14. The Workers' Socialist Federation

Submitted by Steven. on January 20, 2013

Sylvia Pankhurst's East London Federation of Suffragettes/Workers' Socialist Federation had a substantial presence in North London. It had a longterm relationship-and an overlapping membership-with the NLHL, going back to well before the War.

The ELFS/WSF has been rather badly treated by posterity, partially because it doesn't fit snugly into the apostolic successions of some historians. The reality - as always - is more complex and interesting. Sylvia Pankhurst's break with her mother in February 1914 was due to Sylvia's orientation toward working-class women and her willingness to work with the radical wing of the socialist movement. This division was made total at the outbreak of War when Mrs Pankhurst and the rump of the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) took a strongly patriotic position.

In my view, the continuity with the WSPU, while important, has been too much stressed. There is ample evidence that the ELFS had struck a strong chord with many women socialists of an earlier generation who had serious reservations about the WSPU; for example, Amy Hicks of Hampstead, who had been on the executive of the SDF in 1884, had been supporting the ELFS from its start, while another 'blast from the past', Louisa Somerville of Islington, a socialist from 1885 and a member of the Clerkenwell Branch of the Socialist League,1 Also became a supporter.

Another connection with the earlier socialist-feminist tradition was Emma Boyce of Hackney. Mrs Boyce (1867-1929) was an early member of the ILP.2 She had 12 children only four of whom survived. During the War, although she was much older than most other ELFS/ WSF activists, she was a roving organiser travelling the country from end to end; for example, in 1916 she spent some time in both Newcastle and Glasgow. What she had to face is described by I. Renson.3

When we were in Reading, me and my brother witnessed the breaking up of a 'Stop the War' meeting in the Market Place in about September 1918, by soldiers. It was a deliberately organised effort. The meeting was organised by the ILP and the chief speaker was Mrs Boyce of Hackney. Soon after this elderly lady got on to the platform it was pushed over and she fell off backwards but she appeared to have been caught by her friends who were behind her.

In spite of many similar experiences Emma Boyce survived the War. She was elected as a Hackney Labour Councillor from 1918 until 1923; from then until her death her main remaining activity was a life governor of the London Maternity Hospital.

Self-evidently, the base of the ELFS was in the East End, but even before the War it had begun to spread its wings into North London. By April 1914 the Hackney, Kingsland and Stoke Newington Men's Political Union was already holding open-air meetings. This MPU seems to have been a sort of male auxilliaryofthe ELFS. With the coming of War this expansion continued with the founding of the North London MPU which held regular meetings at Regents Park, Highbury Corner and Finsbury Park. These meetings received the normal harrassment; for example, in October 1915 territorials smashed up a meeting of the North London MPU at Regent's Park. The North London MPU was closely associated with the Brotherhood Church and met there. As the War continued and the ELFS became a less exclusively women's organisation, these MPUs seem to have merged with it.

As for the ELFS proper, its first North London Group- Hackney- was active by April 1914 and had its own premises at 175 Dalston Lane. By August the ELFS was already geared up to agitate on the whole range of social issues like the treatment of soldiers' wives and families, sweated work, and conditions in schools. While many ELFS activists were clearly against the War, and some were already active in the anti-War movement, the ELFS decided not to take a stand on the War question.4 This policy seems to have continued, with decreasing force, until early 1916. In March 1916, Nellie Best of the WSF was sentenced to six months' imprisonment for making statements prejudicial to recruiting. The radicalising process had the effect of substantially changing the composition of the ELFS; it lost some members who were primarily oriented towards its social work and recruited more who were opposed to the War.

Meanwhile the ELFS steadily spread in North London. In October 1915 there was a Holborn Branch, with its own books hop in Hart Street; in May 1916 there was a group in St Pancras; by June 1916 there were branches in Hoxton - which also had a books hop - and in Islington, and by August 1917 a Holloway Group was active. Early in 1916 the ELFS changed its name to the Women's Suffrage Federation, in early 1917 to the Workers' Suffrage Federation, and in July 1918 to the Workers' Socialist Federation, while the name of the paper was changed from the Women's Dreadnought to the Workers' Dreadnought. These changes reflected a considerable alteration in both the composition and the political emphasis of the WSF. Men played an increasingly significant part in the organisation and it became more and more explicitly revolutionary. (I am not implying a causal connection between these two processes!)

