian warplanes at the behest of the Spanish Nationalist forces on 26 April 1937. The Spanish Republican government commissioned Picasso to create a large mural for the Spanish display at the Paris International Exposition at the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris.
On completion Guernica was taken on tour around the world in an attempt to bring the situation in Spain to public attention. In January 1939 Guernica and the studies were exhibited at the Whitechapel Gallery in the East End. Intriguingly there is a persistent rumour that in February 1939 Guernica was exhibited in Manchester for two weeks in a vacant car showroom opposite the Cathedral, before it was returned to France and from there to the USA where it stayed for 42 years, only being sent back to Spain after the death of Franco. Enquiries are ongoing to establish the truth of this.

Article by Michael Herbert

The Clarion Movement

The Clarion newspaper was the most influential Socialist newspaper ever published in Britain, creating thousands of Socialists and inspiring a whole social movement. The movement was divided by the First World War and never recovered.

The first issue of The Clarion was published on 12 December 1891. The offices were in City Buildings, Corporation Street, Manchester, although the paper moved to Fleet Street in 1895. (The building still stands unoccupied and derelict opposite the Co-operative Bank). The Clarion was founded by Robert Blatchford.

Blatchford was born in Maidstone in 1851. He came from a theatrical family, his father John being a comedian and his mother Georgina an actress. He had little schooling and was largely self-educated, spending his time reading during regular bouts of childhood illness. The family eventually settled in Halifax where Robert was apprenticed as a brushmaker. He did not go into the trade, leaving the town in 1871 and joining the army where he rose to the rank of Sergeant Major.

After leaving the army he got a job as a storeman with the Weaver Navigation Company in Northwich and began writing short stories in his spare time. This led to him writing a column for a newspaper in Leeds and then into full-time journalism, first in London and then in Manchester where he worked for Edward Hulton, writing for the Sunday Chronicle under the pen-name Nunquam (Nunquam Dormio – I do not sleep.) His salary was now an astonishing £1,000 a year.

Increasingly he wrote about slum conditions in Manchester and was taken around some of the worst cellars in Hulme and Ancoats by a local Socialist, Joe Waddington. Blatchford finally became a Socialist after reading What is Socialism, written by Henry Hyndman and William Morris. Blatchford was not a theoretician but came to Socialism because he saw it as a practical solution to the poverty and misery he had personally witnessed. He later wrote:

“I have never read a page of Marx. I got the idea of collective ownership from H.M. Hyndman; the rest of my Socialism I thought out myself. English Socialism is not German: it is English. English Socialism is not Marxian; It is humanitarian. It does not depend upon any theory of “economic justice” but upon humanity and common sense.”

Hulton would not let him write about Socialism in the Morning Chronicle so Blatchford walked out of his job and set up The Clarion, along with his brother Montague, Alex Thompson, Edward Fay and Robert Suthers. It was a huge gamble but fortunately for them many of Blatchford’s readers followed him to the new venture and The Clarion soon became a welcome weekly visitor to thousands of households and attracted a fierce loyalty from its readers. The Clarion was never a dry-as-dust theoretical journal, but a jovial mix of news, comment, short stories, songs and poetry.

Blatchford and The Clarion made Socialists. As George R Taylor put it in his book Leaders Of Socialism, Past and Present, published in 1910,

“…..Robert Blatchford…..can manufacture Socialist more quickly then anyone else. Tipton Limited sells more tea than any other firm, Lever sells more soap; one factory makes more boots; another most chairs. Mr Blatchford and The Clarion make more Socialists than any rival establishment.”

Blatchford’s pamphlet Merrie England: a Series of Letters on the Labour Problem, based on articles originally published in The Clarion, appeared in 1893, priced at a shilling. The first run of 25,000 sold out and it was then reprinted, the price lowered at penny and sold by the hundreds of thousands. It was addressed to “John Smith of Oldham, a hard-headed workman fond of facts” and set out practical reasons why Socialism was necessary, ending by presenting readers with a stark choice:

“This question of Socialism is the most important and imperative question of the age. It will divide, is now dividing, society into two camps. In which camp will you elect to stand? On the one side there are individualism and competition –leading to a “great trade” and great miseries. On the other side is justice, without which can come no good, from which can come no evil. On the one hand are ranged all the sages, all the saints, all the martyrs, all the noble manhood and pure womanhood of the world; on the other hand are the tyrant, the robber, the manslayer, the libertine, the usurer, the slave-driver, the drunkard, and the sweater. Choose your party, then, my friend, and let us get to the fighting.”

The Clarion supported the three year strike in the slate mines at Bethesda in Wales by raising money for the strikers. Its readers now set up a social network of societies, including the Clarion Cycling Club (which is still going), Vocal Unions, Clarion Fellowship, Clarion Handicraft Clubs, Clarion Scouts, Rambling Clubs and Cinderella Clubs (which arranged events for children). In 1908 the Clarion Café was opened at 50a Market Street; this lasted until the 1930s.

The Clarion Cycling Club began one evening in February 1894 when Tom Groom and five others men held a meeting in the Labour Church in Birmingham and decided to set up a Socialist Cycling Club. Their first tour was at the Easter weekend and was later written up for The Clarion, in which Tom Groom described how they left Wolverhampton on a damp morning and cycled around Worcestershire, enjoying the pleasure of the countryside – and its pubs!

“Suddenly the first man rang his bell, and discounted, the others following suit. The first man spake not, but pointed with trembling delight to where they sold the Clarion…..We all marched in, in order, purchased our Clarions and then, as solemnly walked out, mounted our machines, and then proceeded on our way as men who had had glimpses of higher things.”

Tom concluded his report, “We had spent as grand a holiday as possible. Ah-h! It was glorious! Say no man lives until he has been on tour with the Clarion CC. Till then he but exists.”

His report inspired others to set up their own Clarion Cycling Clubs and in 1895 over one hundred cyclists met up at Easter in Ashbourne for the first annual meet, a tradition that still continues. There were rides out, songs and drinking in the George & Dragon. As the cycling clubs grew Clarion clubhouses were set up to allow the cyclists to get away for a cheap weekend in the country. The first was a caravan set up over the summer of 1895 at Tabley Brook, near Knutsford, by two Manchester CCC members Charlie Reekie and J S Sutcliffe. A permanent Clubhouse in an old house was opened in June 1897 at Bucklow Hill, leased from a farmer for 5 years. This was followed an old farmhouse in Handforth which ran from 1903 to 1936. Collin Coates later wrote:

“To be able to wheel out on a Saturday or Sunday after the week’s toil and moil in the dingy office, the stuffy warehouse, the reeking slum, the enervating mill, workshop or mine – to one’s own house…..which was the rendezvous of kindred soul bubbling over with the spirit of the newly–found fellowship, was indeed taste of the joys to be had in the ‘days-a-coming’.”

