Sharpley, Kate, 1891-1978

Kate Sharpley
Kate Sharpley

Brief biographical information about London resident, anarchist and World War I-widow, Kate Sharpley who once attacked Queen Mary.

Submitted by Steven. on May 15, 2006

Albert Meltzer first met Kate Sharpley on the day of the Lewisham anti-National Front riot in 1977 when he got into an altercation with some racists on the train home. One of the passengers was a frail lady in her eighties, going up to Guy's & St. Thomas' Hospital, who was saying "if i had been able to get on the platform fast enough I'd have waded in with my stick." This was Meltzer's introduction to Sharpley.

In 1917 Queen Mary was handing out medals in Greenwich for fallen WWI heroes being presented to their womenfolk. One 22-year old girl, said by the local press to be under the influence of anarchist propaganda, having collected medals for her dead father, brother and boyfriend, then threw them in the Queens face, saying, "If you like them so much, you can have them!" The Queens face was scratched and so was that of one of her attendant ladies. The police, not a little under the influence of patriotic propaganda, then grabbed the girl and beat her up. When she was released from the police station a few days later, no charges being brought, she was scarcely recognisable.

The girl was Deptford-born Kate Sharpley, who originally worked for a German baker but with the onslaught of WWI went into munitions work in Woolwich. Here she had been active in the shop stewards movement and Woolwich anarchist group, helping keep it going through the difficult years of World War 1. After her clash with the police she was sacked from her job on suspicion of dishonesty (there was nothing missing but a policeman had called checking up on her...) and, selling libertarian pamphlets in the street, she was recognised by the police and warned that if she appeared there again she would be charged with soliciting as a prostitute (which in those days would have been a calamity, and even today a disaster, if once convicted). Isolated from her family, and with the group broken up, she moved out of activity, away from the neighbourhood, and married.

I met her, by chance, last year in Lewisham [ed. 1977]. Twice widowed, she remembered the anarchist movement with nostalgia, and gave me a fascinating account of the local group in the years before World War 1. Unfortunately, she was already very ill, and a few weeks ago, she died, I was told by one of her neighbours.

I had, though, asked her for a message to the anarchist movement today. Her answer: Tell the kids they’re doing all right, they don’t need any advice from me. Especially she praised the young women of today: "I wouldn’t have had to take cover like I did if women of my day had any guts," she said. But she did have guts. Only a few in 1917 dared take any action in bereaved England.

The anarchist archive and publishers Kate Sharpley Library is named after her.

Original text by Albert Meltzer written in 1978 from the Kate Sharpley Library, introduction adapted from Deptford Fun City by Neil Godron-Orr published by Past Tense Press 2004.
Edited with additions by libcom, 2005, 2006



6 years 11 months ago

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Submitted by Steven. on May 15, 2017

Would be great to be able to post something about Kate to the working class history Facebook page. Does anyone know any dates in her life, either when she was born, when she died, or the date of the medal-throwing incident?