The Pankhursts and Politics: Part Two

Written by Saima Akhtar (Twitter: @saimathewriter)

Supervised by Dr Charlotte Wildman (Twitter: @TheHistoryGirrl)

As part of our Challenging Domesticity in Britain, 1890-1990 research network, we are dedicating a blog post to the extraordinary suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst.

Read Part One of our blog post here:

Part Two

When the First World War broke out, Emmeline and Christabel were patriotic, and publicly declared the end of militancy to support the British war effort. A clever strategy for the WSPU campaign, this allowed the suffragettes to declare a statement of loyalty to their country, as their campaign had been subject to public scrutiny. As the nation prepared for war, the suffragettes who had been imprisoned for activism were released by the government. It was also important to Emmeline that women entered the workforce whilst the men fought on the frontline. But Emmeline remained firm in her conviction that “when the clash of arms ceases… the demand (for women’s suffrage) will again be made.”[1]

The war became another point of contention for Sylvia. Very much a pacifist, Sylvia opposed the conflict, which further ostracised her from Emmeline. Extremely committed to socialism, Sylvia admired Lenin and was a co-founder of the British Communist Party (though she was later expelled). As Emmeline became disillusioned with socialism, Sylvia’s socialist views intensified. In 1926, she was utterly dismayed when she discovered that Emmeline intended to stand as a Conservative Party candidate in the next election.[2] This was a decision which Sylvia viewed as a betrayal of her father’s radical socialist principles. The rift between Sylvia and Emmeline was deepened, showing how politics divided the Pankhurst women.

When Sylvia served a stint in prison at Holloway in October 1906, she was horrified by the unsanitary conditions she experienced as an inmate. During this time, prisons were overcrowded, meals were meagre and prisoners were forced to carry out menial labour tasks. This gave Sylvia impetus to campaign for prison reform, which directly contradicted Christabel’s rule of keeping wider struggles separate from suffragette activism.[3] Again, this is another indicator that Sylvia and Christabel could not be civil, as the sisters disagreed on whether or not women’s suffrage ought to be their sole focus. Lastly, in 1927, much to Emmeline’s shock, Sylvia had a child out of wedlock, and the pair never reconciled.[4] Completely scandalised by Sylvia’s actions, Emmeline made no attempt to repair her relationship with her second daughter. This demonstrates that Emmeline had moral expectations for her children, perhaps more so because her activism had placed her in the public eye.

Sylvia Pankhurst with a young boy (possibly her son)
Credit: LSE Women’s Library Collection

Emmeline’s devotion to women’s suffrage also caused tension for her third child, Adela. Like her sisters, Adela was a hard-working WSPU organiser, as she was tasked with breaking up Liberal Party meetings. However, Adela felt that Emmeline prioritised activism instead of being a present mother to her youngest child, Harry. Often a cause for his family’s concern, Harry suffered from various health issues and fell behind in his education. So, Emmeline enrolled him in different schools and trades including farming, construction and office work, meaning that there was instability in his life. In a 1933 account of her mother, Adela wrote that “it would have been treason to the Cause” if Emmeline gave up her public work to devote herself to Harry.[5] This use of political language (“treason”) conveys Adela’s resentment towards her mother, due to Emmeline’s work commitments. When Harry became critically ill in 1909, Emmeline undertook a lecture tour in America to pay for his medical care. The other Pankhursts chose not to disclose Harry’s illness to Adela, who, once again, viewed this as a “sacrifice to the Cause”.[6] Adela clearly felt abandoned, as she preferred Emmeline to focus on women’s suffrage.

Adela Pankhurst
Credit: LSE Women’s Library Collection

Adela also became estranged from her mother and sisters. She felt that the WSPU strategies were too violent, so, like Sylvia, Adela was forced to leave the organisation in 1914. Concerned about her youngest daughter’s socialist and anti-militant views, Emmeline sent Adela on a one-way ticket to Australia, where she remained until her death in 1961.[7] Unsurprisingly, Emmeline was committed to militancy in her activism; she was not willing to entertain any activists who did not advocate militancy. In a letter dated 10th January 1913, Emmeline encouraged her fellow WSPU members to embrace militancy, writing: “If any woman refrains from militant protest against the injury done by the Government and the House of Commons to women and to the race, she will share the responsibility for the crime.”[8] It is clear from Emmeline’s tone that the WSPU members who did not meet her requirements would be dismissed. So, Adela’s punishment for the “crime” of not being militant was expulsion to Australia. The fact that Emmeline broke ties with her daughter illustrates that the Pankhurst household was heavily structured around the cause of women’s suffrage.