Other Clubhouses were set up in Wharfedale, Halewood, the Ribble Valley, the Midlands and Essex. One Clarion House survives near Nelson-on-Colne, opened in 1912 by Nelson ILP. It welcomes visitors, walkers and cyclists still.

The Clarion had a women’s column almost from the start, written firstly by Eleanor Keeling and then from October 1895 by Julia Dawson. In February 1896 Julia told her readers that she wanted to organise a Clarion Van tour over the summer. A horse-drawn van had already been offered and would be sent out on the road with two or three women on board, stopping in towns and villages to hold meetings and distribute Socialist literature. She appealed for women to come forward as speakers and for donations to fund the venture. These appeals were successful and in June the Van set off from Liverpool. The speakers on the first tour included Caroline Martyn, Ada Nield and Sarah Reddish. The Van toured Cheshire and Staffordshire and then went north, finishing up on Tyneside after fifteen weeks’ hard campaigning. On the way the women had addressed thousands of people. It was judged a great success and repeated in following years. By 1907 the number of Vans had risen to six.

The Clarion movement was fractured in 1914 when Robert Blatchford supported the war. He had already incensed many of readers in 1899 when he supported the Boer war. He had also supported calls for a stronger navy and army and had written articles in the Daily Mail about the “German Menace.” Now with war a reality he turned on his former comrades, some of whom were imprisoned for their conscientious objection to the slaughter.

Collin Coates later reflected that:

“We could not equate Socialism, as we had understood it, with the organised killing of others of our own class. This attitude aroused Blatchford to a pitch of patriotic fervour which caused him to abuse and vilify such of us as had failed to drop our Socialism for a narrow nationalism.”

The paper struggled on after the war but it was never the same. The Labour Party was now a growing force electorally, prepared to enter government on a pragmatic basis, whilst on its left the newly formed Communist party was attracting young idealists. The paper became monthly in 1927 and finally disappeared in 1934, its heyday long past. Blatchford himself died in 1943 and now slept.

Article by Michael Herbert.

Resources and further reading

Clarion House
Clarion Cycling Club

Clarion archives, pamphlets and books, Working Class Movement Library

Roger Brown and Stan Iveson, Clarion House, a monument to a Movement

Chris Clegg, “Nelson ILP Clarion House: a remarkable survivor”, North West Labour History Journal, No 30

Michael Nally, “The Dear Old Perisher: the Clarion Newspaper 1891-1935”, North West Labour History Journal, No 17

Richard Povall, “Pedal Power” text of his play about the National Clarion Cycling Club), North West Labour History Journal, No 29

Denis Pye , “Fellowship Is Life: the Bolton Clarion Cycling Club and the Clarion Movement 1896-1914”, North West Labour History Journal, No 10

Denis Pye, “Charlie Reekie’s Dream, the story of the Manchester Clarion Clubhouses 1897-1951”, North West Labour History Journal, No 17

Denis Pye, Socialism, Fellowship and Food, the Manchester Clarion Café 1908-1936, North West Labour History Journal, No 21

Denis Pye, Fellowship is Life: the story of the Clarion Cycling Club (1995) (still available from the author, 34 Temple Road, Halliwell, Bolton BL1 3LT. £4.95 p&p. Cheques payable to Clarion Publishing)

Nikki Salmon, “Bold Memories of ’84. Bolton Clarion’s ride round the Lancashire Pits, December 8th 1984”, North West Labour History Journal, No 11

Hannah Mitchell, Socialist and Suffragette

Hannah Mitchell was a self-educated Socialist and suffragette, originally from Derbyshire. In her later years she served on Manchester City Council. Her autobiography, The Hard Way Up, is now seen as a classic account of life by a working class woman.

Hannah Mitchell was born Hannah Webster in 1871, one of six children raised on a remote farm in Alport Dale, Derbyshire. She had just two weeks of formal schooling in her whole life. Her father taught to her to read and she became passionately fond of books, even doing her brothers’ chores in return for being allowed to read the books they brought home from school. Her love of books lasted a lifetime. Hannah was often brutally treated by her mother and finally left home aged just 14, unable to bear it any longer. Many years later she recalled this event in her autobiography The Hard Way Up:

“I tramped over the hill, hardly conscious of the distance, blinded by tears and full of grief at leaving my father and uncle, and the two younger children who were both vey fond of me. I knew now that I must rely on myself. I knew also that I was ill-equipped for the battle of life, uneducated, untrained, what should I find myself capable of doing among more fortunate youth? These were bitter reflections and did not tend to soften my feelings towards my mother, although I felt a faint sense of relief in the knowledge that I was free from her scolding tongue and violent temper. But somewhere on the moorland road I left my childhood behind.”

Hannah was taken in by her brother Will and his wife, finding employment as a maid in a schoolmaster’s house and later as a dressmaker’s assistant, first locally and then in Bolton, where she made evening frocks. All the time she worked hard to improve her handwriting and her reading, making full use of the local library.

Along with her co-workers she attended a public address by the novelist Menie Muriel Dowie as part of a campaign for shorter working hours for shopworkers. It was common then for the women to work six days a week.

Hannah also began reading The Clarion, the Socialist newspaper launched by Robert Blatchford in Manchester in December 1891, and attending Socialist meetings in Bolton where one night she heard a woman speaker.

She was Katherine St John Conway, a:

“slight girlish figure in a black frock with a Medici collar, and her hair swept back from her forehead; she looked as if she belonged to some religious order. Though not much older in years than myself, this girl was already a highly educated, well-trained personality. Perhaps at first I paid more attention to the speaker than her speech, but heard enough to send me away with an inspiration which later sent me out to the street corners with the same message.”

Hannah’s Socialist convictions remained with her the rest of her life. She began courting a fellow Socialist, Gibbon Mitchell, attending meetings of the Labour Church with him, and they married two years later. She wrote:

“Married life as lived by my brothers, sisters and friends, held no great attraction for me, but I wanted a home of my own. Perhaps If I had really understood my own nature, as I came to do later, I should not have married, for I soon realised that married life as men understand it, calls for a degree of self-abnegation which was impossible for me. Probably I should have hesitated, even then, but for the newer ideas which were being propunded by the Socialists. Men and women were talking of marriage as a comradeship, rather than a state where the women was subservent to, and dependent on, the man.”

The couple had just one child at Hannah’s insistence, after a difficult birth. “I soon came to realise that although birth control may not be a perfect solution to social problems, it is the first and the simplest way at present for women to obtain some measure of freedom” she later wrote.

Hannah and her husband spent three years living in a village near Burton-on-Trent where they were active in the Independent Labour Party, attending meetings and putting up speakers, and also in the Clarion movement, helping out the Clarion newspaper’s delivery van when it toured their area.

