Sylvia Pankhurst, Between Two Fires, arranged and edited by Rachel Holmes, introduction by Helen Pankhurst (London: Methuen Drama, 2022), 41pp. Sylvia Pankhurst, Between Two Fires, arranged and edited by Rachel Holmes, introduction by Helen Pankhurst (London: Methuen Drama, 2022), 41pp.

Sylvia Pankhurst’s long-lost play carries a powerful message about fighting oppression, argues Katherine Connelly

Toilet-paper transcripts  

In 1921, former suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst was imprisoned one final time. By now a prominent communist, her newspaper the Workers’ Dreadnought called for working-class resistance to growing unemployment, impoverishment and racism. The authorities used wartime legislation that had not been repealed to imprison Pankhurst in Holloway for six months.

In prison, Pankhurst was denied pen and paper: the very materials with which she had terrified the establishment. In a book of poems she published after her release, titled Writ on Cold Slate, she reflected: ‘thought in prison shall be writ / save on cold slate and swiftly washed away.’ 

But Sylvia Pankhurst was not so easily silenced. In fact, she did something quite extraordinary: she wrote a play on toilet paper and, using tactics the suffragettes had perfected years earlier, smuggled it out of prison. Not all of it survived, but Pankhurst preserved the pieces that remained. As her granddaughter Helen has written, this shows that she ‘didn’t want them extinguished’. After her death, Sylvia Pankhurst’s son Richard deposited the fragments at the British Library. They remained there until Rachel Holmes rediscovered them when writing her monumental biography, Sylvia Pankhurst: Natural Born Rebel.

After painstaking work transcribing this most fragile of archives, Rachel Holmes has published the ‘Toilet Paper Transcripts’ and completed Sylvia Pankhurst’s act of resistance. Together they have broken through the prison bars, allowing us to hear the voice of the imprisoned Sylvia Pankhurst. The result contains exciting implications for our understanding of history and the present.  

Reflecting on suffragette activism  

The play shows that while in prison for communist activism, Sylvia Pankhurst was reflecting on the suffragette movement. This fact alone makes it a unique source. Before now, Pankhurst’s assessments of the suffragette movement have generally fallen into two categories. Her first book, The Suffragette (1911) was written in the midst of the struggle, but she later distanced herself from it because it largely reproduced the narrative of the movement’s leadership and suppressed her own criticisms. Her later book, The Suffragette Movement (1931), was undoubtedly Sylvia Pankhurst’s definitive account of the campaign.  

The ‘Toilet Paper Transcripts’ (1921) provide Sylvia Pankhurst’s perspective on the campaign exactly between these two points, while she was intensely involved in the international communist movement. It would have been understandable if Pankhurst, in prison once again, had dramatized her own incredibly heroic role and frequent imprisonments as a suffragette in her toilet-paper play. Instead, the fragments reveal Pankhurst’s profound commitment to the importance of collective action, with scenes about community activists that drew on her experience of organising in working-class East London. As Helen Pankhurst observes: ‘for Sylvia, the addressing of envelopes and the folding of circulars, i.e. the hands-on realities of politicking and of people’s lives are given attention – not taken for granted.’   

Suffragettes vs Labour  

The heart of the play addresses the increasing diversion between the suffragette movement and the Labour Party. Initially, the militant suffragettes had emerged from labour circles, but over time these links were severed. The Labour Party was divided over the question of votes for women. Many were uncomfortable with the campaign because it did not address dismantling the voters’ property qualification and therefore seemed destined to exclude most working-class women. Some others supported votes for women on the basis that it challenged women’s particular exclusion. And there were also misogynists who were opposed to women’s political rights altogether.

Meanwhile, the leadership of the suffragette movement demanded the Labour Party prioritise votes for women above all other issues by voting against every measure of the Liberal government (whether progressive or not) until the government agreed to back women’s suffrage. Their growing hostility to the Labour Party accompanied their rejection of mass action in which large numbers of working women could participate, favouring instead individualistic actions by more privileged women.

Sylvia Pankhurst had intimate experience of these divisions. The militant suffragettes were led by her mother and older sister, Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst, who eventually expelled her for organising working-class suffragettes in East London, and offering solidarity to locked-out trade unionists in Dublin. While she was active as a suffragette, Sylvia Pankhurst’s lover was Keir Hardie, Labour MP and former leader of the Labour Party. He died in 1915, six years before she wrote the play.  