Emmeline later showed signs of wanting to reconcile with Adela. Before her death in 1928, Emmeline wrote to Adela, expressing regret for the estrangement between them.[9] A shared interest in conservative values may have sparked Emmeline’s attempt to communicate with Adela. In 1920, Adela co-founded the Communist Party of Australia, but she left the movement due to her growing conservative beliefs. Incidentally, as she aged, Emmeline found herself aligning with conservative values.  By the late 1920s, Emmeline was invited to stand as a parliamentary candidate for the Conservative Party. She could not forge an alliance with the Liberals or Labour Party, due to their previous history of marginalising women’s issues, hence why she turned to the Conservatives.[10] So, the political views of both Adela and Emmeline changed during the interwar period, which also marked a shift in their relationship. This suggests that Emmeline’s final years no longer revolved heavily around activism. Moreover, the years of hunger strikes had left Emmeline with ill health, which could explain why she sought to make peace with her youngest daughter.

Christabel and Emmeline Pankhurst, c.1910
Credit: LSE Women’s Library Collection

Christabel Pankhurst was also part of the reason why both the younger Pankhurst sisters had feuds with their mother. There may have been jealousy from Sylvia and Adela due to their mother’s special relationship with her eldest child. Almost certainly, Christabel was the clear favourite child of Emmeline’s. She was the chief strategist of the WSPU, and like her father, she earned a law degree. According to Professor June Purvis, Emmeline appears never to have disagreed with Christabel during the long suffrage struggle.[11] Rather, Christabel acted as Emmeline’s second-in-command; the two were unanimous in their political views. Thus, Sylvia and Adela may have felt slightly threatened, as Christabel was so highly regarded by Emmeline. Therefore, Emmeline’s special relationship with Christabel may have had an adverse effect on the younger sisters; but since Christabel worked more closely with Emmeline in their activism, it is unsurprising that their views were more aligned.

Emmeline faced pressures to conform to feminine ideals as a mother, whilst taking on a high-profile position as a controversial public activist. Her time spent campaigning for the enfranchisement of women caused personal divisions within her household. She had stringent expectations for her fellow WSPU activists, as Sylvia, Adela and Christabel knew all too well; but Emmeline perhaps held the highest expectations for her daughters, politically and morally. As the events of the early twentieth century unfolded, all of the Pankhurst women experienced shifts in their political views, which unfortunately resulted in Sylvia and Adela becoming estranged from the family. But it was Emmeline who endured several emotional traumas in her lifetime, all the while being a committed and charismatic leader who never gave up in the struggle for the women’s vote. As Sylvia described her mother’s legacy in The Manchester Guardian in 1930: “She remains to us as we knew her in the days of her greatness: the pioneer of new causes, the friend of the poor, the suffragette.”[12]

Emmeline Pankhurst speaking at a WSPU meeting, 1912
Credit: LSE Women’s Library Collection


[1] The Project Gutenberg EBook, EBook of My Own Story by Emmeline Pankhurst, (London: 1914), University of Toronto Libraries, <> [Accessed: 16 October 2020], p.1.

[2] June Purvis, ‘Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928), Suffragette Leader and Single Parent in Edwardian Britain’, Women’s History Review, 20:1, <> [Accessed: 6 August 2020], p.89.

[3] Katherine Connelly, Sylvia Pankhurst: Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire, (London: Pluto Press, 2013), p.31.

[4] Purvis, p.89.

[5] Ibid, p.92.

[6] Ibid, p. 101.

[7] “The Pankhursts: Politics, protest and passion”, The History Press, <> [Accessed: 12 August 2020].