In 1900 the couple moved to Ashton-under-Lyne where Hannah and Gibbon were active in the ILP and in the Labour Church where Hannah became the lecture Secretary, organising the weekly lectures and putting up the speakers:

“…the Labour Church attracted a type of Socialist who was not satisfied with the stark materialism of the Marxist school, desiring wamth and colour in human lives; not just bread, but bread and roses, too….We had enough imagination to visualize the greater possibility for beauty and culture in a more justly ordered state.”

Hannnah herself gave her first public speech when the Clarion Van came to Bolton and then began to speak at outdoor public meetings and at the Labour Church. To her surprise she was soon in demand as a speaker.

In May 1904 she was elected as a Poor Law Guardian to the board in Ashton-under-Lyne. At the same time she became increasingly involved in the campaign for votes for women that had been started by fellow ILP members Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst in October 1903. Hannah visited their home in Nelson Street and spoke at many meetings around Lancashire. In October 1905 she was amongst the crowd that greeted Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney on their release from Strangeways prison after their arrest during a meeting in the Free Trade Hall. Hannah now committed herself body and soul to the cause of women’s suffrage:

“It seems to me now, looking back, that all my previous life had been a preparation for this geat experience. While indirectly it caused me much sorrow, it brought me many contacts which have immeasurably enriched my life. Through the suffrage movement I have come to know many notable women who honoured me by their friendship and encouragment. Chief amongst these was that fine and gracious woman, Charlotte Despard, who, I am proud to remember, to the end of her long life, always called me her dear friend…”

During the campaign for the 1906 General Election she interrupted a January 9th meeting addressed by Winston Churchill in St John’s School, Deansgate (Churchill was then a Liberal). She wrote of the incident:

“I rose and and displayed my little banner, calling out; “Will the Liberal government give the vote to women?” At once the meeting broke into uproar, shouting “throw her out!” along with less decent suggestions. My banner was snatched from me, and clutching hands tried to pull me over the seat, but I was young then, and strong, and pushing my assailants away. I mounted the seat, held up my second banner, and repeated the question. The chairman seemed unable to do anything, except to make wild gestures of rage… so Mr Churchill himself took a hand. Appealing for order he said “Let the lady come to the platform and tell us what what she wants”. My immediate attackers gave way at once, but I was subjected to so much rough handling on the way, that I must have looked a sorry sight when I reached the platform. The chairman, who seemed entirely to have lost his self-control, seized me roughly by the arm and lierally shook me, until Mr Churchill interposed, saying he would deal with me myself. With his usual forcefulness he induced the meeting to give order and invited to state my case. In spite of my agitation I did so, saying briefly that we wanted the promise of a government measure granting the vote to women, “as it is” or “may be” granted to men.”

A recording of Hannah Mitchell an account of her interruption of Churchill’s meeting can be listened to on the Working Class Movement Library website, here.

Hannah Mitchell and Alice Milne also interrupted a meeting addressed by Lloyd George at Hale. They were kept in the hall until the meeting was over and had to walk seven miles home as the last train had gone.

In the summer of 1906 Hannah was arrested and sent to prison after interrupting a Liberal Party rally at Belle Vue at which John Burns and Winston Churchill were the speakers. However she was released early, much to her annoyance, after her husband paid her fine. The agitation continued and the outdoor meetings became rougher and more dangererous as men tried to attack the women speakers.

In the autumn of 1906 Hannah paid her first visit to London, speaking in a number of parks and taking part in a raid on the lobby of the House of Commons. She went up to Huddersfield to campaign during a by-election and thereafter went on to Oldham, around the North East and elsewhere. During the campaign to elect the independent Socialist Victor Grayson as an MP for Colne Valley, Hannah collapsed with exhaustion and suffered a nervous breakdown. It took her a long time to recover. She was deeply hurt by the fact that the Pankhursts did not show any interest in her illness, not even a letter of sympathy. By contrast Mrs Despard came to visit her, saw Hannah’s doctor and sent money to help with extra food.

There was a split in the WSPU in the autumn of 1907 after Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst abolished its democratic structures. A group of about seventy women, including Teresa Billington-Greig, Charlotte Despard and Elizabeth How-Martyn, left the WSPU and established the Women’s Freedom League. Hannah joined as soon as she was well enough and worked for a short time for the WFL in Scotland in Prime Minister Herbert Asquith’s constituency.

The Mitchells now moved from Ashton to Manchester and joined the local ILP branch. Hannah was soon in demand again as a speaker. In 1914 she attended the Coming of Age conference in Bradford, marking 25 years of the ILP’s existence. Within months Europe was engulfed in a savage war with lasted four years and killed millions.

Despite the popular pro-war jingoism Hannah remained true to her Socialist beliefs and opposed the conflict. She became active in the No Conscription Fellowship and Women’s International League. Her son decided that he could not fight, applied to the Conscientious Objectors Tribunal, and to Hannah’s great relief, was granted exemption.

In 1924 Hannah was elected for Labour to Manchester City Council and remained a member until 1935. She was an active member and particularly enjoyed being on the Libraries Committee because of her love of reading. She was also on the Baths Committee which established public wash houses in working class areas “…a real public service greatly appreciated by women.” After leaving the Council she became a magistrate. She had been working on her autobiography for many years but it was not accepted for publication during her lifetime. After Hannah’s death it was found amongst her papers and finally published in 1968 under the title The Hard Way Up by Faber & Faber, with an introduction by her grandson Geoffrey Mitchell, who had edited the manuscript. It is now considered a classic account of a working class woman’s personal and political emancipation.

Article by Michael Herbert

Ellen Wilkinson – trade unionist, feminist, socialist

Ellen Wilkinson was born in Manchester in 1891 and was an active trade unionist, feminist and Socialist. She was a councillor in Manchester and later MP for Middlesbrough and then Jarrow. She was Minister for Education in the 1945 Labour government but died suddenly in February 1947.

Ellen Wilkinson was born on 18 October 1891 at 41 Coral Street, Ardwick. Her father Richard was as a textile worker and later an insurance agent, while her mother, also named Ellen, was a dress-maker. Her father was a lay Methodist preacher but Ellen did not grow up to share her parents’ religious beliefs.

As a child she was often ill with asthma and never grew above five foot tall. After an elementary education she won a scholarship in 1902 to attend Ardwick Higher Grade school (later renamed Ellen Wilkinson Highschool in her memory). In 1906 she won a bursary to study at Manchester Day Training college for half a week, teaching at Oswald Road school for the rest of the week.

In her autobiography Myself When Young, published in 1936, she recalled:

“The boys were filling in time, bored stiff under they reached 14 years and could leave. I was an undersized girl. They all towered above me. My only hope was to interest them sufficiently to keep them reasonably quiet. One day the Headmaster came in and demanded to know why the boys were not sitting upright with their arms folded. “They are sitting that way because I am interesting them,” I replied. To which the Headmaster responded by caning almost everyone. We had a grand row, and I was sent home to be reprimanded by an Inspector. But my temper had not calmed. The surging hate of all the silly punishment I had endured in my school days prevented any awe of the Inspector. I whirled all this out at the unfortunate man, who listened quietly and advised: “Don’t do any more teaching when you have finished your two years here. Take my advice. Go and be a missionary in China.”