As the ELFS/WSF developed it attracted a remarkable cadre of women, for example Patricia Lynch, Miriam Price,5 Melvina Walker, Jessie Stephens and Lillian Thring, all of whom were well known in North London. They were incredibly active, sometimes doing four or five open-air meetings a day each, and covering an area from St Pan eras to East Ham, with occasional forays into the transpontine wastes of South London.

It is worthwhile to make a digression here to deal with one of these WSF women at greater length - although such a short account fails to do proper justice to the subject - since a rather more detailed biography illustrates how such activists were not simply WSF members; they emerged from a living milieu and they went on to enrich the movement for decades to come.

Lillian Thring (née Harris), 1888-1964, was born in North London. She was already a militant suffragette in the first decade of the century.

In 1911 she went to Melbourne, Australia, where she continued her involvement in the women's movement. Here for the first time she came into contact with the revolutionary movement, joined the IWW, and threw herself into radical activity, which remained her primary concern for the rest of her life. Already in this Australian episode her brilliance as an open-air speaker was apparent.

In 1913 she married a postal official in the Sudan where she lived for about two years, returning to Britain in 1915, with one young baby and already pregnant with another (which she lost), only to find that her husband had died. Understandably, Thring was fairly inactive for a period although she seems to have retained her membership of the IWW.

Towards the end of the War, Thring became active again. She joined the NLHL but was more closely associated with the WSF which combined her own preoccupations with the women's movement and revolutionary socialism. By 1918 she was a frequent speaker for both organisations. She was also active in the 'Hands Off Russia' campaign and the Workers' Committee movement.

In 1920, Thring was a founder member of the Communist Party, and joined its Islington branch. By December the same year she was already a prominent member of the Islington Organised Unemployed, taking part in the seven-week occupation of Essex Road library and subsequent demonstration and assault on Islington Town Hall. For the next few years Thring was titanically active.

By 1921 she was a prominent speaker and organiser for the newly- formed National Unemployed Workers' Committee Movement (NUWCM); also in that year she was the founder and first editor of the movement's national fortnightly paper, Out of Work, which she built up to a circulation of 50,000. Incidentally, Thring was far from being the only woman alumna of the WSF to play a major part in the early unemployed movement; others involved included Minnie Birch and Clara Cole.

Already by August-September 1921, Thring had been the victim of a press campaign which had tagged her as 'Red Rosa', the mystery woman with hypnotic eyes who was behind the unemployed agitation.

In November she was one of a commando of 13 unemployed who occupied a piano factory in St Pancras, persuading the workers there to refuse to work massive overtime, and the management to concede a wage increase. In December she was one of a 'deputation' which, backed by a mass demonstration outside, held the worthy councillors of Bexley captive for 12 hours inside their own council chamber; while incarcerated, the corporation were harangued in relays by their captors. One wonders what they had done to deserve such a fate. Also in December 1921, Thring was arrested and fined for an article in Out of Work for alleged incitement to disaffection of the police.

In August 1922, Thring's marine stores shop in Huntingdon Street, Caledonian Road, was raided by the police who found two German machine guns there; she was charged with their possession and held in custody for some time but was later acquitted. While Thring was inside, the headquarters of the Finsbury unemployed was named Thring Hall in her honour.

In November 1922 Thring was the election agent of Shapurji Saklatvala who, although a member of the Communist Party, was the successful official Labour Party candidate at Battersea. (Saklatvala was later re-elected as a CP candidate.) About this time Thring lived in the Battersea area for a while.

In 1923 Thring left the CP in deep disagreement with the way it was functioning. Soon afterwards she joined the ILP. In 1924 she was heavily involved in Fenner Brockway's election campaign in West- minster at which one of the other unsuccessful candidates was Winston Churchill. Thring made such an impact at this and similar campaigns that in 1927 she was approached by Westminster Labour Party to stand as their parliamentary candidate. She was asked on several other occasions to stand for parliament; she always refused.