[8] “Transcript: CRIM 1/139/2”, Emmeline Pankhurst, The Suffragettes: Deeds not Words, The National Archives, Learning Curve, pp.2-23, <   pp.2-23> [Accessed: 09 September 2020], p.12.

[9] “Adela Pankhurst”, Working Class Movement Library, <> [Accessed: 26 August 2020].

[10] June Purvis, “Emmeline Pankhurst: A Biographical Interpretation”, Women’s History Review, 12:1, <> [Accessed: 02 October 2020], p. 94.

[11] Purvis, p.98.

[12] E. Sylvia Pankhurst, ‘Mrs Pankhurst: A Daughter’s Memories’, Manchester Guardian, 6 March 1930, ProQuest Historical Newspapers, p.9. <> [Accessed: 29 July 2020].

The Pankhurst Family and Politics: Part One

Written by Saima Akhtar (Twitter: @saimathewriter)

Supervised by Dr Charlotte Wildman (Twitter: @TheHistoryGirrl)

Our Twitter: @Ch_Domesticity

As part of our Challenging Domesticity in Britain, 1890-1990 research network, we are dedicating a blog post to the extraordinary suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst.

Emmeline Pankhurst, 1910.
Credit: LSE Women’s Library Collection

Read Part One of our blog post below:

Part One

Emmeline Pankhurst, neé Goulden (1858-1928). The Manchester-born leader of the suffragette movement was a wife, a mother, a businesswoman and activist. It was Emmeline’s relentless campaign for women’s suffrage which ultimately paved the way for the passing of The Representation of the People Act in 1918, an important pre-cursor in granting British women the parliamentary vote. But Emmeline’s activism became a source of anxiety and tension within her family. This article examines the ways in which the relationships between Emmeline and her daughters were characterised by political divisions and personal tensions.

Raised in an intellectual family who encouraged newspaper reading and political discussions, this prepared Emmeline well for a life centred on activism. The Gouldens were vocal about their political beliefs: Emmeline’s parents supported women’s voting rights and her grandfather had attended the Peterloo Massacre in 1819. Emmeline’s career began in London, where she advocated for women’s rights and allied herself with trade unions and socialists. After a brief hiatus from public activism, Emmeline returned to Manchester, where her passion for women’s rights was soon invigorated.

In 1903, Emmeline co-founded the female-only organisation, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in the parlour of her home at 62 Nelson Street, Manchester. Women in Britain could not vote during this time, so Emmeline spearheaded the WSPU’s campaign for women’s suffrage. Firstly, Emmeline unsuccessfully canvassed for a Bill to be introduced in Parliament that would enfranchise married and unmarried women. [1] The Conservative government of 1885-1906 was divided on the issue of women’s suffrage. Some Conservative politicians understood that extending the vote to women could equate to more votes for their party. But many Members of Parliament did not support the idea of enfranchising women. Some found the idea of changing the status of women personally distasteful. Others ignored the women’s suffrage debate because they prioritised more pressing matters such as nationwide industrial unrest. So the WSPU campaign continued.

A WSPU office, 1913.
Credit: LSE Women’s Library Collection

After her suffrage Bills faced rejection and after rejection in Parliament, Emmeline insisted that militancy would be the only way for the public to take notice of the struggle for women’s rights. The WSPU women began adopting militant tactics, including heckling politicians, chaining themselves to statues and railings, and smashing windows. These activities helped the WSPU garner plenty of press attention, because the women successfully turned their demonstrations into a public spectacle. The women knew that the sight of them protesting in dramatic ways would provoke shock, horror or even support from many readers, which helped them publicise their cause. Most newspaper reports criticised the WSPU’s militant action, especially when some of the women committed arson and bombed buildings. The Manchester Guardian took the most positive approach to covering suffragette campaigns.

At public meetings, Emmeline repeatedly questioned whether government leaders would grant women the vote, which often led to the WSPU women being violently removed from the room. Prepared to face jail sentences and endure hunger strikes for the cause, Emmeline also became subjected to force-feeding in prison.

