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].

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.


Embed from Getty Images

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.

Embed from Getty Images

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).

Embed from Getty Images

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.


‘China is the market of the future’

The local economies of Liverpool and Manchester and the surrounding Lancashire area struggled between the two words wars. Liverpool’s port trade experienced severe fluctuations, which increased unemployment and the city saw some of the highest levels of poverty in the country. In Manchester, the challenges faced by its ailing cotton industry meant nearly 20% of insured workers were unemployed in the early 1930s, but levels were far higher in the mill towns throughout Lancashire, such as Bolton and Blackburn.

Embed from Getty Images

“Cottonopolis”: Cotton ‘made’ Manchester but the industry struggled after 1918

Local politicians and business owners looked to employ programmes of economic diversification and aimed to boost trade and investment by promoting Liverpool and Manchester in new ways. For instance, politicians and civic leaders attempted to market Liverpool and Manchester as a holiday destination, particularly for American visitors. This ambition was especially strong in Liverpool following the investment in Gladstone Docks opened in 1927, part of a wider attempt to ensure the city was at the forefront of technological advances in transport and communication. The docks remained central to Liverpool’s civic identity and often featured as central attractions in grandiose civic celebrations hosted in the city during the late 1920s.

Embed from Getty Images

The SS Galantez at the opening of the Gladstone Docks at Liverpool.

Manchester, in particular, looked to China for investment in its ailing cotton industry. In January 1924, a Chinese Industrial Mission headed by Chang Chien, representative of the Union of Chambers of Commerce and Minister Plenipotentiary and High Commissioner of the Republic of China, spent two days in Manchester, as part of a wider tour of Britain aimed at developing trade links. The Mission visited the Ship Canal and took lunch with Manchester’s Chamber of Commerce where a speech by the president of the Chamber, Mr Clare Lees, credited China for inspiring the Ship Canal. Lees took the opportunity to try and convince the Mission of Manchester’s leading commercial prowess. Referring to the news that the Mission were visiting Sheffield, the president claimed that their city’s banks took just £57 million compared to Manchester’s £756 million ‘and that was why, when they wished to buy something, they should come to Manchester.’ Visit Liverpool, he said, and they would be told Liverpool was a better port but it was ‘in fact, the only thing Liverpool could say.’ Rather, ‘if you want to do business, come to Manchester.’ Lees illustrated ‘Manchester’s splendour’ by suggesting that if there was a road between London and Shanghai wide enough to carry 120 motorcars, then Manchester would carpet it every year with 200 million pounds of weight to export. (Manchester Guardian, 18 Jan 1924: 11).

Lees’ rhetoric seemed to pay off and by 1931, Lancashire exported 8080000 yards of cotton to China. Businessmen and civic leaders proclaimed with confidence that the future of Lancashire’s cotton trade lay in the development of trade with China: ‘China is the market of the future’, one business owner claimed. (Manchester Guardian, 22 October 1928: 12.) However, the success was short lived and whereas Lancashire exported over 10000000 pounds of cotton to China in 1932, it fell to just over 1700000 pounds in 1933, as political instability and an increased tariff in China alongside increased competition from Japan stifled trade. Lancashire ‘looked in vain for a sign of a break in the clouds.’ (Manchester Guardian, 10 January 1934: 5).

Manchester’s cotton industry never regained its world-leading status as “Cottonopolis” but the attempts by businessmen and local politicians to foster links with China to develop new markets draws attention to the city’s continued ambition and tenacity in the face of economic hardship.