During the 1926 General Strike, Thring was a member of the Battersea Council of Action. In 1927 she remarried and between that date and 1935 she was known as Harvey. (At various other times in her career she used her maiden name and the nom de guerres of Martin and Thurston.)

Her connection with the unemployed continued; as late as 1932 she helped to organise the reception of the women's contingent of the Hunger March at the Co-op Hall, Seven Sisters Road. In the very early 1930s she was active in the anti-fascist activities in North London long before it was fashionable. Thring was also engaged in industrial organising, particularly among women shopworkers. Throughout this period, and until the end of her life, Thring was heavily involved in the Women's Co-operative Guild, in which she was one of a group of'young Turks' who were radicalising the movement.

In 1934 Thring, representing the Holloway Guild, made a strong contribution in support of a successful resolution in favour of abortion at the Women's Co-operative Guild conference, thus continuing her longstanding involvement with birth control and related questions going back to - at least - her days in the WSF.

In 1935 she moved to Ashington near Rochford in Essex. She re- mained active in the left wing of the ILP and with the coming of the Second World War - which she opposed - was involved in helping men on the run from conscription.

After 1945, Thring supported the strong local squatters' movement, and was secretary of the Rochford Branch of the Agricultural Workers' Union which she built up to be a strong force in the area. Between 1946 and 1948 she was an ILP local councillor. She joined the Labour Party in 1950, in which she remained a left-wing gadfly.

Lillian Thring died in March 1964 after a long illness which had left her bedridden for her last three years. She had three children, and was survived by George Tasker, her companion for the last 30 years of her life.6

In the last two years of the War, the WSF was without doubt the most active anti-War political group in London, and it had started to build up national support. At its peak, the WSF had over 30 branches, was represented in most of the important industrial centres, and had forged strong links with like-minded groups. The struggle against the War had an eroding effect on formal organisational divisions; attitudes to the conflict and the nexus of related issues, and the willingness to do something about them, became much more important than party allegiances.

In North London too this growth had its effect. There was an influx of extremely able new members who worked side by side with the existing membership. The better known of these new recruits included H. S. and Mrs Redgrove,7 Monica Ewer,8 and Lancelot Hogben9 all of whom were incidentally also members of the NLHL. Lancelot Hogben in particular was very active. He spoke at many open-air meetings, ran classes on economics and public speaking, wrote regularly for the Workers’ Dreadnought, and was also on the National Committee of the WSF.

Many familiar pens appeared in the Workers’ Dreadnought. Leonard Motler and W. F. Watson wrote regular weekly columns, while both Walter Ponder and Guy Aldred wrote occasionally. The fact that all these contributors were anti-parliamentarians is no concidence- there seems to have been a strong anarcho-syndicalist current within the WSF, and one participant10 recalls a large anarchist contingent within WSF demonstrations of the immediate post-War period.

In the last part of the War and the first days of peace the WSF pioneered a number of new departures in socialist politics. In June 1918, Norah Smythe of the WSF proposed to Poplar Trades Council that 'the Russian example be followed and that families made homeless by air raids and lodged in the workhouse, should have empty houses commandeered for them';11 the resolution was passed. The WSF dominated the Poplar unemployed movement which was probably the best organised and militant group in London until well into the 1920s, and it was also deeply involved in the industrial scene. In particular, it was firmly entrenched in - if not dominating - the River Thames Shop Stewards' Movement (where Harry Pollitt was a leading light) which had its own membership cards and its own paper The Consolidator. The RTSSM was probably London's nearest approach to the levels of rank-and-file industrial organisation achieved on the Clyde and at Sheffield.

I leave the last word to Harry Pollitt: 'The WSF was made up of the most self-sacrificing and hard working comrades it has been my fortune to come in contact with.'12

Any account of the 'rebel' milieu should refer to the current within it in favour of birth control and sexual emancipation, although this aspect tended to keep a low profile and so the evidence is rather patchy.