The arrest of Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst at a WSPU office, 1908
Credit: LSE Women’s Library Collection

Outside of suffragism, Emmeline was involved in philanthropy. As a Poor Law Guardian, she arranged for food and provisions to help support the inmates of Manchester workhouses. She also served on the Manchester School Board, where she realised that female teachers were overworked, underpaid and less valued than male teachers were.[2] This inequality in education was another factor which motivated Emmeline to protect the interests of women.

When Emmeline lived in London, she owned and worked at a shop which sold fancy goods such as silk fabrics. Thus, Emmeline’s life was extremely busy and she faced a number of personal and professional challenges that affected the dynamic of her household.

Although Emmeline was in a happy marriage to her husband, the lawyer and socialist Dr Richard Pankhurst, who fully supported her endeavours, their family unit was marked by many personal tragedies. In 1898, Dr Pankhurst died suddenly, just months after the couple lost their infant son, Frank. This left Emmeline as a single mother to her three teenage daughters (Christabel, Sylvia and Adela) and her eight-year-old son, Harry. As a widow, Emmeline had debts to pay off, as well as the responsibility of financially supporting and educating her children. Tragically, Harry later passed away, at the age of twenty.

Emmeline Pankhurst and Harry, c.1890
Credit: LSE Women’s Library Collection

Following Dr Pankhurst’s death, Emmeline took on a paid job as Registrar of Births and Deaths in Manchester. Many poor women were relieved to come to a female Registrar to register the births of their illegitimate children, which Emmeline was deeply touched by. [3] These experiences further fuelled Emmeline to advocate on behalf of women’s rights.

Emmeline faced much emotional upheaval in her home life, which she was forced to process alongside her public work. So, how did  Emmeline’s activism co-exist alongside the expectations placed on her as the mother of four children? In her 1914 book My Own Story, Emmeline recalls that she was, initially, “deeply immersed” in domesticity, but: “I was never so absorbed with home and children, however, that I lost interest in community affairs.”[4] Here, Emmeline may have felt pressured to focus on motherhood, particularly in light of the emphasis placed on maternalism in nineteenth-century constructions of femininity; but she deemed her activism too important to compromise on.

Emmeline’s public work created difficulties for her second daughter, Sylvia. A talented and trained artist, Sylvia was commissioned to create original works of art, including a series of paintings of working-class women in industrial communities. She also designed banners and posters for suffragette campaigns and served as the honorary secretary of the WSPU. In 1906, Emmeline wanted the position of secretary to be transferred from Sylvia to her eldest daughter Christabel, who was studying law at the University of Manchester. But Sylvia decided to rebel by handing in her resignation early. This was because Sylvia did not support Christabel as a political leader, on account of their differing opinions.

Sylvia Pankhurst, 1910. Credit: LSE Women’s Library Collection

In fact, Sylvia was “not fully in accord with the spirit of (Christabel’s) policy”.[5] Sylvia was unwilling to work alongside Christabel due to their political differences. As a socialist, Sylvia was affiliated with the labour movement, so she was motivated to campaign alongside trade unions and fight for wider social change. In contrast, Emmeline and Christabel believed that the struggle for women’s rights should be the only goal for the WSPU.

Additionally, Sylvia suspected that Christabel, early on, shaped her “hope and policy on the speedy return of a Conservative government”, which turned out to be true.[6] So, politics affected the Pankhurst family dynamic, as Sylvia and Christabel clashed on issues relating to leadership, strategy and political ideology.

Christabel and Emmeline Pankhurst, 1917.
Credit: LSE Women’s Library Collection

The year 1907 brought unrest within the WSPU, as Emmeline’s leadership faced inside threats. The ways that the Pankhurst women dominated the WSPU made some members, including organiser Teresa Billington-Greig, feel marginalised. So, Teresa intended to gain control as a delegate. This represented a challenge to Emmeline’s authority. So, Emmeline tore up the WSPU constitution, even though Sylvia, who wished to avoid this confrontation, wanted to keep it.[7] This highlights a difference between mother and daughter, as Emmeline acted tactically to curb this threat, even though Sylvia disapproved. Similarly, Sylvia refused to sign a new pledge which required WSPU members to promise not to support candidates of any political party until after women won the vote. [8] Christabel and Emmeline wished to engage with parties across the political spectrum because they wanted to appeal to women of all classes to support their cause.