The play addresses the emotional pull of all these different loyalties through the relationship of Freda McLaird (Sylvia Pankhurst) and Noah Adamson (Keir Hardie). Interestingly, the one who is described as being caught ‘between two fires’ (which Rachel Holmes aptly chose as the title for the untitled play) is Adamson/Hardie rather than McLaird/Pankhurst.  

It is Freda who explains to Noah that the suffragette leaders fail to see that Labour is not only ‘lukewarm at best’ on women’s suffrage, ‘but on every question’ (p.28). She refers to the ‘Anti-Guzzling League’ which Hardie had planned to stop Labour MPs ‘guzzling’ in the House of Commons bar with the Liberals.

Pankhurst, of course, was writing this in 1921 when she was arguing against the leader of the Bolshevik Revolution, Lenin, that communists should have no relationship with the Labour Party, except to denounce it as traitorous to working people. In the play, she rather awkwardly positions Adamson/Hardie as an exception who might leave Labour ‘on the fundamental question of the Class struggle’ (p.28), which was somewhat wishful thinking.

However, Freda’s complaint that many in the Parliamentary Labour Party were ‘proud of being made friends of the Liberals and Tories’ (p.29) is a valuable insight today. Faced with a Labour leader who seems far more comfortable with the Tories than the former socialist leader of his own party, some have romanticised the history of the early Labour Party. Pankhurst reminds us that the Labour Party was never a principled, socialist party, and its attacks on socialists have a long history.  

Sylvia Pankhurst and Keir Hardie’s relationship  

Another interesting aspect of the play is the potential insights it offers into Hardie and Pankhurst’s relationship. Hardie was married, and his relationship with Pankhurst was kept relatively private. That Pankhurst preserved their love letters and this play, which explicitly discuss the relationship, suggests she wanted it to be acknowledged as part of her life story.  

Some writers on Pankhurst have patronisingly reduced her relationship to finding a ‘father figure’ (Hardie was much older, originally her parents’ friend). The relationship depicted in the play, by contrast, supports Holmes’ depiction (and before her Caroline Benn in her biography of Hardie) of Pankhurst as a partner who ‘typically holds her ground’ (Holmes, p.223).

In the play we see McLaird helping rewrite an article in Adamson’s name, which should surely now prompt a renewed look at Hardie’s writings for Pankhurst’s involvement. Adamson is portrayed as the dreamer who hopes that they might have a child, while McLaird is the realist who points out that the consequences would be practically and politically devastating. Moreover, as Holmes’ biography shows, Pankhurst was acutely aware of the difficult position in which Hardie’s wife would find herself. McLaird voices the human pain in a society rigidly organised on the institution of marriage: ‘I shouldn’t like to be the cause of making anyone else unhappy’ (p.31).

Striking resolution  

What kind of resolution does Pankhurst see for those caught, like herself and Hardie, between the ‘two fires’ of the women’s and labour movement? In a compelling part of the play, Pankhurst dramatizes the kind of industrial unrest that coincided with the last four years of the suffragette movement. Pankhurst would later recall: ‘Strikes, especially of women, and some of them only lasting a few days, were breaking out on all sides of us’ (The Suffragette Movement, p.543). 

This atmosphere is captured in the play as characters rush in to announce workers walking out, including the gas workers (a key industry in East London):  

‘There’s five hundred out: the whole shop. Started with the manager giving one of the men the sack and spread all through the place, the girls came out as solid as the chaps. [. . .] They’ve got married men working in there for eighteen shillings a week and women as low as five’ (p.15).

Sylvia Pankhurst’s socialist conclusion is that working people can, and must, overcome the divisions sown from above when they struggle for their rights themselves. It is a conclusion that is as relevant today as it was in 1921. Let’s hope that this play will finally get the public performance it deserves, over a hundred years after it was written in secret in a British prison cell.

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Katherine Connelly

Kate Connelly is a writer and historian. She led school student strikes in the British anti-war movement in 2003, co-ordinated the Emily Wilding Davison Memorial Campaign in 2013 and is a leading member of Counterfire. She wrote the acclaimed biography, 'Sylvia Pankhurst: Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire' and recently edited and introduced 'A Suffragette in America: Reflections on Prisoners, Pickets and Political Change'.