Ellen did not take the advice, instead in 1910 she gained a scholarship to read history at the University of Manchester, a considerable achievement for a working class young woman.

She was already involved in the Socialist movement, having joined the Independent Labour Party at the age of 16 after hearing a speech by Katherine Glasier, one of the leading women socialists of the day:

“It was a memorable meeting. I got a seat in the front row of the gallery. It seemed noisy to me, whose sole experience of meetings was of religious services. Rows of men filled the platform. But my eyes were riveted on a small slim woman, her hair simply coiled into her neck, Katherine Glasier. She was speaking on ‘Socialism as a Religion’. To stand on a platform of the Free Trade Hall, to be able to sway a great crowd, to be able to make people work to make life better, to remove slums and under-feeding and misery just because one came and spoke to them about it – that seemed the highest destiny any women could ever hope for.”

At college Wilkinson was Secretary of the Fabian Society, meeting Clifford Allen and GDH Cole, and later of the Socialist Federation, and was also active in the Manchester Society for Women’s Suffrage. On leaving university she got a job as the Manchester organiser for the National Union of Women Suffrage Societies, whose offices were on John Dalton Street. She spoke at many out-door meetings as well as running recruitment drives and raising funds.

Like many ILP members Ellen Wilkinson opposed the First World War and supported the No Conscription Fellowship, which opposed compulsory conscription and supported pacifists and conscientious objectors who refused to serve in the armed forces. She also joined the Women’s International League for Peacer & Freedom, which called for a negotiated end to the war.

In 1915 she was employed by the National Union of Distributive & Allied Workers to organise the Co-operative Employees, the first woman organiser to work for the union.

By now Wilkinson was an Executive menber of the National Guilds League , established by GDH Cole in 1915, to promote Guild Socialism. In August 1920 she was sent as a delegate by the Manchester branch to attend the unity convention in London which, at the urging of Lenin, brought together a number of existing socialist organisations to form the Communist Party of Great Britain. Ellen joined the party later that year, and in 1921 she attended the founding conference of the Red International of Labour Unions in Moscow.

In November 1923 Ellen Wilkinson was elected as a Councillor for the Gorton ward, standing for the Gorton Trades and Labour Council. and on 7 November she spoke at CPGB rally to mark the sixth anniversary of the Russian Revolution. Also speaking on the platform was Shapurji Saklatvala, Communist MP for Battersea.

Ellen left the Communist Party in 1924 when the Labour Party proscribed dual membership. That same year she was elected as a Labour MP for Middlesbrough East, one of the very few women in parliament. In her first speech in the Commons on 3 March 1925 she criticised the arrangements for workers employed at the British Empire exhibition.

On 29 June 1926, whilst speaking during a debate on the Coal Mines Bill, she produced a rope used by miners in Somerset, who had to haul the coal tubs themselves as the roads were too narrow for horses or ponies.

“I am sorry to intrude into the polite environs of this House a thing of this kind. This is what is worn by the men. This is the rope that goes round the man’s waist; this is the chain that passes between his legs, and this is the crook that is hitched on to the tub. This was worn, not 60 years ago, as stated by certain coal-owners, but on 30th April of this year by a miner.”

In July of that same year she also attacked the Tory government’s Emergency Powers Act for imprisoning innocent people.

“One can get into the habit of giving the Government powers like this without realising what they are actually like, when they are put into operation not by the Home Secretary, or the Under-Secretary, but by the local police, and, still worse, by the magistrates, who have shown themselves in many districts completely prejudiced and acting with political bias, and the bias dictated by their own pecuniary interest. I have, through the Class War Prisoners’ Aid Association, come in contact with a number of these cases, and it has astonished me the number of magistrates who are themselves coal-owners, or large employers of labour, who have not hesitated to take their places on the Bench and to deliver judgement in cases when their own property was concerned, and certainly where their own interests were concerned.”

After the defeat of the General Strike she went to the United States to raise money for miners’ families who remained on strike until the autumn and had been left high and dry after the strike was called off by the TUC. In 1927 she wrote a book about the General Strike with Frank Horrabin. In 1929 she wrote a novel called Clash, largely autobiographical.

During the second Labour administration 1929-1931 Wilkinson worked for Susan Lawrence MP, who was parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Health. But she lost her seat in the catastrophic defeat of Labour in the 1931 general election following the formation of a National government. During her time out of the Commons she worked for a trade union and wrote another novel, The Division Bell Mystery. She also campaigned against the rise of fascism, co-authoring a book with Edward Conze entitled Why Fascism?

Ellen returned to the Commons in 1935 as MP for Jarrow, a town suffering massive unemployment because of the slump. In 1936 she took part in the Jarrow Crusade in which several hundred male marchers walked from Jarrow to London to highlight the plight of the unemployed. On reaching London the Prime Minister refused to receive their delegation.

Speaking in the House on 12 November 1936 about the march she said

“As I marched down that road with those men, all of whom I knew well, whom I had worked with in my own constituency, as I marched with them hour after hour, just talking—I come from the working class myself, and my father was unemployed, but I have never known what it was to miss a meal that I wanted—it was just as we walked and talked so intimately that I began to understand something of what it meant, day after day after day, to get up and not know what you were going to do, and never have a copper in your pocket for anything. I mean that it was a revelation to me, and no amount of investigation, and going down for a week, and no amount of talking with these men in the ordinary political sense would have taught me so much.”

In 1939 she wrote a book for the Left Book Club entitled Jarrow, the Town That Was Murdered.

During the war Ellen was acted as parliamentary secretary for Herbert Morrison, the Home Secretary. She was in charge of air raid shelters, often visiting sites personally and urging women to get involved in civil defence.

When the Labour party won the 1945 general election with a huge majority the new Prime Minster Clement Atlee made her Minister of Education with the task of implementing the 1944 Education Act. In 1946 she was successful in getting the School Milk Act through the Commons which provided a free third of a pint of milk every day to every child in the country.

Ellen Wilkinson died suddenly on 6th February 1947 during one of the worst winters of the century. The official cause was pneumonia, although there were rumours that she had taken an overdose. She was buried in Penn, Buckinghamshire. There is a plaque marking the site of her birth place (now demolished) in Baslam Close, Beswick.

Article by Michael Herbert.

Eva Gore-Booth

Born to an upper-class Irish family, Eva Gore-Booth became a leading campaigner for trade union rights, votes for women and Irish independence in the first three decades of the 20th century.

Eva was born in Lissadell,County Sligo in May 1870 into a prominent Anglo-Irish family, the Gore-Booths. She enjoyed a conventional upper-class upbringing but from an early age was entranced by nature and by the delights of novels and poetry. The poet William Yeats was an occasional visitor to the great house and after the deaths of both Eva and her sister Constance Markiewicz wrote a bitter-sweet poem in their memory, whose opening lines recalled those long-ago visits:
The light of evening, Lissadell,
Great windows open to the south,
Two girls in silk kimonos, both
Beautiful, one a gazelle.