Meeting of WSPU leaders, c.1906
Credit: LSE Women’s Library Collection

However, this approach prompted Sylvia to break away from her mother and sister. Sylvia formed her own political faction, the East London Federation of the Suffragettes (ELFS). The ELFS did not attack the Labour Party, advocated mass protest and included men as members; these differences in policy caused Emmeline and Christabel to expel Sylvia and her group from the WSPU in early 1914.[8] These differences suggests political tensions aggravated relations between the Pankhurst women, as Sylvia’s independent path prompted her removal from Emmeline’s inner circle.

Watch out for Part Two of this blog post, coming soon!


[1] The Project Gutenberg EBook of My Own Story by Emmeline Pankhurst, (London: 1914), University of Toronto Libraries, <> [Accessed 16 October 2020], pp.20-22.

[2] The Project Gutenberg EBook, pp.33-35.

[3] Ibid, pp.32-33.

[4] Ibid, pp. 12-13.

[5] Katherine Connelly, Sylvia Pankhurst: Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire, (London: Pluto Press, 2013), p.25.

[6] Connelly, p.27.

[7] Ibid, p.28.

[8] Ibid.

‘Activism & The Home’ Video Lecture 3: Thinking about Women, the Home, and ‘What Counts as Activism?’

As part of our AHRC funded project Challenging Domesticity in 1890-1990 project, we are hosting a series of video lectures from academics based on the theme ‘Activism and the Home’.

In this video, Lecture #3, Jessica White discusses the topic of women’s activism and mothers’ groups.

Jessica White is a PhD Candidate in History at the University of Manchester. An historian of Modern Britain, Jessica’s research interests include gender, race, class and sexuality.

A transcription of Jessica’s video lecture can be accessed here:

You can find out more about Jessica’s work below:

Follow us on Twitter: @Ch_Domesticity

Email us:

‘Activism & The Home’ Video Lecture 2: Challenging the ‘Perfect Housewife’ Stereotype in Postwar Britain

As part of our AHRC funded project Challenging Domesticity in 1890-1990 project, we are hosting a series of video lectures from academics based on the theme ‘Activism and the Home’.

In this video, Lecture #2, Prof. Caitriona Beaumont gives a presentation on the topic: ”Who wants to be “Mrs 1963?”: How housewives’ associations challenged the stereotype of the perfect housewife in postwar Britain’.”

Prof Caitríona Beaumont is Professor of Social History in the Division of Social Sciences at London South Bank University. Caitríona works on the history of female activism, female networks and women’s movements in Ireland and Britain throughout the nineteenth and twentieth century.

You can find out more about Caitríona’s work below:

Watch out for more Video Lectures from academics, posted here, every Friday!

Follow us on Twitter: @Ch_Domesticity

Email us:

‘Activism & The Home’ Lecture 1- Adult Education in Middlesbrough

Challenging Domesticity in Britain, 1890-1990 is an AHRC funded project hosted by the University of Manchester and The Pankhurst Centre, Manchester.

As part of our Challenging Domesticity project, we are hosting a series of video lectures from academics based on the theme ‘Activism and the Home’.

In this video, Lecture #1, Aleena Din discusses her research on British-Pakistani women in Middlesbrough.

Aleena is a DPhil Student at the University of Oxford. Her research topic is ‘Women in Britain’s Mirpuri-Pakistani Diaspora and their Relationship to Formal and Informal Labour, 1962-2002. ‘ You can find out more about Aleena’s work below:

Watch out for more Video Lectures from academics, posted here, every Friday!

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Email us:

Challenging Domesticity: ‘Anne Lister and The Deviant Home’

As part of the  AHRC-funded ‘Challenging Domesticity in Britain’ project, we were thrilled to welcome historian Dr Jill Liddington to the University of Manchester for a public lecture on ‘the first modern lesbian’, Anne Lister. Dr Liddington’s book Nature’s Domain (2003) inspired the hit BBC series Gentleman Jack, which examines Anne Lister’s life. Given that October 8 is International Lesbian Day, the lecture was a very exciting opportunity to delve deep into the story of an icon of British LGBTQ history.