Even before the War, the anarchist Guy Aldred13 was widely known as an advocate of 'free love', while his companion Rose Witcop was a pioneer of the birth control movement. They had close links with Margaret Sanger, the American advocate of family planning,14 who stayed with them at their home in St Pancras. During the War these issues were discussed at the NLHL and at least one member - Bonar Thompson15 - made a living out of selling birth control literature.

Many years later he used to say jokingly 'that thousands of people not walking around today have me to thank for not having been born', and he was not the only War-resister to combine radical attitudes with personal profit in this way. Indeed the role of unsung private 'entrepeneurs', some of them deeply committed to the cause of birth control, made a profound contribution in providing knowledge and material to ordinary people; in fact it might be true to say that it was they who were the true trailblazers of family planning.

After the War there was a flowering of discussion, and the beginning of action, in these areas. In 1920 a conference on Birth Control for the Workers was held at the International Club, East Road offCity Road, at which Rose Witcop and Margaret Sanger were the main speakers. A year later, Marie Stopes founded her first clinic at Marlborough Road, Holloway16 and later Rose Witcop had a clinic in Highgate. Other illustrations of the close connections between family planning and the local radical movement were that both Stella Browne17 And Lillian Thring were members of the Islington Branch of the Communist Party from 1920 until late 1922 and 1923 respectively, while our old friend Leonard Moder was the distributor in Britain of Margaret Sanger's Birth Control Review. I would dearly like to have more information about this aspect of'rebel' life during this period, but it is clear that there were many interconnections between the radical anti-War movement and the birth (sic) of modern family planning.

  • 1 Louisa's husband, Ben Somerville, was also active in the Socialist League and an anarchist, later one of the founders of labour politics in Finsbury; he had also been a prominent member of the Amalgamated Painters' Society. Ben Somer- ville died in 1913. I would like to thank A. Whitehead for data on Ben Somerville.
  • 2 I would like to know more about her early history.
  • 3 I. Renson, letter to the author 2.5.80.
  • 4 I would like to thank Sheila Rowbotham for this information.
  • 5 Miriam Price was Secretary of Islington WSF.
  • 6 George Tasker has been the source of most of the information in these notes, and I would like to express my deep gratitude for his continual kindness and help.
  • 7 The Redgroves were university graduates and ex-ILP members. Mrs Redgrove was Secretary of St Pan eras WSF. After the War they were active in West Islington Labour Party.
  • 8 Monica Ewer and her husband, W. N. Ewer, were leading guild socialists; after the War they joined the Communist Party.
  • 9 7. Lancelot Hogben, a graduate biologist, went on to be the well known author of such books as Mathematics for the Million and Science for the Citizen.
  • 10 Albert Vandome, op cit.
  • 11 I owe this information to Sheila Rowbotham.
  • 12 Harry Pollitt, Serving My Time, 1940, p. 110.
  • 13 Guy Aldred, 1886-1963, was born in Clerkenwell and had a remarkable career. Starting as a 'boy preacher', he went rapidly through Deism, Atheism and Socialism until he became an anarchist in 1907, which he remained for the rest of his life. He was a well known open-air speaker in North London. He had strong connections with the NLHL and spoke from their platform before and during the early part of the War, until he went to prison. On his release after the War he picked up the connection and was again a fairly regular speaker at Finsbury Park; he then went to Glasgow where he produced a series of papers, the last being The Word, and through his own printshop, 'The Strickland Press', published a remarkable corpus of radical literature, including his auto- biography No Traitor's Gait, which is a useful source for the radical movement in North London in the early part of the century.
  • 14 Margaret Sanger was a member of the American IWW before the War.
  • 15 After the War, Thompson dropped out of formal politics and became a professional speaker at Hyde Park; he wrote an autobiography Hyde Park Orator, 1934. I owe the anecdote to Phillip Sansum.
  • 16 Marie Stopes had no connection with the socialist movement, but it is possible that the ground work that had been done in the area was not without influence on her choice of site. There was however one connection with the WSF. The first¶nurse at the Stopes Clinic Was Nurse Hebbes, Who had previously run the WSF's welfare centre, the 'Mothers Arms' in the East End
  • 17 For Stella Browne see Sheila Rowbotham, A New World For Women; Stella Browne, Socialist-Feminist, 1977.