The turning point in Eva’s life came in 1896 when she was in Bordighera, Italy. Here she met Esther Roper from Manchester, sent there to rest by friends who feared for her health through overwork. Ester told Eva of her work campaigning for trade union organisation amongst women and for women’s right to vote and the two women became friends, for life as it turned out. Eva decided to leave her comfortable home and way of life in Ireland and move to Manchester to help Esther in her work , sharing her house at 83 Heald Place, Rusholme

Trade Unionism

Within months of her move to Manchester Eva was addressing branches of the local Independent Labour Party and Women’s Co-operative Guild on the necessity of women’s suffrage and was soon recognised as an activist in her own right. In June 1900 she was appointed joint organising secretary of the Manchester, Salford and District Women’s Trade Union Council. Eva worked alongside the other worker Sarah Dickenson in their offices at 9 Albert Square. Sarah later remembered Eva thus in a letter to Esther:

“I met her first at your office when she came to Manchester, and my first impression of her was her charming and interesting personality. When I knew her better I found how very genuine she was in all her dealings and discovered all the beautiful traits in her character. The friendly way that she treated all the women trade unionists endeared her to them. If she was approached for advice or help she never failed. She is remembered by thousands of working women in Manchester for her untiring efforts to improve their industrial conditions, for awakening and educating their sense of political freedom, and for social intercourse.”

The Trades Council had been established at a meeting in the Lord Mayor’s Parlour in the Town Hall in February 1895 by a group of men and women mainly connected with the Liberal party, with the aim of assisting women workers to organise and lobby for the improvement of working conditions.

Over the next few years both women worked very hard to encourage women to set up and join unions. It was rarely an easy task. A section in the 1903 Trades Council report described the problems:

“For however severely trade grievances may be felt, the first steps in organisation are always difficult. The timidity of inexperience is hard to overcome, and people naturally fear to jeopardise their week’s earnings. Innumerable meetings are held by the Council, sometimes so small that they are not in themselves worth recording and much personal canvassing and persuasion has to be used before a sufficient number of workers can be gathered together and enough enthusiasm aroused to induce an adequate number of more progressive to take up the responsible positions of officers, committee and collectors.”

One of the difficulties they encountered in getting women to go to meetings was solved by starting a Tea Fund in 1902 to buy tea, sugar, milk and cake:

“It was found that the tea was a great convenience, as many of the women live in outlying districts, they are naturally anxious to hurry home to tea when their work is over and it is both inconvenient and expensive for them to come back to meetings in the evening. We are glad to say that the tea had good results in introducing a social element that promoted good fellowship and a friendly spirit among the members, and the attendance has largely increased.”

The most successful women’s union established by Eva and Sarah was the Salford and District Association of Power Loom Weavers, set up in April 1902. As well as trade unionism the women workers were also interested in politics and the suffrage campaign, sending a resolution just weeks after their establishment to a meeting at the Free Trade Hall called to protest against the imposition of a corn tax. The women’s resolution not only protested against the tax and the fact that it would fall most heavily on women “the worst paid workers in the country” but also objected to the fact that their exclusion from the franchise prevented them “from making an effective protest at the Ballot Box”. Nellie Keenan was the first Treasurer of the union and later became Secretary.

Eva was in demand as a speaker, addressing the May Day demonstration in Gorton Park in May 1902 and a meeting in the Secular Hall, Rusholme later that same month on “The Industrial Position of Women”. In 1903 Eva became the WTUC representative on the Education Committee of the City Council and was later appointed onto the Technical Instruction Committee.

Christabel Pankhurst became friends with Eva and Esther in 1901 and was swiftly drawn into their activities, joining Eva’s poetry circle at the University Settlement, going on the Women’s Trade Union Council, speaking at a number of meetings on the suffrage question and accompanying the two women on holiday to Venice. Her sister Sylvia recalled that at this time Christabel adored Eva “and when Eva suffered from neuralgia, as often happened, she would sit with her for hours, massaging her head. To all of us at home, this seemed remarkable indeed, for Christabel had never been willing to act as the nurse to any other human being”. At Esther’s suggestion Christabel began studying law at the University of Manchester, graduating in 1906 with first class honours. According to Sylvia, Mrs Pankhurst was quite jealous of the time that Christabel spent with Esther and Eva.

In 1904 Eva and Sarah resigned from their posts with the Women’s Trades Union Council in protest at its refusal to support the campaign for women’s suffrage. The issue had been raised by Christabel Pankhurst, who called for the Council to adopt women’s suffrage as a fourth aim. This was rejected by a large majority on the Council on the grounds that “its special work, for which alone its subscribers’ money was asked, was the organisation of women’s labour, and that the advocacy of Women’s Suffrage, however desirable in itself, was outside its scope as a body”. By now passionately committed to the suffrage campaign Eva and Sarah felt that they had no other option but to resign their jobs with the Trades Council.

They did not abandon their work on unionising women workers, however, but immediately set up a new organisation – the Manchester & Salford Women Trades & Labour Council – in September 1904 with Eva and Sarah as Joint Secretaries and with offices at 5 John Dalton Street. According to Esther the next ten years “were full to overflowing with organisation, writing, speaking at large gathering in all parts of England, deputations to Cabinet Ministers and to Members of Parliament. To this was added a new activity, when well-meant and ill-meant efforts were made to restrict women’s labour in various fields. On different occasions, women pit-brow workers, barmaids, women acrobats and gymnasts, and women florists were successfully organized in their own defence.”

Many of the trade unions that the two women had helped to set up withdrew from the Council in their support along with their two thousand members, including the power loom weavers, tailoresses, bookbinders and others. They continued their hard work and by 1907 Sarah Dickenson was able to tell a conference of women workers in Manchester that they now had four thousand affiliated members. Nellie Keenan acted as Treasurer of the new body, which no longer had access to the wealthy Liberal sympathisers of before. Instead they received contributions from local labour and socialist organisations including the Manchester branch of the National Union of Clerks, the Women’s Co-operative Guild, the National Clarion Cycling Club and the Nelson Labour Representation Committee (Eva’s brother Josslyn Gore-Booth contributed a much needed sum of five pounds each year).

Their success enabled them to start a quarterly newspaper called The Women’s Labour News which gave a full account of all the industrial and political activities of the women’s trade unions. In her editorial in the first issue Eva wrote thus.

“Many are the difficult questions connected with labour, many are the misunderstandings and confusions, many are the obscure corners of the industrial world, and many are the wrongs done in the darkness. Those who are working for the betterment of political and industrial conditions of women have great need of fellowship, of coherency and fee discussion, and the ventilation of pressing grievances. The aim of this little paper is to light a few street lamps here and there in the darkest ways, to let us at all events see one another’s faces and recognise our comrades, and work together with strong, organised and enlightened effort for the uplighting of those who suffer most under the present political and industrial system.”