Portrait of Anne Lister (Photo by West Yorkshire Archive Service)

Born in Halifax, West Yorkshire, in 1791, Anne Lister was a highly educated entrepreneur who travelled the world and owned shares in male-dominated industries such as mining. With her ‘masculine’ persona and refusal of heterosexual marriage, Lister was unconventional, particularly due to her romantic encounters with women. One female companion in particular- a less wealthy heiress named Ann Walker- moved in with Anne Lister at Shibden Hall, the Tudor-style property which ‘Gentleman Jack’ herself had inherited. Remarkably, the pair even took Holy Communion together on Easter Sunday in 1834, during a time when lesbian relationships were not visible in polite society.


shibden hall

Shibden Hall, West Yorkshire. (Photo by Calderdale Museums)

Whilst travelling in Georgia with Ann Walker in 1840, Lister died of a fever. She was buried in a church in her hometown. Shibden Hall was left to her lover, but sadly, Ann Walker was declared insane and later became confined to an asylum.

Anne Lister is survived by her diaries, where she detailed the chronicles of her love affairs. In fact, the four million words of her journals are written using an amalgamation of Greek letters, symbols and numbers. Though notoriously difficult to read, this code was eventually cracked by Anne Lister’s indirect descendant, John Lister, who was shocked by his discovery. So sensational are Lister’s passionate entries of female homosexuality, the first of its kind in historical record, that the works have been coined ‘the Dead Sea Scrolls of lesbian history’.

Everyone in the room enjoyed listening to Dr Jill Liddington’s presentation. Following the lecture, we were treated to a wine reception at The Pankhurst Centre. A fitting tribute to the English diarist who handled the finances, collected rent and oversaw all the business enterprises of her family estate- showing that ‘the home’ was much more than just a domestic refuge for nineteenth century women.

Follow us at @Ch_Domesticity on Twitter to keep up to date about our next events.

Written by Saima Akhtar, Network Coordinator for Challenging Domesticity in Britain, 1890-1990.

AHRC Network Challenging Domesticity Workshop One: The Deviant Home

AHRC Network Challenging Domesticity Workshop One: The Deviant Home

Blog pic

Manchester was uncharacteristically sunny for the first workshop of the AHRC Network Challenging Domesticity. The theme focussed on ‘the deviant home’ and we met at the Pankhurst Centre, home of the Pankhurst family, 1898-1907 and where the first meeting of the militant and deviant suffragettes took place. The AHRC Network funding has allowed us to forge a new partnership between the University of Manchester and the Pankhurst Centre, which is key to our intellectual aims of the project. We are particularly interested in thinking of the home as a site of action and the mutually constitutive relationship between domestic space and a range of forms of behaviours. Bringing together scholars in fields that have overlooked the importance of domestic space – crime, activism, and care – and by drawing on an interest in the locality, we plan to establish a new rationale for investigating the history of domesticity in Britain.


Workshop 1 pic

Workshop One at The Pankhurst Centre.

Our first workshop took place over two days with the first with a scholarly focus on discussions on the ‘deviant home’ and the second with an emphasis on public engagement, knowledge transfer and research impact. Day one saw a fabulous range of speakers on topics that included domestic crime scene photographs; surveillance of criminal homes and families; policy and probation. We discussed the challenges of defining what we meant by ‘domesticity’ and the legal discourse that attempted to deal with the slipperiness of the criminal home. On day two, we were delighted to welcome some PGR and ECR delegates to join our audience and we were fortunate to have contributions from Ruth Singer from the Criminal Quilts project and Safina Islam from the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Resource Centre. We also had sessions from a range of academics talking about their public engagement work, including a very honest discussion about what has worked and what hasn’t. Finally, the fabulous Tessa Chynoweth, manager and curator of the Pankhurst Centre, talked about the varied and fascinating history of the Pankhurst house and some of their ongoing redevelopment plans.