An important campaign waged by Eva and Esther was in defence of women’s right to work. Many men (and some women) – including some leading trade unionists and socialists – believed in the notion that men should be paid enough to support a wife and family, and that in an ideal society married women would not have to work. When David Shackleton, , Secretary of the Darwen weavers, publicly supported this view, Eva wrote a pamphlet entitled Women’s Right to Work, which pointed out how he represented 74,000 married women workers in the cotton industry. When there were an attempt to prevent bar-maids from working Eva and Esther used the occasion of a by-election in Manchester in which Winston Churchill was standing to raise the issue. Eva’s sister Constance came over from Ireland and attracted publicity in a characteristic manner, as the Manchester Guardian reported in April 1908:

“A coach of the olden times was driven about Manchester yesterday to advertise the political agitation on behalf of the barmaids. It was drawn by four white horses, and the ‘whip’ was the Countess Markievicz, sister of Eva Gore-Booth. In all parts of the city the coach and its passengers excited general interest, and in the North-West division especially, the cause of the barmaids was made known not only by demonstration, but by speeches and personal interviews and distribution of literature.”

Eva and Esther also campaigned over the working conditions of other women workers, such as florists’ assistants and the pit-brow women, who worked on the surface at the head of mines in Lancashire sorting the coal. They wore a distinctive working garb of wide trousers and headscarves and wielded shovels with great manual dexterity. In 1911, when parliament threatened to ban women from the work, Eva and Esther organised protest meetings in Wigan and Manchester and made sure that the pit-brow women were on the platform.

Literature and Education

Somehow Eva found time in her busy life to write poetry and plays and a number of collections of her work were published during the lifetime. Some of her poems were set to music by her friend Max Mayer, a Manchester composer, while two others – The Triumph of Maeve and Forth They Went – were set to music after her death by the composer Edgar Bainton. Her work was also included in a collection made by her friend AE in 1904 called New Songs, appearing alongside poems Padraic Colum, Alice Milligan and others. Her interest in literature and poetry led Eva to become involved in the University Settlement, based in Ancoats Hall, Every Street, where Esther was already on the Committee. The Settlement had been founded in 1895, inspired by the work of Toynbee Hall in the East End of London, with the aim of bringing culture into the bleak industrial district of Ancoats. Eva passed on her love of literature to local working class women and after her death one of them Louisa Smith lovingly recalled those classes:

“We were a class of about sixteen girls. I think we were all machinists and we were rough…..We called ourselves the Elizabethan Society because we had no scenery: as we said among ourselves, we had no assets, but we enjoyed every minute of the rehearsals. We were very raw material but keen on acting; she showed such patience and love that we would do anything to please her and she got the best out of us. After rehearsals we would give a show of our own, an imitation of what we had seen or imagined. If any of us were feeling seedy or worried about business or home she could always see, and showed such an understanding sympathy that we came away feeling we had a real friend. I remember one of the girls was very delicate and truly not really fit to fight the battles of life, and Miss Gore-Booth cared for her and sent her little delicacies, and took her to her own doctor, and in a hundred and one ways she cared for us We thought she was a being from another world. I don’t think I exaggerate when I say we worshipped her, but she never knew it, she was so utterly selfless….She took us on picnics, and they seemed to be different picnics from any I had ever been to, so jolly and free, no restraint about them. She was also very keen on women’s rights and trade unions. She persuaded me to join…She was always sympathetic with the downtrodden, and worked and lectured might and main, interviewing Members of Parliament, etc., on their behalf till conditions were mended. She was very frail and delicate herself, but full of pluck and determination, and would stand up for people she knew to be unjustly treated, even though the world was against them, and with all so sweet and gentle that one could not help loving her.”

In November 1902 a well-attended meeting of theTailoresses Union was held in the Shamrock Hall, Rochdale Road (lent by the United Irish League) where the entertainment was provided by the Elizabethan Society and a Miss Dora Villey, who played the piano for dancing. Eva also ran a fortnightly Sunday morning reading class for a number of years at 78 Canning Street for the Ancoats Brotherhood, an educational organisation which for many years held lectures, music evenings, art appreciation and literature classes and much else in the New Islington Hall, Ancoats.

The Suffrage Campaign

In Lancashire many women worked in the cotton industry and were members of the weavers unions (though despite the fact the majority of the members were women, the officers of the union were always men). Able to earn their own living in the great weaving sheds of the north, these women provided a solid base of support for campaigns to give them political as well as industrial rights. Esther and other women political campaigners such as Sarah Reddish, Selina Cooper and Sarah Dickenson saw the vital importance of linking the struggles for women’s right to vote with the struggle for better working and social conditions, of convincing working class women that the vote was not an end in itself but a means to an end.

On 1st May 1900 they launched a petition at the May Day meeting in Blackburn, asking women textile workers to sign, and then sent out organisers to contact every group of women workers they could find in every town in Lancashire. Accompanied by fifteen women cotton workers the petition was finally presented to parliament on 19th March 1901 with nearly 30,000 signatures. The following year the women presented another petition from Yorkshire and Cheshire and in the summer of 1903 the suffrage campaigners set up the Lancashire and Cheshire Women Textile and Other Workers’ Representation Committee (LCWTOWRC) with an office at 5 John Dalton Street (where they were joined a year later by the secessionist Women’s Trades and Labour Council). Bertha Mason wrote of their efforts thus:

“It was the appearance on the scene of action of this new and important force (women textile workers) , the organizing of which was carried out by Miss Esther Roper, Miss Gore-Booth, and Miss Reddish, herself at one time a textile worker, which was chiefly responsible for the wonderful revival of interest in the question of the enfranchisement of women which marked the early years of 1900. There can be no doubt that this active and enthusiastic demand on the part of great army of women who earn their bread by ‘the sweat of their brow’, and not merely their own bread but in many cases the bread of relatives dependent on them, made a deep impression on Parliament, and caused many who had hitherto treated the agitation as an ‘impracticable fad’ and ‘the fantastic crochet’ of a few rich and well-to-do women, to inquire seriously into the why and wherefore of the movement.”

The manifesto of the LCWTOWR, published in July 1904, explicitly linked class and suffrage and noted the way that the male labour movement had formed the Labour Representation Committee to secure a political voice, leading to the conclusion that women should do the same.

“Fellow Workers – During the last few years the need of political power for the defence of the workers has been felt by every section of the labour world. Among the men the growing sense of of the importance of this question has resulted in the formation of the Labour Representation Committee with the object of gaining direct Parliamentary Representation for the already enfranchised working men. Meanwhile the position of the disenfranchised working women, who are by their voteless condition shut out from all political influence, is becoming daily more precarious. They cannot hope to hold their own in industrial matters, where their interests may clash with those of their enfranchised fellow-workers or employers.
The one all-absorbing and vital political question for labouring women is to force an entrance into the ranks of responsible citizens, in whose hands lie the solution of the problems which are at present convulsing the industrial world.
In view of the complicated state of modern politics, and the mass of conflicting interests, the conclusion has been forced on those of the textile workers who have been working unceasingly in past years to secure the vote for women, that what is urgently needed is that they should send their own nominee to the House of Commons, pledged to work in season and out of season to secure the enfranchisement of the women workers of the country……What Lancashire and Cheshire women think today England will do to-morrow.”

The women extended the campaign, speaking to local trade union branches, helping to establish local suffrage societies and getting support from the Labour Representation Committees. Almost all their efforts were now directed towards working class women. As Eva wrote in her contribution to a book on suffrage, “Surely the working women of England have paid the price of political emancipation over and over again! It is no mere insignificant statistical fact that that these millions of workers live laborious days of poverty-stricken and upright independence, and produce by their labour so large a proportion of the material wealth of the country. Here is a force that must in the end be reckoned with.”

Another tactic adopted by the women was to make suffrage an issue in parliamentary elections where Labour candidates were standing. In the summer of 1902 David Shackleton stood for parliament in a by-election at Clitheroe. Eva wrote to the Manchester Guardian, pointing out that women weavers were paying into a fund to support their MP (MPs received no payment at this time) and yet had no vote themselves. The women organised a number of successful meetings during the campaign. This tactic was repeated in the campaign to support the Labour candidate Thorley Smith in Wigan in 1906 and many women went to the town to speak. He came second to the Tory candidate. In January 1910 the committee ran a campaign during the general election in Rossendale, but with much less success.

After 1904 Christabel moved away from Eva and Esther, engaging in increasingly bitter attacks on the Labour party for its slowness in supporting the demands of women. Instead she moved towards the Women’s Social Political and Union, a small grouping of ILP women that had been established at a meeting in Mrs Pankhurst house in Nelson Street, Chorlton-on-Medlock (now the Pankhurst Centre) on 10th October 1903. Few took much notice of the WSPU until 13th October 1905 when Christabel and a mill girl named Annie Kenney attended a meeting at the Free Trade Hall to be addressed by Winston Churchill MP and Sir Edward Grey MP, two prominent members of the Liberal Party and future Cabinet members. At the end of the meeting Christabel and Annie jumped up and shouted ‘Will the Liberal Government give votes to women?’ whilst unfurling a banner inscribed “Votes for Women”. After being hustled out Christabel got them both arrested by spitting at a policeman and they spent in a week in Strangeways.

The WSPU seized on the incident, organising a protest meetings in Stevenson Square and rallying support from the ILP and other socialist organisations. A large crowd of friends and supporters greeted the two women on their release, including Esther and Eva who presented Christabel with flowers and also added their names to the list of sponsors for a protest meeting to be held the following evening, ironically, at the Free Trade Hall. Christabel and Annie spoke as did Keir Hardie, who moved a motion condemning the behaviour of the Liberal party at the meeting the previous week. Eva seconded the motion. It was perhaps the last time that Eva agreed with Christabel’s actions. A few weeks later she caught hold of Teresa Billington, a leading member of WSPU, after a meeting and urged her to tell Christabel not to vary her defence from one meeting to another. “….she cannot fit her explanation to her audience. She either deliberately invited imprisonment or she was a victim; she either spat at the policeman or she did not. She can’t tell one tale in Manchester and another in Oldham”.

In May 1906 Eva, alongside Sarah Dickenson, Margaret Ashton, Emmeline Pankhurst and other women prominent in the suffrage movement, was one of delegation which met the new Liberal Prime Minister Campbell-Bannerman. In her speech Eva stressed the economic contribution of women on behalf of the fifty working women who had come to London with them from Lancashire:

“The number of women who are engaged at this time in producing the wealth of this country is double the population of Ireland. It is very large number. These women are all labouring under the gross disability and industrial disadvantage of an absolute want of political power. Every day we live this becomes a more grave disadvantage, because industrial questions are becoming political questions which are being fought out in Parliament. The vast number of women workers have their point of view and their interest to be considered; but those interests are not considered and the whole effect of their crushing exclusion is to react on the question of their wages. I am a trade union secretary in Manchester, and know from personal experience what women’s wages are and the sort of money they get for their work. Six or seven shillings a week is not a sufficient sum of money to live on. This not the rate of wages that could be possibly be enforced upon the enfranchised citizens of a free country. We feel, and I think women in other classes, who are working, also feel that our industrial status is being brought down. It results from the fact that we have no political power. That is the lesson which the working women of Lancashire have learned, and that is the thought they want to bring before you and want you to consider.”

To the bitter disappointment of the women Campbell-Bannerman refused to move on the issue and in response the WSPU adopted increasingly militant tactics, beginning with attempts to ‘rush’ Parliament, chaining themselves to railings, smashing windows and eventually even committing arson, burning postboxes and even churches. The ‘suffragettes’ as they had now became known were often brutally treated by the police on demonstrations and when they were imprisoned went on hunger-strike. The prison authorities, backed by the Home Secretary, retaliated by force-feeding them, a shocking and violent physical assault which sometimes damaged the health of women and led to wide-spread criticism of the government by many who were not sympathetic to the tactics of the WSPU.

The northern suffragists felt alienated by the WSPU campaign and continued to work steadily away at their campaign amongst working class women, gathering increased support and eventually winning over the Labour party to their position. In contrast the WSPU severed its links with the Socialist movement, lost all interest in serious organizing amongst working-class women, and indeed Sylvia Pankhurst was disowned by her mother and sister for continuing to work and organise amongst working class women in the East End.

The dismay of the northern suffragists at the tactics of the WSPU were set out by Eva in a letter to Mrs Fawcett, the most prominent constitutional campaigner, in the autumn of 1906:

“There is no class in the community who has such good reasons for objecting and does so strongly object to shrieking and throwing yourself on the floor and struggling and kicking as the average working woman, whose dignity is very real to them. We feel we must tell you this as we are in great difficulties because our members in all parts of the country are so outraged at the idea of taking part in such proceedings that everywhere for the first time they are shrinking from public demonstrations. It is not the fact of demonstration or even the violence offered to them, it is being mixed up with and held accountable as a class for educated and upper class women, who kick, shriek, bite and spit. As far as importance in the eyes of the Government goes where shall we be if the working women do not support us?”

In June 1908 Eva, her sister Constance, Esther and Sarah Reddish went down to London for a large rally organised by the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. Eva told the crowd of several thousand in Trafalgar Square that five million women were working in Britain who were not paid properly for the work that they did, many receiving half the male wage. Constance got the crowd cheering by declaring that “they cannot abolish woman, take away her occupation, and let her starve…We are told that the bar is a bad place for women, but the Thames Embankment is far worse”.