It was a very stimulating and regarding workshop that has helped us reshape our conceptual framework around the ‘deviant home.’ We were thrilled to bring together such a vibrant and engaging range of speakers and it was certainly one of the most positive and enriching academic meetings that it might be possible to create. Now we look forward to our next events…

Fashion on the Franconia

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A catwalk parade held aboard the Cunard liner Franconia during Liverpool’s Civic Week. (Photo by Brooke/Getty Images)

In 1925, a mannequin parade of young women dressed in the latest fashions (a precursor to catwalk shows) took place on the Cunard liner Franconia as it docked in Liverpool. As the image shows, a model in an evening gown and fur-collared coat braved the Liverpool autumnal climate in front of a crowd of cloche-hatted, fashionably dressed women as sailors busily maintained the ship around them. The event also included numerous models parading in flapper evening gowns, smiling for the camera and eager to please the crowd of women. Pathé footage  shows the event also included the slightly odd feature of a female model wearing a model ship for a hat and a model of the world around her middle, flanked by two (rather bored looking) costumed children.

The parade occurred as part of Liverpool’s Civic Week 1925, the second hosted by the city and the first in Liverpool itself (after it hosted a week at Wembley Exhibition Hall in 1924). Manchester followed and hosted its own Civic Week in 1926, anxious not to lag behind its great rival Liverpool. The mannequin parade was a slightly surreal attempt to merge the city’s civic identity, focussing on Liverpool’s long history as a successful port, with the new cultures of consumerism that were emerging in the city, and such events took place in conjunction with the big department stores, such as Lewis’s and George Henry Lee’s. Crucially, as the image makes clear, these events targeted the woman citizen, identified by the local state as an agent of economic regeneration through their role as shoppers as consumers.

Urban Redevelopment and Modernity in Liverpool and Manchester, 1918-1939

The image encapsulates the key claims of my new book, Urban Redevelopment and Modernity in Liverpool and Manchester, 1918-1939. Both cities responded to economic instability and political instability after the First World War by investing in ambitious programmes of urban redevelopment. Redevelopment was heavily publicised in the local press and through promotional events, such as Civic Weeks. Local politicians and planners in Liverpool and Manchester displayed innovative approaches to urban governance and strong cultures of civic pride, not usually associated with the post-1918 period. Consequently, new forms of consumer and religious cultures emerged and the book focuses on the ways in which business owners and Catholic leaders embraced urban redevelopment to foster new forms of urban modernity.

As the image suggests, the book is especially interested in how these new forms of urban culture changed women’s experiences of Liverpool and Manchester. The mannequin parade brought together women’s role as shoppers with the new forms of showy civic cultures that sought to engage citizens and distract attention from ongoing problems of unemployment, poverty, and the appeal of political extremism. Whereas urban historians tend to focus on architects, planners, and politicians in accounts of urban development, the book suggests women’s roles in urban life needs greater attention. The mannequin parade on board the Franconia may seem surreal but it reflected a new form of civic pride that reflected the unique conditions of the post-1918 period.
















Women of the Original Northern Powerhouse

Historians usually focus on male architects, planners, and politicians in accounts of urban redevelopment and regeneration. During 1920s in northern cities such as Liverpool and Manchester, however, female politicians and civic patriots had an important influence in shaping urban culture. In 1927, for instance, Margaret Beavan became the first woman to hold the position of Lord Mayor of Liverpool. During her time as mayor, Beavan presided over grand and ambitious civic celebrations, such as the opening of Gladstone Dock in 1928. Beavan presided over the city’s Civic Week of 1928, a large and ambitious civic celebration that transformed the city into an exhibition, where she declared that ‘civic pride was good citizenship.’

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Margaret Beavan presided  over important civic celebrations, including the ceremonial launches of new ocean liners and the opening of Gladstone Docks

Yet typically, Beavan’s contributions remained understood in gendered terms and her image as Little Mother of Liverpool and became strongly associated with her commitment to child welfare and maternal health. Although important, this legacy has overshadowed the important contribution she made to local government and civic pride at a time of economic and political turbulence.