After Manchester

In her memoir Esther Roper records that in 1913 “illness, caused by the climate of Lancashire, made it impossible for us to live there any longer, and reluctantly we left our many friends and went south, though we came back constantly for work”. Not just the soot-filled damp air but surely years of long hours, travel and snatched meals must have taken its toll on the health of both women. In London they took up residence in Hampstead at 14 Frognal Gardens. There was to be no peaceful retirement for Eva and Esther for they were soon caught up in the enormity of the First World War and then the bloody events of the Easter Rising and its aftermath

When the war broke out they opposed it as pacifists as did many of their suffragist and socialist friends, some of whom were active in organisations such the No Conscription Fellowship and Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. Eva wrote a short story called The Tribunal (which was printed as a leaflet) in which she dramatises the experience of conscientious objectors when arguing for their beliefs before hostile magistrates. In 1915 the two women joined the Womens’ Peace crusade and travelled the country speaking in support of a negotiated peace to end the war. These were very brave actions given the climate of jingoism and anti-German hysteria whipped up by the government and the “patriotic” press.

Constance had followed a very different political path to Eva, joining Sinn Fein in 1908 and setting up the Fianna na hEireann in 1909 as an Irish alternative to the pro-Imperialist Boy Scouts recently established by Baden-Powell. She was an expert shot who in turn taught her young men how to shoot and many of them later took part in the Easter Rising. During the 1913 Dublin Lockout Constance ran soup kitchens to help feed thousands of strikers. During the Rising in 1916 Constance was second in command at St Stephen’s Green and was sentenced to death, though it was commuted to life imprisonment. Eva was granted permission to see her and crossed to Dublin with Esther. On the day they landed they saw newspaper placards announcing the execution that morning of James Connolly. They had been warned not to tell Constance but she guessed from their faces. Writing in Socialist Review a few weeks later Eva said that the rebellion has been a blow to all those who had hoped for a lessening of the hostility between England and Ireland:

“But the severity with which the rebellion was crushed was, many of us believe, a far worse blow. England had her opportunity, an opportunity of treating the Irish rising as De Wet’s rising was treated in South Africa. The rising was crushed, her enemies were at her feet. What a glorious opportunity for killing with clemency the old tradition of hatred and the memory pf the atrocities of ’98 that have festered so long in the imaginations of the Irish people. By some malign fate, as ever England showed her hardest side in her dealings with Ireland. Those irresponsible and extraneous shootings and horrors which seem to be inseparable from the advance of a conquering army were not enough. Fourteen deliberate executions of men widely known and admired were carried out under heart-rending circumstances. And thus Ireland’s old tradition of defiance and hatred gets a new lease of life….”

Constance was moved without warning to England but Esther, usually the more down-to-earth one, had a premonition one late afternoon and they set off to meet the Irish Mail, where Eva found Constance being escorted under armed guard to Aylesbury Gaol. They wrote to each other daily and the letters that survived were eventually published. Constance was let out of prison under an amnesty declared by the British government in June 1917 and returned to Ireland where she became even more involved what was now an Irish revolution. She was the first woman elected to British parliament in December 1918, but along with the rest of Sinn Fein did not go to London to take her seat, sitting in the Dail in Dublin instead. Constance was made Minister for Labour in the revolutionary government.

Eva also gave support to Roger Casement who was tried for treason for his part in the Rising, attending court every day and trying in vain, along with others, to prevent his execution which took place on 3rd August 1916. Many of her poems written at this time reflected the sorrow she and others were suffering in the wake of the Rising and the executions and repression that followed and were published in 1918 under the title Broken Glory, dedicated to Roger Casemnet. In “Easter Week” she wrote thus:

Grief for the noble dead
Of one who did not share their strife
And mourned that any blood was shed
Yet felt the broken glory of their state
Their strange heroic questioning of Fate
Ribbon with gold the rags of this our life.

Last Years

By 1920 Eva and Esther’s work during the war and the trauma of the Rising and War of independence had greatly affected their health, with Eva remaining a semi-invalid for the last years of her life. The two women spent much time travelling in Italy. Always inclined to mysticism Eva became very interested in theosophy, though she still followed affairs in Ireland closely. On 1st July 1921 a letter written jointly by Eva and Clare Annesley appeared in the Manchester Guardian, drawing attention to the fact that a man called Patrick Casey had been condemned to death by a military court for possessing arms and 13 rounds of ammunition. They called on the government to intervene. “If there is to be any chance of peace with Ireland all executions must stop”.

On 10th January 1923 the Manchester Evening Chronicle reported that Eva had refused to do jury service, stating that religion meant to her the determination to avoid punishing or hurting anybody, what ever they might have done. Her pacifist views remained undiminished. “It is absolutely impossible for me to take part in any proceedings which would, under any circumstances, involve me in any share, however small, in inflicting punishment on any human being. For many years I myself have held the opinion that it would be wrong for me to appeal to law for any problem to myself or to take part in passing judgement on anybody else. I, therefore, could not conscientiously sit on a jury.”

Eva continued to write and publish poetry and took up the study of Greek in the last year of her life. She died at home on 30 June 1926 at her home in Hampstead. Her sister Constance followed her the following year. A complete collection of Eva’s poems, together with a biographical introduction by Esther, was published in 1929 and that same year in June Esther unveiled a beautiful memorial window to Eva in the Round House, Ancoats, sadly long since demolished and the window lost. Esther herself died in April 1938 and was buried in the same grave as Eva in the nearby St John’s churchyard.

Sources

‘Women and The Suffrage A Reply To Lady Lovat and Mrs. Humphry Ward’, by Eva Gore-Booth, The Nineteenth Century and After, September 1908

‘The Sinn Fein Rebellion’ by Eva Gore-Booth, Socialist Review, August-September 1916

‘Eva Gore-Booth, Poet, Pacifist and Lover of Humanity’ by R M Fox, Millgate Monthly, September 1926

Eva Gore-Booth and Esther Roper by Gifford Lewis (1988)

One Hand Tied Behind Us: The Rise of the Women’s Suffrage Movement by Jill Liddington and Jill Norris (1978)

‘Miss Eva Gore-Booth’ by J J Mallon, The Woman Worker, 4th September 1908

Manchester and Salford Women’s Trades Council, annual reports

Manchester and Salford Women’s Trades and Labour Council, annual reports

‘“If I Could Lose Myself’; Poetic Displacement and Irish-English Literary Politics’, paper on Eva Gore-Booth given by Alyssa J O’Brien at New Modernisms conference, Philadelphia, October 2000.

The Suffragette Movement, An Intimate Account of Persons and Ideals by E Sylvia Pankhurst, preface by Dr Richard Pankhhurst (1977 edition)

The Case for Women’s Suffrage edited by Brougham Villiers (1907)

Collected Poems of Eva Gore-Booth, Complete edition and a biographical introduction by Esther Roper (1929)

Article by Michael Herbert