Perhaps better known was Lady Sheena Simon of Wythenshawe who, along with her husband Ernest, donated the land to Manchester Council to build the Wythenshawe Estate  in 1926. A committed socialist, Simon founded the Manchester Branch of the Women Citizens’ Association, which aimed to encourage women’s active political participation once they suffrage was granted. Simon was committed to improving the living conditions of Manchester’s inhabitants, campaigned for better secondary education, and emphasised the importance of a strong local government.

Lady Simon

Lady Simon in 1920

Simon was not afraid to publicly criticise the local council or its citizens and, in her book A Hundred Years of City Government, Manchester 1838-1938, Simon wrote that she hoped Manchester’s centenary anniversary of incorporation would ‘inspire citizens with courage to go ahead with the task of re-moulding Manchester nearer to their hearts’ desire.’ Yet Sheena’s commitment and civic passion has been overshadowed by her husband: Lord Simon was MP for Liberal Party, Withington, 1923-1924, and again, 1929-1931, a member of Manchester City Council, 1911-1925 and Chairman of the Housing Committee, 1919-1923, he became Lord Mayor of Manchester in 1921.

Beavan and Simon are important examples of the important ways in which women contributed to vibrant urban cultures in cities such as Liverpool and Manchester. They demonstrate the influential political roles women held locally and shows the range of contributions they made to public life. Yet, Beavan and Simon’s contributions remain overshadowed by male politicians and their histories point to the importance in drawing attention to women’s stories, which still remain hidden from history.

Wonderful Wythenshawe

Housing remained a severe challenge to local councils throughout Britain after 1918 as problems of overcrowding and insanitary dwellings persisted. Manchester faced some of the worst housing in the country, as areas near the city centre including Hulme and Ancoats, were home to damp, cold, leaky dwellings. They were not far from being the ‘most horrible dwellings’ Friedrich Engels had ever seen when he visited Manchester in the early 1840s.


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Older, high-density and insanitary housing persisted in Manchester

Manchester was ‘furnished with an inner ring of slums’, a report on housing by the University of Manchester Settlement found in 1930. The report focused on one of these areas, Ancoats, close to the city centre. It described an overcrowded, high-density area with ‘two up and two down’ houses that were over a hundred years old. ‘Plants will not grow’, warned the report due to the lack of light. Most worrying were the health problems and low life expectancy of the area: it found an infant mortality rate of 125 per 1000, around twice the national average.

Although Manchester was not the only city to face such acute housing problems, it responded with perhaps the most ambitious project: the Wythenshawe Estate. To the south of the city, Manchester’s famous Wythenshawe estate, the largest council estate in Europe, provided suburban homes specifically for the working classes. The houses were spaced apart in green, leafy areas to avoid overcrowding and to ensure all homes received natural light. Strict regulations prevented soot, smog or smoke from polluting the air.

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Wythenshawe was a garden suburb for Manchester’s working-class population

The council aimed to ensure 100,000 Mancunians made their home in Wythenshawe. The homes tended to be semi-detached and designed so all families had hot running water, their own bathrooms, and electricity and gas. At the same time, new consumer durables such as refrigerators offered to make a home more comfortable, for those affluent enough or who took up hire purchase (the never never).

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An interior image of Wythenshawe home with the new consumer durables

Wythenshawe was ‘a bold experiment’, wrote the planning expert Wesley Dughill, in the Town Planning Review in 1937. ‘Other schemes in this country may have their parkways, their neighbourhood unit planning or their agricultural belts and so on, but in no other example have all these elements been correlated and combined to form one self-contained entity.’ The estate was a great source of pride and optimism for Manchester Corporation and it featured heavily in the council’s 1947 documentary film, A City Speaks.

Solving Manchester’s housing problem was not straightforward, however. Whereas many inhabitants embraced suburban life, others found life in Wythenshawe isolating, especially because the building of pubs, cinemas, shops and churches were slow to follow the housing. The council struggled to build enough houses and the ‘slum’ areas persisted as housing remained a problem into the post-war period. Nevertheless, as an example of the council’s dynamic responses to social problems, Wythenshawe points to an important story about civic ambition.